Creator Norman Lear’s intention with All in the Family was that audiences would recognize Archie Bunker’s bigotry as satire. In a way, the character was holding a mirror to society. Showing that this way of thinking is wrong. Lear believed that when confronted with their own prejudice, viewers would alter their beliefs. His interpretation would be considered the dominant reading, which is the most common and widely accepted interpretations of a text.
Despite the dominant reading of All in the Family, many viewers laughed along with Archie’s bigotry. They failed to grasp the satire of the program, leading critics to argue its harmful effects that it was having on society.
Instead of viewing All in the Family as a comedy making fun of racism, some viewers saw it as a celebration of racist thinking. However, some people also watched the show because Archie is often proven wrong by his liberal son-in-law Mike, as well as others.
It can be funny to see someone’s offensive remarks shot down by the people around them, constantly telling them how wrong they are. However, it has been discovered that many people do not view the show in this way.
In reception studies, theorists focus on how various types of audience members make sense of specific forms of content. The dominant reading for media content is the way in which the creator intends the audience to interpret the content.
If the audience interprets the content differently than the dominant reading, this is called oppositional reading, or “decoding.” These concepts explain how and why viewers had different understandings and responses to All in the Family.
In 1974, Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach conducted a U.S.-Canadian-based study to examine various viewers’ perception of the sitcom. The purpose of the study stemmed from the results of a CBS opinion survey. CBS reported that most people simply enjoyed All In The Family and did not take offense to its content.
Using the selective perception hypothesis and selective exposure hypothesis, Vidmar and Rokeach discovered that viewer perception is oppositional to the dominant reading of the show, as well as different than the results of the CBS survey.
The selective perception hypothesis suggests that a person’s values and attitudes will affect their perception and interpretation of content. If a person already subscribes to a racist ideology, they are more likely to enjoy the show for reasons in line with their values.
These high prejudiced viewers would relate to Archie Bunker and view him in a positive light. They would see Archie as the voice of reason, while any liberal-minded characters were the ones causing conflict.
A person who believes in equal rights and has a more progressive worldview would likely enjoy the show for its intended purpose as a satire on bigotry. Low prejudiced viewers would see Archie as a loud, domineering racist. In contrast, they would admire Mike for his tolerance of Archie’s bigotry and for always standing up for his liberal beliefs.
The selective exposure hypothesis suggests that people tend to expose themselves to content that aligns with their already established attitudes and beliefs. High prejudiced people are more likely to watch All In The Family because they identify with the main character and his worldview.
The study found that the show appealed more to high prejudiced viewers, who agreed with Archie Bunker’s view on race, than lower prejudiced viewers, who found his opinions to be insensitive and offensive.
The overall result of the study proved that Lear’s dominant reading of All In The Family was not what most of the audience perceived. It was found that most viewers enjoy watching the show because they think Archie speaks the truth about American society. With this data, the study concluded that the program is more likely reinforcing prejudice and racism, rather than combating it.
One of the show’s most popular episodes, titled “Sammy’s Visit,” is a prime example of Archie Bunker’s bigotry. In the episode, Archie moonlights as a cab driver to earn some extra money. When he gets home from his shift, he begins to tell his family about his encounter with a celebrity.
After a few failed guesses, he tells them that the celebrity was Black. He describes him as “black as the ace of spades.” Bunker finally reveals that it was none other than Sammy Davis Jr. in his cab.
Edith, Gloria, and Mike are all shocked and excited. Archie expresses his own surprise by admitting that Sammy was “a fine gentleman” and that he was “sitting there talking about the weather… just like he was a regular person.” This remark draws laughter from the audience.
He then adds, “In fact, if it wasn’t for the review mirror, I would’ve thought he was a white guy.” This is just one of the first offensive statements he makes in the episode. Mike questions his reason for saying things like that.
Archie, defensive as usual, shouts that he does not understand what Mike is talking about. He also yells that the kids are always “twisting his words around.” This is an example of what is perceived by many as Archie’s harmless bigotry.
Archie receives a phone call shortly after his outburst. The call is from Sammy himself, explaining that he left a very important briefcase in the backseat of Archie’s cab. Archie offers to have the briefcase delivered from the cab company to the Bunker’s residence. Sammy agrees to visit their home to retrieve his briefcase.
The Bunkers are beyond thrilled for a star to come into their humble home. Archie even reveals how impressed he is that Sammy is calling them from a phone in a limousine, saying “some of these coloreds are real classy.” Again, Mike immediately calls him out on the remark.
In preparation for Sammy’s arrival, Archie tells Edith to keep this a secret and not to tell anyone in the neighborhood. He then warns Mike not to tell the Jefferson’s next-door because then they will be up to their “armpits in jungle bunnies.” Mike quickly asks if Archie plans on calling Sammy a racial slur as well.
Clearly offended by his assumption, Archie answers, “Of course not! I will call him Mr. Davis because he worked himself up to be called Mr. Davis, and he deserves that.” This convoluted logic is at the core of Archie’s worldview.
He places Davis in a higher class than other African Americans because he thinks he “overcame the unequalness of his color” and became a star. However, his respect and admiration for Davis does not prevent him from making the stereotypical joke about Black people loving chicken, as he asks Edith to have some ready in the kitchen.
When Sammy Davis Jr. arrives at the Bunker residence, the family is beside themselves with excitement. With Lionel Jefferson showing up only minutes before, Sammy mistakes him as Gloria’s husband during introductions. Archie is quick to correct Davis and tell him that his daughter is married to a white man. However, Sammy does not seem to take offense to this.
Since the briefcase has not been delivered yet, Davis is invited to sit in Archie’s favorite chair and get to know the family. He expresses what an honor it is to have Davis in his home. Archie shares that he was just telling his family that he thinks Davis is “the greatest credit to his race.” Davis is not taken aback by this comment at all, and simply thanks him.
Archie’s neighbor Barney Hefner shows up unexpectedly causing Archie to get even more irritated. Barney proposes a toast to Sammy Davis Jr. and to Archie for allowing him to meet the star. Archie agrees and takes a drink from the same glass of beer as Barney. Archie adds to the toast:
“And not only the greatest entertainer in the world, but the man who proves that there’s good and bad in all races.”
Davis agrees to drink to that, adding “and to friendship.” Archie grabs the glass for another drink but quickly stops. The audience laughs as they realize that he is too racist to drink from the same glass as a Black man.
As Archie pushes Barney out of the back door, Lionel brings his mother Louise Jefferson to see Davis. She is ecstatic, of course, and even plants a kiss on him. Before she leaves, she carefully says, “shalom aleichem,” a traditional Jewish greeting translating to “peace unto you.” Davis returns the sentiment.
This exchange prompts Archie to ask about Davis’ choice of religion. Archie asks, “You being colored, I know you had no choice…but what ever made you turn Jew?” This prejudicial question surprises Davis, apparent by the look on his face. He cannot believe what Archie just said. Gloria apologizes for her father.
Possibly one of the most telling things about how some people interpret the character of Archie Bunker is when Lionel Jefferson comes to his defense. He assures Sammy, “He’s not a bad guy, Mr. Davis. He’d never burn a cross on your lawn.” This is the exact mentality that fans of the show have about Archie when he is criticized for his racist remarks.
If he is not likely to commit violent acts against minorities then what he says is merely rhetoric. Lionel most likely attributes Archie’s prejudice to his age. Like many high prejudiced members of society, Archie uses Christianity as an excuse for his racist views.
On the subject of interracial displays of affection, Archie explains his logic behind keeping races separate. “Now, no prejudice intended,” he begins, “but I always check with the Bible on these things.” He asserts that if God’s intention was to let people from different races be together, he wouldn’t have let people be born in different countries. Archie continues:
“but look what he done, he put yous over in Africa, he put the rest of us over in all the white countries.”
Archie asks Sammy if he comes off as prejudice and Sammy says that if he was, he would act like he is better than everyone. Sammy adds, “You ain’t better than anybody.” Archie takes this as a compliment instead of recognizing Sammy’s sarcasm.
With the casual and polite way in which he talks to Sammy, viewers could see his prejudice as harmless and purely for comedy. Davis returns his casual tone furthering the idea that Archie is not being rude. He does not see the topic as taboo and doesn’t mind expressing his strong opinions in front of an African American.
In most conversations, if someone spoke about African Americans and Jewish people in the manner Archie does, it is less likely that it would be considered funny. Archie Bunker’s lack of filter perpetuates his image as the “lovable bigot.” When Archie said something racist or sexist, there was always another character, usually Mike, to call him on it.
However, since many viewers had the same beliefs as Archie, they completely missed the point of the show. If highly prejudiced people do not see the show as a form of satire on bigotry, then they will not experience a cathartic reduction in prejudice, as was intended by the show’s creator, Norman Lear.