In which I admit that I have a tiny crush on Harriet Nelson

A lot of people make fun of Ozzie and Harriet, their attitude, their strictly maintained gender roles, their various entertainment products, and their family in general. I admit that I have made fun of them. I mean, just look at them:

nice hair

I think they must have spent most of their family togetherness time in the bathroom making sure they had enough pommade in their hair. But the truth is that I (and most people my age and younger) have made fun of the Nelsons–and all the 50’s naivete they seem to represent–without ever actually watching an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Since I noticed a lot of people writing on the general topic of the “American dream” this week, I thought it might be instructive to spend a day looking at the “myth” of the dream, as Ozzie and Harriet represented it so powerfully for a couple of decades.

Before settling on the right episode, I had to personally watch about a dozen or so episodes of the show, during which time I discovered two things. First, although I know this is TMI in the realm of the Oedipal, or, worse, might give many of you out there in Cyberlandia the impression that I’m a Republican, I have to admit that Harriet is a very appealing lady:


Harriet’s a funny, capable, totally unflappable lady. I mean, imagine the kinds of actual adventures she could have been having all these years if her imbecilic family would have just left her alone. Yet the fact that she sticks with them despite all only adds to her utter nobility and stoicism. That’s right, she makes stoicism sexy. If you don’t believe stoic resignation can be hot, just check out her aprons–she’s got frills, flares, embroidery, pretty little silk and sheer numbers… Wow. What better, more form-flattering accoutrement than a stylish, genuinely attractive apron for the domestic goddess who deigns to put up with the troglodytic man-boys who call her Mother?

That being said, my second discovery about The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is that it’s actually quite entertaining–both nostalgically intoxicating like a walk down Main Street in Disneyland, but also occasionally subversively funny, like an episode of The Simpsons. Not only that, but the episode I finally decided to show to the class, “Captain Salty and the Submarine” is pretty authentic in its portrayal of the serious frustration and impotence of PTSD-addled World War II-vet dads who can’t seem to shake their obsession with either their own lost childhoods, or their confusing experiences in the ethical netherworld of battle.

But in class we were trying to pinpoint the show’s mythmaking capabilities with regard to the idea of the “American dream.” We had lively chats in each class after watching the episode, including discussion of the family’s tendency to hang out for most of the day in the same room of the house, Ozzie’s obsessive tie-wearing, Harriet’s many wardrobe changes, the family’s reliance on television for moral and ethical direction, and many other issues. I think we all agreed that there was one appearance in this episode of one of those outdated “mythemes” of the American dream which seem so chilling now: When Ozzie is heading out to the television studio to meet Captain Salty and claim the prize he has won, he says, to no one in particular, “I’ll need my other jacket.” Harriet immediately hops to, crossing directly in front of the camera to go into the room next door, and emerging half a second later with a sport jacket for Ozzie, which she helps him into.

This moment passes so quickly, so naturally, and without any comment from the characters. It is just assumed that Harriet is waiting to attend to Ozzie, and that Ozzie need not even make a specific request, but just hint at the request, and the wife, always at the ready, will know what to do. I didn’t even pick up on this moment when I watched the episode on my own, but each class sure did while we were watching it together. I’m glad that kids now are so tuned in to the hypocrisies that people my age still often overlook or gloss over.

Anyway, next week we’ll bridge the gap between native American myths and the myths brought over by the European colonials. Well, we won’t bridge the gap as much as we’ll examine the gap that could not be bridged between these divergent worldviews.


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