Sunday, October 17, 2010

America's Mom Passes Away

I was never really a fan of Leave It To Beaver.

It came along before my time, and my family didn't even have a TV until I was in elementary school. By that time, Leave It To Beaver had been off the air for awhile.

But there are those among my contemporaries for whom Leave It To Beaver played a pivotal role in their formative years. And, I would venture to say, the nurturing, stay–at–home mom played by Barbara Billingsley was an integral, if often understated, character in the idealized fantasy of that show.

Anyway, I feel I would be remiss if I did not note Billingsley's passing yesterday at the age of 94.

I guess any list of great TV moms would have to include June Cleaver. Jerry Mathers, who played the Beaver, considered Billingsley a mentor and a friend as well as a colleague and compared her character to another great TV mom, Edith Bunker, who usually played the straight woman.

Like most of the actresses who have played great TV moms, Billingsley was a reflection of her times. Diahann Carroll was the first black TV mom — well, the first one with her own series — and Florence Henderson and Shirley Jones were harbingers of a new era for women, an era that seemed almost to reach its zenith with Bonnie Franklin but then went into new and unexpected directions in the years that followed.

In many ways, it all began with Billingsley, who was a true TV icon. Some may argue — and not without some justification — that Lucille Ball was the first TV mom (or perhaps the first truly popular one) — or that Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed got there first.

But Billingsley really set the standard — perhaps because TV grew in public acceptance through the 1950s and more television sets could be found in private homes in the late 1950s than in the early 1950s — and TV actresses have been reaching for that bar for decades.

That is her legacy.

She took the role of June Cleaver very seriously. A heavy smoker in her youth, she reportedly gave it up because she didn't feel June Cleaver should smoke. She was conscious of her responsibility as a role model and a TV icon.

After Leave It To Beaver, Billingsley was typecast and rarely got other acting opportunities. She said she had far too much reverence for June to accept any projects that made fun of her.

But that didn't keep her from accepting projects like "Airplane!" in which she played an elderly passenger who volunteered to translate the "jive" talk from two black passengers.

Even casual viewers could pick up on the irony of the WASPish June Cleaver — who always dressed impeccably, served nutritious meals and, speaking in a non–political sense, behaved in a conservative manner — translating a distinctive English dialect spoken by members of a racial minority group as if they came from a foreign land.

And the topper was June Cleaver storming off, after her brief argument with the black passengers, muttering, "Jive–ass dude don't got no brains anyhow."

Mathers was right. Billingsley did have a great many talents, most of which never were put on display on Leave It to Beaver. But she seemed content with that.

Some have criticized June Cleaver and the idealized image of American motherhood that she presented for encouraging stereotypes. But, like great art, great music, great literature, television reflects the audience of its day in many ways. Television's archives are filled with programs and news reports that tell us who we were and what we hoped to be at a certain point in time.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many young American women wanted to be June Cleaver.

In 2010, there are still those who would like to be June Cleaver. But the times have changed, and stay–at–home moms are far less common than they once were.

If a young woman wants to be a stay–at–home mom these days, her best bet may be to watch the glorified version — and dream of a time when a young woman could hope to be like June Cleaver, wearing her trademark pearls while doing the gardening or dressed to host a party even while preparing dinner for the family in her spotless kitchen.

Rest in peace, June.