June Cleaver and Miss Kitty Walk into a Bar

Have you ever wondered what would happen if June Cleaver walked into the Long Branch Saloon?  Miss Kitty might eye her up and down to see if Cleaver is trouble, or she might say, “What’ll ya have?” to which Cleaver would probably say, “Tea, dear.”

You are likely wondering what these two have in common. Cleaver was no woman of the Wild West in her post-war suburban utopia. But the connection is more political than you may think.

Amanda Blake 1966

Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke, 1966 

The two television series that posited these  leading ladies as ideal American women reflected greater social extensions of domestic policy in America during the Cold War. Gunsmoke with Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty Russell ran from 1955 to 1975 and was set in the Wild West.  On the television series, the character Miss Kitty worked in the Long Branch Saloon and later became owner of the establishment.[1]  A more modern suburban setting cast Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver, wife and mother, on the series Leave it to Beaver which ran from 1957 – 1963.  Similar to other sitcoms popular during the late nineteen-fifties, like Father Knows Best and the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Cleaver was a character who portrayed the ideal American mother and wife: always dressed for dinner in heels and pearls, very calm and submissive to her husband Ward.

June and Ward

Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont as June and Ward Cleaver on the television series Leave it to Beaver (1958)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two women seem light years away from each other – a saloon girl from New Orleans looking for a new future in the Wild West, and a content housewife in the post-war suburbs.  But each character represented a renewed focus on the quintessential American woman who became an important moral leader during the Cold War.  Cleaver was the dutiful housewife whose nuclear family represented the success of democracy evident in financial stability and good moral character, free from the evils of communism.  Similarly, Miss Kitty reflected the individualism and spirit of opportunity offered by the American West.  Although her character, as a saloon girl and later owner, would have also realistically been a prostitute, this reality is downplayed in the show.  Her character is only very early on dressed in wardrobe suited for a saloon girl; as the show continues, her attire becomes more modest – again characteristic of television at the time emphasizing the good in American women.   That she had come into hard times and reinvented herself in the spirit of the West reflects the Turnerian idea that the West perpetuates democracy, all of which promoted domestic sentiment championing American democracy over communist ideology.

Kitty Russell 1969

Amanda Blake as Kitty Russell and guest star Jack Albertson from Gunsmoke, 1969

So, had June Cleaver walked into Miss Kitty’s bar, they might have surprised everyone by sharing a whiskey or tea and conversation about how they contributed to America’s self-image during the Cold War.

 

 

 

[1] Amanda Blake was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

 

 

 

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