by Michael De Sapio, Intellectual Takeout
Russell Kirk defined the moral imagination as “an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.” It is a quality which informs the great works of art, not excluding the more popular art forms of film and television. Since its premiere sixty years ago, the beloved sitcom Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) has been such an “enduring source of inspiration” for many, unfolding the story of a young boy who learned “first principles” and was guided in “virtue and wisdom” in the midst of his family. Viewed today, Leave It to Beaver remains ever fresh, even as other pop-culture products have faded and dated. The main reason — apart from its top-notch production values — is that it avoided the topical and ephemeral and drew instead from the wellspring of the moral imagination, creating characters and situations which have become archetypes.
Yet it is surprisingly little known. To many, Leave It to Beaver is merely a phrase conjuring up a host of media-propagated clichés about society in the 1950s — bland, “white-bread,” conformist, and so on. The show is often misrepresented as a “sanitized,” “unrealistic,” or “cookie cutter” portrayal of a “perfect nuclear family” — phrases which reveal scorn for the very concepts of family and domesticity.
By contrast, Jerry Mathers, who played the title character and was a college philosophy major, has likened the series to a “medieval morality play” in which Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver repeatedly succumbed to temptation, suffered the consequences, and was guided back on the path of virtue. As we celebrate Leave It to Beaver‘s sixtieth anniversary, Mr. Mathers’ idea offers the perfect template for viewing this popular classic.
Leave It to Beaver was an artistic expression of a particular time in history. After the tumult of World War II, Americans longed for tranquility and order. Media and popular culture during the Cold War reinforced the domestic ideal, particularly in light of Communism’s disdain for the “bourgeois family.” While divorce and broken homes were becoming more common—in 1949 one writer could already claim that “family life is becoming a thing to be remembered rather than to be lived” — TV domestic sitcoms attempted to shore up the old values, stressing the importance of family in forming character and virtue. To criticize Beaver for being “idealized” misses the point, for its purpose was not documentary but didactic.
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