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In 80s and 90s sitcoms, everyone is oh-so-politically correct

Some of the sitcoms of the eighties and the nineties irritate me to no end. You see, the new culture of political correctness has taken over the scriptwriting teams in Hollywood to the point where most of the writers working on the 80s and 90s scripts forgot the key difference between the SHOULD and the IS. The sitcoms of the 80s and 90s were based on the idea of harmonious families with strict parents who appropriately discipline their kids, respect each other within an equal marriage, all the while living in a peaceful society that has no conflicts of race or gender. Yes, that is how America SHOULD be. The problem is, the real world is much less ideal and sitcoms that pretend that all is peachy are boring and preachy. This little conceptual distinction may have bored you all to death, but it basically explains why All in the Family is one of the best shows of the last few decades. That show really showed how things are instead of how they should be because it dealt with racism, sexism, and family conflict in a real way that later shows did not.

In The Cosby Show, Heathcliff Huxtable was incredibly respectful and supportive of his wife Claire. The two were always considerate and respectful towards each other even when "fighting." Archie, on the other hand, often shushed his wife Edith because he thought she was being "too honest" about things he wanted to keep hidden or that she was talking too much nonsense. If most women had to choose between Cliff and Archie as role models for male behavior, Cliff would win hands down. But that misses the point. You see, I don't think television shows should be there to dictate how people SHOULD behave. That's boring. Stories about conflict-free happy families are yawn inducing. But not only that, they are a straight-out false representation of real American culture. Fact is, we haven't all yet reached the point of perfection where our gender and racial harmony meets the high standards we have set out for ourselves.

Everybody has trouble with racial equality; even liberals.

And that's exactly the point that All in the Family makes in every one of its shows. Mike Stivic, the liberal graduate student on history who prides himself on his support for civil rights, is embarrassed to find himself feeling resentful when a black applicant for a teaching position at a University gets a job over him thanks to affirmative action. Yes, Mike supports affirmative action in principle, but emotionally speaking, he is still not completely on board when said affirmative action affects his life negatively. This one episode reflects the brilliancy of the show's writers. They understood that racial equality is not simply a politically correct belief that we can all easily subscribe to. It also sometimes entails personal sacrifice that requires certain people to put the general justice above their personal needs and desires. On the issue of race, that show was also clever enough to make the point that ideological commitment to racial justice is not enough.

That point is even better emphasized in another All in the Family episode. One day, when the Bunker family gets held up in a robbery by two black thieves, the liberal-minded Mike Stivic talks about the black plight and the difficulties the colored population has to contend with. In this way, he justifies the criminal act to the criminals themselves. However, they laugh at him and treat him like a moron. Fact is, no one likes to see a historian Mike Stivic reduce their life difficulties to an academic problem. These people are risking their necks in a crime that could land them behind bars and this educated type starts talking about "their" racial issues. I think this episode should be recommended viewing for everybody who is interested in American race relations. The thing about racial inequality is that you either go out and actively help people better their lot or you live your own life. The compassion of a Mike Stivic who talks about black poverty to black people, but who hasn't helped and has no plans to help them with it is the most useless thing in the world. The thieves were right to laugh at him. He wanted to present himself as a man who cares about the black people. However, historical knowledge of the problem of racism and inequality has led turned them into a pompous windbag who congratulates himself on "caring" about black problems, but actually doesn't.

We don't all speak the same language

While All in the Family shows the issues of racism impacting people's lives, modern shows like Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel Air don't seem to want to tackle this problem. In their universe of SHOULD, they live in an America mostly free of race problems. The Cosby Show shows black and white adults and children socializing with each other and speaking the same language. That is the ideal America aspires to, but it isn't yet the reality. In All in the Family, habits of speech separate the Jeffersons from the Bunkers. The Bunkers speak NewYorkese (toity instead of thirty) while the Jeffersons converse in Ebonics/Southern flavored English. The interaction between the Bunkers and the Jeffersons reflects black and white New Yorkers as having speech and cultural differences and therefore sometimes not getting along that well. Wheezy's fast, straight-talking, no nonsense demeanor grates on Archie's nerves. George Jefferson's assertiveness acquired from dealing with condescending white folks also rubs Archie the wrong way. All in The Family shows in a very concrete way that race-relations in America can arise at least in part from the misunderstandings between blacks and whites.

But The Cosby Show decides to ignore the essential truth of discomfort derived between different speech and behavioral patterns by making all its black and white characters upwardly mobile folks that all talk the same way. I do not deny that such upwardly mobile folks actually, but why base a whole show on people like them without including more "regular folks" with local speech patterns? Perhaps the show's writers are representing the ideal of one America, united by one language. But, I repeat, even if that's how things should be, they aren't like that. The Cosby Show understood one thing: upwardly mobile folks do talk more alike and are less likely to have conflicts.A world of people with money and good professions is certainly a good milieu to situate a sitcom free of racial and gender discrimination, and a perfect place to portray a perfect America as it should be. But with the working-class, it's quite a bit different. Simple, non-ideological matters like the speech patterns of workers who didn't benefit from extensive education can bring about racist feelings.

Men who can't stand "honest" women please raise your hand.

The virtue of All in The Family lies in precisely in the way it shows how hateful thinking comes from the ordinary experience of everyday life rather than from bigoted beliefs. Archie's resentment of Irene, who works with him at the docks, once comes into play when Irene threatens to tell on him for stealing a tool from work. Afraid of getting him fired, Archie seethes with an anger at Irene's commitment to honesty, a trait that he also seems to despise in his own wife whose untimely comments end up blabbing up out some key piece of info that she was supposed to hush up in order to help him carry out one of his "schemes." The Cosby Show like many modern sitcoms thinks that sexism has to do with people having the wrong ideas. It deals with the issue by putting the idea that a woman should stay in the kitchen in the mouth of one of its precocious young characters, Kenny. Later on, Sandra's boyfriend Elvin seems to propound the same views.

The Cosby Show's fix for the feminism problem is like a medication: Doctor Heathcliff Huxtable has a talk with Elvin and tells him about how women should not have to do all the housework and cooking. The beauty of All in the Family is that it shows sexism to be way more difficult to deal with. A good talking-to and the right ideas would not suffice to "fix" Archie's sexism. He would have to become a more honest person who wouldn't get tripped up by his wife and co-workers revealing his machinations or at least a person who accepts their moral prerogative to stop him in his tracks. What gets Archie to realize that it isn't right to demand a lot of cooking from his wife isn't a reference to the manifesto that women aren't bound to the kitchen. It's rather an incident in which his wife becomes ill after slaving herself to prepare a huge meal for his party. In All in the Family, respecting women and getting along with different-race neighbors depend not on ideas, but on being a good person. The ideas of women's rights and racial equality that modern sitcoms emphasize so much are important, but they aren't the whole story. All in the Family was unique because it showed how a man's unfair treatment of women within this family and minorities came not from ideological convictions but was rather bound-up with the wants and needs of everyday life.

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