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All in the Family

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“All in the Family”

Archie Bunker, America’s favorite old school racist is standing in his kitchen star struck by the presence of Sammy Davis Jr. The musician agrees to pose for a picture with Archie and as soon as the countdown to snap it ended, Davis puckered up his lips and laid a kiss on Archie’s cheek (All in the Family S02E21)! The look Archie Bunker had on his face said it all, it was the kiss heard around the world and one of televisions funniest and most profound moments. The television sitcom “All in the Family” aired on prime time CBS from 1971 to 1979. The 1970s were a time of social unrest; a social war between the old school and the new schools of thought. This was a time where racism, homophobia, and gender were fiercely debated in every household across the country while they were ignored on television. Archie Bunker was played by Caroll O’Connor and he was the main character. “All in the Family” used the forever hot topics of racism, homosexuality, and gender inequality in America as an overarching theme, which taught to people just how ridiculous and baseless those beliefs were while keeping viewers of all backgrounds entertained. As the story goes, Archie Bunker is a working class family man with a very strong set of conservative and often unfair views of the world. Bunker clashes with just about every person he comes into contact with on the show including his wife, strangers, random people and most of all his son in law, Mike Stivic or “Meathead” as Archie refers to him. The son in law Mike Stivic was played by Rob Reiner and joining him was Sally Struthers as Archie’s daughter, Mrs. Gloria Bunker – Stivic as well as Jean Stapleton; Mrs. Edith Bunker. If you have ever seen the show, Jean Stapleton’s voice was that of the stereotypical annoying housewife. Mrs. Bunker along with her daughter Gloria and son in law Mike would almost constantly clash with Archie because he was beyond stubborn and refused to accept any truths besides the ones in which he was set in believing.
In order to understand the significance of this television show we must analyze its background as well as the context it was seen in during the 1970’s, a decade of social upheaval. The United States was still embroiled in a war against communism inside North Vietnam and stateside, racism was ever present as riots broke out all over the country as well as demonstrations and rallies for homosexual equality. For older people who grew up during the 1920’s (like Archie Bunker for instance) the world appeared as if it was going down the drain. We must understand that for these people who were born during a much different time, changes in traditional morals and values whether right or wrong was very frightening. The brilliance of this television show lies in the fact that whether you hated or loved the character of Archie Bunker, you watched anyway because you wanted to understand and see what this crazy man would do or say next. “All in the Family” can and should be credited for shows we enjoy today such as South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy (to note a few of the many) that examine social issues through comedy. What separates the television sitcoms of the sixties from “All in the Family” is that they did not include or talk about these events on their shows. The top ten sitcoms of 1968 included “Family Affair”, “The Lucy Show” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” which were situational comedies based on traditional family values. There was never any discussion of real world problems such as divorce, women’s rights, abortion, bigotry and race. Family television sitcoms included a traditional family with a father who was head of the household and a mother who stayed home and raised the children. “All in the Family” is similar to previous sitcoms in that single way. There was no problem or controversy that could not be fixed before the end of the show. These sitcoms of the prior decade were entertaining and funny of course, but they lacked the ability or position to teach or introduce us anything related to reality.
“All in the Family” was a hysterical situational comedy which also brought to light many of the social issues which during the mid 20th century were left alone, swept under a rug, or hidden in a closet. Everyone during this time knew of the problems our American society was facing, however, they were never really “put out” on display for people to discuss in school or work the following day. This show did just that, it shed light onto some of our deepest wounds and touchiest issues and made it be known that it was okay to highlight these issues and get people talking to raise awareness. Now there is considerable doubt among professional critics that this was the main goal of the creators of “All in the Family,” but it was a pleasant indirect result of the show. There is something that sets “All in the Family” apart from the numerous other sitcoms of this period in American history. This new show incorporated what was really going on in our country, it wasn’t sugarcoating anything or proposing that we live in a fantasy land like other shows did. “All in the Family,” produced by Norman Lear and based on the U.K. comedy Till Death Do Us Part, was groundbreaking in its social relevance with regard to contemporary issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and politics, among others” (Collins 1). Norman Lear described his show’s opening by saying, “We followed a whole bunch of shows like “Father Knows Best”, “Leave It to Beaver”, “Green Acres”, and other shows of the 60’s. They were fine shows, but you would think by watching them that America had no blacks, no racial tensions, and that there was no Vietnam” (Ozersky 64).
What “All in the Family” did was groundbreaking and often referred to as prosocial. Brown and Arvind, authored the Communications Quarterly article “Ethical Dilemmas of Prosocial Television.” In their research, they found that “The series focused on prejudices through the depiction of a highly bigoted character, Archie Bunker… the program intended to point out to viewers the absurdities of their own ethnic prejudices…” (Brown 276). Furthermore, they also discovered that “Viewers of these two [one being “All in the Family”] became more aware of racial issues” (Brown 276). Although Brown and Arvind stated that “All in the Family” addressed racism and exposed it, they also believed that it had no effect on righting those ill perceived views. In some instances, they said “… already prejudiced viewers became even more steadfast in their beliefs” (Brown 276). A debate on how people responded to the multitude of societal subjects shown on this particular show would be irrelevant because we simply do not have data to do so. Millions of people had watched this show throughout the 1970s and millions more over the ensuing decades through re-runs and purchasing the series. What we can substantially state though is, that “All in the Family” taught Americans about racism and social inequalities while entertaining them. “All in the Family” was a major breakthrough in American entertainment industry. It was in fact, the first television situation comedy to draw it’s material and plots directly from current social issues and political controversy. As the media scholars Horace Newcomb and Robert Alley said “…something of a time bomb” (Montgomery 28). The two heralded critics referred to this show as a time bomb simply because of the controversy surrounding the shows main character, Archie Bunker. As discussed earlier, the character Archie Bunker and his bigoted ways came during a pretty turbulent decade.
Kathryn Montgomery wrote extensively about how this show was originally perceived in her book “Target: Prime Time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle Over Entertainment Television.” Montgomery provides an excellent recount of the initial impact that the show “All in the Family” had on American viewers: “Within three months of its premier in January of 1971, “All in the Family” had addressed the issues of homosexuality, miscarriage, race, female inequality, and cohabitation” (Montgomery 28). She further goes on to note that although the show was not an instant success, it did however climb to the top of the ratings chart after the initial season. As this show grew in popularity, so did the voices of opposition. With his vocabulary limited to racial slurs such as “spics, spooks, spades, schwarzes, coons, coloreds, and chinks” it is not difficult to imagine why so many would be drawn into such a politically incorrect show – it was unheard of and no one knew what Archie Bunker would do or say next (Montgomery 29).
Not to anyone’s surprise either, it is also during this time we see the emergence of many national anti – defamation leagues and committees springing up such as the Anti Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Polish American Cultural Society. These groups had been around long before the television show “All in the Family,” but were now gaining more attention as well as gaining a larger sounding board for educating and informing people of their respective causes.
Did this television show upset both viewers and non viewers from diverse backgrounds? Of course it did. Did this television show entertain viewers of diverse backgrounds while teaching the masses about the ridiculousness of bigotry through one out of touch man? The answer is you bet it did. One could argue that not only did “All in the Family” teach people just how wrong racism was while keeping viewers of all backgrounds entertained, it also revolutionized the communication, entertainment, and society as a whole.
In a 1972 article from TIME Magazine, we can see this pattern shift in television programming occur as a result of “All in the Family,” “TV has embarked on a new era of candor, with all the lines empathetically drawn in. During the season that began last week, programmers will actually be competing with each other to trace the largest number of touchy – and heretofore forbidden – ethnic, sexual, and psychological themes. Religious quirks, wife swapping, child abuse, lesbianism, venereal disease – all the old taboos will be toppling” (“The Team Behind Archie Bunker & Co.”). “All in the Family” had an enormous impact on television and entertainment as a whole. This show pretty much took all of the previous norms and rules and threw them out the window. After this show, other more controversial shows sprang up such as “Maude.”
The living rooms, school bus stops, classrooms, workplaces, etc. were buzzing about what was said the night before when that newest episode of “All in the Family” had aired. Discussions whether about love and appreciation or a deep disdain in the show resulted in two sure things. First and foremost, people of all backgrounds were entertained by how foolish, politically incorrect, and out of touch the character Archie Bunker was, whether they applauded his racist ways or despised him and laughed at his ignorance. Secondly and most importantly, Americans were finally receiving a gift from television which was the linkage of real life problems and programming which in turn sparked debate, education, dismissal of xenophobic and conservative beliefs having to do with racism, women’s inequality, homophobia, AIDs, ethnicity, politics, etc. “All in the Family” was extremely successful as far as entertaining it’s viewers while teaching them about the societal issues which older generations did not introduce into television or any form of communication for that matter.

Works Cited

All in the Family S02E21. Perf. Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner & Sally Struther - Guest Star: Sammy Davis Jr. CBS, 1972. Web. Youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sm2rAgCuSDM
Brown, William J., and Arvind Singhal. "Ethical Dilemmas of Prosocial Television." Communication Quarterly: 268-80. Print.
Collins, Kathleen. "The Trouble with Archie: Locating and Accessing Primary Sources for the Study of the 1970s U S Sitcom , All in the Family." CUNY Academic Works Fall 2010 (2010). Academicworks.cuny.edu. Web. 9 May 2015. .
Montgomery, Kathryn C. Target: Prime Time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle Over Entertainment Television. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Newcomb, Horace, and Paul Hirsch. "Television as a Cultural Form." Quarterly Review of Film Studies (1983): 561-69. MIT.edu. Web. 7 May 2015.
Ozersky, Josh. TV in an Era of Change 1968 – 1978. Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

Unknown Author. "The Team Behind Archie Bunker & Co." TIME Magazine 25 Sept. 1972. Web. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,165245,00.html

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