Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Getting a Foot in the Closet Door

All in the Family was a product of its times.

It couldn't have been the popular hit that it became in the 1970s without the painful soul searching that American culture was forced to do in the 1960s when it saw its political and social leaders gunned down repeatedly and its young torn away in disillusionment over not just a war but also a society that would allow it to be fought under the flimsiest of pretenses.

All in the Family was recognized during its long, successful run for exposing prejudice and hypocrisy in ways that no other television series had ever done. If today its humor seems almost simplistic, one must remember that it was not written and produced for audiences in the 21st century but for those either directly engaged in conflict or affected by it nonetheless.

The writers, who were as talented as any who ever wrote for television, often had a fine line to walk. They often had to use language that implied things that might be expressed in more blunt terms today. If, at times, the language seems timid, even reserved, one must remember it was a different audience in a different time.

And, while people often seem to think of racial conflict when they think of All in the Family's role in cultural history, Archie Bunker wasn't merely a racial bigot. He was an all–purpose bigot, perfect for a time when all prejudices were facing reassessments from a public that was discovering it had been misled by many of the things it had been taught to believe.

Some of the movements that gained virtually instant momentum from All in the Family, particularly the ones regarding civil rights and women's rights, owe a debt of gratitude to the program. They gained a level of acceptance that, in some cases, kind of overshot the movements' goals.

Other movements received similar introductions to the public but, for many reasons, did not acquire the same kind of momentum, and only recently, it seems, have they begun to make up for it.

One such movement is the one for gay rights.

On this day 40 years ago, most white middle–class Americans, even in the South, agreed that black Americans should have the same rights and privileges as anyone else. And many middle–class male Americans believed the same thing about female Americans.

Their support was necessary if those groups were to make the kinds of gains they wanted to make. And, in recent years, we have witnessed the blossoming of those goals with the election of the first black president and record numbers of women serving in the House and Senate.

But not so with homosexuals. Their acceptance by mainstream America has been slower, even though All In the Family tried, from time to time, to address the issue.

It first did so on this night, when it tried to cast its bright spotlight on what it justifiably called "Judging Books By Covers."

The episode was a contrast in stereotypes — an actor named Anthony Geary (who went on to become the Luke of the Luke and Laura couple whose 1981 wedding was a watershed moment in daytime TV history) played an effeminate friend of Mike and Gloria, and an actor named Phil Carey played a friend of Archie's.

Despite appearances, Geary's character was straight, and Carey's (who was big, muscular, a former pro football player, a stereotypical man's man) was gay — all contrary to Archie's convictions about the sexes and sexual roles.

It was a landmark moment in the evolution of television. Prior to that time, homosexuals were treated as jokes.

Things were slow to change — slowed even more, perhaps, by the stigma of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic — and they continued to be treated that way in many television depictions in the years to come, but All in the Family did manage to get its foot into the closet door.