We need Archie Bunker to save America. Even though he was a fictional character of an uneducated, narrow-minded, right-wing, homophobic racist bigot, he spoke to us all during the turmoil of the Vietnam War, the Sexual Revolution, and Watergate, and we all loved him, or we at least loved hating him. Growing up in the 1970’s, I remember that iconic theme song as each week my family would watch Archie clash with his hippie son-in-law, Michael, (a.k.a: “Meathead”), his feminist daughter, Gloria, his long-suffering wife, Edith, and a parade of relatives and neighbors. Through their conflicts they struggled with the social and political upheaval of the time.
At a time when many were losing faith in the institutions of American life, and many feared our nation wouldn’t survive, Archie was there every week being his loud and obnoxious self. Despite his divisive ideas and arguments, he brought us together and carried us through in a way that no other character of the time did. It didn’t matter if you were a liberal hippie or a Nixon Republican, you could watch Archie Bunker, and somehow it wasn’t so bad.
When I see the reruns of All in the Family today, I’m amazed at the complexity of the writing. The interplay between Archie and the Meathead, both of them strong-willed, self-righteous, and attempting to shout the other down, all the while missing how similar they really are, was the most radical television of its era. I loved the irony of the Meathead trying to change Archie, often judging him, while also accepting the free room and board that allowed him to obtain the education that he so often wielded against Archie.
Perhaps it was the competing, and often opposing, characteristics within the character of Archie Bunker that endeared him to so many of us. Despite his ignorance and prejudice, there were also facets of him that were kind, compassionate, and selfless, and his desire to be a good person could not be ignored by the viewer. His racial and ethnic prejudices, which were a running theme of the show, weren’t simple. He wasn’t a cross-burning Klan style bigot, his was a prejudice that was fueled by tradition more than hatred, and maintained by a fear of change. He didn’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, but there were boundaries to his prejudices that humanized him.
Archie Bunker did more than just give America an opportunity to spend 30 minutes each week laughing at itself, he gave us an image of ourselves that was far from perfect, yet was worthy of redemption, and would occasionally find its best self. He let us see each other beyond the single dimensions created by the labels that we often attach to each other. He showed us that we’re all capable of growing, of being kind to the stranger, and that we can love each other without agreeing or “fixing” each other.
As I look at America today and the angry divisions that I fear are going to tear us apart, I wonder what happened to Archie Bunker? Can the left and right still laugh at themselves and their own hypocrisies? Do we still have the ability to look past the labels, the differences of opinion, and see something good in each other? How would Archie, Edith, Gloria, and Michael (a.k.a: “Meathead”) navigate the issues of our time? Where would Archie fall on the political spectrum today? He was a dedicated union member, which is now inconsistent with the conservative politics with which he identified a generation ago. What would Archie Bunker be like with today’s never-ending stream of fear-inducing headlines? Would Michael and Gloria have outgrown their youthful idealism? Would the passionate arguments between Meathead and Archie end with claims of “fake news”?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I sure do wish Archie was still around to get us through the present day. All In The Family was a safe place in which to look at ourselves and laugh through the discomfort of the image that the show reflected. While we don’t admit it, I think there is a little bit of Archie and the Meathead in all of us, and it’s good for us to be reminded of that. Sadly, the 1970’s sitcom is long-gone in this era of reality television, Facebook postings, and YouTube videos. Walter Cronkite and the evening news have been replaced by Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, and a million blogs offering up dubious, yet self-validating content 24 hours a day. We now have the power to create our own reality that reinforces our beliefs and image of ourselves – no matter how incorrect, shallow, or one dimensional that “reality” may be. Maybe instead of unfriending each other and posting every news article that says, “I’m right and you’re wrong” we need “All In the Family” rerun parties where we stream those long-ago filmed episodes of life at 704 Hauser Street? Maybe the magic will still be there, we’ll all share a laugh at ourselves, all be humbled just enough, and be able to find enough love and goodness in each other to carry on together.