All In The Family, Michael Sam, and the unfortunate persistence of Archie Bunker

All In The Family, Michael Sam, and the unfortunate persistence of Archie Bunker

Watching All In The Family today, it’s strange to see how, in many ways, little has changed since the 1970s. The haircuts and the president are different, but 40 years after Norman Lear’s game-changing sitcom debuted, it feels as though the Bunker family’s arguments are still taking place in our living rooms. All In The Family made its name by tackling the hot-button political issues of its era, including race, abortion, women’s liberation, Vietnam, and the gay-rights movement. During a time where George Carlin highlighted everything you couldn’t say on television, it seemed like there was no issue All In The Family wouldn’t touch. Even an episode as innocuous-sounding as “Edith’s 50th Birthday” dealt with the realities of sexual assault.

Early in its first season, All In The Family made television history by depicting the first gay sitcom character—in a clever bait and switch. The show’s standard format involves Archie being tested by different social stimuli and watching the other characters react to his inherent bigotry. Instead of father knowing best, Archie Bunker is the antagonist whose behavior the show endeavors to correct, and each installment serves as something of a profanity-laden Very Special Episode to that end. During the fifth episode, “Judging Books By Their Covers,” Meathead and Gloria invite over a friend from school, the effete and worldly Roger, who Archie presumes to be gay, thus providing the episode’s central conflict.

Of course, Roger (probably) isn’t gay, as Meathead continually asserts, and so what if he were? Meathead argues, “Whatever two consenting adults do in private is their own business,” summing up the Sexual Offences Act, a 1967 law that decriminalized sodomy in the U.K. As goes for most episodes, Meathead is driven to prove his father-in-law wrong, and he gets a golden opportunity when he discovers that Archie’s friend Steve is actually gay. Steve, the prototype of the ideal man’s man, hangs out at the neighborhood bar with Archie and his friends. A former football player, the hyper-masculine Steve is the product of the “rougher” and “tougher” era that Archie idealizes, one whose morals he thinks are lost on the current generation. Roger provides the perfect vehicle for that imagined dichotomy.

When Meathead provokes him with the reality of his assumptions, Archie descends into panic, realizing that the world as he knows it is slowly disappearing. Archie responds, “You’re sick. You need help. All his pinko stuff, well that’s all right. Clothes. Their wide-open sex any time of the night or day, for no reason at all? All right, that’s your submissive society.” In the next scene, Archie confronts Steve, only to watch his reality further erode when Steve clarifies that, yes, he is gay. In a commentary on the episode for Splitsider, A.J. Aronstein argues that this is “what All In The Family does best.” Aronstein writes, “There’s something weirdly pathetic, just before Steve comes out to Archie, about watching the bigot being shown how lonely his world can get.” 

But it’s not only Archie’s world that’s changing. Throughout the episode, the viewer sees how other characters react to Steve, making sense of a world where a man can be gay and a football player. The bartender, Kelcy, who works at Archie’s pub knows about Steve’s sexuality and doesn’t care, because at least he isn’t one of “those” gays. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind Steve,” Harry explains. “His camera store is just down the street here and he only comes in for a drink once in a while on his way home. Besides he don’t camp it up, you know? And he don’t bring in none of his friends.” What makes Steve’s behavior acceptable is that, unlike Roger, his identity affirms normative ideas of masculinity by not reminding Kelcy of the lived reality of Steve’s identity.

What makes “Judging Books By Their Covers” feel eerily timeless is how much the conversation about Steve mirrors the recent public meltdown over Michael Sam, the football player who had the audacity to kiss his boyfriend after making history as the first openly gay man drafted into the NFL. Even before the kiss aired, chatter in the league suggested that Sam’s sexuality would be a “distraction.” What seemed to bother pundits isn’t that Michael Sam is gay, but that he would bring it into the locker room. And in the wake of “the kiss heard ’round the world,” the problem became that he was bringing it into our living rooms, too. Former Super Bowl champ Derrick Ward tweeted his concern about the kids watching the draft. “I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen,” Ward wrote.

A better indication of Sam’s incitement of cultural confusion occurred during The Broadcast, a generically titled facsimile of The View that airs in Dallas. During a discussion of the Michael Sam moment, co-host Courtney Kerr accuses a panelist of being “racist against homosexuals.” The show’s Amy Kushnir responds, “When parents do not have a choice about whether or not they want their children to see this, it is wrong. I don’t call it a moment of celebration. It’s being pushed in faces.” After being pressed to describe what the difference is between a Nicholas Sparks movie (where leads routinely kiss in the rain for dramatic effect) and Michael Sam, Kushnir storms off in protest. “I’m done,” she huffs, proverbially throwing her hands up in the air at modernity.

The segment might seem like the irrelevant bickering of four Southern women with too much hairspray and too many pearls to clutch, but it’s deeply indicative of a growing defensiveness among those who are getting left behind. What bothered Archie Bunker wasn’t so much that men are having sex with each other (although he wasn’t a fan of that either), but that society increasingly wasn’t adhering to his rules. His characteristic bucolic anger throughout the series was indicative of a man who had lost control; even in his own house, he was rarely the master of his domain. A season-two episode, “Sammy’s Visit,” underscores that point by inviting Sammy Davis Jr. to come over and plant a big one on Archie, not as a gay protest but a message that the bigot’s days were numbered.

Lear and Davis were, of course, being optimistic in predicting the demise of Archie Bunker, in favor of a new, more tolerant generation. Although recent Politico statistics show that the favorability of same-sex marriage has hit a new high (at 55 percent), 47 percent of respondents in a Huffington Post/YouGov poll found the Sam kiss inappropriate; only 36 percent approved of ESPN’s decision to air the lip-lock. That doesn’t suggest Bunker’s sentiments as much as Kelcy’s: “You can get married, just don’t bring it in here. We don’t want to see that.” The same calculus is why Modern Family remains one of the highest-rated shows on television, while also featuring a same-sex couple. Mitch and Cameron are more like roommates than loving partners.

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern argued that the homophobic reactions to the Sam kiss showed that gay people need to kiss in public more often, but All In The Family proves that television also plays an important role in changing the public’s minds. Whereas shows like Modern Family shy away from “going there” to protect their ratings, All In The Family boasted a record-setting five consecutive seasons at No. 1 by doing the opposite: rubbing its agenda in people’s faces. After Steve comes out to Archie Bunker, he punches his friend in the arm; Archie flinches at the sting and smirks to himself, “Well, if that’s the punch of a fruit.” But he trails off, his face recoiling in horror just as he’s about to learn the lesson. Forty years later, it’s time we finished Archie’s sentence for him.

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