Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker) recently passed away. In a nostalgic moment this weekend, my hubby, lounging in his well-loved recliner, was watching old episodes of All in the Family on his computer. Cooking dinner I watched over his shoulder an episode called Archie's Chair in which Michael accidentally breaks Archie's iconic recliner.
The family frantically tries to get the chair repaired before Archie returns home, only for the unthinkable to happen...the repair company mistakes his chair for junk and discards it. Archie has a fit, tyrannizing Edith by yelling and threatening to break furniture; it was the classic reactionary Archie Bunker rant we all laughed at back in my youth.
I suddenly had an Ah Ha moment; these are classic red flags. The family continually walking on eggshells. Sometimes he's loving and tender, but sometimes uses anger or intimidation to maintain order in his house. Wow... that sounds a lot like the power and control that characterizes an abusive relationship. And that's what my family, and millions of others like us all over America, called family entertainment back in the 70's.
Archie's charm was his unabashed humanness... including stubbornness, vehement political conservatism and bigotry.But I don't recall anyone ever commenting on his behaviors as abusive. Was Edith in danger from Archie's rages? Never. Did he love her? Clearly. Did his incessant disrespect, "Stifle it Edith" erode her self worth? Undoubtedly.Did the whole family tread carefully to avoid rousing his ire? Every single episode.Is my reaction excessive? Arguably.... but maybe it's also an indicator of how far we've come. Today it's simply not funny to see someone raging at their loved ones... it's uncomfortable.
But the show also answers the age-old question, "Why people stay in an abusive relationship?". Often because they love the person, even with all his/her complex human flaws. Or because they've made a commitment to each other... for better or worse. Would we ever picture Edith leaving Archie? No. But why didn't we ever question why it was OK, even funny to treat a loved one that way? Maybe because it was all in the family. It's interestingly that I see things so differently with 30 or 40 years to think about what makes a loving relationship.