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.

 

%d bloggers like this: