Today is Family Day and my mind takes me back to how families were portrayed when I was growing up in southwestern Ontario. As a second-wave Boomer, I remember watching re-runs of Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, the Donna Reid Show, and Ozzie and Harriet. They were all a very idealized version of my own family – Dad heading out to work in the morning; Mom looking after the kids and caring for the home, with supper on the table when Dad got home; and having my grandmother back for Sunday lunch after church each week. Nothing terrible ever happened in these shows, the woundedness that many real life families experienced was never touched upon, and the episodes were full of feel-good, homespun wisdom.
But then in my second year of high school a new kind of family show aired, one that was not afraid of dealing with the realities and prejudices of most North American families: All in the Family. Most of us had never seen anything like it before. Apparently CBS was so worried about viewers’ responses to the patriarch of the family, the foulmouthed bigot Archie Bunker, that they actually hired extra phone operators to field any complaints that might come in to the station.
Few individuals or groups of people were spared Archie’s insolence. There’s even a scene from one of the early episodes where Archie and his wife Edith are returning home from church, and Edith tells Archie how horrified she is that he has just cursed the minister for his sermon. Daughter Gloria , whom Archie condescendingly calls “Little Girl”, and son-in-law Mike, try to lighten the mood with an anniversary lunch they have prepared for the couple. But, as Daniel S. Levy has written in Time Magazine, “as the four sit down to celebrate, it takes no time for Archie to complain about the “Hebes,” “spics,” “spades,” “pinkos,” and atheists who have co-opted society, all the while tarring Edith as a “silly dingbat” and spewing his bile at Mike by calling him a “meathead.”
Little wonder, then, that a few weeks ago my middle son John, who had happened upon some old re-runs of the show, came to me to express his shock and outrage that such things were allowed to air on TV. Yes, I said, it was terrible to hear those things on public television, but it was not the first time that satire had been used to highlight evils of society like racism, homophobia, antisemitism, religious bigoty, and misogyny. As Rob Reiner, who played Mike, noted, its purpose was to make North Americans see how racist and bigoted they were. The creator of the show, Norman Lear, who had himself suffered from discrimination in his childhood because he was Jewish, had a vision, and according to Reiner, that “vision was to get people thinking and talking about the issues of the day.” It worked. People talked about the show at work, over the back fence, and in the grocery store. Many of those who found the show so humourous, also recognised themselves in the bigoted Archie and began to question their attitudes and prejudices. Teachers began to incorporate lessons in their curriculum that taught their students about bigotry in all its ugliness. In many ways, as Levy has written, this “foulmouthed bigot named Archie charmed and changed [North] America” for the better.
Today, as the extreme far right threatens to gain ground and our world grows more and more racist and intolerant, maybe it’s time for another Archie Bunker, someone who can shake us out of our ingrained intolerance and the dogmatism of small-mindedness and hatred.