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Where Have All the Harriets Gone?

March 28th, 2011 by Jessika

Harriet Nelson in Follow the Fleet trailer (1936). (Creative Commons

As a kid, I loved to watch The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. No, I did not grow up in the 50s. I relished each episode in the 80s and early 90s when the Disney Channel played reruns.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet chronicled the lives of the Nelson family, which consisted of Ozzie, Harriet and their two sons David and Ricky. They were the perfect 50s family. Ozzie was a funny and loving husband. Harriet was a beautiful doting wife. David and Ricky were cute kids, especially Ricky.  I had the biggest crush on him.

What I remember the most, though, from the sitcom was Harriet’s docile role. She wasn’t at all like my mom. My mom worked as a hairdresser and was away from home frequently. And while my mom could cook, she didn’t do it often. In my household, there were also many arguments between my mom and dad. Harriet would have never raised her voice at Ozzie.

None of the mom’s I new in fact were anything like Harriet. It seemed that by the 1980s and early 1990s mom’s like Harriet had all but disappeared. The stable, nuclear family of the 1950s had been replaced with a dysfunctional far-from-perfect family. This change was also evident in media portrayals of moms.

Today, perhaps the starkest contrast to Harriet is Weed’s Nancy Botwin. Nancy, played by Mary-Louise Parker, has two sons like Harriet. But that’s about the only thing the two moms have in common. Nancy is a widow, which forced her to find work. With no specific professional skills, Nancy finds an unconventional ways to make money. She sells marijuana.

Life in the world of drugs is far from easy for her and she is put in a variety of compromising situations, such as a drive-by shooting and a heated relationship with a Drug Enforcement Administration agent. She spends very little time at home, leaving her children to their own devices. With little guidance from their mother, both kids act out. Silas, the oldest, gets his deaf girlfriend pregnant before he himself goes into the drug business. The youngest, Shane, has problems in school and becomes very violent. Shane even kills someone at one point.  Somehow, I don’t think Harriet would approve of the Botwin family’s behavior. Does Harriet even know what marijuana is?

While the vast majority of contemporary TV moms are not as extreme as Nancy, they still tend to be light years away from Harriet. Take for example, Joy Turner from My Name Is Earl. Joy is twice married and has two sons from different fathers. She quite often is seen yelling and belittling her husband. There’s also Betty Draper from the popular AMC show Mad Men. Betty is a 1960s housewife. But she is nothing like Harriet. She has psychological issues that leave her depressed and impulsive. Multiple indiscretions eventually lead to a bitter divorce. And she is far from close to her children.

The disappearance of characters similar to Harriet really makes me wonder what has happened. Did America come to realize that a good housewife doesn’t exist? Is Harriet a myth?

My mother-in-law shows me otherwise, though. When my husband and his sister grew up, Karen stayed at home. She cooked for the family, cleaned, made her husband’s lunch, and shuttled the kids back and forth from Boy Scouts and dance practice. I have never heard her raise her voice, and she rarely challenges her husband. But Karen definitely doesn’t fit the norm. Still, it’s nice to know Harriets are out there. They just aren’t what Americans want to watch on TV.

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