A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species
By Marvin Roberson
We interrupt this regularly scheduled column in order to bring you the following important announcement from our columnist:
OK. I admit it. He’s crazy. REALLY crazy. WAY more crazy than I thought. I still stand by the premise of the Tsuga’s View, but I just thought I should make that clear.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled column:
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Consequently, television has been a bigger part of my life that I like to admit. However, TV provides a lens into how our society looks at issues of concern to Progressives. I’ll talk about that.
The way we watch TV has changed in the last 50 years. We used to have only 3 major networks (yes, kids, in most homes, 3 channels was all we got). We now have hundreds of options. We used to have TV series play one time a week, and that’s how we watched them. No TiVo, no Netflix, no binge-watching. If we wanted to see M*A*S*H, we waited until Monday at 9pm, and we watched or we missed it.
However, what has not changed is the relationship of major TV shows to our society (by “major”, I mean the very popular shows, seen by many, on major networks, not the niche shows seen by only a few). Television has not driven values in our society so much as it has reflected them. Yes, there are some exceptions, but in general TV has followed social issues, not preceded or driven them. This makes sense - TV executives want to sell their product, and viewers want a product they like, one which reflects their views.
If we accept this premise, then think of what it means in terms of where TV values have gone in just my lifetime.
When I was little, I used to watch reruns of “I Love Lucy”. This was a show about a married couple (Lucy and Ricky Ricardo), who were played by a couple who were married in real life (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz).
When Lucille Ball got pregnant in real life, this was written into the show. However, it was unclear how this happened, since the networks would not allow the characters to share a bed. In the scenes which take place in this married couple’s bedroom, they are shown in separate single beds! Not only that, but they were not allowed to even use the word “pregnant” to describe Lucy’s pregnancy, on the grounds that it was too “provocative”.
Another show was called “Julia”. It was about a single (widowed) African-American mother of one, who was a nurse. It was remarkable for being the first portrayal of an African-American, or a woman, as a professional on major network TV. It was the first inkling many white, suburban people had that African-Americans faced the same issues at home and work as they did.
Another major starring role for an African-American was “Sanford and Son”, about a junkyard owner and his son. There was also an Hispanic fellow who lived in a broken down van in the back of the junkyard.
In “The Beverly Hillbillies”, a recurring character was “Miss Hathaway”, a secretary at a bank (not an executive). A recurring story line was her fate as an “old spinster”, and her desperate efforts to find a husband, an make her life complete.
This was seen even in the rare instances where women were characters with professions. In “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, a character named Sally was a writer on a major TV show. However, even as a professional with equal standing to the men in the office, finding a husband was her major task in life (this show also featured 2 twin beds in the bedroom of the starring couple).
Even “The Monkees”, which was a show in many ways devoted to progressively upending many conventional stereotypes, reflected other attitudes prevalent in society. Rarely did a week go by without a crude, stereotypical portrayal of one group or another. Native Americans saying “Ugh. How”. Asians talking about “flied lice”, and getting big laughs. All of these portrayals would be considered incredibly racist and offensive today.
So consider what TV told me in the 1960s: Couples did not have sex. No one knew where babies came from, and we couldn’t talk about it. It was very unusual for an African-American to have a professional job, picking trash was much more likely. Hispanics were homeless, and lucky to have a van to sleep in. Women were subservient, not professionals, and desperate for a husband if they didn’t have one.
Now consider what I saw when looking around major networks just this week: A world-famous African-American pathologist attended a same-sex wedding, accompanied by his caucasian girlfriend (“Rosewood”). Women were Secretary of State and Vice-President (“Madame Secretary” and “Veep”). A single woman of color was the most powerful “political fixer” in Washington, DC (“Scandal”). A transgender actress portrayed a transgender character (“Orange is the New Black”).
What is important about these portrayals is that in the 1960s, they could not have been on TV at all. Later, they could have been on TV, but it would have been a big deal (“Have you seen Will & Grace? 2 of the MAIN CHARACTERS are GAY!!!”).
But now, these characters are on major shows. And what is important is that the shows are not about subjects like the blackness of a world-renown pathologist. They are about a world-renown pathologist who happens to be black.
Our major TV shows today are of course not perfect (look, they’re TV, right?). However, programming delivers a view into values held by current society. And the fact that Progressive progress is simply an integral part of most TV shows is an indication that we’ve come a long way over the past 50 years.
And yes, I’m sure you can write me with TV shows which do not fit my claim (although “Duck Dynasty” did get cancelled). But my claim is not that TV reflects a perfect world. My claim is that Progressive values have so permeated our society that when we see them in major TV shows, it’s unremarkable, even though the same things 50 years ago would have been unthinkable.
Next Time - The difference between judging people based on their actions and judging actions based upon the people who took them. Guess which way I claim the Left and Right come down on this issue, and why the false equivalencies peddled by the Right are doomed to fail.