Television’s buffoons and bigots

May 14, 2008

There is an old and persistent bigotry against white working-class people on American television.

AN OLD friend of mine once said that "old stereotypes die hard" and "can be easily repackaged." What he had in mind was the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood films down through the years. The same can be said of the portrayal of white working-class people.

There is an old and persistent bigotry against white working-class people, with a few exceptions, on American TV. White working-class people, especially men, are generally portrayed as lovable buffoons, inevitable failures, ranting bigots or (in the fantasyland of TV producers and writers)--viewed positively--as crusading cops.

Sometimes, a character can be many of these things at the same time. This was true from the earliest days of television. The Life of Riley was the first television series that featured a blue-collar, white, working-class family. It starred William Bendix as Riley, a Los Angeles-area aircraft worker.

Riley was a gullible, benign bumbler who, in cahoots with his best friend Gillis, had a knack for bringing his family to near disaster in almost every episode. The show ran for five years on NBC from 1953 to 1958.

If The Life of Riley reminds you of The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, that isn't accidental. In many ways, Riley was the model for what followed. Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden, like Riley, was also a well-intentioned bumbler whose get-rich-quick schemes always failed.

However, there were important differences in the lead characters. Kramden was a bus driver who lived in rather stark, drab surroundings in Brooklyn. He was also a bombastic buffoon (which extenuated his ill-conceived schemes) who regularly threatened physical violence against his long-suffering wife, Alice, played by Audrey Meadows.

"Bang, zoom, right to the moon, Alice," Kramden would say with a clenched fist. Though he never hit his wife on the series, you would never hear or see this on sitcoms featuring middle-class families like the Nelsons in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966). Spousal abuse, if only implied, was the province of working-class men.

The Honeymooners aired only for one year on CBS from 1955 to 1956 with a total of 39 episodes, but it is held in an iconic status by the television industry.

Archie Bunker solidified the television stereotype of the white working-class man as a bastion of reaction

THE TELEVISION show that most solidified the popular stereotype of the white working-class man as a bastion of reaction was CBS's long-running sit-com All in the Family, starring Carroll O'Connor as Archie and Jean Stapleton as his wife Edith.

All in the Family debuted in January 1971 and ran until April 1979. It was produced by Hollywood super-liberal Norman Lear and was based on the British television show Till Death Do Us Part. While The Life of Riley and The Honeymooners were created against the background of McCarthyism, resulting in the shows being completely devoid of politics and any controversial issues, Archie Bunker was a very political character.

During the 1968 election and in the years following, according to progressive columnist Barbara Ehrenreich, the media and Hollywood "re-discovered" the American working class, but it was "a working class more suited their mood: dumb, bigoted and reactionary."

Much of this derived from several violent attacks by pro-war construction workers on antiwar demonstrators, egged on by pro-Nixon union officials, following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. These ugly incidents were used paint the entire working class as reactionary bigots, despite the fact that major U.S. unions had come out against the Vietnam War.

Archie Bunker was the foil that Hollywood liberals used to highlight the resistance to the antiwar, civil rights and women's movements. Bunker's malapropism-laced banter, combined with his constant use of ethnic, racial and sexist slurs (he regularly called his wife "dingbat"), came to symbolize the foul-mouthed white, working-class male.

The show was also wildly popular and was rated the number one show on TV from 1971 to 1976. The weekly TV Guide named Archie Bunker one of the greatest TV characters of all time.

All in the Family was popular for a variety of reasons. While it fed a middle-class prejudice for some, it also brought controversial issues into the living room of many Americans for the first time, including homosexuality, birth control and feminism.

It stirred debate. But there were things about the show that were inexplicably odd and contrived. Archie was a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) in decidedly non-WASP Queens, New York. He was a child of the Great Depression, but he literally sang ("Those Were the Days") the praises of the Republican president, Herbert Hoover, who presided over the 1929 crash, in the opening credits of the show,

IF ARCHIE Bunker was a contrived product of middle-class fantasies, Married with Children's Al Bundy was a poor stepchild of the same imagination. The show ran for 10 years on the Fox network starting in 1987, and starred Ed O'Neil as Bundy and Katey Sagal as his wife Peggy. Al Bundy was a dimwit and a chronic loser of a husband and father. Peggy avoided work and wore hairdos three decades out of date.

The show was insulting to say the least, but its popularity derived from the zany humor and physical comedy that many people love. Contrast the treatment of a white working-class family in Married with Children with shows that focused on the white middle class of the same era like thirtysomething and My So-Called Life to see the sharp differences.

At the same time that Married with Children was on the air, one of the few shows in TV history that cut against many of the stereotypes of working-class people was ABC's Roseanne, starring Roseanne Barr and John Goodman. Roseanne was notable for several reasons, including its realistic portrayal of a family struggling to get by and a female-led household.

Roseanne didn't shy away controversial social issues including alcoholism, domestic violence and drug abuse. It is worth noting that Roseanne stars Barr and Goodman also looked like normal people when television then and now is filled with stick-figured characters who look like they walked out of fashion magazines.

Today, there are only a small number of shows centered on working-class people. King of Queens is one of the few, but it falls more within the tradition of shows like The Life of Riley than Roseanne. While Ugly Betty and Everyone Hates Chris are better than the average sitcoms, programs focusing on professional middle-class and white characters and families still overwhelmingly dominate TV.

In many ways, cops are the substitute proletariat on American television. Cop shows cram the nightly schedule, from the various versions of CSI to the various versions of Law and Order. Despite all evidence to the contrary, American cops are portrayed on television as caring, intelligent, diligent and crusading.

In a country where May Day is still officially known as Law Day, this shouldn't be surprising. Can you imagine what the quality of television would be like if the "peripheral characters"--like the janitors, skilled tradesmen, taxicab drivers, office workers, etc.--were crafted with the same care that most cops are?

The battle for white working-class votes between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries has projected a stereotype into this year's presidential election that has long cast a shadow over American culture. It will only change when working-class people--whether Black, white or Latino, men or women--can shape their own image by their struggles, rather have it made for them.

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