Donna Reed and the Castration of the Mid-Century Male

November 14, 2008

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In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show.  Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete.  The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.

The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother.  Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story. 

The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity.  But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches. 

The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together.  And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth.  Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time.  She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone.  Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding.  From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know. 

With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory.  She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”).  She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”).  Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued.  By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.

The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading.  Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew.  But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages. 

It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles.  This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence.  (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.)  In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.

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I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here.  But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them.  Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence.  But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted. 

For instance.  I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor.  You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum.  And watch Wally Cleaver closely.  Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings.  It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.

Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony.  Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts. 

Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues.  Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties.  In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president.  Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family?  Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule.  When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era.  When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested.  But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.

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I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance).  Is the show any good?  It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected. 

I wish I knew more about the production history of the series.  The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven.  Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice.  Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers.  The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication.  “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen.  But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.

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The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively.  Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family).  Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect.  (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.”  Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick.  I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.”  Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)  

Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.

Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself.  Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone.  Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation.  Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg. 

It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron?  She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking.  How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases?  Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.

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21 Responses to “Donna Reed and the Castration of the Mid-Century Male”

  1. JW Says:

    Wow – that was really interesting. I never thought I’d ever end up being strangely fascinated by The Donna Reed Show! Seriously, that is yeoman’s work…

  2. MDH Says:

    This made me remember why Donna Reed’s success as a movie and TV star has always confounded me. Even in starring roles where she stretched herself (playing a hooker in From Here to Eternity, for instance) she exhibits a weird, disassociated blankness, as if she’s somehow floating a couple of feet above the material. It’s distracting and detracting.

    It’s also a big part of what made her turn as Ellie Ewing in the seventh season of Dallas so disappointing. (Replacing the fan-beloved Barbara Bel Geddes didn’t help, either, nor did the fact that the show’s writers and producers essentially turned the character into a bit part once they learned that Bel Geddes was returning to the role in the following season.)

    Plopping her in Dallas was a calculated meta-stunt that played off of her status as TV’s No. 1 mom, of course, and on paper it works. But it only takes five minutes of airtime to see how wrongheaded her casting was: Bel Geddes did her share of phoning in the part over the years, but her Miss Ellis was reliably warm and tough and open; Reed played her as a glammed-up cipher, and watching her bounce off the rest of the cast was frustrating and often painful.

    I have nothing against the woman, and feel for her — filling in on Dallas was a no-win situation, and CBS apparently screwed her over on the deal anyway. Moreover, the series’ more rabid fans are almost unanimously vicious about her stint on it, and about her as a person. Jerks. Still, Donna Reed never seemed to be doing more than walking through the Miss Ellie role, to the point where it’s impossible to imagine Jim Davis’ Jock Ewing wanting anything to do with her.

  3. JF Says:

    I don’t agree with this portrait of Donna Reed, which makes her out to be some sort of abstracted robot. She had warmth, a sensitive and expressive face, obvious intelligence–and all that, coupled with her distinctive beauty, always made her a pleasure to see.

  4. Mark Says:

    I could not disagree more!!!!! Donna Reed was always a Great Actress with such Warmth and Vitality! She played her role on “The Donna Reed Show” with such grace and intelligence that was anything but a ‘Stepford Wife’ in fact the complete opposite was true! And she wasn’t against men in her series which I can’t understand why anyone would even think that, unless maybe they are against women being portrayed as intelligent Human Beings! All Donna Reed was trying to put across in her TV series in a very settle way, is that women had as much intelligence as men if given a chance to display their intellectual abilities that is…

    In today’s world women have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt their Intellectual Abilities. “The Donna Reed Show” was just way ahead of it’s time in showing the world that a woman was not ‘just a housewife’ because she stayed at home and took care of her children, but an intelligent thinking and capable human being as well…

    As for her Role in the “Dallas” TV Series, I will never forget Donna Reed’s last scene from that show when her TV Son ‘Bobbie’ was dying. What an incredible outstanding performance she gave!!!!! She clearly must have been thinking of her own ‘real life children’ to have given such a very ‘REAL’ and Convincing Acting Performance!!!!! I remember my Father saying when he saw this scene, “there sure going to be sorry” meaning ‘they the producers of this series’ will be sorry when they lose a ‘Great Actress’ such as Donna Reed!

  5. Mark Says:

    OOPS- In my last Post in Paragraph 1 Line 7 in which I wrote, “was trying to put across in her TV series in a very settle way,” I had meant to put the word: ‘Subtle’ not Settle…


  6. My favorite bit from The Donna Reed Show is from an episode where Donna and Alex go to a play. In the lobby at intermission, a fellow playgoer asks Alex what he thinks of the theater of the absurd and Eugene Ionesco (!!). Alex hasn’t a clue, but although Donna knows all about it and wants to share her thoughts on the subject, no one is interested in what she has to say and she can’t get a word in edgewise.

    What positively delights me in this scene is the assumption that at least a certain portion of the audience will get the cultural references (otherwise why make them?), and the acknowledgement that women are very knowledgeable and have a lot to say, even if men will not hear them. I’m reminded that the run of this series overlaps the JFK presidency, in which Jacqueline Kennedy provided an extremely appealing model of the intelligent, sophisticated, well educated, culturally sensitive modern American woman (as witnessed especially in her famous televisual tour of the White House, in which she speaks about art, architecture, and design from a deeply informed perspective that probably surprised people at the time).

  7. Jen North Says:

    This article strikes me as pompous and snippy. The author has likely given this television show far more thought than the creators did; which is to say he’s missed the point. He wants to educate us while we want to be entertained. I suspect that like many modern hypocrites he holds it to a far higher standard than he would any contemporary show; many of which are not even trying to promote positive messages and, indeed, work against every impulse that civility requires. Glad to see a few fans have already weighed in. The Donna Reed Show retains its popularity because it’s a pleasure that doesn’t make you feel guilty and a show that doesn’t make you ashamed to be human. And Donna showed herself to be a wonderful human being regardless of any critiques of her acting (which, by the way, she accomplished without ever taking her clothes off or making a spectacle of herself).

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Jen, I agree with you about the creators of The Donna Reed Show not putting much thought into it.

      • Neville Ross Says:

        No disagreement with you there, Stephen. The popularity of this show (and the reasons people give for it being on DVD) astound me and amaze me, especially with better and greater lost shows like East Side/West Side, The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, and Playhouse 90 (as well as a ton of other anthologies) awaiting their turn to be rerun or put on home video.

        What I can’t also understand is the contempt that Ms. North has for any show today (or yesterday) that’s not like The Donna Reed Show, and how she believes that there are no shows like it today; where has she been for the last 25 years? Full House, Step By Step, According To Jim, Touched By An Angel, Family Matters, My Wife & Kids, Blossom, * Simple Rules, The George Lopez Show, plus a ton of others, have been on the air for years and are just as bland as The Donna Reed Show, plus they have the same ‘life lessons’ seen on The Donna Reed Show. Even if they didn’t, what’s the harm in being exposed to something that’s out of your blinkered moral view of the United States and the rest of the world?

        People like her are one of the main reasons why a new show like The New Normal is having trouble being shown on a certain TV station in Salt Lake City; as well, their attitudes to other people different to them and to life, as well as love of reality-distorting shows like The Donna Reed Show, is a real reason why America is having problems as a country.

  8. Jeffrey Stone Says:

    To Stephen Bowie, Neville Ross and any of the respondents who agreed with him: “The Donna Reed Show” was simply a television show of the fifties and sixties. It is what it is and was never meant to be over analyzed as reality, by the standards of today’s world, as you have both done. Donna Reed and her cast played characters that were meant to be as portrayed. The exaggeration of each of the characters’ personalities, while maintaining a semblance of truth that the viewer can identify with, is what makes comedy, comedy. (By the way, I hate to burst your bubble but Marcus Welby was not a real doctor and Mr. Ed could not really talk.)

    “Love of reality-distorting shows like The Donna Reed Show, is a real reason why America is having problems as a country.” What an asinine statement. If Donna Reed was alive today, she would certainly laugh at the impact you believe her simple sitcom of fifty years ago is having today, on a country with issues never dreamed of in her day.

    I suggest you get the DVD’s of the show, remove your Freudian prejudices of the show and its characters, and watch the episodes again for what they were: a simple fifties family sitcom about a harried housewife that viewers could identify with and have a laugh. Maybe then you will be able to place the blame of this country’s problems where they really belong, and not on some fictitious television show made fifty years ago.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Jeffrey, I think you’re mostly responding to the comments rather than to my piece, but I’ll say this: Sometimes it makes sense to take a show at face value, and other times it’s fun to probe the subtext. Both approaches are legitimate. The Donna Reed Show strikes me as a text that has a lot of unspoken anxiety lying just below its surface, and I certainly hoped this piece would be provocative for people who take it for, as you say, “what it is.” I’m pleased that you took the time to read it, and the subsequent comments.

      And incidentally, Jeff, what did you and your sister Mary end up doing with your lives…?

      • Jeffrey Stone Says:

        “My sister” Mary ended up becoming an even more accomplished actress than she already was. In addition, in 1987, she, Grover Asmus (Donna Reed’s widower),and numerous friends, associates, and family members created
        the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. Based in Donna Reed’s hometown of Denison, Iowa, the non-profit organization grants scholarships for performing arts students, runs an annual festival of performing arts workshops, and operates “The Donna Reed Center for the Performing Arts”.

        In 1990, following the suicide of former child star Rusty Hamer, of the Danny Thomas Show, “I” founded the child-actor support group, “A Minor Consideration”, to improve working conditions for child actors and to assist in the transition between working as a child actor and adult life, whether in acting or in other professions. “A Minor Consideration” supports child stars and other child laborers through legislation, family education, and personal intervention and counseling for those in crisis.

        So, as you can see, after our years as the Stone children, “we” became much more, as humans, than “the stuff they build prisons out of.”

      • Stephen Bowie Says:

        Hi, Paul. (Paul Petersen, who played Jeffrey Stone on the show). I had an inkling that this might be you, but I wasn’t certain. Thanks for your comments. A Minor Consideration is, of course, a very worthy project, and I congratulate you on it. And your “sister” did indeed go on to an accomplished career!

  9. Neville Ross Says:

    Excuse me, ‘Jeffery’, but I don’t want to ever watch The Donna Reed Show, especially after what Steve’s written about it. It seem the only reason you’re responding to my comment is because I got under your skin with what I said about the United States having problems as a country due to the willful evasion of reality shown on most of these ‘classic’ programs. The fact that the Tea Party and Mitt Romney wanted (and still want) to go back to this kind of America as seen on this show only confirms what I’ve said and what Steve’s said about it.

    And no, I NEVER said or implied that Marcus Welby or Mr. Ed was real-in fact, I like Marcus Welby and think that it’s a realistic medical procedural. I’d rather watch that than shows like The Donna Reed Show, and I know that many people would agree with me on that.

    Oh, one other thing; lay off the Fanning sisters, and any other young actor until they do need whatever ‘help’ you want to provide.

  10. Jeffrey Stone Says:

    Eh, excuse me Neville, “Mitt Romney wanted (and still want) to go back to this kind of America as seen on this show”? Nice opinion, but an asinine comment. In addition, “Marcus Welby …. a realistic medical procedural”? On the contrary, Marcus Welby was highly criticized, even back in the day, for being unrealistic, as he was running all over town involving himself in his patient’s personal problems and lives.
    If that is the case, that “Marcus Welby” was “a realistic medical procedural” then Dr. Alex Stone was extraordinarily realistic for its time. Thanks for proving this point.

    • Neville Ross Says:

      Okay, I’ll concede your point on Marcus Welby, but at least the guy cared enough for the people who came into his office/orbit. I won’t change my mind about The Donna Reed Show based on what Stephen’s written here about it, although I’ll admit that I liked seeing Donna Stone go to work in the last season opening credits, rather than just go into the kitchen; that shows some foresight into women working outside the home that was a part of my mother’s life in the 70’s and 80’s and most women in North America generally. That does not mean I want to see them again, though (except on a TV show like Good Luck Charlie, where the mom’s obviously not going to be able to get back to work after having a fifth child recently.) The is the 2010’s, not the 1950’s or 1960’s, and it’s high time for U.S citizens like you, Mike, and Jen North to realize that fact.

      • Jeffrey Stone Says:

        “This the 2010′s, not the 1950′s or 1960′s, and it’s high time for U.S citizens like you, Mike, and Jen North to realize that fact.” Unbelievable…that is exactly my point!!! Donna Reed was produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s, not the “2010’s” as you call them. Take the show for what it is, when it was made, not comparing it to today’s world. It was made when the world was an entirely different place, not in the “2010’s”.

  11. Mike Says:

    i certainly would love to see the women like Donna Reed and June Cleaver back again, and it just might help us good guys that are seriously looking to meet a good woman like they were back then.


  12. Pompous and snippy, I had the same feeling. Grateful I’m not married to or in close daily proximity to this critic who likes to hear self talk, see self write, on and on and on and…. Intellectual ‘overkill.

  13. Toni Gonnella Says:

    I have worked since I was teanager, managed a home, brought up a son (who is succesful now at 44) but I also love to cook, bake and do the old fashioned things my mother did. I enjoy the Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver show whenever my schedule before work allows it. yes life has changed over the years but then women stayed home if able to, and there was something nice about coming home from school and my mother being there . maybe children of today would not be so lost if they had someone there to great them. there is no more family dinners where eveyone talked about there day etc. no more holidays,(retail has taken that away) I work retail I know. In the fifties and sixties my mother wore what they called house dresses. so what Donna and June wore were what they wore at the time. My mother did not wear slacks until the late seventies. she may have been a stay at home mom but my father and mother had respect for each other and sat down every week and discussed where the money would go for the week together. just enjoy the shows and remember a simpler time .

  14. Mark Says:

    You really should put Episode 15 from Season 5 of The Donna Reed Show (“Jeff Stands Alone”) on your must-see list. The first time I saw it was in the late 1980s, and I was totally gobsmacked. From a contemporary perspective, it’s obvious that a young adult male is grooming Jeff for more (ahem) adult activities. They have a “date,” and if I recall correctly, the older male even encourages Jeff to hide their relationship from his parents! Which he does!! This is the gayest 1960s TV broadcast ever, and it’s written in such a way that the teleplay writer(s) could offer plausible deniability. I’m really curious to see what you think of it. By the way, I think this episode is so completely forgotten that I cannot find any mention of it anywhere. Please watch it, and reassure me that I’m not crazy. Heh.


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