All in the Family

 

Topping the ratings for five of its eight seasons, and estimated to have been regularly watched by more than one-third of Americans, All in the Family was a deliberately controversial show that tackled many topical issues of the 1970s, including the rising feminist movement, the Vietnam war and Nixon’s presidency. [1]  The show was most famous for its main character, Archie Bunker, and his racist, sexist and homophobic statements that lit the fuse for tensions with his liberal son-in-law. 

 

In this clip Archie and Mike argue over the issue of racial opportunity. Archie is adamant that he has had to work just as hard as “the black man.” However, his diatribe is upset by Edith when she acknowledges that while no one marched and protested to him his job, his uncle “got it for him.”

 

Unlike popular sitcom predecessors, such as I Love Lucy (1951-1957) and Bewitched (1965-1972), which portrayed what normal happy families are meant to look like, All in the Family rocked the boat by portraying a real life, working-class bigot and his conflicts with his family and society. The creator, Norman Lear, modeled the show after a similar comedy that played in the UK, but he says what really inspired him was his conflicts with his own father on “every ideological issue.” [2] It is difficult to explain the sustained popularity of All in the Family, but perhaps this theme of generational conflict resonated with other American viewers. 

 

From the very first episode debate raged about whether All in the Family served to reinforce racial prejudice, or to expose and dispel it. Studies attempted to answer the question, but given the intense popularity of the show it was difficult to construct studies that gave a clear understanding of how it was affecting the opinions of viewers.  [3] It was certainly the intention of Normal Lear, the show’s creator, to use All in the Family to dispel prejudice. His hope was that through portraying Archie as a character that viewers identify with they will see him ridiculed, his attitudes exposed as false and outdated, and as a result help to dispel some of the more subtle forms of racism that exist in society. [4] Although it is difficult to say if viewers will read the intended message of All in the Family for all that it is meant to be, but the actor who played Archie did occasionally receive accolades from fans of the show who commended him for “telling it like it is.” Given the polysemic nature of reading texts, it is likely that those viewers who were prejudice saw the laughter as laughing about the racial slurs, while viewers who were not prejudice saw the laughter laughing at Archie. Lear cautions against thinking that there are a class of “ill-educated” people who lack the savvy to see the critical message presented by the show, saying that this is a class-based prejudice. [5] However, some of the surveys of viewers of All in the Family suggest this hypothesis is correct. In a study of white viewers, those who were “highly racially prejudice” were more likely to express liking for and agreement with Archie, while “less prejudiced whites” were more likely to express liking for an agreement with Mike. The intersections of class and racial prejudice in All in the Family are discussed at greater length in the Hierarchies of Masculinity section of this site. 

 

The show’s two female characters primarily act as foils for exposing Archie’s prejudices to be exposed. Even episodes such as one about Edith going through menopause were more focused on Archie’s response than Edith’s experiences. [6] Jean Stapleton, the actress who played Edith did note that there was a slow development of her character over the eight years the show was on the air. [7] Over time, Edith learns to resist Archie’s overbearing orders and constant insults. She eventually works out of the home, and when he is revealed to have cheated on her, moves out. [8] Stapleton considers Edith to be an important character because “the women’s movement was not just about female nuclear physicists, but also about women running households.” [9] Although Gloria, the daughter of Archie and Edith, chides her father for his racist and sexist attitudes, and often advocates on her mother’s behalf, her statements about equality are cut down by the whining way in which she makes claims about equality. [10] At times her feminism seems to be a target for Archie, even a caricature, instead of an attempt by the writers of the show to expose Archie’s outdated attitudes. [11]

 

[1] Spangler, Lynn C. 2003. Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers and Adler, Richard P, ed. 1979. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York, NY: Praeger.

[2] Adler, Richard P, ed. 1979. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York, NY: Praeger.

[3] Adler, Richard P, ed. 1979. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York, NY: Praeger.

[4] Adler, Richard P, ed. 1979. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York, NY: Praeger.

[5] Adler, Richard P, ed. 1979. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York, NY: Praeger.

[6] Spangler, Lynn C. 2003. Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

[7] Spangler, Lynn C. 2003. Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

[8] Taylor, Ella. 1989. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Los Angeles: CA: University of California Press.

[9] Spangler, Lynn C. 2003. Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

[10] Spangler, Lynn C. 2003. Television Women from Lucy to Friends: Fifty Years of Sitcoms and Feminism. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers and Macdonald, Myra. 1995.  Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in Popular Culture. New York, NY: Edward Arnold.

[11] Taylor, Ella. 1989. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Los Angeles: CA: University of California Press.

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2 responses to “All in the Family

  1. Donna

    Hi, I am a student and am conducting a research paper on the roles of women in media from 1950-1970. I came across your blog and was wondering if you could possiblle help me find your first source, Television Women from Lucy to Friends?

    • Academic Pointillism

      Hi Donna,

      I found it at my local University’s library… I have no idea where else you could find it! Maybe amazon? Good luck!

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