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Norman Lear's Most Complex Character: Edith Bunker

The "dingbat" of All In The Family grew the most

By Rebecca MortonPublished 6 months ago Updated 6 months ago 3 min read
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Norman Lear died this week age 101. Living that long is, in itself, is an accomplishment, but to us watching American television in the 1970s, he was the creator, writer, producer of every other sitcom we watched, including All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Chico and The Man, and One Day at a Time.

To say these shows were groundbreaking is to repeat what everyone is probably saying this week. His sitcoms were the first on American TV to shine a light on American racism, class inequity, single motherhood and strong, independent middle-aged women.

And I'm thinking no one's mentioning the theme songs to these sitcoms, but, as the kids today would say, they are all BANGERS! I could write a story on the theme songs to these shows alone, and maybe I will, but now, I want to focus on one character in one of his shows: All in the Family’s Edith Bunker, played by Jean Stapleton.

When today’s TV critics look back on this still controversial show, they usually focus on the character Archie Bunker, the hilarious, albeit offensively racist and sexist, patriarch played by Carroll O'Connor. But it is Archie's wife, Edith, who goes through a much more emotionally compelling and empowering character arc throughout the CBS show's run from 1971 to 1979.

Because I began watching All in the Family at a young age, still in grade school, I did not understand half of what the characters were talking about most of the time. Then again, it seemed neither did Edith. She usually seemed a beat or two behind everyone else, which was a running gag, and the reason Archie called her a "dingbat", which she didn't seem to mind in the least, at least during the first few seasons.

Here is a hilarious example of how Edith, in an earlier episode, tells a story to an impatient Archie who, refreshingly, makes no racist or sexist remarks:

Edith’s character arc is not very extreme at first, but she does change, little by little, almost as imperceptibly as the hands of a clock moving. The eight seasons are occasionally punctuated by a few big moments when she rebels against Archie and bravely steps out of her comfort zone.

One of her first acts of rebellion is simply changing her outfit from one of her many drab housedresses to a bright red “modern” pantsuit. Archie hates it and tells Edith to change back into one of her usual dresses. Edith refuses and actually leaves the house, going to the bar where Archie usually hangs out. Archie has no idea where she is when he shows up at the same bar later in the following scene. Other than the bartender using the word “broad”, no sexist or racist remarks are made in this clip:

Throughout the later seasons of All in the Family, Edith continues to grow and assert herself. She speaks her mind more often to Archie and the rest of her family. She holds up a trial when she has jury duty, gets a job at a nursing home, and successfully defends herself against a rapist who breaks into her house. (SPOILER: she shoves a burning cake pan in his face!)

Edith never leaves Archie for more than a night. She never threatens to divorce him, or even tells him he's a bad person. She rarely lashes out after his constant insulting, belittling language toward her and the rest of their family. But she is the first to assert that she is in no way a doormat, as she does in this scene with an angry Gloria, her daughter and only child:

By the end of the series, Edith is certainly no shrinking violet. If her character hadn’t died in 1980 in the spinoff, Archie Bunker’s Place, who knows what she would have accomplished? I guess Jean Stapleton wanted to move on to other things in her life, which I can understand.

The character Edith Bunker helped me, as a growing girl, understand that “supporting” women can grow to be independent, courageous women. A woman does not need another “main character” in her life to help define who she is.

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Portions of this story were originally published on Medium.com.

pop culturevintagetvcomedy
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About the Creator

Rebecca Morton

My childhood was surrounded by theatre people. My adulthood has been surrounded by children! You can also find me on Medium here: https://medium.com/@becklesjm, and now I have a Substack newsletter at https://rebeccamorton.substack.com/

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  • Kendall Defoe 6 months ago

    Best performance on the show. And I also think he did something amazing with "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman".

  • Daphsam6 months ago

    Very nice tribute! Edith was something else. To read all that Norman Lar did in his career was something else.

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