Classic Sitcoms and the Charlie Chan Syndrome

Any essay that prominently features the words “the way women (minorities, etc.) were portrayed” has a better than even chance of being complete nonsense. Not just because they tend, in my experience, to be largely inaccurate, though that is true (and that’s what I’m going to be focusing on today). More to the point, however, the idea of ‘how women are portrayed’ assumes that the main point of a work is its social context, rather than how entertaining or well structured it is.

For instance, Fay Wray’s character in King Kong is not at all a ‘strong female character.’ But she’s not supposed to be; she’s supposed to be an imperiled beauty. Sweetness and vulnerability are the key points of the character because they emphasize the danger she is in and, consequently, the strength and courage of both Kong and Driscoll, her two male protectors. Making her a take-charge tough-girl would have ruined the film. On the other hand, Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a very strong, tough female character. That’s because she’s part of the cutthroat, cynical world of Washington and stands in contrast with Jimmy Stewart’s naïve, idealistic Jefferson Smith. The emphasis is on her toughness and savvy because it highlights Smith’s own innocence and the power of his beliefs that he’s able to get past her cynical exterior to touch her heart. Making her an innocent, helpless damsel in distress would have ruined the film.

You see the point? The important thing isn’t the details of how a character is portrayed, but whether it works in the context of the character and the story.

With that out of the way, let’s talk classic sitcoms. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I watch a lot of classic TV shows. Leave it to Beaver was my gateway drug, and since then I’ve expanded into The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, The Donna Reed Show, and several others. Basically, I love classic sitcoms from the 1950s and 60s. They’re truckloads of fun, and I find their unapologetic sweetness refreshing in the cynical, crass world of contemporary fiction.

You know what else? I find the stereotypical view of them as being racist, sexist, and whatever other ‘ist’ to be wholly false. In fact, as a general rule I find those old shows to be much more mature than modern shows when it comes to matters of ‘diversity.’ That is, they took for granted the fact that there are different kinds of people and that basic decency means respecting their differences.

The Dick Van Dyke Show in particular did this quite a lot. For instance, one episode had Rob discovering that his friend Buddy was about to have his bar mitzvah (long story). Rob tells him “Shalom!” to which Buddy replies that the word he’s looking for is mazel tov.” In a modern work, this would be a sign of Rob’s cultural insensitivity and stereotyping, or some such nonsense. Here no one takes offense; Buddy corrects him, they make a joke about it, and move on. It’s obvious that no one’s done anything wrong, and that Rob wasn’t being insensitive, but just the opposite. The episode ends with almost the whole cast attending the ceremony.

There’s neither the crass insensitivity that the left pretends is the only alternative to Political Correctness, nor the hypersensitivity of PC culture. There’s just simple good will, courtesy, and friendship. Likewise in another episode when they have a Catholic Priest over for dinner, Laura makes sure to cook fish, since it’s a Friday. There’s no question about it; it’s simply the polite thing to do because everyone knows that Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays. Still Another episode revolves around the Petries accidentally dying their hands black just before accepting an award from the Committee for Interracial Understanding, causing them to panic for fear that the organization would think they were making fun of them. The committee ends up laughing over it.

This sort of thing was par for the course in classic shows, at least in my experience.* Oh, sure, they sometimes made jokes about other cultures, like putting on a funny accent or something, but they weren’t mean jokes; just that something struck people as funny and they weren’t afraid to say so. But being crass or rude or cruel to someone just because they were of a different race or culture was never presented as being acceptable behavior.

One episode of Leave it to Beaver had Beaver strike up a friendship with a Mexican boy, despite the fact that neither of them understood a word the other was saying. Eddie Haskell decides to play a trick on him and teaches Beaver a Spanish insult, which sends the boy fleeing the house in tears. Poor Beaver is heartbroken and Ward goes through a crash course in Spanish to explain the situation. Again, the fact that someone’s from a different culture is noted and perhaps marked as a curiosity, but doesn’t change the rules of good behavior, which Beaver follows and Eddie doesn’t.

Even more than minorities, I find the portrayal of women (to return to our initial theme) was nothing at all like what we’re told it was. The women on these shows were almost all attractive, intelligent, self-possessed people. Yes, most of them were housewives and happy to remain as such: so what? They weren’t dimwitted ninnies who couldn’t possibly support themselves; they were smart, capable women who probably would have had no trouble working for a living, but who found raising a family and keeping a home to be more rewarding.

How anyone could look at, say, June Cleaver and think that she’s a weak or ridiculous character, I can’t think. June’s as sharp as a knife, has a dry sense of humor, and has no trouble putting Ward in his place. It’s even worse if you watch The Donna Reed Show, where the main conceit of the show is Donna Stone using her intelligence and cunning to solve the various domestic crises that cross her path. If anyone calls Donna Stone a “weak female character,” it’s basically the same as their admitting, “I’m completely blind to anything that might contradict the feminist narrative.”

Or take Mary Tyler Moore in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Laura Petrie is shown to be every bit as talented an entertainer as her husband. In fact, one episode has her temporarily return to dancing professionally, meeting with such success that she’s offered a job on the Alan Brady Show. She turns it down because the rigors involved are just too much for her, and because she sees it would be a terrible strain on her family, but the point stands that she’s a great talent in her own right. And, like June and Donna and (as far as I can tell) almost every other sitcom housewife of the era, she was smart, confident, witty, and attractive.

Not to mention there was Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), one of Rob’s writing partners on the show. She was a professional woman: a talented comedian and singer excelling in a tough business and interacting on equal terms with her coworkers. Some, I suppose, might object to the running gag that she’s constantly on the prowl for a husband. But why? She’s literally the only single character on the show: it makes sense she’d want to get married. Besides, if your worldview considers “wants to get married” as an objectionable trait, it’s probably a sign you need to reexamine your values.

More to the point, Sally’s constant husband hunting is funny, and since this is a comedy show, that’s kind of the important thing, don’t you think?

Or take the ultimate classic sitcom: The Andy Griffith Show. The main female character there is Aunt Bea: a sweet elderly spinster who keeps house for Andy and Opie. Frankly, if you object to Aunt Bea for not being a ‘strong female character,’ I just don’t know what to say to you. I mean, that would be like objecting to Barney for mocking law enforcement: it wouldn’t so much be mistaken as just weird. No reasonable person would even consider the idea while enjoying the show.

Then there’s Andy’s girlfriend and Opie’s teacher, Helen Crump. Helen doesn’t have as much screen time as the other characters, but what she does have is unimpeachable. She’s an intelligent, attractive, professional woman who takes crap from no one (she and Andy meet when she marches into his office to berate him for undermining her authority as Opie’s teacher). She and Andy share a love of the outdoors, and she admits that she plans to continue teaching after she gets married, but still isn’t ready to marry just yet.

Thelma Lou, Barney’s girlfriend, shows up more, though perhaps better fits the ‘stereotypical’ woman of the era (so far, she’s about the only one). Yet what is there to object about her? She’s sweet, smart, patient, and pretty. She puts up with Barney’s antics, but tries to be the voice of reason. In what universe is that an objectionable character?

The problem, as I see it, is that we tend to accept what we’re told without looking for ourselves. We’re told that shows of the 50s and 60s portrayed women as brainless ninnies who were content to be ornamental housewives. Even when we watch the shows, it takes a while for us to realize that that’s not at all how they were portrayed. We’re told that in the 50s and 60s, pop culture was casually racist and dismissive towards women and minorities, but the most popular shows of the era explicitly condemned those attitudes. It’s not that I doubt those attitudes were present, it’s that they weren’t the whole story.

The other problem is that people don’t look at things objectively. The question “well, what is wrong with being a 50s housewife?” doesn’t seem to occur to us. That is, we say “this character is a stereotype” and assume that it’s a valid objection without even considering whether there is anything objectively wrong with the character as portrayed. It doesn’t matter how admirable or lovable the character is; they’re a ‘stereotype,’ so they must be condemned.

This is what I call the “Charlie Chan Syndrome.” It’s where you object to the way a character is portrayed, not because there is anything actually wrong with the character, but because you assume there must be because of when and how it was made. When I hear people describe the Charlie Chan films as racist, my response is to ask what harmful racial stereotype is being perpetrated by presenting an intelligent, courageous, courteous Chinese man as a respected detective who travels the world outsmarting predominantly white villains.

You see the problem? The character himself is the reverse of racist, but he’s a Chinese character played by a Swede with a thick accent in a series made in the 1930s, so it’s assumed he’s a racist caricature. The objective merits of the character or the films aren’t even addressed: the time, place, and circumstances are assumed to be enough.

The same thing occurs in viewing movies and TV shows from the forties, fifties, and sixties: it’s assumed that women and minorities were portrayed a certain way, so we don’t even bother taking the characters on their merits as characters. When we do, we usually find that we’ve been lied to.

*Update: Something I forgot to point out on the subject of minorities is the fact that the male lead in possibly the most popular and influential sitcom of all time, I Love Lucy, was explicitly Cuban.

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