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On January 12, 1971, CBS television broadcast a new series titled All in the Family. I was 15 years old, in the tenth grade at high school, and immediately hooked. I never missed an episode during my high school years. All in the Family awakened me to all sorts of cultural and social issues of which I had no understanding or familiarity. I was living in the all-white suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma, attending an all-white public high school of 2,100 students; all my friends were products of the same middle-class economic status. I got my first job that summer (the candy and nut department at Sears) and my boss was an African American woman. She was one of the first black individuals with which I had ever spoken. All in the Family reconfigured my understanding of the world and I still value the impact this television program had on my life.
Why did All in the Family have such an impact? One history textbook answers that question in this way: ” Hollywood movies had long pushed the boundaries of acceptable content, but by the 1970s television also introduced controversial and politicized programming. In 1971 producer Norman Lear introduced All in the Family, whose main character, Archie Bunker, embodies the blue-collar backlash against liberal and permissive values. The ultimate male chauvinist, Archie treated his wife Edith like a servant, clashed with his modestly rebellious daughter, Gloria, and heaped verbal abuse on is leftist Polish American son-in-law. All things liberal or cosmopolitan — ‘Hebes,’ ‘Spics,’ and ‘commie crapola’ — became targets for Archie’s coarse insults. Despite its popularity the show was attacked from both the left and the right. Many conservatives who shared Archie’s values found the language offensive, while some minority leaders charged that the show legitimized the prejudices it attacked” (Davidson 626).
Our friends at The American Yawp have this to say about All in the Family: “A popular television sitcom, All in the Family, became an unexpected hit among ‘middle-America.’ The show’s main character, Archie Bunker, was designed to mock reactionary middle-aged men, but audiences embraced him. ‘Isn’t anyone interested in upholding standards?’ he lamented in an episode dealing with housing integration. ‘Our world is coming crumbling down. The coons are coming'” (Locke).
Smithsonian.com recently published an analysis of All in the Family, focusing on its ground-breaking portrayal of working-class Americans as they are pummeled by the unraveling American economy of the 1970s. The author, Sascha Cohen, suggests that “everything changed in the 1970s, when the media ‘discovered’ the American working class, as the country confronted a host of economic changes alongside social shifts stemming from the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. The prosperity of the postwar era gave way to a period of instability marked by sluggish growth, record inflation, high oil prices, deindustrialization and foreign competition. While communities of color had always struggled to get by due to fewer opportunities for living wage work, many white Americans found that their share of the postwar bounty was shrinking during this period, threatening their standard of living for the first time since the Great Depression” (Cohen).
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Cohen, Sascha. “How Archie Bunker Forever Changed Changed in The American Sitcom.” Smithsonian.com. 21 Mar. 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/history-working-class-families-american-sitcom-180968555/.
Davidson, James West, et al., editors. US: A Narrative History, Volume 2 – Since 1865. McGraw Hill Publishers, 2018.
Locke, Joseph and Ben Wright. The American Yawp: A Massively Collaborative Open US History Textbook. “Chapter 28: The Unraveling.” 2018. http://www.americanyawp.com/text/28-the-unraveling/.
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