Intro: This was an absolute blast to write. I loved talking to Pop and Grandma about TV. It was so much fun. I wrote it for my History of TV class taught by Dr. Christine Becker, one of my top 3 role models. She loved this essay.
This wasn’t the final draft, but it was the longest, so I decided this is the draft to post.
Ashley Knipp, 15 November 2014, History of Television FTT30461, Essay 2
If TV Doesn’t Define “Normal,” It Certainly Perpetuates It
In his article, “The Turn Towards Relevance,” Todd Gitlin says of All in the Family, “viewers took away whatever attitudes they brought to the show” but I would argue that this concept can be applied to viewership of the classic network era as a whole. According to my interview with couple Raymond and Margaret Weaver, watched programs of the classic network era reveal much about the development of stereotypical gender roles and what he or she considered “normal,” depending on the context of his or her personal experience.
Margaret, “Margie,” was married at 19 years old to Ray Weaver in 1961, and from the get-go, assumed the role of mother, housewife, and baby-maker as per the norm. When asked about her feelings on any sort of political or social movements, she replied, “from a woman’s point of view, I didn’t even think about it. I took care of the babies. It was the man’s job to pay attention to those issues.” Perpetuated by the mother figures in shows she watched like Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966), this “normal” female stereotype not only shaped her future behavior, but also formed her ideology for years to come (IMDb). Because the “normal” woman catered to her husband, took care of the babies, and of course, kept a spotless house, so did she. In fact, among her 5 children, their spouses, and her 18 grandchildren, recurring jokes are made about her habit of chanting, “pick up, straighten up, clean up” while tidying up day after day. They may laugh about it, but in her article, “Mama Said,” Susan Douglas argues, “the standards for household cleanliness, not to mention for the laundry, had been raised to a psychotically obsessive level” (Douglas 44). When asked about whether she’d like to be powerful like Sam from Bewitched, Margie said, “if I could clean up faster, sure! Then I could spend more time with my family.” To this day, Margie prides herself on keeping a clean household, while her career-driven CPA daughter can’t say the same. Margie had a specific belief about the way a normal woman should behave, and, to her, shows like The Donna Reed Show supported her beliefs, just as Gitlin suggests, she found support for her own attitudes in that of the shows she once watched.
However, Margie’s “normal” role wasn’t the only option she considered for her life. She always valued having a traditional family over what she calls making “out of the box” choices, but if she hadn’t been married so early in her life, she revealed that she would have been more like Lucy from I Love Lucy. She would have entertained in a choir across the globe, similarly to how Lucy tries to perform on Ricky’s show. In the interview, she repeatedly said that she identified with Lucy because she was “a lady with a lot of joys” who was expressive, unlike Margie. She claimed she “didn’t let herself” express her own opinions around her husband because she “didn’t want to be anything besides what was normal” because “usually the man is the voice of the family.” Television at the time constantly showed that “moms…were always wrong, never doing things quite right, and in constant need of improvement that could come only from listening [to others],” which might explain her discomfort with sharing (Douglas 49). It wasn’t until her five children were born (the early ‘70s) that she was comfortable expressing herself, with the help and support of her church group. Though she claimed to be oblivious to the feminist movement, her own life reflected the “norm” for women on TV as time went on. “It’s always been there, but I was careful to regulate it… I felt like sometimes my voice was rejected, first of all in my own home,” said Margie. Though she felt restricted in her early years, she also shared that her husband, Ray, was often quiet and unwilling to communicate anything deeper than a joke or a good story. This raises the question, did she feel rejected by Ray, or rejected and frustrated by her own confidence in the conformity to this female “norm” perpetuated by TV, which she grew to believe was “right”? Douglas would suggest this to be true because, at the time, it was believed that “any women who thought there might be more to life than baking cookies and administering rectal thermometers were ‘neurotically disturbed,’ (Douglas 47). Gracie Allen of The Burns and Allen Show was another loud, expressive woman who defied the stereotype. Interestingly, when asked about Gracie, Ray Weaver said, “she always played the dunce role” to which Margie quipped, “but she was always very intelligent.” Curious, how she picked up on and/or remembered Gracie’s strategically conveyed intelligence before her husband.
Despite that instance, Ray Weaver also felt dissonance in the way women were portrayed on television, but similarly to Margie, only in the context of his own experiences. The wife and mother character on All in the Family, Edith, resonated with Ray because of the resemblance between her relationship with Archie and the relationship between his own parents. Edith is sickeningly accommodating to Archie against flowing insults and disrespect. Ray described Archie as controlling, like his father. His mother “always tip-toed around” her husband the way Edith had to, because both men were what Ray negatively termed “autocratic.” Though it made him uncomfortable, Ray insisted that this was the way families were run, with the man being catered to left and right by the woman who cooked dinner and raised the children. Ray was repulsed by Archie because of the way he treated Edith. Although he was a man, appropriately dominating, he dominated in an “unhealthy,” domineering fashion as “king of his castle.” Though other viewers identified positively with Archie, Ray judged him negatively because of his feelings about his own father, again, supporting Gitlin’s assertion about viewers taking away the same attitudes they brought to the TV set.
For his own generation, Ray’s definition of the “normal” man paralleled the paternal figure in Father Knows Best, Jim Anderson. Ray described him as head of the household, deeply respected by his wife and children, “the ideal – he was somebody that I think I could look up to.” More than aspiring to be an intellectual businessman, Ray looked up to Jim because “he would always admit when he was wrong” and because he had a good relationship with his wife that included open communication. This situation starkly contrasted with what Ray grew up with and what was shown on All in the Family. Ray’s definition of “normal” was, in effect, changed by television by providing him a new environment to compare to his own. Ray was similarly impacted by Bill Cosby’s character in I Spy, despite his generation’s dissonance on what All in the Family terms, “the black problem.” Michael Kackman’s article, “I Spy, A Colorblind Nation,” explains why Ray may have so easily identified with Cosby’s character, Scotty – because he was the ideal “civil rights subject,” an intelligent man, who thought before he fought, and didn’t depend on anyone (Kackman 118). “[When] you’re a man,” said Ray, “you’re supposed to handle yourself both physically and mentally with the outside world.” In numerous international settings, Scotty did just that. Television offered Ray several examples to help define not only what was “normal” for men, but what Ray could aspire to be, considering that he rejected the role played by the primary male figure in his own life.
Because they strived to appropriately match “normal” gender roles, the Weavers functioned as a unit. Ray and Margie Weaver self-proclaimed either oblivion or indifference to the civil rights movement and other political and social issues of the time because, Ray says, “we were too much in love with each other. We had our own thing goin’ [raising a family].” It wasn’t until John F. Kennedy’s presidential venture that the two were both actively engaged in political conversation, or rather, conversation about a political figure. Keep in mind, Ray and Margie formed their entire lives and personalities around their relationship and the family they created, so it was only appropriate that they were both intrigued by the Kennedys and their personal lives broadcast onscreen. Margie was infatuated with their relationship and how much Jackie loved John. Ray was caught up in the coverage of the Robert and John, including scandals like the rumored affair between President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. “The Kennedys, they loved the women,” Ray chuckled. The couple’s favorite show was a crime program called Moonlighting, but not because of the action. There was an ongoing romance forever in the flirtation stage between the main characters. “It wasn’t a crime [show] to me,” said Margie. Ray loved it because it was cute, and it was “hopefully building to a marriage.” Other viewers and critics may have praised Moonlighting for its avoidance of inevitable marriage, but the Weavers valued marriage to the point of developing their entire lives and personalities from their own marriage. Moonlighting’s open-ended conclusion could have enthralled and supported both pro-inevitable-marriage and anti-inevitable-marriage, like any good TV show, preventing any viewer alienation because “nothing can dissolve the network’s dependence on certification by a mass audience” (Gitlin 203).
Popular television programming, an individual’s preference for one program over the other, and the way in which that individual interprets the program reveals ideology, personal values, hidden dreams, and shunned memories. From this interview with the Weavers, I found that television is a remarkable medium for learning things about a person one could never learn by asking a straightforward question. Gitlin presents a profound statement in his aforementioned article, “ideas form about the ebb and flow of popular feelings, and the genre that might or might not correspond to them,” which can be applied to the Weavers’ opinions on today’s “normal” gender roles depicted on TV. Margie asserted that TV today may contribute to the widespread male identity crisis what with so many shows depicting women as smart and controlling and men as weak, unlike the Jim Andersons of the late ‘50s. Whether or not there are more strong women and weak men on TV doesn’t matter. What is interesting is the fact that Margie developed her personal ideology on gender roles in the classic network era, which she now applies in today’s primetime. From her perspective, she disapproves of the changing gender roles in favor of women, despite her admitted past feelings of oppression as a woman with opinions. She’s loyal to the ideology she solidified during the classic network era. Their interview reveals that TV is not only a window to the past, but a tool in shaping personalities and therefore an individual’s reaction to the future. Therefore, though TV evolves in accordance with popular sentiment, as Gitlin asserts, popular sentiment is formed by TV.