Jean Stapleton's Pivotal Role changed us all

Television lost one of its great character actors Saturday when Jean Stapleton passed away at age 90.  Stapleton won three Emmys playing “dingbat” Edith Bunker from 1971-1979 in the groundbreaking comedy All in the Family.

At the height of its popularity, All in the Family was watched weekly by 35 million viewers on CBS; it remains one of only three TV programs to be number one in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons.  Yet remarkably, few millennials know the show.  When I’ve mentioned its main character in class, loveable bigot Archie Bunker, I may as well be talking about David Crabtree in My Mother the Car.  But I play an episode of All in the Family in my Mass Media History and Public Relations Issues classes as an example of how a popular program can effectively influence public opinions–and the culture.

Edith and Archie Bunker

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie (Carroll O’Connor) Bunker

The reason Archie and Edith, daughter Gloria, and son-in-law Mike Stivic broke ground was the subject matter that created the conflict within this television family.  All in the Family was the first American network TV sitcom to tackle cultural topics including homosexuality, racism, anti-Semitism, rape, abortion, the Vietnam War, and other controversial issues of the ’70s.  While Stapleton’s Edith was a naively sweet and open-minded housewife, husband Archie, a working-class World War II veteran, saw the world in us-against-them terms, using racist, sexist and homophobic slurs to describe the people around him.  The ideas expressed and the language used each week was rare anyplace on television and is unheard in today’s network fare.

Moving the public opinion needle on social issues is a long-term, difficult task.  I credit All in the Family with helping to do just that; its hilarious dialogue on hot-button topics often showed the absurdities of prejudice and ignorance.  Now, a generation later, mixed-race and same-sex couples are marrying in great numbers, racial slurs aren’t tolerated, communities are far more diverse, and the president of the United States is black.  Part of the reason for this societal change was Jean Stapleton’s pivotal role.  Rest in peace, Edith.  Your thoughts?

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