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“All in the Family” 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 not only gain their network more viewership but 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, Gay and Lesbians Women, and African Americans fought for equal opportunities in the world. Others practiced their free speech by expressing their disdain against the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon. 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 help set a tone among the America public that created freedom with individual transparency. Lear 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 and the precedent the show set in 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, setting Stivic up to be the punching bag for Archie’s bigotry. This guaranteed heated tug-of-war between the two provided the show with its comedic part of the storyline. That storyline heavily depended on Archie being politically conservative and socially misguided, while Mike was equally 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 reefing 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 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 millions more than a newscast about an angry demonstration ever could have. 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).

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. Lear thought by using satire to tackle difficult subject matters the public would have an opportunity to see the way 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. 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 Theory. This theory suggests “that people will alter the meaning of messages, so they become consistent with preexisting attitudes and beliefs”, (107). High prejudiced persons would be more likely to enjoy it because they admire Archie, because they see Archie as making better sense than Mike, and because they view Archie as winning in the end. In addition, high prejudiced persons should be less offended likely to see Archie as the person who is being ridiculed.

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