“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” — John F. Kennedy
The sit-com of the 1950’s envisioned a world where conflicts were met with resolutions in spans of less than thirty minutes. The very format of the sit-com itself evokes rigidity, order, and simplicity. Perhaps then, it is no surprise that the medium lent itself to supporting the conservative ethics of its time — most forcibly displayed in the incessant assurances of the stability of the middle-class family. As entertainment became an industry of its own — selling culture and offering an ideological legitimation for the productive forces of said culture — the consumer masses were coerced into tacit approval of the established social order, with sit-coms being one of the primary tools of integration. People could identify their dilemmas in the shows they watched and see them solved through the transformative and rectifying power of a well-balanced family life. In “The Black Eye” episode of Leave it to Beaver, viewers are presented with the humorous tale of how Beaver receives a black eye from a girl and must balance the advice of his father with the advice Beaver has received over a life-time of socialization. The central conflict of the episode is whether or not Beaver will hit a girl, but subtending this issue is the larger conflict between codes of behavior one receives from one’s family and the messages one receives from society and what happens when they are misaligned. I want to suggest that the episode is far less concerned with Beaver than it is his father, and that, both thematically and formally, the primary focus of the episode is the ways in which internal disorganization of the family provokes broader societal decay.
The episode opens with a preface cautioning us that children are constantly doing things which they should not be. Right off the bat we get a paranoiac vision of a world apart from the family; a world that demands surveillance, but which cannot always be monitored. The unrestricted terrain where the potentials for danger and trouble are always perilously close takes place in the larger purview of society, but is, rather disturbingly, apart from the scope of parental authority. How does one cope? Already, the show has targeted its intended audience — parents — who are no doubt sitting with bated breath on the edge of their seat thinking, “I know, but what the hell do I do?”
Cue salve for their ailing conscience. The camera sweeps gracefully into view of a nondescript suburban home with a white-picket fence and modest portico. We are invited into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver as the Mrs. is preparing dinner which, much to the chagrin of Mr. Cleaver, is not quite ready because someone has defiled Mrs. Cleaver’s dressing table. The initial ruptures in the family dynamic have appeared and Mr. Cleaver is none too pleased to have to wait for an untimely meal while Mrs. Cleaver is simply perplexed over what possible motivations there could have been for the intrusion into her room and who could have tampered with her dressing table. This scene introduces us to the problems of boundary crossing. Mr. Cleaver is disruptive while his wife is preparing dinner and Mrs. Cleaver is distressed because the conjugal bedroom, that most sacred of rooms, has been intruded upon. The scene then cuts to the boys in their room where they have make-up, ostensibly from Mrs. Cleaver’s dressing table, and are using it to cover up Beaver’s black eye while they work up an alibi for his injury. All this misdealing and deception is resolved at the family dinner. The shot is composed of the family members symmetrically arranged around the table with the notable exception of Beaver, who is mostly depicted either by himself or in between his parents as they ask about his eye. The harmony suggested by the incomplete symmetry provides a visual analog to the possibility of the family dinner as a stabilizing ritual, while the centering of Beaver between his parents suggests that only under their scrutiny can this be achieved. When the partial truth of Beaver’s black eye is revealed, Mr. Cleaver is upset to discover that his son did not fight back, but Mrs. Cleaver is quick to assume that what is really bothering Mr. Cleaver is his disappointment with work, which he immediately dismisses by saying how serious it is that Beaver learn to defend himself.
Mr. Cleaver devises a plan to teach Beaver how to fight and takes him into the shed to show him a target dummy he can practice on. The shed introduces us to the masculine refuge of Mr. Cleaver, replete with power tools, varnishes, paints, and rubber tubes. The dummy dwarfs Beaver in both width and height and as soon as he gives it a good punch it swings right back and takes him down. Mr. Cleaver is trying to prepare his son for an enemy that Beaver is not only not ready to face, but an enemy that he, himself, has constructed. Immediately after Mr. Cleaver’s failed lesson plan harms his son, Mrs. Cleaver disrupts the boy’s club by entering the shed donning an apron to tell Mr. Cleaver that their neighbor, Fred, is there. Again, we encounter disruptions to the boundaries which usually govern family life and which keep each individual occupying their particular niche. At the root of all of this disorganization is Mr. Cleaver’s distress concerning an account he did not land at work.
In the next scene, Fred, his neighbor, who incidentally is the father of the girl who punched Beaver, smugly delivers some paperwork. Fred comments on Mr. Cleaver’s new sofa and brags about his children while remarking that Mr. Cleaver’s eldest son, Wally, seems a little small. The inclusion of the comment on the new sofa is important because it shows that Mr. Cleaver’s difficulties at work are not of an economic sort, but rather stem from his lack of authority and influence. His problems at work reflect his failings at home, and his inability to fulfill the responsibility of the assertive patriarch is transmitted to his family by making them incapable of of fulfilling their duties.
When Mr. Cleaver and Fred Rutherford discover that Mr. Cleaver trained Beaver to attack Violet Rutherford they depart from the cozy sanctity of the home into the wilderness of unsupervised suburbia. Here their authority is severely restricted and they both act as though they are scared that at any minute some terrible act of violence could unpredictably erupt. When we see them get out of Mr. Cleaver’s car to investigate a child playing as a caricaturized Native American they run into shrubs in the shot that uses the deepest staging of any in the episode. They are almost engulfed by the vegetation around them and when Fred wearily catches the hand of the kid who is playing with his friend, the kid tells him to let go and it is Fred who apologizes to the kid. The child and the adults are never shown in the same frame suggesting the limits to Mr. Cleaver’s and Mr. Rutherford’s authority outside of their respective homes. This world where children talk of fights and dismembered ears as if it were a casual sight is precisely the world that both Mr. Cleaver and Mr. Rutherford are actively seeking to rescue their children from. Mr. Cleaver realizes that it is his own instruction which has prompted Beaver to enter this world and so in order to remedy the situation he must bring Beaver back to the world of the family and assert his authority.
The episode ends with Violet and Beaver returned to their respective homes unharmed. Curiously though, Mr. Cleaver, recognizing that he must assert himself if he is to instill in his son the code of how a boy ought to be, defers to Mr. Rutherford at the end of the episode when Mr. Rutherford chastises him in front of his son. There is a moment of pause where it seems Mr. Cleaver is about to challenge him, but then he immediately desists and agrees to take Beaver home. I think it is because Mr. Cleaver has been humbled and realizes that only in the domain of his own household can he impart the behavioral codes that he wishes others to follow. He believes that his ideal form of society can only be attained from the example he sets in his home, and so the episode ends with Mr. Cleaver telling Beaver that the rules that he must obey are learned here in the home from his father, not from the experiences that he has in outside society.