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God Doesn’t Play a Father on TV

October 23, 2006


Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee. Exodus 20:12

My son, hear the instruction of thy father,
And forsake not the law of thy mother… Proverbs 1:8

Hear, my sons, the instruction of a father,
And attend to know understanding:
For I give you good doctrine;
Forsake ye not my law.
For I was a son unto my father,
Tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother. Proverbs 4:1-3

An obituary of Jane Wyatt, who recently died at 96, prompted me to remember the TV series, “Father Knows Best,” that ran from about 1954-1960. I watched “Father Knows Best,” along with “Leave it to Beaver” and other programs now relegated to cultural taxidermy.I doubt very many adults or children today relate to the scenarios of “Father Knows Best.” I suspect even fewer equate obedience to their fathers with obedience to God.

“Father” in the series represented a male head of household who was married to the mother of the children of the household who took direction from their father and mother even when their friends tried to lure them into trouble.

“Knows” represented an epistemology understood by the family: conduct was based on values that were based on facts that were known. The father and mother shared these values and imparted them to their children. There were no secrets, no guesswork: there were rules, and everyone know how things worked in the family.

“Best” represented value as compared to alternative lesser values. The father had determined that his family was going to be based on the best values life had to offer; he would not settle for less from them or for them.

Given current census data about American families, I would conjecture that many viewers today, given the opportunity to see a few episodes of “Father Knows Best” would eat their popcorn and say, “Interesting lifeforms. On what planet…?”

Since a scant minority of families now have a male head of household, “Father Knows Best” would most certainly be termed “paternalistic.” This of course would carry a derogatory connotation, since paternalism implies male headship, which everyone now knows is unnecessary. Knowledge and values are out in one tub, because everything is relative and kids are encouraged to pick up what they need on their own from experience and culturally diverse sources.

Billy Gray, the actor who played the son in the Anderson family on the series, had a crisis of conscience afterward.

“I wish there was some way I could tell kids not to believe it – the dialogue, the situations, the characters – they were all totally false. The show did everybody a disservice. The girls were always trained to use their feminine wiles, to pretend to be helpless to attract men. The show contributed to a lot of the problems between men and women that we see today….I think we were all well motivated, but what we did was run a hoax.” (Quote from Wikipedia)

Mr. Gray is right, in part. The use of “wiles” and a pretense of helplessness are not values that should be represented as attractive. The Biblical mandate for women is not wiliness or helplessness. She is a suitable “helper.” Helpers are not helpless, and false charm is a hindrance to the virtues of honesty and productivity. The man and woman were to help one another. When both are helping each other, neither is ever helpless, and neither should feign helplessness.But Mr. Gray is unfair, too. Of course the dialogue, situations, and characters are contrived. That’s what sitcoms are. “Father Knows Best” was not reality TV. The question is whether, overall, the program was representative of the normative values of 1950s America. There is no question the Anderson family was flawed: Mrs. Anderson and her daughters are frequently portrayed as dominion-bent and smug when proving the men of the house wrong. Jane Wyatt, born into an aristocratic New York family, was in her element in these scenes.

The script of the original radio version of “Father Knows Best” placed a question mark at the end of the title, but co-producer and lead actor Robert Young removed it for the TV production, evidently resolving the riddle of the nature of Father’s leadership. Overall, he was a respected, if humored leader and arbiter within the family. Certainly there was no backtalk, no storming out, no open rebellion.

The show was not a clear case of “art imitates reality.” But it did attempt to suggest a model. The model was seasoned with cynical humor perhaps so the new liberals wouldn’t take too much offense.

I could recall incorrectly, but I remember nearly all the scenes in “Father Knows Best” taking place in the family’s dining room. I never saw them get ready for church. Everything was about Jim going to work and coming home from work, and the children getting ready for school and coming home from school and talking to Mom. The show was about family dynamics, with episodes focusing on individual family members.

The 1950s was the decade that America tried to get its fathers back. Proto-feminism challenged male leadership in the 1920s; the Depression diminished mens’ ability to provide in the 1930s. The Second World War took them away for long periods of time during the 1940s. By the 1960s, “Father Knows Best” was a cult classic because it presented fossilized evidence of an ideal that America had obsolesced because surging Feminism declared “paternalistic hegemony” dead.

For better or worse, and I think for the better, “Father Knows Best” endured six seasons. Today, no multinational cereal company would sponsor a show with a title suggesting such a thing as patriarchy. To caustic liberals, male headship adumbrates the link between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity. But in truth, the rise in fatherless households corresponds in time with compensatory movements that speak for the damage: the self-esteem movement, the obsession with “dysfunctional families,” the blight of youth violence.

The presence of a father is no guarantee of faithful, productive children. The Bible is full of bad kids who had strong, faithful fathers. It is nonetheless, one more precept that man is forsaking to go his own way. The era that marked “Father Knows Best” quaint also marked a decline in church attendance and doctrinal Christianity. Neopaganism is burgeoning and trying to prove the Father doesn’t know best.

Ah, but he does.

Posted by Mrs. B at 9:56 AM

Victorbravo said…
Although I think we’ve benefitted from not seeing TV in more than a decade, I can’t help acknowledge its effect. People talk about the latest episodes as if they were things that happened last night in to their living rooms. I can follow the exploits of characters I’ve never seen simply by overhearing co-workers’ discussions of the latest show. It really is an odd sort of “collective consciousness.”

I remember that old show, and others like it. Even then I thought it was sad that the father was humored. It led to the stereotype of the buffoonish father who never knew what was going on. Kids were raised to make fun of dear old Dad, but were encouraged to pocket whatever advances that they could weedle out of him. It led to a national father-financed rebellion from which we have not yet recovered.

All of the Ten Commandments are mocked these days. But it is especially sad to see the Fifth, the one with promise, so maligned.

10:49 AM
Mrs. B said…
There’s nothing new under the sun. The serpent influenced the first couple by mocking God’s words and commandments in the first dialogue to which we are privy.

11:18 AM
Mike Pitzler said…
i didn’t see ‘Father Knows Best’ much, but ‘The Honeymooners’, and its sequel ‘The Flintstones’, and its sequel ‘The Jestsons’ and its sequel ‘The Addams Family’ and its sequel ‘The Simpsons’ all shaped me, somewhat. (and the Three Stooges, of course.)

But i think i’m better now.

3:45 PM
Mrs. B said…
Looking back, the good thing about those shows was that Father always worked very close to home. Mother called him when the washer overflowed and said he had to come home and he always did. Right now, a loose belt behind the refrigerator is squeaking and the male head of household is on a freeway far from home and I am contemplating refrigeratorcide. Unplugging it, you see, would jeopardize the contents. Violence has its own satisfactions in these situations….

4:09 PM
Mike Pitzler said…
Under Sharia this will all change.

6:08 AM
Mrs. B said…
Wasn’t that the lady with the puppet named “Lamb Chop?”

6:55 AM


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