The Stereotypical Family of the Fifties

The 1950s nuclear family emerged in the post WW II era, as Americans faced the imminent threat of destruction from their Cold War enemies. The ideal nuclear family turned inward, hoping to make their home front safe, even if the world was not. The image portrayed by the American television shows of the time period is the picture perfect family consisting of the bread-winning, rule-making middle-class father, the doting housewife, who was thrilled to wake up every single day and clean the house and cook all of the meals, and their children, who never seemed to get into any sort of trouble that could not be fixed. Though millions of Americans did not have the lifestyle depicted on the small screen, television show families from the 1950s reflected idealized gender roles of the time period, which set an aspirational norm, even if it did not reflect reality.

The stereotypical TV family of the Fifties was reflected in the numerous family situation comedies (sit-coms) that made their way onto television, such as “The Life of Reilly,”Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave It to Beaver,” and “My Three Sons,” to name a few. The family structure in the ’50s was based around one central necessity – a secure life. The economic and global instability of the early 20th century gave rise to the need for closely defined family units. This led to an ideology that lauded economic advancement and social order, the results of which were younger marriages that lasted longer, more children, fewer divorces and the nuclear family. (Hussing, supra.)

Sit-coms portrayed middle-class white families as the social norm in America and ignored most other situations. For example, there were no television shows about black Americans, or really about anything but middle class white Americans (Young, 217). It was very rare that issues facing minorities made it to the TV screen. Instead, Fifties TV focused on problems “everyday Americans” would face (meaning white middle-class Americans). Sitcoms “sanitized” view of American life and emphasis on the family was appealing to many Americans, even though they did not accurately represent American society. They were also easily made because their emphasis on domesticity kept most scenes inside the home, making it easy to film. This was especially helpful when shows were broadcasted live.–the-ideal-american

Presenting a standardized version of the white middle-class suburban family, domestic comedies portrayed the conservative values of an idealized American life. Studiously avoiding prevalent social issues such as racial discrimination and civil rights, the shows focused on mostly white middle-class families with traditional nuclear roles and implied that most domestic problems could be solved within a 30-minute time slot, always ending with a strong moral lesson.

“Beaver Fever,” Bob Rivers (2002) (A satirical portrayal of the major characters from the show.)

A show was born in the fifties
About a family so white
The reruns will last forever
So you can watch the show every night
Leave it to Beaver

In the morning
Beaver every day of the week
Hey Wally, how come your little brother’s a geek?

Ward does squat for living
But June wears pearls every day
And when they wanna make whoopee
Guess who gets in the way?
Leave it to Beaver

In the bedroom
Beaver all through the place
Gosh Lumpy, The Beaver’s always in your face

Now we can’t stand Eddie Haskell
He’s always telling those lies
When he enters the kitchen
He says ‘Mrs. Cleaver, Gee, you look nice’
Leave it to Beaver

On the cable
Beaver on the UHF
You can’t avoid it
Beaver’s like taxes and death
It’s always Beaver
In the morning
Beaver all through the night
Let’s shoot the Beaver

Other shows that had this type of family configuration were The Donna Reed Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The Donna Reed Show presented the Stone family where the father is a doctor, the wife stays at home and tends to the children and the house, and the children have typical adolescent issues. The show was unique in that it focused on the domestic dilemmas of a doctor’s wife and their three growing children. Donna Reed wrote many of the episodes of the show, so she had a lot of control over the story lines. The Dad’s work often took him away from home, so he was not as important a character. Despite the fact that a woman controlled much of the production, and was the central character, the show maintained most of the accepted roles of the housewife. As an example, the opening credits to the show give an overview of how gender roles are reinforced in each episode. In the thirty-second opening, Donna Reed gets her family ready for the day. She passes her children their lunches and schoolbooks as they walk out the door, answers the phone for her husband and hands him his briefcase as he leaves for work. She shuts the door behind her family after they leave and retreats back into her house with a smile. This imposes a role onto every member of the family: the father diligently working all day, the children obediently going to school, and the mother staying at home.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was a 1950’s sitcom that starred the true-life Nelson family. This sitcom was particularly interesting because the characters in the show were actually a real-life family. The show portrayed the ups and downs of a family living in the 1950’s, and starred Harriet as the ultimate homemaker and wife. Throughout the show, Harriet focused on raising her boys and caring for her husband. As years passed, her young boys continued to thrive because of her and eventually they were married. It can also be noted that Harriet was always dressed up in her proper “housewife” attire. She was featured in either a long dress or skirt, button-down blouse and full hair and makeup. In The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, all of life’s problems can be solved by a good talk from father and a batch of cookies from mother.

An interesting footnote relating to these two Fifties sit-coms is the fact that children in the casts had careers in the pop music field. Ricky Nelson, real life son who played himself on Ozzie and Harriet, was one of Rock & Roll’s first teen idols. At age 17, in 1957, he recorded a hit version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin” ( After topping the charts with “Poor Little Fool” (1958) ( ) and “Travelin’ Man” (1961) (, Nelson’s popularity waned in the mid-1960s. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, two years after his death in a plane crash. Shelley Fabares, who played the daughter (Mary) in The Donna Reed Show, had a hit record “Johnny Angel” that rose to number 1 on the Billboard hit list in April 1962. (