Was Archie Bunker a middle-class fantasy?

June 11, 2008

JOE ALLEN makes many good points about how workers are portrayed on American television programs ("Television's buffoons and bigots"). But his claim that Archie Bunker was a "contrived product of middle class fantasies" will certainly come as a surprise to anyone who grew up in a working-class family when All in the Family aired during the 1970s.

We all knew people who were "just like Archie"--indeed, often lived under the same roof with them. In some cases, we joked that they "made Archie look like a liberal."

Allen points out that Bunker, as a union member living in Queens, ought to have been a Democrat, but was always shown as pro-Republican. Yet this hardly proves that the character is a "fantasy." On the contrary, it suggests that the comic artistry of the show's writers and actors could penetrate into the contradictions in reality itself.

All in the Family was the American adaptation of a British program called Til Death Us Do Part. Archie's prototype was Alf Garnett--a reactionary white worker of the sort who responded with enthusiasm to right-wing Member of Parliament Enoch Powell's speech in 1968 about how the rise of immigration would lead to "rivers of blood" in the streets. (Johnny Speight, the writer who created the show, said that the character was based on his own father.)

Around the time Powell's racist rants began to gain support among some traditional Labour voters in the UK, something similar was happening here in the United States. Mainstream political analysts were surprised to find that George Wallace--the segregationist "Dixiecrat" from Alabama, who ran a racist campaign for president in 1968--was winning support among white workers in northern states.

The significance of this development was not lost on the hard right-wing operatives emerging in the Republican Party. They crafted a sinister but effective "Southern strategy" to split votes away from longtime Democratic constituencies--appealing both to angry white voters in the old Confederacy and to...well, to Archie Bunker. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Bunker was the first "Reagan Democrat."

BUT THE deeper problem with Allen's commentary is that it overlooks the most important thing about All in the Family: The show does not portray the working class itself as reactionary.

Archie is one of four main characters in a working-class household. Edith, his wife, is a homemaker. Their daughter Gloria works at a department store, while her husband Michael attends graduate school. We learn that Michael was raised by his uncle, who is a florist.

Although Michael is always shown challenging Archie's attitudes--and being insulted, in turn, as a "Pollack"--he's very much a part of the influx of working-class and lower-middle-class people into higher education that became a social phenomenon in the 1960s.

In short, while Archie may be the only one with a union job, the world of All in the Family is working class from top to bottom. Viewers were seeing, in effect, the uneven and conflict-laden way that the class responded to changes in the world.

People may tend to remember the show as one long argument between Archie (the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic homophobe) and Michael (a liberal with some vaguely New Left attitudes), while Edith and Gloria look on. Something nice and simplistic--a liberal morality tale.

Take it from someone who has recently been watching episodes he first saw a kid, some 35 years ago: That recollection is utterly wrong.

As my wife recently put it, "When I watched this as a kid, I thought of it as a show about Archie. Now I see that the most interesting character is Edith."

That seems exactly right. Edith was never simply a punching bag for Archie's sexist verbiage. Nor was she just an object of the "enlightened" condescension of her daughter and son-in-law. She endured plenty of both, to be sure. (Jean Stapleton, the actress who played her, had a comic gift; yet her real genius was for conveying the ways Edith tried to keep from showing that she was hurt by the people around her.)

But Edith never shared Archie's bigotry, and she could undercut his reactionary tirades with just a few words--far more effectively, most of the time, than the arguments of Michael, the graduate student.

It's also fascinating to watch Edith's complicated relationship with her daughter. Gloria was something that the right wing has spent decades now assuring us is a contradiction in terms: a working-class feminist. And her husband Michael--a high-minded liberal intellectual who regularly gives lip service to women's liberation--often proves to be just as much of a sexist as Archie, only without ever admitting it.

In some regards, Joe Allen's column does make a fair point. By no means was Archie an adequate representation of white workers--let alone of the class as a whole.

But All in the Family was never just a show about Archie. It portrayed a wide range of the attitudes, ideas and experiences being discussed by working-class people at the time. And it did so with both cutting-edge timeliness and comic grace.

To dismiss it as a "middle-class fantasy" hardly begins to do justice to a program that inspired so much discussion in working peoples' homes. All in the Family provided a concentrated look at many of the changes taking place in society at large in the 1970s. Along the way, it taught lots of kids in the audience that we were part of those changes.
Scott McLemee, Washington, D.C.

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