Sunday, January 08, 2017

Change of Life

"After 23 years of stifles, the dingbat turns on me."

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Sometimes I can't help but marvel at the frankness of the modern culture.

For example, when I was growing up, certain things still were not said in public — and rarely in private. Sex — the act itself or anything that was exclusively masculine or especially feminine — was seldom brought up in the movies — and never on television. In person–to–person interaction, sex and bodily functions were topics only with one's closest peers.

These days I keep up with my goddaughter on Facebook. I love her dearly, but I am often astonished by the language she so casually uses in her conversations with her friends and family. Words that, when I was younger, I would have been embarrassed to use even with my best friends — and never around my parents or anyone from their generation. It's a different world, I remind myself. There were walls in those days. Many walls.

But All in the Family started breaking down those walls in the early 1970s.

Women like my goddaughter probably will never know the debt they owe to women like Jean Stapleton, who played Edith on All in the Family and was at the center of an episode that aired on this night in 1972 — "Edith's Problem" — that focused on one of those gender–oriented topics of which people never spoke at the time.


I've seen many women in my life who were pioneers in their fields. I've even had the honor of knowing a few personally. And perhaps they all would have been pioneers eventually even without the inspirational women who went ahead and did the heavy lifting. But it would have taken them longer.

Jean Stapleton was one of those trailblazers. As Edith Bunker, she was able to articulate things in a way that women of her generation could understand — and her relationship with her daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) allowed her to reach across the aisle.

It was a unique position, and Edith always used it well. The early '70s was a tumultuous time in America, and Edith led both the acceptance of the new ways and the assault on the old.

And so much of it came down to what people thought — and that meant language. George Carlin observed that we do think in language, and the language that we use (or don't use) says a lot.

Menopause was not a word that was used very much in those days, at least not openly. It isn't an obscene word. It describes a condition that most people in those days preferred to ignore, perhaps because it was associated with aging — and no one likes to get old.

But in "Edith's Problem," viewers learned that menopause could happen to a woman any time after she turns 40. And that certainly isn't old.

Gloria told Edith that, and Edith articulated the frustration that many women must have felt over the years. She was incredulous that her daughter had to be the one to tell her what was happening.

"When I was a young girl," Edith lamented, "I didn't know what every young girl should know. Now I'm going to be an old lady, and I don't know what every old lady should know!"

On this night in 1972, however, Edith was completely bewildered by what was happening around her and within her.

So was Archie (Carroll O'Connor) who was bending over backward trying to be nice. Edith, though, took it the wrong way.

"He ain't talking to me," she told Gloria. "He's talking to some old lady."

Archie was trying to be patient and understanding, but he was pushed beyond his breaking point when Edith announced that she didn't want to go to Disney World, which had been their original destination. Instead, she wanted to visit her cousin and her cousin's family in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Archie went ballistic. "The only way you're going to get me to go to Scranton is if some screwball hijacks the airplane," he told her. "I know all about your woman's troubles there, Edith, but when I had the hernia that time I didn't make you wear the truss."

And then he delivered what may have been Archie's best lines of the series. "If you're going to have a change of life, you've got to do it right now. I'm going to give you just 30 seconds. Now come on, change!"

What I found refreshing about this episode was its realistic treatment of its subject. TV programs have long been criticized for making problems appear to be more easily resolved than they really are, but this episode ended with no real resolution — a concession, perhaps, to the reality that menopause cannot be dispensed with overnight like a 24–hour virus. It takes a lot of work, and some couples can't give it that kind of commitment.

The only thing that was clear when "Edith's Problem" ended was that more work remained to be done.