Handful": Dennis the Menace, Permissive Childrearing and the Bad
by Henry Jenkins
"Physically, he is sturdy, active, agile, tireless, and hard-to-catch.
Mentally he is lively, inquisitive, imaginative, and of an experimental
turn of mind, which frequently leads him into situations he can't
always control. Add an unruly shock of hair, freckles, a smudge
on his nose, dirt on his pants and traces of paint and chocolate
on his hands, and you have Dennis, the All-American Handful."
-- Hank Ketcham, Creator of Dennis the Menace
"Permissiveness is an attitude of accepting the childishness
of children. It means accepting that 'boys will be boys,' that a
clean shirt on a normal child will not stay clean for long, that
running rather than walking is the child's normal means of locomotion,
that a tree is for climbing and a mirror is for making faces."
-- Dr. Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent and Child
Alice is watching a soap opera on television when Dennis returns home.
Immediately, he begins to lecture her, "Hey, Mom...don't you know
too much telebision is bad for your eyes?" At first, she tries
to ignore him, "Mmm" but he continues, citing the fact that
"there's a lotta JUNK" on television, that television violence
"learns ya a lotta BAD stuff," and that she should be doing
something better with her time. She finally gets up and turns off the
set before asking Dennis what he thinks she should be doing instead.
"Bakin' cookies! The cookie jar's clean empty!" This exchange
from a 1964 Dennis the Menace comic book follows familiar logic. As
Lynn Spigel has shown, the place of television within the American domestic
space and specifically its influence on family interaction had been
debated and negotiated for more than a decade. Here, however, the power
relations within the debate have been inverted for comic effect. The
child now rules the home and hectors his mother on her bad media consumption
This inversion of traditional parental authority reflects the anxieties
and tensions surrounding the child-centered doctrines of permissive
parenting. Proponents of permissiveness saw its less restrictive approach
as providing a more "democratic" domestic life for the post-war
era. Permissiveness permitted the child to develop into a spontaneous,
creative, exploratory human being without fear of trauma and repression.
Its critics warned that it put the parents, especially the mother, at
the mercy of the child, who often became a spoiled brat and a domestic
tyrant. The parent in the permissive household, Jules Henry warned,
became "driftwood in the tides of his child's demands."
By the 1950s, permissiveness, although not without its detractors, had
become the dominant discourse about childhood within postwar American
society, promoted by a seemingly endless flood of childcare books, prescriptive
articles in women's magazines, and advertisements; its implications
were explored by learned sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists
but also pervaded popular culture, shaping the comicbooks, television
programs, films, records, and children's books of the period. Permissiveness
is most closely associated with pediatrician Benjamin Spock, anthropologist
Margaret Mead, the child studies of the Gessel Institute at Yale, and
the advice provided by Parents magazine, yet for almost two decades,
most childrearing information was either framed in permissive terms
or in explicit reaction to them. what, when and how the children liked;
sleep when sleepy -- no regular nap or bedtimes; later, toilet training
based on the child's readiness; toys' and rooms' order left up to the
child; sex play accepted; angry, quarrelsome play accepted, hostility
(kicks, hits, spits and so forth) against parents accepted; choice of
friends, TV programs, comic books left completely to the child; occasional
absence from school accepted; attendance at Sunday school or church
dependent on the child's choice." By contrast, "strict"
parents were described as those "who had fed their babies on a
regular schedule, toilet trained them early, later insisted on clean
hands, good table manners, 'please's' and 'thank you's' regular bedtimes,
orderly rooms; who hadn't allowed sex play or quarrelsome, noisy play
or the expression of anger against mothers and fathers; who had exercised
careful supervision over TV programs, choice of friends and spare-time
activity in general; who saw to it that school and church were attended
without whim." Helen Puner, "Discipline: Strict or Permissive?,"
Parents, 1959, p.39.
For many of us who are adults today, permissiveness shaped our earliest
perceptions of American life, defined our relations with parents, friends,
and schools, influenced our understanding of our gender and sexual identities.
If permissiveness fell into disrepute in the late 1960s, if shifting
economic structures have led to more working mothers and thus a renegotiation
of power within the family, if today parents confront multiple, competing
and contradictory discourses about childhood and parenting, our sense
of how parents should respond to their children took shape during the
post-war years. Many parents evaluate their performance according to
the all-but-impossible standards of good childrearing that represent
Benjamin Spock's legacy in our national culture, while we have no recollection
of the contradictions, debates, and controversies that surrounded the
initial introduction of those standards. The power of permissiveness
to naturalize its assumptions has led us to forget just how contingent
and short-lived its reign has been. This essay, thus, represents a search
into the collective past of the baby boom generation, to better understand
the cultural site of our childhood and to better decode the ideological
construction of American family life. The comic strip and television
series, Dennis the Menace was an important part of that cultural environment,
speaking to postwar parents and children about the nature of masculine
experience in suburban America.
Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace first appeared in March 1951, just
two years after the initial publication of Spock's Baby and Child Care.
By 1953, Dennis was appearing daily in three hundred papers, featured
in his own comic book, and linked to a diverse range of merchandise.
A CBS sitcom based on the character ran from 1959 to 1963. In the midst
of debates about permissiveness, Dennis, "The All-American Handful,"
was perhaps the best known child in the country, a figure comparable
in his cultural impact to Bart Simpson's place in contemporary popular
culture. Ketcham remarked in 1953 that Dennis was "typical of almost
every American boy in this particular age bracket." Far from unique,
"There are literally millions of 'menaces,' the boys making their
own surprising and spontaneous reactions to a sometimes hostile and
incomprehensible grownup world."
How might we understand the relationship between Dennis the Menace and
permissive child-rearing? Is he the monstrous child whom some feared
would emerge from the permissive family or does he reflect the more
benign assumptions about childhood fostered by Spock and Parents magazine?
How did Dennis, himself, figure into the public debates about permissiveness?
What kinds of responses did he provoke from postwar parents and children?
In what ways do the strip and television series embody dominant assumptions
about gender, family life, and nationhood in 1950s and 1960s America?
This chapter makes a number of basic assumptions about the relationships
between parents, children, and popular culture. Children's fiction (broadly
defined) constitutes, as Jacqueline Rose has argued, an "impossible
fiction" shaped as much by adult desires as by children's interests;
the production, circulation and consumption of children's fiction is
mediated at all levels by adults who mold both its form and content
according to their own ideological construction of childhood as a social
space removed from the adult world and "innocent" of its concerns.
At the same time, through a process of miniaturization, childhood becomes
a key metaphor through which adults speak about their political concerns,
an allegory for the adult order. In the post-war period, everything
from civil rights and integration through anti-communism and the space
race was mapped onto and debated through the figure of the "innocent"
child. The central subject of children's fiction is the relationship
between adults and children and as a result, children's fiction becomes
a privileged site for understanding the shifting balance of power between
mothers, fathers, and children. Paradigm shifts, such as the emergence
of postwar permissiveness, are obsessively enacted within children's
fictions. The ideological stakes in these debates are difficult to identify
in traditional political terMs. Both liberals and conservatives have
an active interest in controlling children's cultural consumption and
regulating their bodies. A discourse such as permissiveness may evoke
liberal categories, such as democracy and empowerment, while preserving
traditional conceptions of gender and national character.
Read in this fashion, Dennis the Menace becomes a semiotic "handful,"
speaking to, for, and about both children and adults at a time of dramatic
social shifts within the family. While Ketcham saw Dennis as representative
of all permissive children (or at least of all boys), he actually constituted
a particular articulation of permissive discourse, one which used the
notion of childhood innocence and the generic tradition of Bad Boy comedy
to express male anxieties about domestic containment and the challenges
of fatherhood. For Ketcham, as for many postwar children's writers,
the model permissive child was male and the problems he confronted centered
on the formation of masculine identity. My goal, here, is to use Dennis
as a point of entry into the complex and sometime contradictory discursive
space of permissiveness, to tease out the ways that this new conception
of the child linked together changing perceptions of family politics,
gender relations, and national identity. Permissiveness, understood
in these terms, is not a timeless and universal understanding of childhood
innocence, a purely progressive reform of domestic space or the ideology
underlying the problem-free suburban utopia of our nostalgic daydreaMs.
Permissiveness, rather, represented a temporary readjustment of the
power-relations within the postwar American family within which the
child gained power at the expense of its mother, the father gained greater
childrearing responsibilities alongside his traditional breadwinning
role, and parental authority was exercised in a more covert and indirect
(but no less tangible) fashion.
"YOUR SON IS A MENACE!":
PARENTING IN TRANSITION
"At four years of age, Dennis Lloyd Ketcham was...too young
for school, too big for his playpen, too small to hit, not old enough
for jail -- and one hundred percent Anti-Establishment."
-- Hank Ketcham
Although its proponents worked hard to "naturalize" its core
assumptions about the nature of childhood through appeals to "common
sense" and biological determinism, the emergence of the permissive
family was not a simple or painless process. Parents were raising their
children according to principles dramatically different than the more
authoritarian and behaviorist approaches which dominated the pre-war
period of their own childhood and this shift produced a high degree
of confusion and uncertainty. As child study expert Eda J, LeShan summarized
I have been impressed by the parents who struggle to do things differently,
to give their children experiences they never had themselves....Sometimes,
because what we have tried to do is strange and new, we take ourselves
too seriously, and try much too hard. In trying to help their children
to be less frightened of their feelings, parents often become more
afraid of their own feelings!
Nobody explicitly advocated total permissiveness; permissiveness exists
almost entirely as a position to argue against. Rather, it might be
more accurate to speak of a permissive impulse reforming childrearing
practices, while parents and experts alike struggled to maintain some
awareness of the need for discipline and structure, for "setting
limits" in children's lives. Spock adjusted his views to counterbalance
prevailing tendencies, arguing for greater permissiveness in the late
1940s when discipline-centered approaches still maintained wide acceptance
and for stronger discipline in the late 1950s when permissiveness held
court. Parents embraced "constructive discipline" while the
Gesell Institute's 1955 Child Behavior called for "informed permissiveness."
A 1957 study of 379 mothers found most sought some uncertain balance
between authoritarian and permissive tendencies on a situation by situation
basis. Permissiveness involved a constant negotiation between the interests
of adults and children, between the internalized restraints of the previous
era and the conscious reformation of domestic relations.
The stakes in these debates were high. Confronted with an unprecedented
demographic expansion, the so-called "baby boom," America
had become a child-centered nation. Postwar Americans married earlier,
had more children and at an earlier age than any other point in the
twentieth century. By the end of the 1950s, 70 percent of all American
women were married by the age of 24 in contrast to just 42 per cent
in 1940 and 50 percent today. Nearly one third of all American women
had their first children before they reached their twentieth birthday.
At the same time, suburbanization was resulting in a breakdown of the
extended family, leaving these young women isolated from traditional
sources of childrearing information. In this context, childrearing guides,
such as Spock's phenomenally successful Common Sense Book of Baby and
Child Care, took on an unprecedented importance; such a situation allowed
for a more dramatic change in parenting styles than would have been
conceivable in a more rooted community. Dennis the Menace's representation
of parent-child relations helped to articulate the ambiguities and uncertainties
of this process, melding into a single figure the innocent child of
permissive discourse and the monstrous brat many feared might emerge
from the overly permissive home.
In promoting the comic strip, Hank Ketcham presented himself as the
typical American Dad of the postwar generation. A world war II veteran,
he had settled down in Carmel, California, to raise a family and to
earn a living as a freelance cartoonist. He fathered a son in 1947 on
the cusp of the baby boom and struggled to raise him according to modern
parenting principles. In his autobiography, Ketcham describes his own
childhood as strict and authoritarian; his mother was "a sweet,
loving softie who seldom raised her voice in anger" while his father,
who used to beat Hank and his sister with a three foot long horsewhip,
became a symbol of "raw violence, hoping it would scare the whey
out of the two Ketcham ragamuffins." Like many other parents of
his generation, he tried to show greater acceptance of his son's own
rambunctious tendencies and a fuller understanding of child psychology.
If many of the architects of postwar permissiveness, such as Benjamin
Spock and Dr. Seuss, were pulled to the left by the antiwar movement,
Ketcham has become more vocally conservative. Ketcham, today, expresses
discomfort with many permissive ideals:
I have a built-in conservative straight arrow in me that pops to
the surface like Old Faithful, especially where children are concerned.
There is a Behavior I expect, certain codes of dress and etiquette
I demand, and areas of language and respect I insist upon. I am painfully
aware that this is extremely old-fashioned and out of step in light
of today's permissiveness...but there is no room for fads in these
basic matters. The fundamentals must never vary if we plan to peacefully
share space with others.
In the 1950s, however, Ketcham often appealed to permissive childrearing
experts to authenticate his representation of "normal" American
boyhood. quickly was codified as the normal pattern of development.
Ketcham told a group of high school newspaper editors in 1954, for example,
that he had been assured by "child psychiatrists" that Dennis's
antics "demonstrate a four-year-old's normal curiosity in the world
opening up around him." While Ketcham claimed to be "just
as bamboozled as the next parent," he proudly shared a letter from
an unnamed child psychiatrist with Women's Day readers in 1956 which
lavishly praised his understanding of children's "human nature."
A 1954 Time magazine essay used a Dennis cartoon to illustrate a report
on a national conference of child psychiatrists, quoting Ketcham as
suggesting that "Dennis the Menace could have told the child psychiatrists
long ago that there was something wrong with all of the rules."
Ketcham formed a company in the mid-1950s to design playgrounds which
reflect the tastes, activities and interests of children rather than
those of their parents; he described the playgrounds in terms which
stress the active, spontaneous, uninhibited, and creative child who
was the permissive ideal.
Ketcham often told stories of his own son, Dennis, who helped to inspire
the cartoon character, grounding the strip in his own parenting experiences.
Ketcham describes in his autobiography how the "spark" for
the strip emerged from a particularly problem-ridden day with his four
The little darling was supposed to be taking a nap. Instead, he had
spent the better part of one hour quietly dismantling his room --
bed, mattress, springs, dresser, drapes and curtain rods. When the
accidental load he carried in his underpants was added to his collection
of plastic toys, cookie crumbs, and leftover peanut butter sandwich,
it formed an unusual mix.
Alice, his wife, started screaming at him when he returned home from
work, "YOUR son is a MENACE!" Here, Ketcham evokes an image
of domestic disorder and flared tempers, accounting for why Dennis so
often seemed like a "menace" to his parents and other adult
authority figures. Such images were common in the Dennis strips of the
1950s. The titles of the paperback collections of Dennis cartoons often
depict the home or the playschool as a contested space, a site of struggle
between parents and children (And In This Corner...Dennis the Menace,
Dennis the Menace v.s. Everybody); Dennis is characterized in other
book titles as Teacher's Threat and Household Hurricane, even if he
was also a Happy Half-Pint and Make-believe Angel. In one early panel,
Henry snarls at his wife, "I hope I live long enough to cause him
as much trouble as he's causing me!" In another, Alice stands over
the remains of a shattered lamp, Dennis still clutching its cord, and
gasps, "That SETTLES it! You're going to be an only child!"
The image of Henry, red in the face in anger, drenched to the bone,
rattled out of his sleep, or locked out of his own house must have spoken
to frazzled young parents, struggling to apply Spock's book -- and fantasizing
about using it to paddle their unruly child's bottom. The give-and-take
of the permissive family is suggested by another cartoon, where Dennis
stands in the midst of a toy-strewn living room and asks his father,
"Wanna draw straws to see who picks up my toys?" Or in another,
Dennis organizes a revolt of Kindergartners against their teacher, "Wash
your hands! Drink your milk! Take your nap! Don't you see what she's
doin'? She's BOSSIN' Us!"
No matter how much Henry may contemplate a more aggressive response,
the worst punishment Dennis ever receives is being forced to sit in
the corner or being sent to bed without a dessert, disciplinary actions
most permissive guides would have found acceptable. A noteworthy exception
is a 1950s vintage cartoon simply labeled "Discipline," which
shows Dennis reaching for a cookie from a plate, being swatted in the
hand by his mother, crying bitterly and then, as soon as Alice's back
is turned, lunging for the cookie plate again with renewed determination.
Traditional forms of discipline are not only inappropriate but ineffectual
in the world of Dennis the Menace. Dennis means no harm. As Ketcham
notes,"Mischief seems to follow wherever Dennis appears, but it
is the product of good intentions, misdirected helpfulness, good-hearted
generosity, and possibly, an over-active thyroid."
American parents clearly identified with Henry and Alice. Throughout
the 1950s and early 1960s, newspapers around the country ran essay contests
where proud permissive parents sought to demonstrate "why your
youngster most resembles Dennis the Menace." In each contest, Hank
Ketcham promised to use the winning entry as the basis for a newspaper
panel, recasting the real-world incident with Dennis and his family.
The children described in contest entries often display levels of aggressiveness
towards the adult world far beyond anything found in the funny papers.
One boy ripped all the buttons off his aunt's blouse in the middle of
Christmas dinner and took great pleasure in going around unzipping zippers,
especially those on the back of women's skirts; another removed his
mother's bathing suit top on a crowded beach. Young cooks were described
as preparing pancakes on Mommy's bed spread, storing butterscotch under
the sofa cushions, baking Dad's golf balls in a muffin tin, putting
the oatmeal box in the oven, or drinking a bottle of bleach. The contest
children seemingly inhabited a world of minimal parental supervision
or constraint. One boy tripped a fire alarm at a professional basketball
game; another "climbed out the upstairs window and swung on the
telephone line"; a third took his father's wallet and passed out
money to all of the children in the neighborhood. Parents expressed
pride in their children's destructive tendencies, bragging that "the
life of an average toy is four hours." Ketcham, in turn, embraced
and celebrated their misbehavior, writing of one contest winner, "Freddy
Klinger...seems to be all boy and all American and I'm glad his parents
have a sizable farm in which he can expend his amazing energy and imagination."
As these comments suggest, what a previous generation might have regarded
as the worst kind of misbehavior was here tolerated and even celebrated
as "natural" and "normal" parts of growing up. Far
from a "menace," Dennis is simply an adventurous young boy
who wants to explore and understand the adult world. In early comic
strip panels, Dennis was sometimes demonic, as in one where he teaches
a neighborhood kid how to make a pretty effective weapon by filling
a sock with sand. An early publicity picture of the real-world Ketcham
family shows Dennis clubbing his parents with a baseball bat. As Ketcham
developed a firmer sense of the character, he increasingly "set
limits" on Dennis's conduct. Ketcham protested a proposed publicity
photograph showing Jay North trying to trip a man on crutches:
He is not a Katzenjammer kid. He is a totally well-meaning, totally
honest little boy. Everything he does is out of curiosity, energy
or just because he is being helpful -- in short, all the things that
are normal in a young animal. Always there is his belief that he is
doing the right thing. If a child is provoked into an action, he usually
has a logical reason. In most cases he is perfectly justified in what
If Ketcham's Dennis the Menace revived the "bad boy" genre
associated with the Katzenjammer Kids , permissive discourse rendered
the bad boy's potentially antisocial impulses "innocent" and
Writing in 1951, Martha Wolfenstein identified "a changing conception
of human impulses and an altered evaluation of play and fun" within
the dominant childrearing practices. Newer conceptions of childhood
embraced "fun morality," an acceptance of sensation, pleasure,
spontaneity as important parts of how humans grow and learn. She saw
permissiveness as standing in stark contrast to the more discipline-centered
approach of pre-war authorities. The paradigm reformation reflected
both changing understandings of child psychology (particularly the emergence
of a Freudian model of child sexuality) and larger shifts within the
American society from a culture of production towards a culture of consumption.
At the risk of being overly schematic, parental power was exercised
in a repressive rather than a permissive fashion within the pre-war
conception of childrearing. Prewar parents rigidly controlled children's
bodies and regulated their sensory experience. Child study experts characterized
children as "endowed with strong and dangerous impulses...notably
autoerotic, masturbatory and thumb-sucking." Children, the authorities
feared, would be "spoiled" by too much pampering, seduced
by sensuous environments and softened by mother love. The impulses had
to be contained and mastered, rather than redirected or sublimated.
Masturbatory impulses were met with physical restraint. The child's
room was to be kept sparse and orderly, lest too much visual stimulation
might provoke uncontrollable urges and impulses. Discipline, control,
regularity was essential, with behaviorist assumptions underlying much
of the advice. By feeding the child on a regular schedule, putting it
to bed and picking it up according to the clock, toilet training it
at the appropriate age, the parent would instill in their infant good
"habits" for adult life. A 1929 child-rearing guide identified
the "habits" which good parenting should foster: self-control,
obedience, self-reliance, consideration for others, honesty and sincerity,
and service. No mention was made of the personality traits much valued
by permissive discourse, such as spontaneity, creativity, curiosity,
or expressive individualism. The development of good habits required
absolute and unwavering parental authority. Ada Hart Arlitt's The Child
From One to Six (1930) called for the home to be regulated not by "mother
love" but by "the kitchen timepiece" and argued that
parents should "cut down the number of times that one speaks to
the child. Speak only when necessary then expect to be obeyed."
The signs of adult authority were to be overt and unmistakable; the
separation between the child's sphere and the parent's sphere was to
be rigidly enforced.
The new postwar generation, on the other hand, saw children's groping
fingers as evidence of an innate curiosity about the world. Constraint,
far from necessary, was potentially harmful to the child's natural development;
critics denounced behaviorism as "brainwashing" that constituted
"a throttling of the child's spontaneity and a stifling of his
creativity." Parents were encouraged to relinquish some of their
traditional authority so that children could develop autonomy and self-worth.
A period of tightly scheduled feedings gave way to feeding on demand;
mothers who once were cautioned to ignore children if they cried out
of loneliness were now encouraged to play with them, take pleasure in
time spent together. Permissive writers, such as Spock, described a
world where children's sexual and bodily interests were natural and
healthy, where play serves a central role in the child's mental and
social development, where problems can be solved by redirecting and
rechanneling exploratory impulses. The permissive household was to be
organized around the child with the parent (typically the mother) taught
to read the child's body (its cries, its excrement, its complexion,
its gestures) for signs of unsatisfied desires and needs. What once
seemed to be dangerous impulses were now seen as natural and not open
to change; the parents should find ways to restructure the family routine
or the domestic space to fully facilitate them. Not surprisingly, the
brunt of this accommodation falling on the backs of mothers who remained
the dominant domestic figure despite a new ideology stressing the playful
and companionate role of the father in childrearing.
From the outset, Spock links psychoanalysis with consumerism and democratic
ideals to create an approach uniquely suited to childrearing in suburban
America. The Journal of American History, vol67, no.3, Spring 1980,
pp.612-629; Michael Zuckerman, "Dr. Spock: The Confidence Man"
in Charles Rosenberg (Ed.), The Family in History (Philadelphia: 1975).
This more child-centered home, which Martha Weinman Lear's The Child
Worshipers (1963) described as "plasticized, laminated, veneered,
ironized, aluminized, asphalt-tileized, metal-frame-ized, and otherwise
sterilized beyond all aesthetic consideration," was a godsend to
consumer capitalism. Wall coverings, carpets and furniture were sold
to permissive parents on the basis of their child-resistant surfaces
("In your family room, it's 'do!' -- not 'don't!'); jeans and kid's
shoes were marketed on the basis of their ability to withstand the inevitably
rough treatment of a healthy boy or girl. In a 1950s television commercial,
a mother returns home from grocery shopping to find her three children
hopping on Pogo sticks on her freshly mopped kitchen floor. "Sometimes
my kids seem like a bunch of kangaroos!" she complains, but then,
shrugs towards the camera, "what can I do? I can't change my family."
An authoritative male announcer explains, "True but you can change
your floor wax." Beacon floor wax, we are told, make floors safe
from "heavy family traffic." The pre-war authority, John B.
Watson, had insisted that children were "made not born," but
within the permissive household, the child's rambunctious and disorderly
impulses can be accommodated, but not changed.
Popular culture often based comic or dramatic generational conflict
around this shifting conception of appropriate childrearing practice.
Hank Ketcham structured Dennis the Menace around the basic opposition
between the child-centered Mitchells and the child-hostile George Wilson,
suggesting the divide between the pre-war and post-war paradigMs. Dennis's
problems often stem from his attempt to deal with the suburban neighborhood
as an extension of his free and easy domestic sphere. As George remarks
in one strip, "he sleeps over there but he lives over here."
Dennis barges into the Wilson's house unannounced, helps himself to
food from their icebox and when it isn't provided, coaxes the grandmotherly
Martha to fix cookies. He expects George to become his playmate, just
as permissive guides stressed the playful dimensions of contemporary
fatherhood. George's angry responses stem from the expectation of more
traditional forms of discipline. In Mr. Wilson's world, children are
to be seen and not heard; their misbehavior is to be punished; rules
and regulations are to be strictly obeyed. Dennis's impulsiveness strikes
him as anarchic and barbaric.
By the time the comic strip came to television in the 1959-60 season,
the neighborhood has "mellowed" towards Dennis, just as the
society at large had embraced a permissive culture. Jay North played
Dennis as such a clean-cut, good-spirited, and polite boy that the other
characters often found it difficult to dislike him. Joseph Kearn's George
Wilson is at times a cranky killjoy but one who is consistently linked
to adult consumption and recreation, spending his days trying to put
his stamp and coin collection in order, outraged over the constant destruction
of his flowerbeds. He also displays a good deal of affection for the
boy next door, helping Dennis build a soapbox derby, participating in
July 4th competitions. Assuming the central role following Kearn's death,
John Wilson (Gale Gordon), George's brother, adopts an even more benign
view of Dennis. Himself more active and outgoing, John respects Dennis's
spunk and considers him a friend. The neighborhood's growing tolerance
of Dennis is aptly displayed in "The New Principal," a 1963
episode dealing with the arrival of a discipline-centered principal
at the local school. Mr. Spivey tells his students that his demands
are simple: "work hard, make good grades, conduct yourself properly
and give me no trouble." When Dennis runs into trouble with this
new authority figure, the community rallies around him, with many of
his previous foes pretending to be his absent father and defending his
decency so that he can play in the little league game. As permissiveness
gained greater acceptance and the pre-war paradigm became a faint memory,
Dennis seemed much less a menace than the "all-American" boy
who was the pride of his community and whose innocent curiosity could
be taken in stride.
THE BAD BOY AND HIS PA:
GENRE AND GENDER IN DENNIS THE MENACE
Between the innocence of babyhood and the dignity of manhood we find
a delightful creature called a boy....A boy is truth with dirt on
its face, beauty with a cut on its finger, wisdom with bubblegum in
its hair, and the hope of the future with a frog in its pocket....A
boy is a composite -- he has the appetite of a horse, the digestion
of a sword swallower, the energy of a pint-size atomic bomb, the curiosity
of a cat, the lungs of a dictator, the imagination of a Paul Bunyon,
the shyness of a violet, the audacity of a steel trap, the enthusiasm
of a firecracker."
-- Press release, Dennis the Menace, circa 1953 as he represented
it in Dennis the Menace.
Permissiveness ushered in the era of what Leslie Fiedler called "The
Good Bad Boy." As Fiedler notes, the Good Bad Boy's badness is
"a necessary spice to his goodness," with his mischievousness
and disrespect for the established order a mark of his masculinity.
The Good Bad Boy, for Fiedler, represented America's self-perception
as "crude and unruly...[but possessing] an instinctive sense of
what is right."
Not all writers of the period, however, embraced this benign conception
of the permissive-reared child, evoking instead the image of "wild
Indian kids bucking control -- outstanding in wilfulness but flunking
in perseverance -- natural candidates, all, for juvenile delinquency."
Jules Henry's Culture Against Man warned that permissiveness had reconfigured
the oedipal conflict with the mother and father competing with each
other for the attentions of the child. Henry's anxiety about child rule
is vividly represented in Jerome Bixby's acclaimed 1953 science fiction
short story, "It's a Good Life," later adopted as an episode
for Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone. Here, not only the parents but the
entire community cowers before the fickle will of a psychically powerful
brat. Whatever he demanded was judged "good" by the adults
since otherwise, he will punish them with his superpowers.
Dennis the Menace straddles the line between Leslie Fiedler's "Good
Bad Boy" and Jules Henry's domestic tyrant, with much of that ambiguity
tied to the more problematic issue of the audience. Ketcham initially
saw the comic strip as appealing to "the babysitting age,"
young adults, particularly parents, in their twenties and thirties.
Much of the earliest Dennis merchandise, such as BBQ aprons, cocktail
glasses, and matchbooks, were aimed at adult consumers. Quickly, however,
Ketcham discovered that the strip had tremendous appeal to children
who imitated Dennis's antics "much as they would play cowboys and
Indians." Here, the "menace" becomes a role-model and
therefore, Ketcham responded to greater pressure to make his behavior
comprehensible and sympathetic. The television series was pitched to
this same double audience of menaced adults and "happy half-pints."
Series writer Bill Cowley told the LA Mirror:
We don't consider Dennis a show for children. It gives adults a chance
to recapture their childhood. We think a great many sophisticates
watch Dennis for relaxation. Don't forget that Albert Einstein used
to play the violin and that the late secretary Foster Dulles polished
pots and pans as a hobby.
A disgruntled Hank Ketcham scribbled in the margin of his scrapbook,
"What has this got to do with watching a kiddie show?" After
all, this program for "sophisticates" was scheduled immediately
following Lassie on Sunday nights. Following its cancellation, Dennis
the Menace was aired as part of CBS's Saturday morning line-up.
Such ambiguities had long surrounded the "Bad Boy" figure.
Anne Trensky has identified two icons of American childhood emerging
in 19th century literature aimed at both children and adults. On the
one hand, there was the "saintly child" of feminine fiction,
the sentimental ideal whose virtue and innocence redeems the adult world;
born martyrs, these children are ultimately too good to live and must
die in the books' melodramatic conclusions. The saintly child was most
often a girl (though Trensky notes some boys who were described as having
"girlish appearances and mannerisms") and was depicted with
"pale skin and golden curls." On the other hand, there was
the "bad boy" of the masculine imagination, the puckish protagonist
of such books as Story of a Bad Boy (1870), A Boy's Town (1890), Tom
Sawyer (1876), The Real Diary of a Real Boy (1903) or Being a Boy (1877).
The Bad Boy books, she suggests, parody the "sentimental and pious
child literature," pitting an aggressive, free-spirited boy against
maternal authority, not to mention saintly but spoiled siblings. The
bad boy was "rough and tough, quick to play and quick to fight,"
a shrewd judge of character, intolerant of adult hypocrisies. His pleasure
often came in escaping adult control (playing hookey, going barefoot,
sneaking off to the river for a swim, or steeling apples from the neighbors
yard). If the "saintly child" stories are part of the process
Vivianna Zelizer calls the "sacralization" of the child Lynn
Spigel, "Seducing the Innocent", op.cit., the "bad boy"
literature represented the carnivalization of the child, the celebration
of boyhood as a liminal and ludic moment still free from stifling civilization.
Interesting, both genres were written to be read by both children and
adults, the saintly child a product of the adult female desire for sentimental
fiction and the bad boy responsive to an adult male need for comic freedom.
Arguably, the two genres were responsive to the same historical shifts,
specifically the increased isolation of the domestic space from the
realm of production. As numerous social historians have noted, the agrarian
and crafts-based economies of the late 18th and early 19th century gradually
gave way to a industrial and factory based economy, which required the
husband, the principle breadwinner, to leave the home to work, resulting
in the increased domestic authority of the mother. The saintly child
lives comfortably within this new feminine-centered household, an embodiment
of maternal culture and true womanhood. The bad boy inhabits what E.
Anthony Rotundo describes as "Boy Culture," a masculine space
existing just outside the mother's watchful eyes. At a time when boys
no longer had easy access to the professional world of grown men, Boy
Culture allowed them to develop the daring, autonomy and mastery needed
to function in a world apart from women. Boy Culture, Rotundo stresses,
was an informal and unstructured "course of training for manhood."
However, the spontaneity of Boy Culture contrasted sharply with the
duty and responsibility awaiting the adult male. Rotundo's Boy Culture
was, however, on the verge of disappearing by the late 19th century.
With the shift from agrarian to urban (and later suburban) lifestyles,
free play gave way to structured organizations for boys, such as the
YMCA, the Little League, or the Boy Scouts, which more consciously convey
an adult sense of responsibility rather than the pleasures of romping
barefoot in the grass.
By the early 20th century, more pathologized Bad Boys appeared in countless
early prank films , early comic strips (such as The Yellow Kid or The
Katzenjammer Kids), or the popular Peck's Bad Boy books. If the 19th
century Bad Boys came from middle class, rural or smalltown backgrounds,
the early 20th century Bad Boys were working-class street urchins often
from Irish or "Dutch" immigrant families. Their pranks reflect
overt hostility towards adults rather than a desire to simply escape
their control. As the advertising slogan for the Peck books suggested,
"One such boy in every community would retard the march of civilization.
One such boy in every family would drive the whole world mad."
Peck's Bad Boy (1883) consistently sought to cause his "pa"
physical injury, to expose him to public ridicule, or to reveal his
drunkenness, gambling, and womanizing to his moralistic mother. If such
works reflect a growing horror at children's misbehavior and a fear
of their sexual precociousness consistent with prewar authoritarian
parenting, George Peck still recognized essential masculine traits in
the Bad Boy: "Those who are readiest to play innocent jokes, and
who are continually looking for chances to make Rome howl, are the most
apt to turn out to be first-class business men." Here, as in the
earlier stories, there is an assumption that the world beyond maternal
control is the space where boys learn how to become men. However, most
often, these stories end with the Bad Boy receiving much deserved, often
corporal, punishment for his transgressions, restoring appropriate discipline
and proper authority.
The good-natured representation of the Bad Boy found in Dennis the
Menace has more in common with the nostalgic tales of 19th century smalltown
life than the brutal slapstick of 20th century urban comedy. As Ketcham
stressed, Dennis was NOT a Katzenjammer Kid. Living in a world which
brings them constant and often unwelcome attention from adults, Dennis,
Tommy and Joey try to construct Rotundo's "Boy Culture" amidst
the grassy lawns, parks, and vacant lots of American suburbia. If the
19th century Bad Boy primarily sought a refuge from his overly protective
mother and the early 20th century Bad Boy sought vengeance on his disciplinarian
father, Dennis wants acceptance and understanding from the adult male
community. If the problem which led to the rise of the Bad Boy figure
was the isolation of the realm of adult male activity from the domestic
scene of childhood, Dennis's actions reintegrate the space of boys and
the space of men. Many of the television episodes are set in late afternoon
or on the weekends, at times when his father is likely to be at home
and thus capable of being drawn into the commotion.
As Jay North's Dennis barges past closed doors and snoops into closets,
he unearths much that went unsaid about the experience of "Organization
Men" and suburban-dwellers and about the great gender divisions
which separated male and female experience of the American family. Often,
he reveals a breakdown of social ties within the suburban community.
As many social historians have noted, suburbanization was often advertised
as a move to safer, friendlier neighborhoods, though it was experienced
as a loss of the extended social networks that characterized older,
ethnic, urban neighborhoods. Dennis finds it remarkably simple to set
neighbor against neighbor, as in "The Man Next Door" where
the couple across the street becomes convinced that Mr. Wilson is the
"silk stocking bandit" reported in the local news while Dennis
coaxes Mr. Wilson into breaking into their house in search of stolen
jewels. In "Dennis and the Witch Doctor", a series of coincidences
spark gossip that Mr. Wilson is practicing voodoo. John Wilson has brought
back a witchdoctor's mask from Africa and wants to share his experiences
with the neighbors. As fearful rumors spread, the neighbors refuse to
come to his party. Ultimately, the police and much of the neighborhood
arrive to break up the gathering, finding only Dennis and the other
kids eating cake and watching Wilson's home movies. The community's
willingness to believe such a silly story about Wilson and their desire
to use the local police to enforce community standards point to their
inhospility to cultural difference.
Dennis's antics also reveal deep-rooted fears about the potential loss
of male autonomy and heroic stature as men became corporate cogs and
suburban homeowners. "The Pioneers" opens with Wilson huffing
and puffing over a newspaper editorial that claims "the men of
this town are a generation of weaklings" compared to their pioneer
fathers. After Wilson writes a heated response, the newspaper challenges
him to live off the land for a weekend and thus "prove to the world
and our readers that modern man is not a cream puff." When Martha
wisely refuses to accompany him on this "great adventure,"
Wilson drags along Henry and Dennis. Much of the episode centers around
their clumsy attempts to hunt, fish, set up camp, and survive in the
wilderness under the watchful eye of Dennis and the newspaper photographer.
The sad truth, the episode suggests, is that suburban men are poor imitations
of frontiersmen and might be better off staying at home watching Maverick.
Consistently, the series' male protagonists fall short of their hypermasculine
fantasies, often "infantalized" by their close and persistent
contact with "Boy Culture." Jules Henry had warned that the
loss of traditional masculine authority was one of the negative consequences
of permissiveness: "The American father can no longer stand for
a Law or for a Social Order he often can neither explain nor defend
sensibly against the challenges of his wife and children....It seems
to him better to relax and have fun." A Parents magazine ad for
a series of childcare books summarizes the problem: "Every Dad
wants to be a Pal as well as a good disciplinarian -- but how to be
both when your time with your child is so limited? How to win his love
and respect as well as his obedience?"
If traditional patriarchal authority was breaking down, permissive
discourse encouraged a more playful mode of fathering. Spock notes that
"a boy needs a friendly, accepting father. Boys and girls need
a chance to be around with their father, to be enjoyed by him, and if
possible, to do things with him." Spock stressed the importance
of fathers helping their sons to learn how to become a man: "give
him the feeling he's a chip off the old block, share a secret with him,
take him alone on excursions sometimes." The image of the father
as pal, often wallowing on the ground with his kids or allowing them
to "play horsey" on his back, recurs throughout permissive
era advertising. Dennis the Menace characters appeared in a 1956 advertising
campaign for Quick Cream of Wheat. Consistently, the ads depicted Alice
preparing Dennis's breakfast, putting him in his winter coat, or watching
through the window while Dennis and Henry shoveled snow, splashed in
the rain or made a snowman together. "They'll love you for thinking
of this," the ad copy says, suggesting that both Henry and Dennis
will be grateful for Alice's mothering.
Yet, as Robert L. Griswold notes, the new post-war conception of fatherhood
represented a reform, rather than a radical shift, in the gender politics
of the family. The mother still maintained primary childcare responsibilities,
while the father retained primary and often exclusive responsibility
as a breadwinner. Men were learning to play catch with their sons and
sip tea with their daughters, but they still weren't changing diapers
or cooking their meals (aside from the occasional backyard cookout.)
While stressing his importance in childrearing, the permissive literature
assumes that the father is often away during key moments in his children's
lives. A popular campaign for cameras suggested that mothers should
photograph children's daytime activities since "moments like this
won't wait for Dad!" A photo tip column in Parents expressed a
similar concern that family albums might be "filled with pictures
of feminine family members while Dad and the boys are conspicuously
missing." Its solution was to urge mothers to photograph those
activities the modern dad does with his son such as "teaching and
joining in a variety of sports and hobbies....washing the family car,
painting a fence or repairing a lawn mower." The problem, then,
is how to bridge the gap between the father's world and the son's. The
most common solution was for the father to join into "Boy Culture,"
as Henry and Mr. Wilson consistently do in Dennis the Menace. Jules
Henry notes that fathers were most often liked because they were willing
to participate in the son's activities rather than because they included
their sons in their adult interests. Far from preparing the boy for
manhood, permissive fatherhood, he feared, represented a retreat back
When a man acts like a boy, he has the impulses of one; often he
wants to be a boy because as a child he was protected, though as a
man he is vulnerable. The hostility, competition and strain men experience
in their occupational lives make them feel exposed and fearful. When
a man acts like a boy in the bosom of his family, he can feel that
he is accepted and protected by his family as he was by his father
and mother when he was a child.
Television's Dennis the Menace centers not only around Henry's playful
attempts to become an active participant in his son's life but also
the ways that Dennis's playlife bears strong parallels to the anxieties
of Henry's professional life. Here, the world of adult men is marked
by the ongoing conflicts between insecure yes-men and bragging bullies.
The program frequently links Henry's workplace competition against the
self-important Mr. Brady and Dennis's schoolhouse feud with the bully,
Johnny Brady. Most often, the adult antagonisms are played out through
the boys as the two men try to best each other at egg tosses, little
league games, and soap box derbies. "The Club Initiation"
contrasts Dennis's initiation into the Scorpions, a gang of older boys,
with Mr. Wilson's own attempts to gain acceptance into the local country
club; Dennis's pranks, which involve keeping a live goat overnight in
Wilson's garage, push the adult to more and more erratic behavior. Dennis
ultimately rejects the exclusive Scorpions to form his own club with
his friends, which, Wilson, having been rejected from the country club,
is invited to join.
If they are prepared to take on more parental responsibilities, Henry
and Mr. Wilson hunger for something that pushes them beyond the safety
and security of their suburban homes. Episodes like "Dennis in
Gypsyland" (where Mr. Wilson plans to run off with a gypsy caravan)
or "Henry's New Job" (where Henry plans to quit his job and
build bridges in the Indian jungles) cast the adult males in the ranks
of Barbara Ehrenreich's "gray flannel dissidents." Her important
book, The Hearts of Men, suggests that while men underwent intensified
pressure to become fathers and breadwinners in the 1950s, they also
expressed increased frustration and dissatisfaction in these roles,
pointing towards a flight from domestic commitment which would reshape
the American family over subsequent decades. Flight from Commitment
(Doubleday, 1984). Almost any event might spark the male hunger for
something more in life than washing the station wagon or cutting the
lawn. When Wilson purchases an old chest at a local auction in "The
Treasure Chest," both boys and men display a strong urge to believe
it is a pirate's box. Dennis and Tommy use the old coat and spyglass
Wilson finds in the box to play pirate, making a pretend map and stuffing
it into the vest pocket. When Wilson finds the map, he is convinced
it's real and ropes several of the men, including Henry and the town
banker, into financing a boat trip to Marsh Island to recover the buried
loot. The "practical" Alice and Martha question the men's
boyish pleasure in treasure-hunting, but the men disregard them: "women
have no sense of adventure." Here, as elsewhere in the series,
the men are portrayed as overgrown boys while their wives are cast as
nurturing and forgiving mothers. Ultimately, the men's pirate fantasy
is shattered when they learn that the map is fake. As Ehreinreich wrote
of their contemporaries, Henry "stayed where he was because he
could not think of anywhere to go. If he blamed the corporation for
his emasculation, he was not about to leave his job....If he blamed
women, he was not about to walk away from the comforts of home."
The result was a male culture seething with resentment and ripe with
misogyny. If men were trapped in no-where jobs and conformist lifestyles,
women were their jailers, their "ball and chain" or so the
Just as the 19th century "Bad Boy" genre embraced a "Boy
Culture" that defined itself in opposition to maternal constraint,
the male protagonists in Dennis the Menace struggle against the encroachment
of women onto their world. Misogynistic conflicts surface everywhere
from Mr. Wilson's ongoing antagonism with the spinster Miss Elkins to
Dennis's attempts to dodge Margaret's persistent invitations to "play
house." Margaret's efforts to domesticate Dennis are constantly
rebuffed, often with a marked attempt to draw a crisp line between masculine-
and feminine-appropriate activities. In "Junior Pathfinders Ride
Again," Dennis expresses chagrin when he learns that the troopmaster
has allowed Margaret to be a "squaw" in their fire-starting
demonstration: "You just stay out of the victory dance." Margaret
obliges, turning around to reveal a doll papoose on her back, "How
could I dance with a little one to take care of?" Tommy, however,
remains suspicious, "If the pathfinders are letting girls in, I'm
going to desert and become a cowboy!" In another episode where
Dennis, Tommy and Margaret discuss how one might identify the genders
of their pet frogs. One frog is clearly recognizable as a boy because
"he keeps his mouth shut" and because of the vigorous way
Much like Dennis's discussion of frogs, permissive discourse naturalizes
gender difference, translating masculinity into spontaneous impulses
towards roughhouse and femininity into maternal "instincts"
which are felt at an early age. In the terms of permissive discourse,
boys will be boys while girls will become mothers. While acknowledging
some contemporary changes in gender roles and some "fuzzy"
feminist thinking which sought to make women more like men, Spock argued
that gender differences in personality began at birth. According to
the pediatrician, boys are "restless and insistent and balky from
the start" and girls have a greater tendency to "take life
as it comes even in the bassinet." He also pointed towards boy's
aggressive play with toy guns and cars and girl's interest in playing
house as the first signs of a lifelong set of differences between masculine
and feminine priorities and interests. From the crib, Spock was arguing,
women sought to domesticate men and men sought to escape into realms
of fantastic adventure. The oppositional spheres of boys and girls are
vividly represented by two contrasting ads that appear on the same page
of the March 1959 issue of Parents. In one ad for Mann Ranch's new Super-Tuff
Golden Horseshoe Tex'n Jeans, a gang of boys climb and dangle from a
backyard tree; "active happy boys prefer Tex'n Jeans" because
of their durable construction. In the other ad, a sedate girl models
her Sunday School attire: "The prettiest girl in the Easter Parade
wears Yorkster's three piece costume: Sugar'n'spice black coat sprinkled
with white." Although sharing the same page in Parents, the "Super-Tuff"
boy and the "Sugar'n'spice" girl live in different worlds
which mirror the separation of the adult feminine and masculine spheres.
Having made remarkably little progress towards bridging that gap, the
confrontations between Margaret and Dennis constitute a contemporary
restaging of the nineteenth century encounters between the feminine
"saintly child" and the masculine "bad boy." The
curly-haired, pale-faced Margaret shares many attributes with her predecessors,
including piety, obedience, booklearning, cleanliness, good manners,
and an unwavering sense of appropriate femininity. Just as the earlier
Bad Boy books parodied this sentimental fiction, Ketcham has no sympathy
for her domesticating impulses:
There is a Margaret in every man's life...Threatening, bossy, superior,
always pursuing, the incipient castrator. Some of us marry her, some
escape, and others are rescued...Perhaps she perceives his freedom
in speech and action as a challenge to be met. But more likely, the
vitality and disorder of his very male personality appeal to her as
a Woman's Problem: an untidy room to be cleaned up and put into order.
Dennis escapes from the threat of domesticity into heroic male fantasies
of "Cowboy Bob," who never kisses anyone other than his horse,
and who knows how to enjoy the manly freedom of the frontier. An early
1960s children's record based on the Dennis television show explicitly
links these cowboy fantasies with male flight from domesticity and commitment:
"When Margaret cries, 'Dennis, let's play house,'/ I say/ 'Okay'/
But I'm a cowboy with a range to ride/and so I'm leavin' ya', my blushing
bride/ I'm gonna ride all night/ I'm gonna ride all day/ I'll never
marry, Margaret/ She won't catch me/ I'm leavin', I'm gettin' away."
However, Dennis can never fully escape. A recurring theme in both the
comic strip and the television series was Dennis's attempts to run away
from home, to enjoy the life on the open road as a hobo, only to return
again when he ran out of food or developed a fear of the dark. Like
the adult males, he hungers for freedom while desiring to be mothered.
If permissive discourse saw gender differences as a set of natural
attributes, it also expressed anxiety that sexual identity might be
negated by poor socialization. Ginott's Between Parent and Child (1965)
advises us that:
Both boys and girls need help in their progress toward their different
biological destinies. Parents can help by not demanding the same standard
of conduct from both sexes. Boys should be allowed to be more boisterous
both because of their greater energy and because society requires
them to be more assertive....Boys should not have to bear feminine
names, or to wear restrictive clothes, or to grow girls' curls. They
should not be expected to be as neat and as compliant as girls, or
to have ladylike manners.
The most problematic figure in Dennis the Menace, Joey is constantly
torn between playing house with Margaret and playing cowboys with Dennis.
In one story from an early 1960s comic book, Margaret convinces Joey
to become a "little gentleman" who is "nice and polite
and clean" and shuns Dennis's company. Joey rejects Dennis's play
as too "rough...an' noisy" until Dennis tricks Margaret into
a long anti-cowboy tirade. "See? She don't know nothin'! So lets
play!," Dennis exclaims before the two boys engage in backyard
shoot-'em-up fun. Despite his allegiance to the cowboy mythos, Joey
is a "sissy." The Gesell Institute's Child Behavior (1955)
offers a description of a boy very much like Joey:
This is the boy who, from the beginnings, prefers feminine activities
and shuns anything rough and tumble. He prefers to play with girls.
He favors such activities as painting, singing, play-acting, dressing
dolls. He himself loves to dress up in girls' clothes.
Permissiveness rejected the notion that scolding or ridiculing such
a child might push him back into gender-appropriate conduct:"the
best treatment seems to be to permit these favored activities within
certain bounds." For example, one recommendation taught the young
boys how to closet their desires: "No lipstick and no flowers in
the hat outside the house." Ultimately, most such boys would "grow
up to lead perfectly normal personal lives" and might "eventually
become outstanding as artists, musicians, or as actors, costume designers,
playwrights," professions linked with homosexuality. Planet: Queer
Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1993) pp.69-81. A "Mama's boy" like Joey confounded permissiveness's
attempts to naturalize gender differences. Even Dennis seems at times
confused about appropriate gender behavior in his presence, as in a
1950s cartoon where Dennis asks, "Mom, would you explain to Joey
why boys don't play with dolls? I forget." Given the potential
"queerness" of this character and his poor fit within the
gender-segregated world of Dennis the Menace, it is hardly surprising
that the character appeared only infrequently on the television series.
His function as Dennis's pal is replaced by the more traditionally rough-and-tumble,
girl-hating Tommy, helping to keep the suburban frontier safe for "Cowboy
Bob" and his gang.
AMERICA AND "THE
MENACE": PERMISSIVENESS AS POLITICAL ALLEGORY
Taking the so-called 'Menace' out of Dennis might prove to be a real
job of subversion and a truly un-American activity....Dennis may be
hard to live with at times. Free people are always harder to live
with than slaves. We can be sure we are producing sturdy people as
long as we can live with our children who possess qualities like Dennis
-Dr. James L. Hymes Jr. (1958)
In 1954, Time reported a remarkable political exchange. Vermont Senator
Ralph Edward Flanders accused Joseph McCarthy of being Dennis the Menace,
suggesting that he consistently masked his political exploits with "the
colossal innocence of children who blunder into the most appalling situations
as they ramble through the world of adults." McCarthy, true to
form, responded by threatening to call Flanders to testify before the
Un-American Activities Committee to determine what he knew about "the
Menace." Editorial writers rose to Dennis's defense, insisting
that the cartoon character had "restored our faith in American
boyhood" and that America could use more boys like Dennis when
"the kid up the block slugs us in the kisser." Columnist John
P. Kelly questioned whether McCarthy had ever been such a boy:
We suppose his mother loved him and still does if she is living.
But it's simply inconceivable to think of Joe as a cute little tyke
like Dennis the Menace. A Menace, yes, but not Dennis the Menace.
McCarthy apparently didn't get the training he should have gotten
when he was Dennis's age....This is the brat, the problem child, the
kid who throws tantrums, who spits at his mother, who bites his antagonists,
who picks on small children in the neighborhood. This isn't Dennis
In this cold war context, the contrast between Leslie Fiedler's "Good
Bad Boy" and Jules Henry's monstrous child offered politicians
and journalists a vocabulary for talking about adult politics.
Children, their bodies, their impulses, their imaginations, had always
carried tremendous political significance within permissive discourse.
The architects of the post-war permissive culture had mostly been veterans,
many of them involved in the management of American opinion during the
war. Early permissive books such as Dorothy Baruch's You, Your Children
and War (1942), Dorothy V. Whipple's Our American Babies (1944), and
C. Madeleine Dixon's Keep Them Human (1942) saw their approaches as
fostering "democracy" within the home and contrasting sharply
with the authoritarian regimes of the Germans. Arnold Gesell and Frances
Ilg's Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (1943) argued that German
Kulture "fosters autocratic parent-child relationships, favors
despotic discipline...[and] is not concerned with the individual as
a person," traits also linked to the pre-war paradigm. A more democratic
approach to child-rearing, on the other hand, "exalts the status
of the family as a social group, favors reciprocity in parent-child
relationships and encourages humane discipline of the child through
guidance and understanding." The rules that structured the family
and their enforcement constituted the child's first exposure to democracy;
they should be applied in a fashion which left the child feeling a full
participant in the family's decision making and which allowed the growing
boy or girl a sense of their own freedom and autonomy.
Much as the Church once mapped man's relations to his king and his
god onto the wife's relations to her husband, permissiveness saw the
family as a model for the democratic nation. Selma H. Fraiberg's The
Magic Years (1959) compares the permissive father with the American
president, since both exerted a form of leadership that "could
be challenged and criticized." Fraiberg, however, was skeptical
of permissive pretenses of home democracy since "the child does
not elect his parents and he is not a responsible and functioning citizen
in the society of his family." Fraiberg sought a balance between
a totally democratized family which denied the father his patriarchal
due and a domestic "tyranny" which crippled the child's sense
of freedom and participation. Fraiberg speaks of harsh discipline producing
a "neurotic conscience [which] behaves like a gestapo headquarters
within the personality...accusing, threatening, tormenting in an interminable
inquisition." The strength of the American nation lay in its ability
to raise happy, guilt-free, unpersecuted children.
For editorial writers of the 1950s and early 1960s, Dennis became the
embodiment of what was right about America. Dennis's attempts to explore
the adult world might cause a few problems, but, as James L. Hymes suggested,
it was "a wonderfully American kind of response: open, trusting,
friendly, cheerful." Dennis possessed qualities which were "inherent
in the American way of life," including a strong sense of his own
value and an insatiable curiosity about the world: "He tries to
find things out. He pokes into things. He explores. An American has
to, this is our very nature." Hymes suggests that these would be
"the very qualities we would prize in him twenty years from now
in a laboratory." Speaking in 1958, Hymes saw Dennis as the perfect
response to the Sputnik crisis and to growing anxieties about the American
The television series came to the air in the midst of increasing American
concern about the readiness of its children to compete in the space
race. If the comic-strip Dennis was most closely associated with the
frontier mythology of Cowboy Bob, television's Dennis just as often
was shown playing Spacemen. As Dennis remarks in "Trouble From
Mars", "we've decided to dessert six shooters for space-guns."
Like the traditional "Boy Culture," space becomes a training
ground for masculinity and a "frontier" beyond the reach of
feminine domesticity. NASA had rejected the idea of female astronauts
and so for the immediate future, space might be the one place where
men could escape feminine influence. Unfortunately, it was open only
for the young; space baffled adults. When they dress up as astronauts
in "Trouble From Mars", Dennis and his friends frighten the
neighbors who, filled with pulp science fiction fantasies, become convinced
that they are "men from mars." Scheduled to be photographed
for Graceful Living magazine, Mr. Wilson accidentally gets stuck in
Dennis's astronaut helmet, his adult head too big for a spaceman. "The
Junior Astronaut" opens with a dream sequence depicting Dennis
as an astronaut and Mr. Wilson as mission control. Just as Dennis is
preparing for a rocky re-entry, his parents wake him up and we discover
that he has fallen asleep over his mathbook. Dennis boasts that he will
be an astronaut when he grows up and his father responds, "you
might as well be. You're always in orbit anyway!"
The post-Sputnik educational campaigns, with their emphasis on math
and science, are often represented as a repudiation of permissive educational
and childrearing practices. There was great concern that too many American
youngsters were falling asleep over their math books. Yet, Dennis's
dream reminds us that there were strong continuities between Sputnik
era appeals to science and exploration and permissiveness's focus on
children's creativity and imagination. Following permissiveness's "Just
a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down" logic, childrearing
articles taught parents how to turn pre-school science and math readiness
into fun and play, holding parties with spaceman themes, launching expeditions
to better understand the "outer spaces" of nearby meadows,
learning to use magnifying glasses and microscopes.
Appropriately enough, Dennis, the "eighth Mercury Astronaut,"
became the mascot for the United States Junior Astronaut program which
encouraged children to buy savings bonds to help pay for the space program;
this promotion, which mobilized Dennis's newspaper strip, comic book
and television program, effectively linked the permissive child with
the exploration of deep space. "Someday," a song on the Dennis
record, centers specifically around his hopes that the president will
choose him to be the "first boy on the moon." Dennis would
be more broadly linked to education in the coming decade as Ketcham
produced a series of comicbooks dealing with the boy's adventures around
the world, comics designed to direct children's exploratory impulses
towards a greater awareness of America's place within the world. If
the Bad Boy of the 19th century took great pleasure playing hookey,
Dennis, the Bad Boy of the post-war period, was leading the way into
Dennis's "Someday" never quite arrived. The President never
called him to become the "first boy on the moon." In the real
world, the tow-headed youths of the 1950s entered into the "Age
of Aquarius" and struggled with their consciences in response to
the Vietnam War. If Dennis had been born a real boy in 1951, he would
have arrived at draft-age in 1969. Would he have traded in his "Cowboy
Bob" buckskins and his Junior Astronaut badge for Army fatigues
and a M16 or would he have been one of the "Good Bad Boys"
who occupied ROTC buildings and went to Woodstock? Or perhaps we might
have read a new comic adventure, Dennis the Menace Goes to Canada? In
the eyes of conservative critics, such as Norman Vincent Peale or Spiro
Agnew, "permissiveness" was to blame for the revolution. Far
from bringing about a new era of democracy, Spock's advice, The New
York Times claimed, had "turned out a generation of infants who
developed into demanding little tyrants....The small monsters have grown
up to be unkempt, irresponsible, destructive, anarchical, drug-oriented,
hedonistic non-members of society." This rhetoric evokes the persistent
fears of permissive-raised children becoming domestic monsters, or to
use Hank Ketcham's suggestive term, Teacher's Threats.
But, as we know, Dennis remained an eternal child, living in his old
suburban neighborhood, still pestering good ol' Mr. Wilson, still being
raised by permissive principles. Dennis appears in hundreds of American
newspapers, the subject of nostalgia for parents and children of the
baby boom. Children of the 1990s can watch black-and-white reruns of
Dennis on Nickelodeon, can catch a new animated version of the character
in syndication, or rent the video of the John Hughes feature film comedy
about the boy's antics. Dennis came of age with permissiveness, embodied
both its aspirations and its contradictions but he has outlived it and
in doing so, he has entered into a twilight zone where popular myths
survive beyond their cultural meaningfulness, where old metaphors lose
their referents, and old debates get buried in yellowing childrearing
books. Dennis no longer seems quite the semiotic "handful"
he once did, just another kid strip in the Sunday funnies.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, however, Dennis had enjoyed greater cultural
resonance, an important representation of the permissive child. Hank
Ketcham had reworked the Bad Boy comic tradition to gain new relevance
during a transitional period in the history of the American family.
Dennis spoke to parents about their uneasiness in abandoning pre-war
disciplinary approaches for the new and still untested methods of permissiveness,
embodying the child as at once a "menace" to and an active
explorer of the adult world. Dennis also spoke to boys and their fathers
about shifting conceptions of gender, about male fears of a loss of
heroic status, the adoption of greater childrearing responsibilities,
flight from domestic containment and anxieties about the formation of
gender and sexual identities. Dennis came to embody a particular conception
of American nationhood based on exploration and democracy and he came
to become a spokesman for America's space mission and for the new focus
on science education. Within this discursive formation, Dennis stood
for the permissive child who was always a boy, always an American and
always a handful.