In Appreciation of Jean Stapleton: Those Were the Days (when TV dared to mention rape and cancer and lesbians)

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA taken by me in August 2011

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA
taken by me in August 2011

Jean Stapleton was no dingbat.

Emmy-award winning actress Jean Stapleton died on Friday, at the age of 90. Although Ms. Stapleton had a rich and productive career in the theater and on Broadway, she is, of course, best remembered for her endearing portrayal of Edith Bunker, the daffy and long-suffering wife of “lovable bigot” Archie. 

Like my 40-something peers of my generation, I grew up watching “All in the Family” in real-time. I’m old enough to remember not quite getting the jokes as I laughed along with my parents and grandparents (the same reaction as my kids have today when they watch Edith, Archie, Gloria, and Meathead in re-runs on YouTube) but realizing that the male characters were a little too familiar to the ones (my grandfathers, namely) who were sitting next to me on the couch.

In thinking back to those days, we tend to think of the character of Edith as a stereotype: always running to the kitchen to fetch her husband a beer while obeying his commands to “stifle!”; constantly preparing dinner for a family that seemed to eat in every single episode; frumpily wearing a version of the same housedress, and only leaving the house to buy cling peaches or prune juice at Ferguson’s Market or to volunteer at the Sunshine Home (unless she was serving as the dingbat on a jury).

Those are Jean Stapleton’s comedic scenes that have made her portrayal of Edith one of our most beloved characters in television history. But we also owe Edith – and Jean –  a debt of gratitude and appreciation for her role in continuing to advance the conversation and awareness on women’s issues during a critical time.

“All in the Family” aired between January 1971 and April 1979. In terms of today’s television standards when shows get cancelled before we can set our DVR, that’s a lifetime. Those years also corresponded to an especially pivotal time in women’s history.

As Edith Bunker, Jean Stapleton gave millions of women permission and a chance to talk about menopause (“Edith’s Problem,” January 1972), about breast cancer and the possibility of having a mastectomy (“Edith’s Christmas Story,” December 1973), about their sexuality (“Cousin Liz,” October 1977) and about rape and the aftermath of sexual assault (“Edith’s 50th Birthday,” October 1977), The latter episode was created with the consultation of professionals at the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital. According to Wikipedia, advance screenings of “Edith’s 50th Birthday” were held for police and medical professionals across the country in order to show the woman’s perspective of rape.

Of course, Ms. Stapleton didn’t stand alone: a cast of brilliant writers, directors, other actors, and countless individuals made “All in the Family” more than just compelling, dramatic (and yes, hilariously entertaining even these many years later) television. But as viewers, we identify most with those most visible and in our living rooms; on a show like “All in the Family” that spanned nearly a decade, including a spin-off, the actors truly do become part of the family – because they already are.

Now, nearly 35 years after the final curtain call of “All in the Family,” these are the days when we’ve seen everything there is to possibly see on our screens – both TV and online and on our phones. We’re numb and immune and nothing shocks us anymore.

“All in the Family” was the ultimate reality show and real housewives of Queens didn’t get any more real in the 70s than Edith Bunker. When women’s issues came knocking, 704 Houser Street was answered by the lady of the house, the immensely talented Jean Stapleton.

And thank God it was. As an actress and a woman, Jean Stapleton showed courage and bravery in raising awareness of topics like rape, cancer, and sexuality.

She more than admirably did her part to make sure that women’s voices weren’t stifled.





Thanks for sharing this post!

3 thoughts on “In Appreciation of Jean Stapleton: Those Were the Days (when TV dared to mention rape and cancer and lesbians)

  1. Kablooey

    I knew to pay special attention to All in the Family because my father insisted on quiet when it was on. It was “his show” and we had to respect that. Jean Stapleton was wonderful and Edith herself was a great character. Her optimism and buoyancy were the perfect balance to Archie. I’m laughing now remembering Edith talk about Buck Evans’ (her high school crush) beautiful eyes…

    1. Melissa Firman Post author

      That’s one of my all time favorite “All in the Family” episodes, Kablooey!

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