Story About a Man Named Jed: Gender Constructions in The Beverly Hillbillies
Margaret Weber, Iowa State University
One of the most popular television shows of all time, The Beverly Hillbillies was one of the first situational comedies to find a place in America’s living room hearts. As the hit theme song proclaimed, this was a story about a man named Jed. A born and bred mountaineer, the clan patriarch Jed strikes oil, and with some prompting, moves his family to the Hollywood hills. This set the stage for the show’s many gags and jokes, as the seemingly helpless Clampetts maneuver their way through high society. When I originally started working on this topic, I thought that I too had struck oil. An easily recognizable hit show with a wealth of information and little scholarly discussion… my graduate-student heart gave a slow pitter-patter. To me, the narrative and context of the show was simple, Jed directly addressed the postwar crisis in masculinity. His characterization showcased a longing for older forms of manhood, something that was perceived to be lost in the transition to a post-war society. Jed, the show’s fulcrum, was a startlingly anti-thesis to the man in the grey flannel suit, a foil to the Male Panic of late 50s.
However, while the idea came to me easily, the actual writing experience proved to be quite frustrating. So, what exactly was I missing? Thinking it over, a small thought crossed my mind. What if the story was not really all of Jed? What if femininity was key to this whole conundrum? To my shame as a gender historian, I had made the same mistake of traditional scholarship. I had forgotten that gender was not created in a vacuum. I had neglected about the women; Granny, Elle May, even Ms. Hathaway. Maybe just listening to a story about a man named Jed missed the real narrative behind the show’s meaning. In the end, Jed’s masculinity was predicated on his relations with his mother-in-law and daughter, his status as rural patriarch.
Simple yet dignified, the show’s portrayal of agrarian patriarchy rested on Jed undisputed control of his family. Even Granny, the taciturn firecracker, ultimately bent to his will. This can be seen in the very first episode of the series, “The Clampetts Strike Oil!” Having decided to move out to Beverly Hills, Jed was annoyed to find that Granny had refused to go. Grumbling, “Dang if I ain’t got me the mulest women,” Jed marched back to his shack to convince his mother-in-law to journey to his new home. After Granny rebuffed him and declared that she was not moving from her rocking chair, the next shot was of the old woman, still in her chair, now placed in the back of the moving truck. It is a humorous interplay but its intent went beyond simple humor. By showing the viewers this interchange, producers firmly placed Jed as both clan leader and a man willing to use his physicality to solve problems. While Jed was willing to talk through his problems, ultimately he would not hesitate to utilize his strength and power to get his way. What is more telling was that Granny accepted his solution. She did not continue to protest moving away from the only home she had ever known nor did she hold a grudge against the restraint of her physical movement.
Jed was also particularly concerned about the gender-bending characteristics of his only child Elle May. He mentioned several times that the major reason he chose to move was reintroduce her to correct feminine behaviors. After stopping Elle May from wrestling with her older cousin Jethro (a fight that she wins), Jed finally decided to sit down and talk to his daughter about proper roles. He explained, “You see Elle, I raised you like a boy and I was wrong to do it. I reckon every man would like to have a son and you were my only young’in. But it ain’t fittin, it ain’t right for folks to go against nature.” Pointing to their long-faced hunting hound, Jed asserted that one cannot turn a dog into a cat, “Nature turned you into a girl, you’re pretty.” He then convinced the buxom young woman to try her hand at helping Granny in the kitchen and with the rest of the housework. By utilizing gender as a biological imperative and attempting to regulate Elle away from the physical world of men, Jed reinforced his own masculine position in the household and in society. Neither Granny nor Elle May resented his control over their appearances, occupations, or even physical bodies. Jed was the undisputed masculine leader of the clan, ready to enforce gender norms on his family.
In conclusion, this story was about so much more than a poor mountaineer turned millionaire. It was about the intersection between environment and gender, families and individuals. As most agricultural historians know, no one actually farms by themselves. Even as cultural portrayals of farmers would have us believe in a lone yeoman, we all know that behind that individual stands so much more.