Archie Bunker’s Double-Edged Sword

Archie Bunker for President!

Archie Bunker for President! (Photo credit: Devlin Thompson)

Archie Bunker’s Double-Edged Sword

All in the Family and Reception Theory

 

Norman Lear’s situation comedy All in the Family has been acclaimed as a milestone in American entertainment. Its unprecedented ratings and its handling of previously taboo issues like racism, homosexuality or politics paved the way for fierce debate over the social role and the benefits and dangers of dealing with delicate questions in sitcoms. Some saluted Lear’s work for bringing about heightened social and cultural awareness. Others accused it of legitimizing bigotry in a society bruised by its racist past and the lingering stigma of social inequalities. The show was constructed, and more specifically its main character, Archie Bunker the lovable bigot, in such a manner that clear and explicit messages, directly expressing the creator’s viewpoint, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the intended lessons were to be learned in the satirical narrative. Many arguments can be made for and against All in the Family, but what is important is to understand the motivations behind the positions taken by critics and enthusiasts, the social realities present at the time of the allegations made and the limitations of theoretically constructed arguments.

It is precisely from this intentional ambiguity that the door is opened to different interpretations. Reception studies provide a theoretical framework attempting to understand the decoding of polysemic content resulting in varying meanings (from an audience-centered point of view). As explained by Baran and Davis, reception studies are an “audience centered theory that focuses on how various types of audience members make sense of specific content” (257). Two opposing interpretations can be identified as a) the preferred reading and b) the oppositional reading.

Preferred reading is the action of decoding the content in the manner intended by its producers. In the case of Archie Bunker, this meant being entertained by a “dumb, bigoted ‘hard-hat’” and enjoying the show as a “satire on bigotry” (Vidmar and Rokeach 3). In other words, Archie Bunker was seen as a prejudiced but likeable character who was ridiculed by the plot and other characters in the show. By watching Archie Bunker, the lessons were to be learned by seeing what not to think and how not to act.

Oppositional reading is the action of decoding the content in a manner that directly opposes the intended, preferred reading. In this case, the oppositional reading of All in the Family results in the viewer applauding Archie Bunker for “telling it like it is” (2). In short, relating with a man who stands for the traditional values he believes in. This hypothesis is tested and demonstrated in a study conducted by Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach which will be discussed further in this work.

Reception studies explain this split in interpretations by the power imparted to the viewers to create their own meaning. This provides for a less shallow (or unilateral) analysis of content than previous source-based theories which assumed that the message was passively received in the form and substance it was conceived for. The fact that people have a specific background and a preexisting social construct that shaped their values (or lack thereof) will heavily contribute to their understanding of the world around them and, thus shape the reading of a specific text. This assumption echoes attitude-change theory and its selective processes. More specifically; selective perception, which is the “idea that people will alter the meaning of messages so they become consistent with preexisting attitudes and beliefs” (Baran and Davis 155).

It is through the looking-glass of the selective processes that Vidmar and Rokeach performed a study that would support their hypothesis of how (selective perception) All in the Family was interpreted and by whom (selective exposure). They used two significantly different samples. The first was composed of adolescent Americans and the second, of adult Canadians. In terms of selective perception, their findings suggested that “all to many viewers did not see the program as a satire on bigotry, had identified with Archie rather than Mike (Archie’s liberal, open-minded son-in-law), saw Archie winning, did not perceive Archie as the character who was most ridiculed… and saw nothing wrong with Archie’s use of racial and ethnic slurs” (Vidmar and Rokeach 7).

The next assumption was that, according the selective exposure principle, the way the show was decoded or interpreted would determine the profile of the majority of the viewers’ viewpoints and personal levels of prejudice. In other words, if people do not relate to and identify with Archie’s character, they would be less likely to watch the show because they would ‘selectively’ avoid it. The case is made by Denise J. Kervin for the somewhat similar show Married… with Children when she elaborates on the show’s use of “conflicts inherent within social divisions” creating a “potentially uncomfortable viewing position for members of the target audience” (Kervin 2). Conversely, those who found in Archie an example of courage and true American, middle-class values, would be more likely to actively seek exposure to the show in order to reinforce those beliefs. What the research found was that indeed, persons ranking higher on the ‘prejudice’ scale, were also the more frequent viewers. And so, Vidmar and Rokeach conclude: “All in the Family seems to be appealing more to the racially and ethnically prejudiced members of society than to the less prejudiced members” (10).

 

Publicity photo from the television program Al...

Publicity photo from the television program All in the Family. Pictured are Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker) and Michael Evans (Lionel Jefferson). In this episode, Archie visits a local blood bank to donate and meets his neighbor, Lionel Jefferson, who is also there to donate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Further analysis of these results also shows that the viewers commending All in the Family for making them aware of their own prejudices and possibly giving them insight on their own doings and opinions were the least prejudiced. Taken for what it is, this fact implies that Lear was preaching to the (open-minded) choir on one hand, and feeding the fire of bigotry on the other. Northwestern University Sociologist Charles Moskos explains: “it is a cheap way for tolerant upper-middle-class liberals to escape their own prejudices while bigots get their views reinforced” (qtd in Time 52).

This study helped reinforce the commonly held, critical idea that All in the Family was not being interpreted as the social satire it was meant to be. In fact, the misinterpretation was so widespread it had even reached the Oval Office and was expressed by Richard Nixon himself when he said, in reaction to an episode dealing with homosexuality and the realization that one of Archie’s friends was gay: “it made a fool out of a good man” (qtd in Time 52). Clearly, the idea that Archie Bunker was a ‘good man’ and that he was a ‘fool’ for befriending a homosexual was not what Lear initially meant for the viewers to step away with. Rather, Lear probably would have wanted people to say: “This fool did a good man’s deed by befriending a homosexual”. The perfect opposite.

Stuart Hall suggests that for the viewer to decode the content in the intended (dominant) way, he must “take the connoted meaning… and decode the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded” (Hall 9). This begs the question: Did Lear’s reality equate with mainstream America’s sufficiently to enable him to engage in such witty criticism of society? In other words, were the viewers aware of the reference codes of Lear’s production process? Perhaps, Lear was on a different wave-length when ‘emitting’. Maybe people conveniently got the wrong message and took the content at face value because, as explained by Douglas Kellner, many would argue that “through American television people passively receive ideologies that legitimate and naturalize American society” (473).

Or possibly, Lear was ahead of his time when intending for television “to be not the ‘opiate of the people’ but their active instructor and educator” (478).

The only unanimity that would be reached about All in the Family was that it was a very enjoyable and funny show. And the pleasure might have, very well, also come from the freedom of interpretation made possible by the ‘text’. Concordantly, Fiske argues the “the pleasure and the power of making meaning, of participating in the mode of representation, of playing with the semiotic process- these are some of the most significant and empowering pleasures that television has to offer” (qtd in Condit 428).

As shown by the Vidmar and Rokeach study, audience reactions can be interpreted with the help of the selective processes. This has proved that, according to reception theory, there was indeed a dominant reading of All in the Family intended by Norman Lear, but more importantly, there was an oppositional decoding that reinforced prejudice (and the status quo) which seemed to be the dominating tendency of the viewers. It is noteworthy to point out that according to reception theory; it is the dominant reading that attempts to reinforce the status quo. Whereas in this instance, the encoder (or producer) was the social critic, and the decoders (or the audience) were striving to perpetuate the status quo. This identifies a serious bias in the very construction of the theory which perceives the producer as automatically corporate and elitist. This is a limitation that might very well render it obsolete.

Seen through 21st century eyes, Archie Bunker is all that was wrong with America at that time in its history. He was ethnocentric, intolerant, thick-headed, aggressive and ignorant. His perception of reality ended at his doorstep and anything deviating from that perception had to be attacked and muted in order to continue making sense of his own views. But hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. This is the analysis of a 50-year-old character, formulated in a dramatically different social and political world, at a time when conformity is not (anymore) the only answer in life. This makes for more liberal and liberated critical thought. One might ask about the fairness, tough, of applying today’s social reality in the judgment of yesterday’s values. To take this thought to an extreme, probably not all Americans who had slaves where complete, inhumane barbarians. Yet this is the judgment we would pass, applying today’s social norms and values.

But still, one man, in the person of Norman Lear, did recognize the backwarded nature of some of Average Joe’s thoughts and ideas at the time. Sometimes, one man is all it takes to trigger change. So whether All in the Family had a positive or negative effect on society, it can be credited with bringing many important issues to the screens and into the viewers’ minds to toss around. It was the first of many socially conscious TV shows to come in the 70s and 80s and had set the bar high for others in their attempt to master the art of rhetoric.

 

Archie Bunker's Chair

Archie Bunker’s Chair (Photo credit: ttarasiuk)

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory. 6th edition. Cengage,

            2012. Print

Condit, Celeste Michelle. “The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 6.2 (1989): 103. Print.

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” London: Hutchinson, 1980. 128-138. Print.

Kellner, Douglas,. “TV, Ideology, and Emancipatory Popular Culture.” Television: The Critical View. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 471-503. Print.

Kervin, Denise J. “Ambivalent Pleasure from Married… with Children.” Journal of Film and Video 42.2 (1990): 212-22. Print.

“The Team Behind Archie Bunker & Co.” Time 100.13 (1972): 52. Print.

Vidmar, Neil and Milton Rokeach. “Archie Bunker’s Bigotry: A Study in Selective Perception and Exposure.” Journal of Communication.Winter issue (1974)Web.

 

Fighting Effects of Media Violence with Education and Media Literacy

Violence!

Because advancements in communications technology out-pace the adaptation of domestic and international legal frameworks aiming to respond to growing fears about the effects of mediated violence while respecting the rights of producers, society must look at micro-level educational measures, based on the transmission of strong moral guidelines, critical thinking skills and media literacy to enable future generations to evaluate media content and understand its dangers. Ultimately, this will lead to a more informed selection of media content by the audience which, in turn, will usher in a new pattern of media consumption. Producers and advertisers will have no choice but to follow. In a bottom-up manner, individuals will counteract the influence of media violence at a societal scale. As for the remaining mediated violence, justified or not, it will be put in perspective and its effect substantially diminished.

The following reflections will not attempt to prove the effect of violence in the media -this has become an established fact, for which the only matter debated is its extent-. The aim will be to focus research and analysis on the validity, challenges and potential results of tackling the issue of violent media content through education and media literacy.

When envisaging media literacy as being the key determinant to reducing negative media effects, one needs to consider the question from different angles. For instance, the manner in which it might be taught, its effectiveness, and its dangers or potential undesired effects. But before all, realize the importance of framing key definitions, and the clear identification of the goals of media literacy in education.

To ensure the clearest comprehension of this text, it is important to note the meaning intended when referring to media literacy, best described by the Center for Media Literacy as a “21st century approach to education… [which] provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy”.

The target of such educational enterprises is commonly reduced to children and teenagers because they are usually the most directly influenced by media. But an important fact to consider as well, is that today’s media landscape looks nothing like that of the 1970’s and 1980’s which today’s parents grew up in. So the parents and teachers have an equally pressing need to educate themselves, first in the practical and functional aspects of modern media, then to acquire the methodological tools to help the younger ones with their pursuit of sharp critical thinking and analytical skills needed in content decryption and creation. As expressed by the American Academy of Pediatrics in a 2001 publication about media violence, “there has been little time to assess the effects” of modern interactive media such as video games or the internet, but “early studies… indicate that effects of child-initiated virtual violence may be even more profound than those of passive media, such as television” (AAP 3). And so they urge their member pediatricians to “encourage parents, schools, and communities to educate children to be media literate as a means of protecting them against deleterious health effects of media exposure” (AAP 4). Common sense has it that they can only teach that which they already know.

Are there alternatives for fighting the negative effects of violence in the media? As seen, for example, with journalism and its many attempts to auto-regulate and professionalize, it often proves difficult to rely on the expected social responsibility of a heavily profit-driven industry to opt for the moral option which, more often than not, tends to be less profitable. And if there are positive outcomes to these attempts, they may take many years before they ever become common practice.  

As for the legal scene, it seems to be a boat much too large to steer swiftly through these traitorous waters. The speed at which media advances is far greater than that at which political consensus can be reached on media related issues. How effective can it be? Imagine reaching international consensus and drafting a legally binding text about peer-to-peer file sharing in 2022. How far behind do you imagine this issue to be in ten years?

The effectiveness of a top-down approach is far from being a satisfactory means of prevention. In fact, as explained by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the media’s parental guidance ratings are seldom understood and even overlooked by an overwhelming 90% of parents with respect to video games purchases (3).

The Simpsons pay a pop culture reference to th...

The Simpsons pay a pop culture reference to this film, as King Wrong (Homer Simpson) battles Bridezilla (Marge Simpson). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adding a layer of complexity for the determining the adequacy of media content by a third-party is the fact that “media content generally, and television programming specifically, are much more complex than they appear on the surface. Multiple levels of meaning are often present, and the content itself is frequently ambiguous. Sophisticated content producers recognize that if they put many different or ambiguous meanings into their content, they will have a better chance of appealing to different audiences” (Baran and Davis 228). So who is to decide on the actual meaning the content will have with a given audience. For instance, if The Simpsons were taken at face value, many would categorize it as suitable for children. But if it were to be analyzed, and its puns, insinuations, social statements, sexual jokes and  many other double meanings identified, it would probably get the highest current rating (R).

Modern Active-Audience theories provide a theoretical context to this view of media use/effects, because as explained by Baran and Davis when defining the older Active theory of television viewing, it sees the audience as “actively and consciously working to understand television content” (201). Multiplied by the intended polysemy of content, this assumption perfectly justifies the need for media literacy education. In other words, if content has many different meanings, and if the audience is not a passive one, people need to be given the adequate tools to make sense of media content and control its influence. Because there can potentially be as many interpretations (therefore effects) as there are viewers, so attempting to study or prevent such effects in a unified and standardized fashion becomes nonsensical.

In the wake of this revolutionary shift from mere passive intake by an audience to a “networked public”, as suggested by the MacArthur Foundation and quoted in Baran and Davis’s Mass Communication Theory, where consumer and producer are fused into one super-user, it is important to define methods for teaching media literacy and to try and gauge their effectiveness (244). The following is an articulation of the basic fundamentals in elaborating these methods proposed by Renee Hobbs in her critical response to Potter’s The State of Media Literacy:

“To accomplish this [teaching media literacy], pedagogical practices must be emphatically student-centred and inquiry-oriented, helping students interrogate the process of making meaning through critical investigation using strategies of both close reading (also called deconstruction or decoding) and media production, where the practices of brainstorming, scriptwriting, and video or website production are enacted, not for the primary purpose of developing vocational or professional skills, but as a means to promote transfer of critical thinking skills from the classroom to the contexts of home, community, and culture. For these reasons, some media literacy educators emphasize the pedagogy of inquiry learning and reject mere knowledge transmission that focuses on media history, economics, and industry structure, common topics of the typical Mass Media and Society course”

Media literacy should be understood as more than just a shield against harmful, external content. In today’s hi-tech reality, media is no longer the elite’s bullhorn. It is an extension of one’s physical being that lets one express himself with far less inhibition than in a real-world context. It should be seen as a pleasurable tool of empowerment that needs to be taught, in order to consume and produce content responsibly. As expressed by Renee Hobbs, this mindset values the youth as competent decision-makers and inventive media creators (4). Educating the youth in this manner can avoid the children’s stigmatization as helpless victims -which they do not readily accept- and attract them in a more constructive and productive fashion to build a comprehensive understanding of the field.

But does this really work? If one believes in the harmful effects of media, one must, de facto, accept the potential effectiveness of mediated education of media literacy. Although it is difficult to assert the direct effects of media literacy programs, a study conducted by Erica Scharrer, in 2006, about the effects of such programs, suggests that there is evidence of enhanced critical thinking and higher ethical awareness when media content was analyzed by sixth graders after having been exposed to a media literacy program (14).

Naturally, much larger-scale and longer-term observation would be needed to fully assess the usefulness of such innovative techniques used for such recent media as the internet or high-definition video games (in comparison to the century-old radio and the decades of research done on it, for example).

Another element of consideration is the risk of adhering to the “early window” principle when teaching media literacy. Suggested by Baran and Davis, is the idea that “media have become a primary means by which most of us experience or learn about many aspects of the world around us” (211). This exacerbates the idea that media representations are a faithful portrayal of reality, when in fact; one of the important elements of media literacy is to actively work to discern reality from fiction in order to reduce the potential for identification and reproduction. This distinction is made by the children in Scharrer’s research as she explains: “This media literacy instruction appears to have triggered some thought about media content and its comparison to “the real world”” (14).

Yet another ambush in media literacy education is the “Boomerang effect”. The idea that “media literacy pedagogy… inadvertently increases, rather than decreases, desired outcomes… if videos used in the lesson prime emotional arousal” (Hobbs 2). Again, the mere identification of such risks may help in avoiding them.

In the long-term, increased media literacy should not be an excuse for loosened regulations and an absence of a legal framework to prevent abuses from media producers.

The opening statement of this paper calls for the transmission of strong moral guidelines. This facet of the fight against violence is undeniably a crucial one. But because it is not the place of research and analysis to unilaterally determine what are good or bad values, this aspect of education will be left at the discretion of parents who are expected to have their own set of values, which depend on culture, religion and other determining social variables.

The only thing that has become a certainty over the last century of mass communication studies is that there is hardly one right perspective or answer. In attempting to educate individual media users, the aim is to draft many more soldiers in this age-old fight to understand this force which is shaped by, as much as it shapes society. It is a long-term investment that promises to yield high returns because in sharpening today’s students, we are creating a future of responsible media professionals who will practice in a world where they will no longer be permitted to senselessly use violence in the manner that a cook uses salt to ‘spice up’ a dish, albeit having the intellectual honesty to accept human nature and the entertaining aspect of mediated violence. In teaching media literacy, it is also important to underline the fact that media can play a positive role in lives and that people are, more than ever, free to create whatever meaning they seek in the consumption and creation of content.

Works Cited

American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. “Media Violence.”

            Pediatrics. 19 Oct.2009. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/5/1222.full

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory. 6th edition. Cengage,

            2012. Print

Center for Media Literacy. “Media Literacy: A Definition and More.”

            Center for Media Literacy. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2012

Hobbs, Renee. “The State Of Media Literacy: A Response To Potter.” Journal Of

Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.3 (2011): 419-430. Communication & Mass

Media Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2012
Scharrer, Erica. “I Noticed More Violence: ” The Effects Of A Media Literacy Program On
            Crirtical Attitudes Toward Media Violence. ” Journal Of Mass Media Ethics 21.1
            (2006): 69-86. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2012

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