Saturday, June 01, 2013

Death of a Dingbat

When I was growing up, the television character I may have admired most was Edith Bunker of All in the Family.

Edith was played by Jean Stapleton, who died in New York yesterday at the age of 90.

All in the Family was truly a groundbreaking program, and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed the lives of those who participated in it. It also changed America, and Stapleton had a lot to do with that. She was the long–suffering wife of Archie Bunker, whose name quickly became synonymous with bigotry.

If someone was designated "an Archie Bunker," it was not necessary to explain the meaning of that metaphor. Everyone knew what it meant.

But I never heard anyone described as "an Edith Bunker." That was a shame because, although her character was written to be a dimwit (or, rather, a "dingbat," as Archie called her), she was often the voice of sanity and wisdom.

Now, I did hear some people described as dingbats in the '70s. But that was more a general reference, a characteristic.

Archie may not have had much regard for Edith's wisdom, but the audience did. It was hard not to.

She had her weaknesses, but they were endearing ones. Archie complained that Edith was long–winded, that it took her forever to tell a simple story, and there was some truth to that.

But Edith was frequently saying things that would make the others stop and think. In one episode, I recall, Edith and Archie were visited by Edith's cousin and her husband, who had just returned from an expensive trip and couldn't wait to brag about it.

But all was not well in paradise. When Edith and her cousin were alone, the cousin confided that her marriage was falling apart, and she questioned Edith about the secret of her marital success. Edith was hesitant to say much until her cousin asked her if, in her intimate moments with Archie, she still saw "fireworks like on the Fourth of July."

Edith smiled in a shy, almost embarrassed way, and replied, "With Archie and me, it's more like Thanksgiving."

On another occasion, when Mike and Gloria's marriage was on the rocks, Edith started to tell another story, one about a fight her parents had when she was small. The argument began over maple syrup, and it ended with the two of them not speaking for several weeks. Eventually, Edith said, they made up, "but things was never the same between them."

In what I always thought was one of Edith's finest moments, she looked at Mike and Gloria and said, "Now, I know maple syrup is a little thing, but would you rather break up over something bigger?"

It was easy to wonder in those days why Edith would stay with someone who had no more appreciation for her than to call her a dingbat. Well, I guess you had to understand that it was the writers who put the words in Edith's mouth; Jean Stapleton merely interpreted the lines as any good actor/actress will do.

And the writers had an explanation.

Gloria asked Edith early in the series why she had chosen Archie over another suitor.

"Well, I liked being called a Goddess of Beauty," Edith replied, "but somehow it seemed more permanent when your father called me a dingbat."

That was Edith logic, I guess.

But Edith brought attention to things that weren't being mentioned in television in those days. She found a lump in her breast and forced people to think about something they didn't want to think about. After all, if it could happen to Edith, well, it could happen to anyone.

She was a moral compass without being preachy about it.

No dingbat she.