We lost Barbara Billingsley this weekend, the lovely actress who played June Cleaver, the ideal of the perfect mom for an entire generation of Baby Boomers. Growing up, we all wondered why our own mothers never vacuumed the house in a pretty dress, complete with high heels, pearls, and a flawless coiffure. Ever cheerful, ever respectful of her husband Ward's final say in all matters of raising their two rambunctious boys, Billingsley's June became an icon that was later made fun of as the epitome of an anti-feminist male fantasy.
This weekend also saw the season finale of AMC's superb Mad Men, the show that revisits the time of Cleavers with a savagely realistic lens. When Mad Men premiered in 2007, Betty Draper (played by January Jones) was often compared to June Cleaver. She certainly looked the part: beautiful, always made up and dressed to the nines, her gorgeous blonde locks perfectly in place. But through Betty we got to see the underside of that quest for outward perfection. Beneath the Pepsodent smile and the manicured nails, Betty was a mess. When the series began, Betty's mother had recently died and Betty was having a hard time coping with the kind of grief that had no outlet in the severely repressed environment of the early 1960s. The cracks in Betty's polished veneer became more visible with each season, compounded by the heavy philandering of her husband and the way nearly every character on the show dismissed her as nothing more than a pretty face.
It was only in the third season, when Don and Betty were on a business trip to Italy, that we got a glimpse into the life Betty might have had if she had not sleepwalked into the marriage and family that was expected of her. While Don, with his humble roots as the former Dick Whitman, initially floundered in his attempt to be cosmopolitan, Betty rose to the challenge. She was a vision in Italian haute couture and, surprise, surprise, held court in the fluent Italian she had learned at Bryn Mawr. But Don's continued infidelities and secrets and Betty's inability to deal with the harsh realities of life eventually decimated their marriage and the two divorced.
I won't say much about last night's surprising finale for those of you who haven't watched it yet, but I do remember that following last year's finale I wrote a post defending Betty Draper from all the chatter about what a horrible person she was. I could relate to her character and see so much of my own mother in her. I felt that despite her constant annoyed barks to her children to get out of her hair and go watch TV, that she really loved them and was simply a victim of her time and her emotionally suffocated upbringing. And, lest we forget, for all his charm and appeal, Don Draper was an awful husband, making Betty feel like she was going nuts whenever she even tiptoed toward the truth of his affairs and lies. She cast herself in the role of the grounded parent, as she understood it, while Don was all dreams and fantasy. He was in advertising, after all! Not that Betty's default parenting skills would win any awards:
I found it much harder to sympathize with Betty this season. Ensconced in her new marriage to Henry Francis, she remained bitter about Don, impatient with her kids--especially daughter Sally who was having a hard time with her parents' divorce--and generally unpleasant (she exhibits an unjustified viciousness in the season finale that seems designed to make the audience--and even her new husband--turn on her). I still empathize with the Betty underneath the brittleness (i.e., the Betty that I admittedly project onto the character from my own past), the woman who, like my mother, finds herself trapped in life circumstances from which she can't seem to break free no matter who she's with. I find Betty Draper such a tragic figure. I hope that the writers give her more time next season and allow her to explore the new possibilities of the changing era. I'm not saying they need to transform her into a counterculture bra-burner, but how about giving her some new interests and maybe even a job so we can see how all of that repressed potential might begin to come to the surface? We've seen the tortured Betty-Sally dynamic, how about some telling scenes between Betty and her sons, Bobby and Gene? Despite her awful behavior this season, I still hold out hope for Betty Draper.
After being discredited for decades, I think June Cleaver gets a lot more respect these days--and it's well deserved. Have you seen any Leave It to Beaver episodes lately? Sure, all problems and dilemmas get neatly resolved (usually by Ward Cleaver) in the show's 26 minutes, but look again at the Cleaver dynamic. June is no pushover. Ward would never get away with talking to June the way Don often speaks to Betty, June simply wouldn't allow it. She may spend most of her time in the kitchen but she is a woman who understands her strength and power. From all accounts, the late Barbara Billingsley seemed to be a lot more like June Cleaver than she ever was like Betty Draper. I was watching a 2007 Good Morning America segment that reunited all of the living cast members for Leave It to Beaver's 50th anniversary. Jerry Mathers (the Beav!) was talking about how he knew the Cleavers were not real, that all families are dysfunctional, at which point Billingsley good-naturedly retorted, "Mine isn't!" And I believed her. It was a testament to Barbara Billingsley's real life maternal instincts that all of the boys who were on the show loved her until the day she died. Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow (Wally) considered her a second mom and Ken Osmond, who played the infamous Eddie Haskell, in responding to the crazy rumors that he and Barbara Billingsley got married, replied, "If she'd have me, I'd marry her in a heartbeat!"
I had a personal encounter with Barbara Billingsley in the late 1990s. I was having brunch with my family at the Beverly Hilton but for some reason I took the elevator up from the restaurant level to the lobby by myself. There was only one other person in the elevator--June Cleaver herself! She looked fantastic (she must have been in her eighties at the time) and we smiled at each other and said a few words. I restrained myself, which I now regret, from acknowledging that I knew who she was, but I was afraid I'd sound like an idiot ("OH MY GOD, JUNE CLEAVER, I LOVED YOU SO MUCH AS A KID, I CAN'T BELIEVE I'M IN AN ELEVATOR WITH YOU..."). Billingsley emanated a sweetness that seemed as authentic as anything Mrs. Cleaver was capable of. I think it's time we let her off the hook for those high heels and pearls. She later claimed that she started the series in flats but they had to keep putting her in heels when the boys started growing and that she only wore pearls because of a hollow in her neck that was hard to light!
And how many sweet ladies do you know who can speak fluent jive?
They didn't give Betty Draper many girlfriends this season and I think she suffered mightily for it. If only Betty could drive over to Mayfield and head to 485 Mapleton Drive, I just know that June Cleaver could be a wonderful support.
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