Lessons from a Dingbat

Another piece of childhood was buried this weekend with the passing of Jean Stapleton. God love her, she made it to 90 after a career in a profession known to take more than it gives. Jean’s characters on stage and screen were rich, vivid and plentiful, but to me and millions of fans, she is best remembered for the life she breathed into Edith Bunker.

I was 8 years old when I first met Edith. Our black-and-white TV got two channels, and one night a week, All in the Family became my family. I didn’t know what racist meant, or why it was such a big deal that Gloria didn’t take her ‘pill’. I loved the slapstick comedy, the blustery rants of the big guy in his armchair and the tittering giggles of his attentive wife. Edith was cute, but it was Archie I loved. My Grade 3 report on my favourite TV show detailed the scene where Mike is accusing Archie of using the vacuum cleaner on the linoleum floor. It’ll scratch the floor, Mike told him. ‘I know,” Archie sneered, “i wasn’t going to use the vacuum on the linoleum floor.” The camera lans to the Hoover upright standing squarely between them. “So why is this here?” Mike demanded. Archie draws to full height. “It likes me. It followed me in here.” I still find his comeback hilarious, but as a kid, I liked the fact that there was a comeback at all. Even at eight, I was tiring of the sitcom sweetness that insisted everyone in the world was patient, gentle, understanding, and capable in 20 minutes of soothing the hurt and sailing to a happy ending.  My mother rarely watched the show because it was too loud, but that’s what I liked. Real people argued, got angry, stomped their feet, and yes, even lied now and then to get out of trouble. I watched the show faithfully on air, then in reruns. But it would be 30 more years before I glimpsed the depth brought to Edith by the actress who gave eight years of her life to portray her.

It was easy to dismiss Edith as the stereotypical housewife, tied by her apron strings to a boorish husband and demeaning life. Even Jean herself once said Edith was a character she hoped most women would not aspire to be: uneducated, limited in her options, an object of ridicule. As a wife and mother now myself, I tried watching Edith with more mature eyes. Was she a pathetic figure sacrificed for the sake of a laugh? I had to admit it was possible. Then I saw the pilot episode, with the first incarnations of the Bunker family captured on film. Jean played the role of Edith not as a ‘dingbat’, but as the typical bitter, frustrated housewife to be expected putting up with the likes of Archie. Her voice was lower, her comments sarcastic, her demeanour one of passive aggression. It was fascinating to see, these two lives of Edith. Then, I watched a subsequent episode and Edith was back: her high-pitched shriek extolling her joy at Archie arriving home for dinner, her baffled expression as she tried to fathom his logic, her beaming smile as he bestowed upon her the title of ‘dingbat’ for the hundredth time that season, and I didn’t see a victim, a woman trapped, a life ensnared: I saw love. Beneath the bubbles of Edith’s airhead image beat the heart of a lion: devoted, dedicated, and wise. Edith was portrayed as a woman who stood by her man not because she was forced to by finance or circumstance, but because she saw through his bigotry, brashness, and anger to the kind person he was. Archie cut his teeth on the Great Depression, came of age in World War II, and energed to coat what remained of his feelings in the working class grit of the city and the cloak of gender where men would die rather than reveal their emotions, especially when it came to their wives. With every ‘Oh, Archie!’, Edith accepted this and revealed that she saw what we only glimpsed in the rarest of scenes: the tender side of Archie Bunker. With every stoic acceptance of his criticism, she protected his vulnerable side and the two communicated in away only true soulmates can.

Edith wasn’t weak. She was stronger than most of us will ever be.  And it took a most gifted, devoted actress to bring those layers to a character written solely to be a foil for the male lead. Jean may be gone now, but she remains a beloved role model.

“Those were the days.”