Father’s Day 2011 – Whatever Happened to Ward Cleaver?

Category: Families & Generations, Weekly Columns

When I grew up, there were wonderful dads that were the staple of television.  These TV dads were an ideal that we all realized was a bit too perfect, but these dads (and moms, for that matter), made us feel good. I liked Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont on “Leave It To Beaver”).  I liked Steven Keaton (Michael Gross on “Family Ties”).

Carroll O’Connor broke precedent dramatically with his portrayal of Archie Bunker in “All In the Family,” but under his occasionally crass, racist, and sexist blue-collar worker there was still a loving and caring father! And, later on, everyone loved Cliff Huxtable, played by Bill Cosby on the long-running hit show that bore his name.  Bill Cosby’s “Dad” was named the number one TV dad of all-time by TIME magazine!

These dads no longer exist in the public cultural universe.  Instead, Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Tony Soprano replaced them.  Are these really the best parents that Hollywood can conjure up?  Obviously not, since TV moms still mostly are portrayed with a modicum of respect.  For that matter, Hollywood seems to relish any family configuration that is non-traditional.

Charlie Sheen graced just such a show in which one dad was portrayed as somewhat inept while the other male lead was just a goof ball, to put it kindly.  Then, we got the pleasure of watching the real-life actor, who actually did have kids, have a meltdown in front of us in a most tragic, sad, and pathetic fashion.  How that one will turn out is anyone’s guess but I’d wager “Not Good!”

Frankly, I miss “Father Knows Best” and “My Three Sons.”  Quick, tap your shoe and hum the theme song from that classic starring Fred MacMurray!  I also miss Ben Cartwright, the true patriarch dad on “Bonanza,” played forever, it seemed at the time, by Lorne Greene.

In the foreword to my book, “A Dad’s Point-of-View: We ARE Half the Equation” (http://bit.ly/SallanStore), noted radio show host and renowned cultural and movie critic, Michael Medved, wrote: “In the last two generations, the image of fathers in American popular culture has suffered a sad decline from the Andy Hardy films and the “Father Knows Best” TV show to Homer Simpson and “The Family Guy.”  Instead of the wise, kind, firm head-of-household depicted so lovingly in the past, the stereotypical dad of today has become quite literally a cartoon.  At the same time that sociologists tell us that children across the country suffer from growing up in fatherless households, the trendy vision of the doofus dad has undermined paternal authority even in homes where a father may be physically present.”

I believe Michael Medved, who knows what he’s talking about and knows Hollywood history intimately, hit the nail right on the head.  This development is not good.  Given how many children suffer from the lack of a dad in their lives, they now suffer further with few good male role models in the public sphere or in popular culture.

Much of rap and hip-hop music portrays men as slightly less of a role model than Ward Cleaver, to put it kindly.  Are our sports stars, sporting tattoos all over their bodies, and generally behaving like boors, really the inspiration we’d like for our young boys (or girls)?  Is Paris Hilton and her infamous “leaked” sex video teaching our young girls how to be “a lady?”  Heck, who even uses the word “lady” anymore?

I think these changes in popular culture have a devastating impact on our children.  I believe that these public figures and fictional characters so prevalent in our culture today undermine the very values most parents struggle to instill in their boys and girls.  I don’t like it one bit!

As I write this, I realize that we no longer even have such television dramas like “Touched By An Angel,” “The Waltons,” or “Little House On the Prairie.”  Instead, we have dramas strewn with violence, bad language (nearly every drama show on Cable), gratuitous nudity and sexual situations, without a perfectly coiffed, apron wearing, pearls around her neck Barbara Billingsley in sight!  For those that don’t remember, Ms. Billingsley portrayed “the Beaver’s” mom and Ward Cleaver’s loving, stay-at-home-housewife, June Cleaver.

June Cleaver would today be the butt of jokes on “Saturday Night Live” or “The Jon Stewart Show.”  Can you even imagine any television or movie mom that didn’t work outside of the home, let alone wore an apron and pearls? That would be heresy, by Hollywood’s standards. As a totally unrelated aside, my late mother, also “June,” was my “June Cleaver.”

This column and any number of us that wish for better public and fictional role models for our children will not likely result in much change. It is therefore even more important that parents be the role models for their children. This is one of my mantras.  Parents must be their kid’s best role models.  And, even more so, given that we have to work extra hard to persuade our kids that Charlie Sheen, Paris Hilton, or Homer Simpson are really not cool!

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Get Bruce’s new book and Limited Edition (of 500) Poster, A Dad’s Point-of-View: We ARE Half the Equation at Amazon, iTunes, BN.com, or The Store.

  • Tracynalani

    You are so right about the portrayal of men as fools and idiots by Hollywood.  It is frustrating that men are portrayed in demeaning ways instead of being celebrated as the good, influential, and honorable part of society that they really are. Hollywood has moved to embrace what we call ‘man bashing’ by portraying (when they aren’t characters that revel in debauchery) men and fathers who are inept and out of touch simpletons.  Hollywood used to be a reflection of American values.  I believe it is
    now simply a reflection of depravity that is not even whitewashed.  It
    does not reflect the values of the majority of America, but the agendas
    of a few.  BUT there is a new drama called “Blue Bloods” in which the FAMILY is portrayed as important, the fathers are strong good men.  Even this is not perfect, but so far the characters have chosen to be true to their family and Christian values – a perspective we find remarkably refreshing, even though it is simply back ground for a gritty crime drama.  LIFE demands that we are supportive of fathers and mothers who are struggling to raise their children to be respectful, courteous, and demonstrate love and compassion to all within THEIR influence.  The best role models are and SHOULD be real men and women with open hearts and open arms who reflect the foundational values of love, respect, patriotism, and compassion that are truly the American Ideal.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      “You are so right about the portrayal of men as fools and idiots by Hollywood” – @06d65a6af2c908aa7b05c5e02dcb8218:disqus

  • mom

    I would add Tim Allen to your list of Hollywood’s  poor examples of a father.  His eldest son was often more mature than he was.  He was a good example of a goofuss/doofuss which was a turn-off to me.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      “He was a good example of a goofuss/doofuss which was a turn-off to me” ~ mom

  • http://twitter.com/AWWMF A Week WithMy Father

    I used to love shows like The Simpsons and Married with Children for that simple reason – mocking the typical American dad.  But I had no idea that this was part of a larger plot, if you will, to dismantle or perhaps emasculate the American male, especially the father-figure.  

    Now dads are expected to be irresponsible, a doofus, or even absent – and no one seems to blink an eye.  IN fact, normal dads are looked at quixotically as some holdover from a past that no one under 40 remembers.  

    This expectation carries over into the black community, where a household is expected not to have a father in the home, and sadly in many cases, the father never existed.  It’s become easy to get away with tasteless jokes like “Who’s Your Daddy?” when an entire community has become conditioned to accept fatherlessness as “the way it is in the ghetto”.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      “Now dads are expected to be irresponsible, a doofus, or even absent – and no one seems to blink an eye” @twitter-20283145:disqus  You said it very well – Thx for the smart comment!

  • DadsInNebraska

    I would add Peter Griffin to the list of boob dads on TV!

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      My son said the same thing! Lol.

  • David W.

    Ward Cleaver was “The Man,” in my opinion.  Robert Young’s character in “FKB” was somewhat bland, as far as I’m concerned, but of course not a bad person, and thus there are worse role models.  The show in which Michael Gross played a father was on t.v. after I had ceased watching t.v. regularly; the couple of times I saw the show, I thought he was relatively bland.  As for Cliff Huxtable, it is almost un-American to admit it, but he bored and annoyed me, and wore the ugliest sweaters ever manufactured.  (In contrast, R. Young’s sweaters were, by my vote, best in class.) But as I said for the R. Young character, there could be worse role models.

    Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone) of the ’30s Andy Hardy films is another dad I respected a lot.  He was something of a stuffed shirt, but certainly was tolerant and serious of purpose as a parent, and loyal and loving to his childen.  As a father, Judge Stone lived by the axiom “choose your battles” — he put up with shenanigans to a certain point, yet knew precisely what the limits of appropriate thought and action were, and called Andy on when Andy crossed those limits.  Apart from that, about eight months ago, I caught part of an Andy Hardy movie on t.v. for the first time in perhaps decades.  I’m now in my late fifties and watching that movie, I realized something that had never hit me before: Judge Hardy’s wife Emily (played by Fay Holden) was kind of hot.  Clearly, the judge with the white hair, sonorous voice, black suits and reserved manner, was in fact a playa’!

    Ozzie Nelson, Stu Erwin and Wm. Bendix all played dads in early t.v. series; and each of them was in some way or other hapless, clueless and otherwise not someone I would have wanted conferring with my teachers on Parents Night.  My point here is that it’s not so much that media dads have declined from Ward Cleaver, they have simply become worse than Ozzie, Stu and “Riley” ever could have been.  The “good dad” prototype is frozen in time, an insect trapped in amber, living only (as a t.v. character) from about 1950-1985 at the most recent. 

    The “bad dad” is the prototype that has thrived, developing beyond the now relatively mild peccadilloes of Ozzie Nelson et al.  The message of those “bad dad” shows of the 1950s was “Sure, dad is a twit, but he respects the law and is sociable, and he adores his family…so ultimately, he’s basically OK.”  Now it’s “Well, dad is not only a twit, but he commits crimes, may be anti-social and should be strung up by his thumbs by Social Services for how he treats his kids, and he actively dislikes many members of his family.”  So what is his redeeming quality?  Probably either that he is funny, or is played by an actor with a high Q-score.

    Concluding note: The current sitcom “Modern Family” is high in the ratings week after week.  It has four dads in the ensemble cast. Are any of them good dads?  Are any of the moms good moms?

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Wow @7f990e539df4ddefe26884eb65a5f04c:disqus you are one great commenter! To quote you, Ward Cleaver was “The Man,” in my opinion.

      • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

        I also really like Modern Family though I do find some of it too PC for me, but it’s mighty funny and very well-written and cast!