A celebrity tweets a racist comment and her very successful show gets cancelled.
Some 500 miles across the country, another celebrity, this one using her media channel-sponsored platform, calls the daughter of the U.S. President an expletive and gets her hand slapped.
Interestingly, many considered one reaction or the other to be either overblown or too soft. Political affiliations were more often than not the determinant of these reactions.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago and wondered if there was a difference between what was seen as racist and what was viewed as tasteless.
As discussion around both events persist in the media, I became curious about how similar events were handled back in the simpler days when “social” actually meant what you shared with your friends.
Did we have the same moral standards? Were we equally concerned about racism or crossing the line of taste? How powerful were the PC (Politically Correct) Police, and was their criteria any different?
What I found was fascinating.
Take a classic like Archie Bunker and “All in the Family.” The issues raised in the show made many people uncomfortable, and interestingly enough, people on both sides of the political spectrum found fodder for their positions. The show was seen as groundbreaking, surfacing issues of race, religion and a demography that had before been considered taboo.
Ask yourself how Archie and Edith would be viewed today. Dated? Perhaps. Although many of the issues explored in the series linger today. I’m ready to bet that the show, and Archie in particular, would be protested as being racist and misogynist.
Back in 1964, racism played a role in reruns:
In one of his earliest television roles, George Takei starred in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” where he played a Japanese-American man who gets drawn into a heated exchange with his neighbor, a Caucasian WWII vet. Because of racial overtones in the plot, many found the episode to be unacceptable and demanded its removal from syndication. The people won and, as Takei said, “it has a unique distinction of being the only Twilight Zone [episode] that was aired only once.”
Would Twitter have caused the entire series to be cancelled?
Let’s move to tasteless. Soupy Sales was a local New York children’s television personality who was always pushing the boundaries of the comedic appropriateness. So perhaps it comes as little surprise that it was an inappropriate gaff which ultimately got him fired. In 1965, he asked his viewing audience to go to their daddy’s wallets and send him “the little green pieces of papers” they might find inside. Parents were outraged and Sales was yanked off air the very next day. But two weeks later, after furor subsided, Sales resumed his role and would remain onscreen for another two years.
Pretty quick considering that social demands meant actually writing a letter or making a call. Again, what would happen today? Reaction time was fast, but would we see this as an offense, and if so, would an apology suffice?
Let’s fast forward four years to my favorite series as a teenager: “The Smothers Brothers.” In a story that feels like it was ripped from today’s headlines, “The Smothers Brothers,” an immensely popular show, met its fate when the eponymous brothers, Tom and Dick, criticized the U.S. Government and the Vietnam War. In fact, LBJ himself called the CBS Chairman, William Paley, in the middle of the night to plea for fairer treatment by the brothers.
Hmm a President of the United States calling the head of a television network to complain? Shocking…and again I ask what would happen today…what is happening today?
And while I can share many more similar examples, such as Dukes of Hazard merchandise being recalled, and episodes removed from syndication for showing a Confederate Flag, the next example may be the most powerful display of how this all can go and does go out of control:
“Sesame Street” might seem like a surprising source of controversy, but its inclusive messages and diverse cast ruffled the feathers of Mississippi’s state politicians:
As reported in The New York Times:
The State Commission for Educational Television has vetoed the showing of “Sesame Street”…on the state ETV system because of racial grounds.
A member of the commission said, “Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children…the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”
By the way this was in 1970…not really all that long ago.
So there you have it.
Tasteless, racist and just plain offensive. Long before we posted on Facebook or made our outrage known via Twitter, television has apparently always courted social controversy and pushback (including from a media-bullying president circa 1970).
And again, I ask what the outcomes would be today?
Books and shows are still regularly banned. Racism crosses the 4th wall and moves from script to reality, and pesky Presidents are still meddling. How is it we are still wrestling with all of this? And how does time change our views—or does it?
What does it mean? Listen:
“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” George Bernard Shaw
What do you think?