Mary Hartman and Archie Bunker:
Norman Lear’s Cheap Shots at the Working Class
By Joe Flaherty
Urban survival aside, one of the lesser inherent evils of living in New York City is that one has to deal with mental muggings. In a way, it’s a self-inflicted dilemma, since it comes from reading too many slick publications instead of books and from attending parties that have the spontaneity of a Bund meeting.
The magazines are merely inanimate versions of the parties, since the same “in” subjects are discussed. In more civilized times your host at such soirées expected you to arrive at the door with a bottle and a few standard lines of patter. And if there was concern about your sexual organ, it was confined to the hope that you could aim it straight at the urinal as the drinks multiplied and the time flew. Ah, Wilderness!
Currently, you can’t get through a door to cavort unless you’re in mid-life crisis, can discourse on est, bisexuality (in my boyhood Brooklyn that would have been misconstrued as meaning you both wanted it), transsexuality (getting laid on a train crossing state boundaries?), and the profundities and social significance of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
Now, unless you want to spend the evening talking to your host’s or hostess’s plants (perfectly acceptable but boring), you have to be conversant with the phenomena of the last decade. There always is a singer you must hear—Bette Midler; a movie you must see—Pink Flamingos; and now a television show to follow—“MH, MH.”
You might rightfully ask why such boobery abounds. With a bow to that Greek philosopher, Spiro Agnew, we might begin by examining the press. In the sixties, hysteria replaced critical faculties on the entertainment pages. Rock “critics” led the way by finding grooved “masterpieces” weekly, until you began to thing that Chuck Berry disc “Roll Over, Beethoven” was a dire prophecy. One assumes that by these “critical” lights Johnny Ray’s caterwauling would have been equated with Medea.
Movie reviewers were quick to fall into goose step. Such directorial dogs as Roger Corman and Sam Fuller began to receive fulsome analysis, when, in fact, one should have seen their films only if seduced with the promise of a gravy boat at the door. Indeed, considering the economy, the death of Dish Night might be the true cinematic tragedy.
There had to be reasons for the advent of this madness. First, it’s within our nature to heighten and gloss our activities. Stand in any bar, whether it be blue-collar or button-down, at cocktail hour; if the conversation were to be believed, the hoisters have managed to salvage not only the Republic but also the Western world at least once before lunch and many times more before punch-out time.
But this can’t be the sole reason, since self-aggrandizement has always been with us. The psychic sewer runs deeper than that. Could it be that the tots of the electronic age, steeped in education like no generation before them, had to justify that education (to their indulgent mommies)? Thus anything that crossed their eyes and entered their ears had to be anointed to a higher order. Since McLuhan rendered the last rites to the printed word (his own style was the foremost pallbearer), had his disciples, so lazy in their reading habits, taken it upon themselves to celebrate their electronic voyeurism?
And besides, records, movies, and television were part of their affluent youth—their teething ring and pacifier. So what better way to forestall dread adulthood than taking the trappings of adolescence and graduating them to solemnity and grandeur? It’s not an uncommon gambit. Aging athletes will take jobs as scouts, coaches, assistant anything within the confines of the play world, in order to keep the big bad wolf of reality outside the door. The true forerunner of this play might have been Ponce de León.
But none of this explains older heads who wax rhapsodic about trivia. Here I think we have to return to our deeply ingrained Puritan work ethic. That is, if one spends time with anything, it must be justified. The idea that one should consider wasting time or “pissing it away” is a sin that the self can’t reckon with. Why this guilt exists I can’t explain, except to say that particular emotion has been the most hungered-after whore since psychiatry hung out its shingle.
And consider that there is no cosmic ground (or sky) to the notion that idleness is wicked. The stigma is man-wrought, because if one is to believe the Good Book, the Lord worked six on and one off and hasn’t been heard from since. His Son languished away for thirty years in obscurity, playing catch-up ball for the last three. So, I beg, why the need to justify simple time killing? Is it this guilt that has produced so much bilge about inanities?—the dam buster being the subject of our consideration, “MH, MH” and its creator Norman Lear.
It is now irrefutable dictum that Norman Lear is a “revolutionary” in Television-Land, a regular Che of the channels. He has been called a Marxist who is chronicling the decline of capitalist society, the guiding light to the mores of working-class America, a more profound domestic investigator than Ingmar Bergman in Scenes from a Marriage, a Freudian frontiersman who is exploring our sexual dilemmas, a satirist, an absurdist, ad infinitum. In short, he has been canonized as the proprietor of Lourdes—come to his well, and he can cure what ails us.
If these opinions had appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal or Silver Screen, one could giggle. Or, more properly, it’s the kind of stuff one expects from Mad Magazine, with Alfred E. Newman’s tongue deeply planted in his cheek. Au contraire, these august opinions appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, and in the Tutankhamen of Think—the New York Review of Books. One presumes that these writers’ tongues were in their proper place, while mine was clenched between my teeth.
Though Lear has a stable of TV sows, his iconoclastic reputation derives mainly from two of them, “All in the Family” and “MH, MH.” With “All in the Family,” Lear was applauded for venting the subject of bigotry into our secure living rooms through the foul-mouthed, jingoistic Archie Bunker. On the face of things, “AITF” should be a threatening show, forcing the viewer to look at himself and American life through the glass darkly.
But, in fact, it serves the opposite purpose because of the makeup of the main character. One can look at the stogie-puffing, malaprop-laden Bunker and see nothing of oneself. Why, my dear, he uses words such as coon and spic, and his syntax is more fractured than Evel Knievel’s physiognomy. So the middle-class viewer can sit back in smug comfort and say, “That’s bigotry,” and never frisk his own soul. And this appeasement of the higher classes is what Lear’s “genius” is all about.
If the Bunkers of the country were all that minority groups had to contend with, their problems would be solved. Weekly, Archie suffers his comeuppance at the hands of his liberal son-in-law and daughter, those he abuses, and even his dotty wife. To grant Lear company that he doesn’t deserve, he’s like Shakespeare in his mania to restore civilized order at the end of an ordeal. In Shakespeare’s case, the reason was his love of monarchy and the divine right of kings; in Lear’s case, it’s his love of Nielsen that moves him to give his “enlightened” audience a placebo.
The power structure of bigotry is never questioned: those who control the jobs, frame the zoning laws, and isolate themselves from the poor through money, doormen, private schools, and neighborhood. That would be a true kick in the ass to Lear’s liberal devotees. Indeed Archie, with all his misguided opinions, is more real than all the viewers who feel superior to him. He lives in Queens, where neighborhoods are integrated, his class are the guinea pigs for busing, and the patriotism of his class is valid, since it was they who sent their sons to die in Vietnam, unable to afford the luxury of college deferments or trips to Sweden and Canada. Archie’s ideas and hostilities have been shaped by experience, trial and error, while his “betters” have no idea of the depth of their emotions, since their theoretical equations rest in secure laboratories.
The true insanity of America is that we don’t know the meaning of our commitment to social justice. The line of division between action and lip service has never been measured, so as long as we have straw men like Archie and men like Lear propping them up, we will never know. The real message in “All in the Family,” as it is in “MH, MH,” is working-class mockery. Archie’s accent, his dress, his dull palate, his not “with it” ideas on sex, his cornball love of the flag, his lumpy furniture, are the real targets of Lear’s snide mind.
Just as the real target of “MH, MH” is the desperation of Mary as “The Number One Typical American Consumer Housewife,” with her entombment in the kitchen, chicken-fried steak, Twinkies, beer cans, bawling, lunch pails, sports on TV, country-and-western music, and baseball caps—all of which moved Robert Craft in the New York Review of Books to call the portrayal of the social stratum “remarkably accurate.” One presumes Mr. Craft popped his head into the kitchen at Elaine’s in his research into the “social stratum.”
It’s the new snobbery of the sixties and seventies that certain “life-styles” connote superiority and, indeed, moral grace. And in Lear’s case, it’s not even original, since the first foray into this cultural fascism took place in the movie Joe.
Many might have thought that that film was a confrontation of hawks and doves, but that was merely the “high-minded” hype to getting down to real sneering (later to become leering). After all, the Kennedys, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern et al. went along with the war for a lengthy spell, but they didn’t suffer from the real sin—Joe’s “gaucheries.” His pot belly, his T-shirt (not tie-dyed), his taste for “Seven and Seven” (Seagram’s and Seven-Up), his atrocious grammar, his slapping his middle-class dinner guest on the ass and then sending out for Chinese food, his meat loaf smothered with catsup, and yes, his bowling trophies.
But class slander has successful roots. By applying many of the same tactics, an obscure corporal found fame and fortune. Since I come from the working class, I don’t want my arguments to be misconstrued as an attempt at blue-collar canonization. In past print much of my spleen has been vented on the aberration of the labor movement and the political direction of workers (formerly have-nots) toward the muckety-mucks. Indeed, one of my favorite pieces of satire is the Peter Sellers move I’m All Right, Jack, which (though British-based) rings true in the colonies. But peanut butter, Twinkies, and beer?
As a child, I was a “Devil Dog” devotee, and I’ve always presumed that a child’s penchant for junk food has nothing to do with class but with an unidentified organ in tykes and teenagers that craves shit. And I must add that it was not until I became engaged in liberal politics in Manhattan that I was subjected to evenings during which guests had to survive on Fritos, cheese dip, potato chips, and a half-gallon of vin rose (Macy’s own brand). A can of Coors would have been an immeasurable step up in class.
But what of the canard that Lear, with “MH, MH,” is satirizing soap operas? Think of the inanity of this. It must be classified in the sale-of-the-Brooklyn Bridge school of aesthetics, since soap operas themselves are travesties on life. Is this the target of a “revolutionary” in these helter-skelter times? Besides, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on the old “Show of Shows”—and more recently, Carol Burnett—spoofed the genre with more wit and zest.
Writing in the Village Voice, Clark Whelton opined that “Lear’s genius was to understand that millions of TV viewers were just waiting for an excuse to sink into a nice bubbly box of Oxydol, as long as they were permitted to call it something else.”
More interesting, in the same article Whelton quotes gay columnist Arthur Bell: “There is no way to explain how popular ‘Mary Hartman’ was in the gay community. At eleven o’clock everyone was inside watching television.” Perhaps Bell was too close to the scene to discern the attraction. After decades of watching the straight world portray homosexuals as swishing, limp-wristed screechers, “Mary Hartman” had to be sweet revenge on straight life. Mary with her pigtails, pinafores, and vacuousness is the embodiment of that cruel stereotype, the “dumb cunt” (Edith Bunker is her aged counterpart). Add to this the fact that Mary’s husband Tom, who, Craft says, would rather spend “time with the boys,” was suffering from impotence at the series inception.
The show’s ongoing “stud,” Charlie Haggers, got his comeuppance (or “downance”) this year when his balls were blown away by a gun. The current tomcatter, Merle Jeeter, told his new wife, Wanda, that he would try to be loyal to her if he could get over his “perverted lust for women.” Now that’s an old-fashioned wrist slapper if I ever heard one.
But sexual dysfunction aside, the gay appeal of the show has to be the drab depiction of heterosexual life, with its tacky taste. The use of the terms “straight” and “gay” reek of a lopsided superiority in the latter’s favor. Hetero and homo don’t do the trick. But “straight” dishes up “straight shooter,” “straight-laced,” “straight and true”—all the mockeries of Main Street—while “gay” promises la bohème in Montmartre. It’s not for nothing that gay bars in Greenwich Village advertised the showing of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” in their windows and the wearing of baseball caps proliferated on Christopher Street.
Craft praises the show’s “progressive attitude” toward homosexuals, which is embodied by Howard and Ed, who long to get married. But this is less a heartfelt attitude in Lear’s case than a calculating reading of his audience. The same is true of another of his shows, “The Jeffersons,” which deals with a black family. The Jeffersons are portrayed with dignity (as with Ralph Bunche, one wouldn’t mind living next door to them), while the Bunkers are to be looked down on. The extent of Lear’s courage on “The Jeffersons” is depicted in their neighbors’ interracial marriage, a coupling that in the real world would be steeped too often in unbelievable tension and pain. On “The Jeffersons” this social phenomenon is glossed over, and Lear, of course, takes the easy way out. The wife is black and the husband white, a pairing Alex Haley reminded us we’ve never had compunctions about. And not only is the husband white, but his attitudes suggest that he might be Eleanor Roosevelt in drag.
If Lear had reversed this pairing, we might have seen some real heat on the tube and curious audience and sponsor reaction. But Lear is no different from the other hucksters of the airwaves in slipping us sugar-coated pills, except that he falsely labels his products dangerous. The main function of the Lear shows is to take pain out of our existence by telling us that we’re superior to it. Thus we can indulge in “camp,” a shtick that does no harm when it’s confined to Batman and Carmen Miranda movies but is deadly for the soul in deeper matters.
“Camp” was to the homosexual what “shuffling” was to the blacks—a defense, a safeguard against a hostile, unjust society. And if society hasn’t altered greatly, the attitudes of the oppressed have; so Lear is doing them no service in resurrecting the old gambits. But he has added one wrinkle: his is pitching his campsite in middle-class living rooms.
So one can now watch “Mary Hartman” and snicker at death, madness, wife beating, child abuse, impotence, and dismemberment at the expense of the trolls he puts on the screen. Unlike the gays and the blacks, the “Twinkie eaters” have no lobby.
To highlight the point, just consider the conveyance of death on “Mary Hartman”: drowning in chicken soup, choking on a TV dinner, being electrocuted in bathwater. How gloriously tacky! Who would be caught dead in such instances!
Lear’s defenders point to the way he occasionally takes shots at psychiatry, TV, trendy upper-class movements, and also to his sympathetic handling of Dennis Foley, the cop. But this is the emperor’s-clothes ploy that Whelton wrote about—a smoke screen to muddle the already muddled middle-class mind. From a historical point of view, shrink jokes are as old as “The Ed Sullivan Show.” TV often spoofs itself (to no great damage), and est and women’s lib get short shrift in such palaces of “radicalism” as Caesar’s, the Sands, and the Dunes.
In the case of Dennis Foley, it takes only marginal intelligence to ferret out the ploy: “For contrast, gang, let’s make ‘the pig’ enlightened and sympathetic. That will really fuck ‘em up.”
No, I’m afraid television’s Turk’s true role in life is no different from that of his producing counterparts, that is, to lull us to sleep with self-satisfaction. Art is not only the communion of joy but also the sharing of pain, and in Lear’s world the province of pain is our dull, dumb neighbors’ backyards. The Archies are bigots, the tacky shits of Fernwood are the ones who can’t cope with life, every black has Jeffersonian pretensions.
What a lovely world. The scourges of modern life have been farmed out. And when Norman’s last show of the evening goes off the air, we can say “Nytol” to whose woe-ridden strangers and sleep the sleep of the pampered who think the proletariat is to be pissed on.