On January 7th, 1971 an event happened that would forever change the way kids of my generation interacted with the world around us. That evening, America was introduced to Archie Bunker and he changed everything. The premiere of the sitcom, All in the Family proved to be a society altering event that shaped much of the popular culture of the 1970’s. It remained at the top of the Nielson ratings for over half the decade and spawned a slew of other shows that also remained in the top ten. In the pre-cable era of three networks and PBS, these shows as well as others, provided insight and offered healing from the chaos of the 1960’s.
1971 was actually a frightening time in America. The Viet Nam War was still in full force, and the anti-war movement had become fractured and more violent. The civil rights movement as well, had moved from the non-violence of Dr. King to the threatening nature of the Black Panthers. The Aquarian promise of Woodstock had quickly given away to the dark violence of Altamont. As an eight year old who liked to watch the news, I soaked all that in. We all did. We couldn’t help it. I remember being somewhat disturbed by the body counts reported from South East Asia every week, while also taking comfort in the fact that our number was usually lower. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did this. The chaos and tumultuousness of the 1960’s were played out before all of our eyes as we sat on our collective couch and waited for Gilligan’s Island to start.
Mine is a generation raised on television- Saturday morning cartoons, soap operas, afternoon talk shows- they all were important to us. For better or worse, television informed us and shaped us. It provided insight into the larger world and helped us to understand our place in it. The premiere of All in the Family in 1971 represented a shift in the way this world was going to be presented to us, and it was a positive change. It may seem odd to say it, but All in the Family provided comfort and an assurance that things were getting better. The struggle for civil rights, the emergence of the women’s movement and the Viet Nam War were tearing our society apart. All in the Family took each of those issues and addressed them in a serious, yet comedic way. It provided the opportunity for Americans to take a serious look at those topics, laugh at them and deal with them in the safety of their own family rooms. Archie Bunker was a bigot, but he was a lovable bigot. As such, he gave Americans the opportunity to look at themselves, reflect on the past with a little laughter and move forward.
All in the Family was the most popular show of the 1970’s and directly gave life to other popular shows- The Jeffersons and Maude. Maude led to Good Times. By the mid-70s network TV was full of programs that represented lives quite foreign to the white suburbia I knew. Prime time television taught me a lot. I learned that life in projects of Chicago was hard. I learned that gay people existed. I learned that interracial marriage wasn’t a big deal. All of this was good. I wasn’t the only one learning these lessons. We all were. Regardless of where we lived or what our family was like, as long as we watched television, we all were hearing the same message- Racism is bad. Sexism is bad. Equality is good. These lessons were not limited to the shows of Norman Lear. They were an intigral part of the weekly line-up of each network. Though Mash was set during the Korean War, it provided an opportunity to deal with Viet Nam. The Mary Tyler Moore show showed us that a single woman could survive in this world. You could find an After School Special to help you through everything from divorce to drugs. The Phil Donahue show provided an opportunity for us to take part in a collective discussion about all these issues. All of these programs, and many others informed us as well as entertained us. They provided the opportunity to know we were ok.
By the end of the decade. Television had made us better people. For a white, suburban kid like me, it was quite reasonable to conclude that the issues confronted in the 1960’s had been dealt with and we had moved positively forward. We were better people. The lessons had been learned and our collective future was bright. Fittingly, All in the Family’s final episode aired on April 8th, 1979. Racism was a thing of the past. Sexism was a thing of the past. Hateful political and social movements were things of the past.
Perhaps we expected too much from television.
The reality is that television is a much more powerful reflection of society, rather than an agent of social change. At its best, television can be informative and be emotionally moving. It can represent the shifting sands of the culture, but it cannot implement those changes. We once were able to laugh at the oafish bigotry of Archie Bunker because we knew he was wrong and we knew we were better. We no longer have that confidence. The racism and sexism expressed on television for comic effect throughout the 1970’s have once again become common place in both our social and political discourse. Overt racism might still be frowned upon. The character of Archie Bunker is still viewed negatively for his blatant bigotry. It’s the subtle bigotry that has always been woven into the fabric of our society that once again has been given a voice. The election of a black President and the prospect of a woman waiting inthe wings has awakened the worst of who we are as a people and we can hear the hate loud and clear as it manifests itself on the streets of our cities, in our classrooms and in our debate halls.
I am now older than Archie Bunker was when All in the Family first aired and I find myself echoing the lament he sang in theme song:
Those were the days