• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #164: Edith Bunker


Oh, Archie!

There was a peculiar beauty and brilliance to All in the Family. Like most good art, it was a mirror in which we could see parts of ourselves - parts we liked, and parts we didn't. We laughed at Archie Bunker's misogyny and prejudice and backwards attitudes as though he were a clown, all the while shifting with the uncomfortable knowledge that his views represented a very real segment of America. Archie was the archetype of the modern Tea Partier, white and male and middle class and reeling from the social and political changes that threatened his carefully cultivated identity. Carroll O'Connor's great talent was in making a grumpy bigot sympathetic, so that we always held out hope he would see the flaws in his world view. There's sociological (and psychological) grist to grind about why we're predisposed to embrace a lovable bigot, but the more fascinating character for me is the woman who loved him bigotry or no, the inestimable Edith Bunker.

Edith could have easily slipped into stereotype, becoming another harried suburban matriarch, henpecking her husband and unleashing her acid tongue at his shortcomings. But played with high-pitched grace and nervous strength by the talented Jean Stapleton, Edith Bunker became a beloved figure for her fierce devotion to a man she knew was imperfect, and for her wise compassion for the rest of the world Archie so readily denigrated. Far less conservative than her husband, Edith opened her arms to her deceased cousin's lesbian lover, to her African-American neighbors, and to a transvestite.

Even as her flighty affect led Archie to refer to her somewhat affectionately as a dingbat, Edith understood the world in a way he never would. She knew her feminist daughter's and radical son-in-law's frontal assaults on Archie's politics were doomed to failure, that direct attack only raised his defenses and led him to double down on his anger and frustration. Instead, Edith supported him, protected and defended him, and subtly undermined his bevy of -isms with her own brand of real-life social justice. Her quiet actions stood in stark contrast to his empty words.

There are more Archie Bunkers now than there were, and more Gloria and Mike Stivics, and they've only grown further apart. What we probably need are more Edith Bunkers to bridge that gap with love and understanding, and once in a while to tell all of us to stifle until we remember that it's all in the family.

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