How Much Have TV Moms Really Changed?

She doesn't do housework in an apron and pearls, but Sharon Osbourne may just be the modern incarnation of June Cleaver.

Wait a minute, you say: June Cleaver's conversation never got bleeped by censors, and she certainly never chucked a ham and bagels over the neighbors' fence.

But when it comes to the traditional television image of the mom, Sharon's got what it takes, says Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture at Syracuse University.

Ozzy's wife may be a lot hipper and a lot weirder than the Leave It to Beaver matron, but Sharon is really the "moral and emotional" center of her foulmouthed family, says Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse.

"In many ways she's a lot like June Cleaver," he says. "She's the nurturing one."

After all, who called in the pet therapist to cope with the family's unruly animals? Not Ozzy. Here, it's clearly a case of Mother Knows Best.

Modern Moms and Dippy Dads

But as Sharon Osbourne illustrates, TV moms have moved from suburban perfection to a much more complicated world.

"The thing about Donna Reed and Father Knows Best and those types of mothers is that they all presented a consistent picture of what motherhood was," says Robert Billingham, a professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.

And those mothers, in between baking brownies and deferring to dad, could always solve their kids' problems, no matter how daunting, in just one episode.

TV moms no longer have all the answers. In fact, some have become considerably dumber than their kids.

In the past, says Billingham, the mother might have played a secondary role to the father, but "both fathers and mothers were presented as very confident, very capable."

"Now, it's almost like the battle of the sexes is used as a kind of framework," he says.

He points to Malcolm in the Middle, where dad Hal (Bryan Cranston) is undeniably dippy. "The father is not real bright, and the more buffoonish he becomes, the funnier it is," says Billingham.

But of course Hal doesn't have to be on the ball, because wife Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) is all too aware that her four sons are up to something, and soon they'll be cowering at the sound of her enraged screams.

Groovy Moms

The TV mother has evolved considerably over the decades. "In the 1950s, we get the kind of mom epitomized by Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet," says Thompson.

In the 1960s, he says, that model prevailed. "Shirley Partridge and Carol Brady were the closest thing we had to counterculture moms."

Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) was "a lot more groovy" than some of her predecessors, Thompson says. She wore mod prints and sported that snazzy shag 'do. And, she and Mike (Robert Reed) presided over a blended family.

But at the same time, Mike was the undisputed head of the household. Carol didn't work, and Alice handled all the domestic duties. Carol's job was to look pretty and dispense words of wisdom to the kids.

The Partridge Family mom was a little more daring. "It was an interesting show in that you had a widow, a family without a father figure, the closest you had was Reuben the agent," says Thompson.

Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones) took her kids on the road in their converted school bus (with the sign: "Caution: Nervous mother driving") and was part of the band, but beneath those hip touches, "she also was kind of a standard mother," says Thompson.

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