Scene4 Magazine: Life Among The Heffalumps
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

November 2010

Oh, Those Pearls!:
Barbara Billingsley, in memoriam

I've never gone ga-ga about pearls.  Except when June Cleaver is wearing them.  There's something about watching June sip coffee with Ward, clean the kitchen, tell the Beav to take a bath, hold on for dear life in the backseat while Wally drives for the first time, or raise her eyebrows at Eddie Haskell's phony compliments,  that glues my eyes to her pearls.  Who knows why?  Maybe because if I were June, I'd have strangled Eddie with the pearls.

The death of Barbara Billingsley (who played the inimitable June on "Leave it to Beaver") and the season four finale of "Mad Men" (the critically acclaimed AMC TV show) last month along with this month's election, have got me thinking about pearls, moms and raised eye brows.

Some years ago, I mentioned Beaver Cleaver to my friend Beth and her husband Chris.  I don't remember how the Beav came up; we were most likely telling stories of our childhoods.  If you're a boomer like me, you reference "Leave it to Beaver" on a dime  – when you  feel as if you're being sent to Mrs. Rayborn's, the principal's, office, encounter an Eddie Haskell-like co-worker or go through any of life's vicissitudes. To my surprise, my friends' son Brendan, then 9, mystified, asked, "Who is this Beaver–this cartoon–you keep talking about?"

More often than not, though, evoking Ward, June or the boys sets off an instant spark of recognition not only among my peers, but, thanks to DVDs and TV reruns, among younger generations.  When Billingsley died on Oct. 16, I heard about it from my stepmom Jean, my brother David and thirty-something friends.  David's reaction summed up how many of us felt.  "Wow!  She {Billingsley} died," he said, "it's hard to believe!  Nothing lasts forever."

Like many of my era, I embraced rebellion, protest, contentiousness and individualism when I was young.  Kent State, Watergate, civil rights, pot and the sexual revolution were the Rorschach blots of my generation.  I'm not putting us down.  Despite our navel-gazing, the world, though horribly troubled, is better off because of our battles against racism, sexism, homophobia, war and other evils.  Yes, we still have these horrors (from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to homophobia); but, partly, owing to our example, people have learned that it's right to combat what is unjust.  As a creative artist, I believe our generation was right to foster individualism and free expression (the narcissism that results from this at times–not so much).

This having been said, what our generation (and I think successor generations) has most yearned for is family.  When the protest marches ended, the sex became less revolutionary, and we realized that we couldn't quite change the world, what we most wanted was a family–where we could find moral values, love and a connection to our loved ones.

This hasn't always meant a traditional biological family.  For many, especially those of us who are gay, have disabilities, or are in some way marginialized from our biological families, this has meant creating families from our friends.  This is true, too, often of people who are single, straight and living far from their relatives (who may have different cultural or political views).  We've created families of "choice' from our friends, neighbors and co-workers.

Nothing epitomized our idea of family more than "Leave it to Beaver," and no one was more at the center of our ideal family than its mom June. 

It's a piece of (made-from-scratch by Mrs. Cleaver) cake in this post feminist, ironic epoch to snark June off the planet back to the pre-feminist black and white galaxy of pre-hip 1950's TV.  ("Leave it to Beaver" aired from 1957 to 1963 first on CBS, then on ABC). What's more retro, non-fab, more campy than wearing high heels and pearls while vacuuming?  Snark. Snark.  Who would want, like June, to spend their days at home, cooking dinner, getting the boys to wash behind their ears, while Ward goes to work and talks to adults (even if some of his cadre of pals included more-pompous-than-thou Fred Rutherford)?   I would, or I'd like a mom who would. 

Oh, shut up.  I don't mean that I literally want to become a 50's housewife–let alone one in heels and pearls.  Or that I want a mom to be literally like June.  I mean I'd love to have a mom with the qualities–the character– of June jump out (figuratively) magically out of a cake ASAP, and I bet, after another season of Betty Draper on Mad Men and a campaign season of Momma Grizzlies, that you do, too.

June was understanding, compassionate, loving yet tough when she needed to be with her husband and her children.  She knew at once when her kids were lying and wasn't taken in by Eddie Haskell's b.s. or Fred Rutherford's malarkey.  June could be earnest almost to a fault; but she had a sense of humor.  You knew that if she were your mom, you wouldn't get away with anything, but she'd stand by you.  Billingsley told interviewers she wore pearls because of a "hollow" in her neck and high heels so she'd be taller than the boys.  She stopped smoking so children wouldn't see a mom on TV lighting up and wryly reminded journalists that she, who brought housewife June to life, was a working mother.

While "Leave it to Beaver" is my fav retro show, "Mad Men" is my favorite current TV program.  "Mad Men" is hands down the best written, acted and researched show on television. Beginning in Season One in 1959 and ending its fourth season in 1965, "Mad Men," though fictional, is an astounding depiction of American life in the late 1950's to 1960's.  If you're not a Martian with no cable, you'll know  "Mad Men" is set in a Madison Avenue ad agency, Don Draper is its hero (maybe anti-hero is more accurate), Betty is Don's ex-wife, and Betty and Don have three children.

I adore "Mad Men" but I've never warmed to Betty.  Like June, Betty is a house wife (we didn't say "homemaker" in the 1960's), at home with the kids while her husband is at the office.  Yet any similarities with June end after that. To be fair, comparing "Mad Men" and "Leave it to Beaver" is contrasting apples and oranges.  "Beaver" was a family sitcom; "Mad Men" Is an adult drama. Don, unlike Ward, is a womanizer, and Betty, living in a pre-feminist time, encounters much sexism.  (When Betty sees a psychiatrist, the shrink calls Don to tell  him what his wife said on the psychiatric couch).  But still....

Unlike June, Betty shows little, if any, love or understanding of her children. She smokes and drinks way too much, yells at her kids (especially her daughter Sally) incessantly, and fires, for no justifiable reason, Carla, the children's nanny.

Watching the "Mad Men" finale the day after Billingsley died, I couldn't help but think I'm so glad that June not Betty is our generation's mom.  While we don't want literal pearls, we want pearls of wisdom..of empathy from our family, especially from our moms.  I don't doubt that our generation and all generation have our share of Betty-moms, mothers who are withdrawn – cruel.  Or in worse cases physically or sexually abusive.  None of us or our mothers are perfect.  (That's the downside to being a real-life rather than a fictional character.)  But I bet more of our moms are like, or want to be more like, June than Betty.

This election season, we've had Grizzly Moms up the kazoo.  I have no idea what June's political affiliation would have been. (June and Ward seem like Eisenhower, moderate Republican types to me. But who knows?)  But I'd bet one of June's aprons that she wasn't a Mamma Grizzly.

To be fair to the Mamma Grizzlies, I'm getting tired of the Jon Stuart moms, too. Not that I'm against Stuart's (and Colbert's) rally on the Mall. I'm all for fear and insanity..bring them on! I'm just weary of snarky, screaming, smug progressives as well as of Mean Girls, manning up and Mamma Grizzlies.

I say, let's all mensch up, and act more like June. 

I'm putting my pearls on now.

Barbara Billingsley, R.I.P.


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©2010 Kathi Wolfe
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

November 2010

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