The death of actress Jean Stapleton, who played the archetypical Edith Bunker on television's "All in the Family," causes me to reflect on the changing role of women in American society, and societies around the world. Many women in developing countries still face the same struggles Edith faced. Indeed, Edith, despite her "oppression," would be viewed as having a luxurious life in some developing countries because she didn't have to work outside the home for the family to make ends meet.
When I was living in central Turkey for two years, many of the families I met reminded me of the Bunker family -- a father who was taught to believe he would be the autocratic leader or king of the family, a mother/housewife and children who pushed gently against the limits of that power and conservative social convention. It reminded me of America before the feminist revolution. It's not hard at all to imagine Edith as a good, conventional Muslim woman wearing a scarf and faithfully attending mosque in central Turkey.
In the fragmented entertainment world of today, it may be hard to believe that a single television show could have a big impact in opening minds and shaping American culture. But "All in the Family" certainly did. Today, a popular show like "Breaking Bad" might attract an audience of at most three million viewers. In the 1970s, an average episode of "All in the Family" attracted well over one third of the entire television audience, or 21 million viewers, at a time when the nation's population was 100 million less. (Source.)
When I was a teenager, Archie reminded me very much of my father. The show helped me learn to laugh rather than to be constantly outraged by his prejudices. I suppose, as we engaged in frequent shouting matches, I reminded my father of the character of Mike Stivic, Archie's son-in-law, strident liberal, and "Meathead." And nowadays, the tables have turned; the roles have reversed. With a sometimes surly teenager of my own, who likes to make outrageous and strident statements just to get a rise out of me, I sometimes remind myself more of Archie Bunker as defender of authority, tradition and convention, than of Mike Stivic, constant questioner of authority, tradition and convention. My teenager has taken on the "Meathead" role. I try not to take my son's bait, but alas, in moments of weakness, I do.
My mother was not subservient like Edith. She worked outside the home for most of her work life as a schoolteacher, and asserted herself in ways Edith never would. Yet she admired Edith's sense of justice, fair play, commitment to family and to creating a loving, nurturing homelife. And I suppose the character of Edith Bunker helped enlighten my mother and make her more aware of the ways in which women were unnecesarily subvervient, and made her more aware of the emerging feminist movement in the U.S.
"What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home,” Ms. Stapleton, a confirmed if not necessarily outspoken feminist, said in an interview in The New York Times in 1972, with the show still early in its life. (It ran until 1979, and a continuation, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” that starred Mr. O’Connor but not the rest of the cast, lingered until 1983.) “She is very naïve, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world.”
And yet, in the show's eight years, Edith grew increasingly assertive, as The Times story illustrates. I sense that is happening today in certain developing countries like Turkey. It's too bad they don't (as far as I am aware) have an extremely popular television show like "All in the Family" to spur them on.
Rest in Peace, Jean Stapleton, for your wonderful contribution to American culture in giving us Edith Bunker.