The Defining Generation
All in the Family
CBS disclaimer warning television viewer about the program they were about
to see quickly vanished to the sound of a flushing toilet. In fact when
the first episode of All in the
Family aired on
Growing up in the 1950s we all came to love and enjoy the stereotypical family shows of the period: The Nelsons (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet 1952-66), The Andersons (Father Knows Best 1954-60), The Cleavers (Leave it to Beaver 1957-63), and others. It was these shows that initially framed our thinking to fit the traditional American Dream, men were the bread-winners, moms were the bread-makers, and kids were…well just kids. Life was comfortable in middle-class families where dinner was a family focal point and where there was always plenty to eat.
Roles were clearly defined. Dad was always intelligent, insightful, hard working and successful. Mom was emotional, comforting, a domestic super-woman who kept the house immaculate and loved to bake cookies for the kids; she always greeted her husband at the door when he came home from work adorned in a dress and high heels. As for the children, girls were shy, romantic and shallow; boys were active, explorative, and generally somewhat intelligent. The problems of daily life around which plot-lines were built centered on issues that seemed insurmountable but were really quite innocuous: lost homework, a bad grade at school, unrequited love, and scrapes with friends. No attempt was made to address the burning issues of that time: the Cold War, the arms race, third-world poverty, or racial prejudice. In fact seldom did a Black face even appear in most episodes. From a practical standpoint, such positive and inspiring programs were actually meant to be entertainment…a diversion from the problems of the real world.
On the lighter side of family TV shows was I Love Lucy, a comedy that ran from 1951 to 1957 that portrayed marriage in a slightly more dysfunctional manner that was harmlessly funny. So too The Honeymooners (1955-56) gave marriage something of a "biting edge" but again, it was in harmlessly comedic and Jackie Gleason was more fun than threatening. When Laura Petri began regularly wearing pants in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) it was a major step in breaking with social norms. For the most part those popular family shows with their clean-cut characters and simple problems were irresistible. It gave us an ideal to wish to emulate. The problem was, it was a dream world that 1950s families watched and each member would say to themselves, "I wish OUR family was like that."
When All in the Family premiered to wide network reservation and concern in 1971 the families that watched it did react in horror…usually to exclaim, "My God, that looks like OUR family!"
Someone has said that the Archie and Edith Bunker were like having Ralph Cramden and Lucie Arnez on steroids. The stereotypes were certainly embellished…or were they? Furthermore, family problems became the children themselves, perhaps the most-realistic representation of a growing population of young in rebellion in the 1960s. What made the show work beyond the fact that it was easy to identify with and find yourself depicted in it, was that despite the idiosyncrasies of the characters and their vividly evident character faults you had to love them all…including Archie Bunker himself.
(Carroll O'Connor) was a pretty accurate picture of many Greatest
Generation men who had achieved the American
Dream as they knew it, only to reveal it in a somewhat an unhealthy
fashion. Growing up in the depression gave Archie the desire to secure a
future and, during World War II his fictional character had proudly and
honorably served to defend his nation as a member of the Army Air Forces.
Following the war he worked hard in a blue-collar position as a
Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) was the timid but poignant voice of reason, her "Ohhh Archie!" response became a trademark expression to alternately express both loving respect for her husband and frustration with his "old fashioned" ideas and prejudices. Though older and frumpier than her 1950s TV-family counterparts, she was very much the un-ambitious, somewhat uneducated domestic heartbeat of the family. In the two, both Archie and Edith reflected perhaps more realistically what the "older generation" was REALLY like. Even though they came to represent the problems of the past however, if you were young and liberated you still had to love them…they reminded you of your own parents whom you also loved.
Gloria Bunker Stivik (Sally Struthers) was a typical liberated 60s girl, college educated and in rebellion against her father's outspoken prejudice against minorities, his opposition to women's rights, and both parent's yearning for the older, simpler days. That fond recollection was echoed in the theme song, sung by Archie and Edith at the beginning of each show:
Were the Days!" Didn't need no welfare state, everybody pulled his
weight…Girls were girls and men were men… People seemed to be
content--fifty dollars paid the rent--freaks were in a circus tent. Hair
was short and skirts were long. I don't know just what went wrong! Those
Were the Days!"
To round out the family Gloria's came home from college with live-in husband Michael Stivik (Rob Reiner), a long-haired liberal college kid and seemingly naïve idealist with an activist streak that made him ready to argue any old fashioned point with Archie. If the show fell into any sort of pitfall to appease the older generation it was that Gloria, despite her education, was still cast as something of an airhead. Even in his too-true-to-life-to-be-comfortable satire of life in the 60s, producer Norman Lear himself fell into the traditional trap of failing to portray a woman as being intellectually equal to and emotionally stable as a man.
All in the Family may well have taught us as a nation to finally
laugh at ourselves, examine who we REALLY were, and put our own thoughts
and feelings under a microscope. Archie's overt prejudice against Blacks
came across as a naturally evolved rather than a hate motivated aversion.
Some said that Archie gave bigots a bad name…and many good but
prejudiced Americans saw in Archie's own problems something of themselves
and began to revise their thinking. Archie's Black neighbors the
Heated exchanges between Archie and Michael over race, women's liberation, politics, nuclear power, and just about any other issue of our time gave us a pretty clear view of the actual differences between the generations. It was satire in its purest form, satire being defined as: "literary and dramatic, in which human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvement."[i] Parodies mock which can be sometimes difficult to distinguish from satire, but All in the Family walked that fine line, never really mocking but always provoking thought through humor and thereby inspiring change.
During the show's run it was hard for most viewers to despise any of the fictional characters, whether you were politically liberal or conservative. If you were opposed to racism rather than hating Archie for his bigotry you tended more towards sympathy, realizing that his prejudice was something of an inherited disease. If women's rights was your "hot button" you nevertheless understood Archie's "Dingbat" nickname for Edith was a loving expression poorly put into words, partially because of his (and in general, older men's) traditional gruffness at expressing affection. Rather than being frustrated with Edith for not becoming an activist and breaking out of her domestic role you realized that this was the life she wanted. At the same time it was clear that there was a new generation of women growing up like Gloria who wanted more.
no subject was taboo and All in the
Family became very much a forum for subjects like sex, homosexuality
(Archie called them "queers"), labor unions, public welfare, and
virtually any other topic that older men discussed over beer at the local
bar, women talked about over tea, and younger men and women discussed
amongst themselves on college campuses. "There is not a controversial
'90's topic that Archie Bunker didn't address back in the '70's. He
pontificated on affirmative action ('if your spics and spades want to make
it in this world, let 'em hustle for it like I done.'), gun control ('all
the airlines have to do to end skyjackings is arm the passengers'),
tolerance of homosexuality ('
By the end of the first season some 60 million Americans were watching the show regularly, laughing hysterically as they saw themselves, their parents, their children, and/or their neighbors interacting in a world that looked all too real. Through its comedy serious questions were asked, attitudes were altered, and it became increasingly apparent that for all practical intents and purposes that where people are concerned the more things change the more they stay the same. To say that entertainment was defined in a new way by All in the Family would be a major understatement. Our society and our families may well be the better for it.
That final episode was actually followed up with spin-offs like Maude, The Jeffersons, Archie Bunker's Place, and Gloria,
[i] Elliott, Robert C., Satire, in: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2004
Hieb, Sam, "All In The Family," TV Land, http://www.tvparty.com/family.html
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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