Television: The Ideal American Family

The American family was the basis of American culture in the postwar era, and all types of media reinforced that value. Television became the nation’s most popular medium in the 1950s, rising from 9 percent of households owning a TV at the beginning of the decade to 86 percent by the end (Young 181). This made television the perfect medium to convey ideas to the majority of American citizens about the importance of the traditional family and each member’s role within the family. These ideas were conveyed through programs like sitcoms and mental hygiene films, though the former was more effective than the latter. 

Sitcoms, or situations comedies, in the 1950s presented an image of the ideal American family, although these television shows rarely reflected what actual society looked like. The sitcoms’ picture of an ideal family, made up of a husband, wife and 2.5 kids, was a “1950s TV fantasy” and promoted an ideal that did not exist (“American Family has Changed”).

Sitcoms portrayed middle-class white families as the social norm in America and ignored most other situations (Halliwell 158). For example, there were no television shows about black Americans, or really about anything but middle class white Americans (Young 217). It was very rare for a sitcom to touch on social issues. Instead, they focused on problems “everyday Americans” would face (meaning white middle-class Americans) (Halliwell 161).

Sitcoms were so popular in America during the 1950s because of the way they portrayed American values and culture. Their “sanitized” view of American life and emphasis on the family was appealing to many Americans, even though they did not accurately represent American society (Young 221). They were also easily made because their emphasis on domesticity kept most scenes inside the home, making it easy to film. This was especially helpful when shows were broadcasted live (Halliwell 158-159). 

The Donna Reed Show

Opening sequence from The Donna Reed Show (1958)

The female characters in 1950s sitcoms almost always exhibit characteristics of the stereotypical housewife (whether scatterbrained like in I Love Lucy or put together and nurturing like in Father Knows Best) (Halliwell 161). Three housewives who typified 1950s female characters in sitcoms were Lucy from I Love Lucy, a wacky but well meaning housewife, Donna Stone from The Donna Reed Show, a “wholesome gracious housewife and mom,” and Beaver’s mother from Leave it to Beaver, well-dressed, patient, and a caring mother (“Winding Path”). The opening to The Donna Reed Show sums up this idea in less than thirty seconds as Donna Stone helps her children out the door in the morning, hands her husband his briefcase, kisses him goodbye, and closes the door behind them with a smile, ready to start her day alone in the house.

1950s television almost always featured women whose existences were defined by their families and their identity as a woman instead of as an individual (Press 29). Also, women in1950s television were rarely, if ever, shown outside of the home (Press 29).


Television: The Ideal American Family