Racism or bigotry? Bigotry or prejudice? Controversial titles that are almost certain to grab someone’s attention standing around the water cooler. While most people find these words offensive, perhaps it was those debatable issues that All in the Family sitcom producers Norman Lear and Alan Yorkin thought could conceivably gain their network more viewership as well as ignite universal conversations that would spark change.
All in the Family was created in the 1970’s, with the goal of introducing “shock-value” programming with realistic, subjective battles. Some described that decade as a turbulent time when marginalized groups such as, Gays and Lesbians along African Americans were fighting for equal opportunities in the world. Despite the American public’s contrasting views on social issues and feelings of disappointment towards the government, sitcom producers Lear and Yorking saw All in the Family as the ideal platform, though risky, to showcase such divisive topics. Lear hoped by giving controversial topics a face, it would possibly help set a tone among the America public that created freedom with individual transparency. Lear also realized that his intent may or may not be understood or received by his audience. This paper will discuss how television sitcom All in the Family tackled taboo controversial subject matters through comedy in the 70’s and set a precedent decades later for some of today’s prime-time line-up decades later.
All in the Family’ s story line is largely told throw the viewpoint of family patriarch, Archie Bunker. The Bunker household consisted of his sweet, but “loony” wife Edith, daughter Gloria and her husband Michael Stivic. Bunker is a bigoted hard-working family man from Queens, New York, who in his mind could not catch a break in life. Archie is a proud World War II veteran who ignores anyone who doesn’t agree with his view of the world; which are conservative and heterosexual. Bunker is upset with how the American society he once knew is changing and blames the advancements made by minority groups like Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews for the sacrifices made by himself and the other lower middle-class whites.
Opposing that harsh viewpoint was Archie’s sweet but “loony” wife, Edith. Edith usually endured Archie’s ranting to prevent arguments. That was hardly the case with Archie’s live-in, liberal son-in-law, Mike Stivic. Both were notably strong in their beliefs; however, Stivic became the punching bag for Archie’s bigotry. This guaranteed heated tug-of-wars between the two and provided the show with its comedic part of the storyline. That storyline heavily depended on Archie being politically incorrect, conservative and socially misguided, while Mike was completely opposite; his portrayal was liberal and understanding to the concerns of the disenfranchised and oppressed. Politics weren’t the only issues All in the Family pushed the envelope on. When an African-American family of three moved in next door to the Bunkers, Archie’s racial stereotypes and bigotry, become recurring themes.
Over the course of the show, Archie’s blatant racism became visible. Archie felt he was losing control of his “all white neighborhood” and showed that fear by referring to his black neighbors with derogatory innuendos like “yous people”. The show skillfully combined these serious topics with laughable moments. One of those movements happened when singer Sammy Davis Jr. visited the Bunkers. Even though Sammy was a celebrity and Archie was excitement to have him in his home, the color of his skin was still a problem. The gotcha moment of the show happened when Archie asked Mike to take a picture of him and Sammy to show the guys at work. Just as Mike snaps the picture, Sammy leans in and kisses Archie, capturing an appalled Archie for the world to see. For viewers that share the same social beliefs as Archie, authors Baran and Davis define this as part of the Reception Studies: “audience-centered theory that focuses on how various types of audience members make sense of specific forms of content”, (218). Out of this theory comes two opposing views, preferred reading and oppositional reading. Baran and Davis describe Preferred Reading as “the producer- intended meaning of a piece of content; assumed to reinforce the status quo”. (218). Lear thought by using satire to tackle difficult subject matters the audience would have an opportunity to see that Archie’s thought process had no basis for truth. Bunker’s ideals were shaped more by what he did not know rather than what he could prove. It can be assumed, the message behind producer Norman Lear’s All in the Family was simply that bigotry is not only unjust but makes no sense. This message reached and resonated with millions; it causes one to pause and question whether or not today’s newscast about an angry demonstration has the same impact? Then you have Oppositional Reading, Baran and Davis state this to be “when an audience member develops interpretations of content that are in direct opposition to a dominant reading”, (219).
In the show you can see oppositional reading in the viewer praising Bunker for standing up for his beliefs and “telling it like it is”. One might think poking fun at bigotry on a big stage such as television would open the door for more bigotry, but that was not the case. Each time Bunker’s ignorance was exposed, we learned that not knowing has always bred more bias than has knowledge. Baran and Davis break this theory down further with the Selective Perception and Exposure Theory. This theory suggests “that people will alter the meaning of messages, so they become consistent with preexisting attitudes and beliefs”, (107). This theory suggests if people do not relate to and identify with a character, they would be less likely to watch the show because they would ‘selectively’ avoid it. For example, it’s more likely that a prejudiced person would be more likely to admire Archie’s character, see his viewpoints to be more valid than Mike’s, therefore seeing him as a well-rounded individual. (Vidmar, Rokeach 1974).
Lear hoped All in the Family would help change taboo conversations from being angry and defensive into making bigots the laughingstocks of their communities. This was an image a few sitcom critics believed many white males took offense too after being seen as buffoon’s in the nation’s eyes. Lear thought laughter was one universal concept that would help unite society with a storyline that pointed out a few of humanity’s flaws. While some viewers applaud Archie for his racist viewpoints, other praise the show for making fun of bigotry. Researchers found that All in the Family had three groups to thank for its success. These groups were: 1) the bigoted fan club laughing with Archie and his misguided views of the world, 2) the revolutionaries laughing at him and 3) the viewers ready to change the world and learn from racial satire. While Archie was All in the Family’s most popular character, survey results show that not only was he popular in a negative way, but most viewers got a thrill out of knowing Archie was wrong. For the true bigots, the show may have reinforced racists attitudes, but researchers found no evidence that the sitcom enlarged bigotry. Prior to All in the Family there was a disconnect between how people talked in private and what you saw on TV, the big screen and heard on the radio.
The boundaries that once separated socially aware popular art from mainstream entertainment became accessible. The floodgates opened, and the Hollywood started to let the world see controversial topics up close and personal. Lear recognized the importance of showcasing the backward nature of simple minded individuals. Sometimes, one person is all it takes to ignite change. It can be debated whether or not All in the Family had a positive or negative effect on society, but it can be credited with bringing many important socially aware issues to the screens and into the viewers’ minds to think about. There are few who deny it was the first of many socially conscious TV shows to come in the 70s and 80s and had set the bar high for others in their attempt to master the art of rhetoric. Lear realized that humor is tricky and often offends, sometimes deliberately. But it also has the capability to keep open dialogue about racial and other sensitive issues, and to promote self-awareness that can lead to healing.