Today I direct your attention to a short video from Prager University, a conservative think tank, extolling the virtues of Ward Cleaver.
Ward Cleaver, the father in the 1950s sitcom Leave It To Beaver, is an iconic figure; a man of his time, yet timeless in some respects. He takes care of business without making excuses, whining or brooding in defeat. He knows that hard work and persistence will win the day, even if it is not this day. He has no interest in perpetuating his own adolescence, but instead has long accepted marriage and fatherhood as part and parcel of adult life.
The Ward Cleaver archetype is all over the place in TV shows and movies of that era: Ozzie Nelson of Ozzie and Harriet, Jim Anderson of Father Knows Best, and George Bailey of It’s A Wonderful Life. These were individuals who survived the Great Depression, fought in WWII and/or the Korean War. The archetype transcends that era with Steve Douglas of My Three Sons, Mike Brady of The Brady Bunch, Harold Cunningham of Happy Days, and Heathcliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show (that last one might not be such a great example). All of these characters are flawed, yet solid and dependable; in a word, responsible.
According to the video, what women want in a man (at least those women who have outgrown their adolescent preoccupation with “bad boys”) is, while they would not say Ward Cleaver, someone who shares Ward Cleaver’s character traits: reliable, trustworthy, smart, confident but not smug, funny and capable of laughing at himself, successful at work but not a workaholic, one who loves children but is not a child himself, and devoted to his family. In other words, a masculine figure: this is what women want and what children need.
In Ward Cleaver’s era, men were expected to work hard, be good husbands/neighbors/friends, raise children, and act as role models for the next generation. Getting married, becoming a father, and working toward owning a home were the best things that the vast majority of men could expect to happen to them in their lives. Men don’t regret attachments and commitments to other people, as if these things tie them down. What they regret is the lack thereof.
The closing observation of the video is that if all the adolescent slackers of the world were to disappear tomorrow, the video game industry would collapse. But if all the Ward Cleavers of the world were to disappear tomorrow, civilization would collapse.
Okay. Couple of things here.
First, the video’s analysis of Ward Cleaver as a studly figure relies on a number of horses that have long since left the barn. For one thing, it is no longer possible for the vast majority of people to attend college without incurring massive amounts of debt. And the jobs that are available nowadays generally do not pay as well or offer as much potential for advancement as jobs that were available in Ward Cleaver’s era, except for a fortunate few. Plus the average cost of a home relative to average income nowadays has risen to a point where homeownership is all but inaccessible to all but a fortunate few, at least in the early postcollegiate years. For these reasons, many young people find themselves having to postpone marriage, family and homeownership until much later in life. In Ward Cleaver’s day it was possible for a high school dropout to score a well-paying union job with the factory or the railroad and parlay that into a respectable middle-class existence. Good luck with that nowadays.
Also, the video seems to operate on the assumption that the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, and the other cultural shifts of the sixties and seventies never happened. In Ward Cleaver’s era a man could count on eventually marrying at or near his own level; economic/cultural reality which necessitated the dependence of women upon men was on his side, and persistence and patience would win the day. Nowadays, not so much. The rise of feminism has all but shattered any sense of dependence upon men which women once felt. In this day and age women are free to drop all pretense of economic necessity, making their own way economically while holding our for the most attractive man they can find, or no man at all. Meaning that for someone like me, persistence and patience will not necessarily win the day.
The video also assumes an order in which the man is, well, the man of the house and the woman is perfectly pleased to go along with that. This plays right into complementarian notions of how the world ought to be ordered; you can see these notions for yourself in John Piper’s diatribe against women in combat and Owen Strachan’s diatribe against that “Dad Mom” Tide commercial a few years back. I argue now as I have previously that these notions amount to an absurd legalism that reduces masculinity and femininity to a set of prescribed rules and roles and behaviors. Besides, that is yet another horse which has already left the barn. The new reality of our era is that in some marriages the man will never in a million years equal the earning power of his spouse and some men are passionate about serving the family by staying at home and raising the children. What are we to do with that?
Next, are these the only two options on the table here? Ward Cleaver, or the terminal slacker in his parents’ basement who does nothing but play video games all day? This is typical of conservative discourse on a number of issues: Reduce all the options down to only two and demonize all who do not go along with the preferred alternative. The election of Donald Trump was an example of this par excellence. We also see it in young-earth creationist handling of Scripture, where it is either us or godless, nihilistic, atheistic evolution. The Neo-Reformed make a living at this on virtually any issue they engage with: us or [insert name of favorite liberal theologian here] and all the devils of hell.
So are these the only two options on the table here? Are there not other expressions of responsible adulthood that don’t necessarily fit the Ward Cleaver mold? Or are marriage, family, children, and homeownership so inextricably tied to responsible adulthood that without these things it is impossible to be anything other than a terminally adolescent slacker?
I am not Ward Cleaver. I don’t think I would want to be Ward Cleaver even if I could. The suburban American dream of the big house and the family and kids does not appeal to me. Any marriage I enter into would likely be an arrangement where roles and responsibilities are determined by gifting and personality and not by prescribed notions of gender roles, much to the complementarians’ chagrin.
I am not a slacker and don’t plan on being one. Working for a living, being a productive and contributing member of society and using such influence as one has to make one’s community and the world a better place beats the alternative. But I am not Ward Cleaver and will probably never be, and even if I could I probably wouldn’t want to.