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Mothers Through the Eyes, and the Years, of TV and Movie Makers

Some examples of how the mothers created by Hollywood have become more independent. Transcript of radio broadcast:


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein.


And I'm Steve Ember. This week, our subject is mothers and how their image has changed over the years in film and television.



In the United States and a number of other countries, the second Sunday in May is celebrated as Mother's Day.

Early in the nineteen hundreds, a woman named Anna Jarvis began a campaign to honor mothers in America. She talked to friends and friends of friends. She wrote to congressmen, local leaders, teachers and newspaper publishers.

Finally, President Woodrow Wilson signed a resolution in May of nineteen fourteen that officially established Mother's Day.


Anna Jarvis thought mothers should be honored with expressions of love and respect.

Professor Robert Thompson at Syracuse University in New York state is an expert on American popular culture. Fifty or sixty years ago, he says, the popular media image of mothers was the so-called perfect mother.

This was a woman who gave all her time to her husband, home and children. Many women in society felt pressure to try to be this kind of mother.


Like many observers, Professor Thompson uses the example of the imaginary June Cleaver, the mother on "Leave It to Beaver." That was a TV series from nineteen fifty-seven to nineteen sixty-three.

The Cleavers were a happy family. June Cleaver always had time and patience for her two sons, Wally and "Beaver." His real name was Theodore. And if there was ever a problem she could not handle, her husband put things right.

The same was true on another nineteen fifties television show. The name said it all: "Father Knows Best."


A different image, though, could be found in films like the nineteen forty-eight motion picture "I Remember Mama." It was set in San Francisco, California, in nineteen ten.

It was about a family that came from Norway. The Hansons were poor and they struggled to make their way in their new land.

Mama Hanson, played by actress Irene Dunne, had little education. But she knew a lot about dealing with people. She guides her family.


Mama hates "going to the bank" -- she means borrowing money. But she also recognizes the importance of staying in school. We listen as Mama and her family are sitting around the table, counting money.


MAMA: "Yah, is all for this week. Is good. We do not have to go to the bank."
SON: "Mama, mama, I'll be graduating from Valley School next month. Could I -- could I go into high, do you think?"
MAMA: "You want to go to high school?"
SON: "Well, I'd like to, very much, if you think I could."
MAMA: "Is good."


"I Remember Mama" earned Irene Dunne an Academy Award nomination for best actress of nineteen forty-eight.

Two years later, in the lighthearted film "Cheaper by the Dozen," Myrna Loy played Lillian Gilbreth, a mother of twelve. The father is an efficiency expert, an expert in doing things better and faster.

Lillian Gilbreth obeys her husband, or at least appears to. But she also has a mind of her own.

At one point, the husband, played by Clifton Webb, plays a joke on their son Bill. The father honks the horn just as the boy crosses in front of their car. Bill jumps. His father laughs and says the boy jumped six and nine-tenths inches.


A little later, Bill plays the same joke on his father. This time his father does not laugh.

The mother has to save Bill from getting punished and, in the process, she teaches her husband a lesson.


FATHER: "Who did that?"
BILL: "Uh, that was a good joke on you, Dad."
FATHER: "Listen, young man. There's a time and a place for jokes and a time and place for spankings. And the sooner you learn -- get out. Get out!"
MOTHER: "Mercy Maude, Frank, I'll bet you jumped six and nine-tenths inches that time."
FATHER: "You're right, son. That was a good joke on me. By jingo, I'll bet I did jump six and nine-tenths inches. Oh these kids, these kids."
MOTHER: "Excuse me, dear, I did it. It was accidental."


The Gilbreths were a real family. "Cheaper by the Dozen" was the name of a book written by two of the twelve children.

Their mother, Lillian, was a psychologist and herself an expert in the area of industrial management. In fact, Lillian Moller Gilbreth is known as the mother of modern management.

A woman who graduated from a women's college in nineteen fifty-three remembers hearing her as a graduation speaker. She remembers Lillian Gilbreth urging the young women to have full lives, with professions if they wanted them.

When Lillian Gilbreth received her doctorate in psychology, she already had four young children who attended the ceremony.


Over the years, as mothers and American women in general became more independent, more and more of them entered the job market. They did so by choice or because of financial need or both.

Pop culture expert Robert Thompson says the changes could be seen in film and television as well. For example, working women used to be shown mostly as nurses or teachers, because those were the jobs that many held in real life.

But these days, whatever new jobs are written into movies or TV shows, some images of mothers are timeless. One is the image of the overprotective mother who gets too involved in her child's life, even after the child grows up.

Diane Keaton plays just such a mother, a single mom named Daphne, in the two thousand seven film "Because I Said So." Mandy Moore plays her daughter.

Daphne is supposed to be seen as one of those moms who mean well even if they make their kids crazy.

MAGGIE: "Mom, you have to leave her alone."

DAPHNE: "Fine, but I just want you girls to understand something about motherhood. It's the most impossible love. You tell me when it ends. You tell me when it stops!"


For years, almost all leading movie and television stars, male or female, were white. Activists say members of racial and ethnic minority groups are still not well represented enough.

But the social gains that minorities made in the nineteen sixties and seventies led the way to shows like "The Jeffersons." This was a comedy on CBS television from nineteen seventy-five to nineteen eighty-five. It about a newly wealthy black family that moved into a New York City high-rise with mostly white neighbors.


One of the most popular TV shows ever was "The Cosby Show," on NBC from nineteen eighty-four to nineteen ninety-two. It starred Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable and Phylicia Rashad as his wife, Clair.

He was a doctor and she was a lawyer. The Huxtables were presented as a strong, loving, successful African-American family. Still, pop culture expert Robert Thompson notes that Clair Huxtable was often shown more as a wife and mother than as a successful lawyer.


"Mississippi Masala" was a nineteen ninety-one film about an ethnic Indian family exiled from Uganda when Idi Amin comes to power. The family lives in Mississippi, in the American South.

Daughter Meena is in love with a black American named Demetrius, played by Denzel Washington. Their parents strongly disapprove.

The family decides to return to Uganda, but Meena does not want to go. She calls her parents to tell them she is running away with Demetrius. Her mother, played by Sharmila Tagore, recognizes that they have to let their daughter lead her own life.


MEENA: "Ma, I'm not coming back. I'm sorry, but I can't go to Uganda. What would I do there?"
FATHER: "Are you alone?"
MEENA: "No, I'm with Demetrius. Pa, are you there? Ma, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. Why did he put the phone down?"
MOTHER: "I'll talk to your father."



Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Barbara Klein. Transcripts and audio archives of our programs are on the Internet at Be sure to join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. We leave you with a song from a classic film from nineteen sixty-seven. It was about a relationship between a recent college graduate and what popular culture today would call a "hot mom" -- a sexy older woman. The young man feels regret, which only grows as he falls in love with her daughter. The actress who played the mother was Anne Bancroft, the lover was Dustin Hoffman and the movie was "The Graduate."