Welcome Back, 1970s
Ms. Szefel is an assistant professor of modern American history at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon where she teaches classes on the 1970s, the Reagan era, and the history of capitalism.As a child of the 1970s who stopped watching television around the time the Berlin Wall fell, I felt like Rip Van Winkle when I returned to the medium in 2007. I had just begun my first tenure-track job teaching modern American history at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon when I began watching “Gossip Girl,” the CB drama that follows the exploits of Manhattan’s Upper East Side prep school elite. The last time I encountered such a group was in “Metropolitan,” Whit Stillman’s 1990 film about interloper Tom Townsend from the Upper West Side who mistakenly gets caught up in the Fifth Avenue crowd’s debutante season, becoming an escort for society balls at the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza. The group discusses Thorstein Veblen and Lionel Trilling, debates attitudes toward wealth and poverty, and Tom, a committed socialist (“but not a Marxist,” he insists), considers himself a follower of French social critic Charles Fourier. The object of his affection, Serena, is dating an aristocrat, Rick Von Sloneker. Serena is the name of the popular protagonist in “Gossip Girl” where there also is an interloper, Dan Humphrey, but he hails from Brooklyn (the Upper West Side after all is now home to 15 CPW and Trump International Hotel). The similarities end there. “Gossip Girl” is an undiluted celebration of exclusivity, and all the teens, Dan and his sister Jenny included, want in on the power and privilege. No one questions the fairness or justice of the free market system. Dan’s father, an ex-Grunge rock star, used to date Serena’s mother and now runs a hip gallery. With such seismic inequities of wealth in our country the notion that his kids could actually infiltrate high society would be absurd without this prior connection and patina of chic. For the girls at the Constance Billard School, the holy trinity consists of the three Bs: Bendel’s, Barneys, and Bloomingdales. Chauffeured limousines escort the students to trendy restaurants, boutique stores, and on a school field trip to Yale. Ex-party girl Serena, whose social life gets regular play on Page Six, lives in the five-star Palace Hotel owned by her billionaire step-father. Her step-brother, Chuck Bass, flies in hookers from Asia, tries to rape Serena, and owns his own strip club. He, much more than the conspicuously self-righteous Dan, is the series paladin.
“Gossip Girl” made me think more generally about what had happened to this country between the time I entered the rabbit hole that is graduate school in the humanities in 1992 and the time I began my career as a professor in earnest. In the 1990s while dot.com entrepreneurs were making billions and others watched the values of their homes double, triple, and quadruple, I lived in low-grade poverty as I worked toward the Ph.D. As I looked around it seemed that the values of commerce had so resoundingly trounced civic virtue. How did we get here? I came of age in a different world. In the fall of 1979 when I entered high school, the country was in the midst of the second oil crisis of the decade, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and Islamist students took fifty-two Americans hostage from the US embassy in Teheran. The economy, which from 1945 until 1971 had created a heyday for the working class, was now mired in stagflation. Growth in middle class income ground to a halt. President Jimmy Carter tried to set a new tone. On inauguration day, instead of being driven from the Capitol to the White House, he walked. In 1979, when lines for gas snaked for miles, he gave a national address, denouncing “self-indulgence and consumption.” To Carter the energy crisis provided an opportunity to revisit core values and rekindle humility. The mood of the country darkened. After the chaos of the 1960s, defeat in Vietnam, and Watergate, the nation’s best days seemed spent.
Yet despite the loss of prosperity and promise, the disco decade also witnessed a remarkable openness. Culture reflects society and, in turn, influences it. In these years, new ideas, ethnicities, and values found representation on the small screen, and plot lines regularly and openly addressed gender, class, and race. In the wake of the women’s movement the three major broadcast networks hosted series devoted to self-identified feminists (“Maude”), reluctant feminists (“Bionic Woman”), implied feminists (“Police Woman”), superhero feminists (“Wonder Woman”), as well as to plucky single women pursuing careers (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda”). By 1970 most states had adopted no-fault divorce laws, so TV families now featured single moms (“Alice,” “One Day At A Time,” “The Partridge Family”), single dads (“Eight Is Enough,” “Hello Larry”), and combined households (“The Brady Bunch,” “Diff’rent Strokes”).
Before the consolidation of media and fragmentation of audience that came with cable, network tv reflected the decade’s embrace of diversity with a wide array of genres, including variety shows (“Sonny and Cher,” “Donny and Marie,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Flip Wilson Show”), horror (“Ghost Story,” “Kolchak the Night Stalker,” “Night Gallery”), and a golden age for sci-fi (“Logan’s Run,” “Battlestar Galactica”). It also expanded beyond the typical white family that had dominated tv since the 1950s, with multicultural casts featuring African Americans from the working class (“Good Times,” “What’s Happening,” “Sanford and Son”) and middle class (“The Jeffersons,” “Benson,” “Room 222”), Latinos (“Chico and the Man,” “Tony Orlando and Dawn”), Greeks (“Kojak”), Italians (“Beretta”), Polish (“Banecek”), and Latvian (“Taxi”). Shows were set not just in glamorous locales like New York, LA, or Miami, but in Portland, Oregon (“Hello Larry”), Rustbelt Cities in Ohio (“WKRP in Cincinnati”) and Wisconsin (“Happy Days”). The rise of the Sunbelt is reflected in shows based in Texas (“Dallas”), Georgia (“Dukes of Hazzard”), Missouri (“Lucas Tanner”), the Wyoming Territory (“Alias and Smith and Jones”), and rural Colorado (“Doc Elliot”). Some of the shows took place outside of the U.S., in places like the United Kingdom (“Blakes 7”), Korea (“M*A*S*H”), Kenya (“Born Free”), the Pacific Rim (“Fantasy Island”), a cruise ship (“The Love Boat”), a pink submarine (“Operation Petticoat”), Siam (“Anna and the King”), an interstellar garbage scow (“Quark”), and a parallel universe (“Land of the Lost”). Other time periods were featured: the antebellum South (“Roots”), the 1860s (“Anna and the King”), 1870s (“Barbary Coast”), 1930s (“City of Angels”), 1940s (“Baa Baa Blacksheep”), the future (“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”), and post-apocalypse (“Logan’s Run”).
At a time when unemployment rates reached the highest peak (9%) since World War II, television characters regularly discussed the strain of finances and appreciated life’s simple pleasures. Two of the most popular dramas showcased traditional families during desperate times. Each week John Boy, Mary Ellen, and the rest of the brood in Depression-era rural Virginia (“The Waltons”), learn yet another lesson about how to do without, all the while remaining grateful, generous, and industrious. Similarly, the Ingalls family roughs it out on the Kansas Plains of the Indian Territory (“Little House on the Prairie”), battling wolves, fires, hailstorms, blizzards, typhus, and bratty Nellie Oleson, daughter of the well-off local mercantile. The Waltons and Ingalls endure their hardships with the support of their communities. A variety of jobs—not just lawyers, doctors, or crime fighters–were on display, including song writers (“Getting Together”), airline stewardesses (“From A Bird’s Eye View”), anthropology professor (“The Jimmy Stewart Show”), mystery writer (“Ellery Queen”), trucker (“BJ and the Bear”), stage illusionist (“The Magician”), angel (“Out of the Blue”), Harvard Law School students (“The Paper Chase”), witch (“Tabitha”), auto mechanics (“Chico and the Man”), assembly line workers at a brewery (“Laverne and Shirley”), and a nineteenth century Shaolin monk (“Kung Fu”).
Years before Reagan-era cuts in social services, accompanied as it was by skyrocketing rates of incarceration, the prison-industrial complex, disappearance of living-wage jobs, and demonization of American citizens on welfare, being an ex-con or food stamp recipient on 1970s’ TV was not a stigma but a badge of honor, as the ethos of the downtrodden was contrasted favorably with the corruption of the mafioso, police, and “the man.” Despite receiving government assistance, Florida and James Evans instill sound values in their children while living in the Chicago projects (“Good Times”), three young African American men create comedic chaos in the L.A. ghetto (“What’s Happening”), black detectives proudly protect ghetto inhabitants (“Shaft,” “Tenafly”), and juvenile delinquents and ex-cons outperform regular cops (“Mod Squad,” “Rockford Files,” “Return of the Saint,” “Sword of Justice,” “Alias Smith and Jones”). Catch words that became fads were voiced by outsiders, whether it was an auto mechanic who dropped out of high school “The Fonz” with his two thumbs up “Aay!” (“Happy Days”), housing project resident J.J. who, at one time dated a heroin addict, shouting “Dynomite!” (“Good Times”), or a black man arrested during the Watts Riots, Linc, who now works as an undercover cop, uttering “Solid” (“Mod Squad”), they evinced the mantra of the era: in the midst of disruption, uncertainty, and change, be cool.
Despite hardship, repeatedly in shows from this decade individuals are shown giving back. In the midst of the Boston Busing Crisis in 1975, on TV, an idealistic teacher returns to Brooklyn to teach a motley group of remedial students known as the “Sweathogs” (“Welcome Back, Kotter”), a former NBA player becomes a high school coach in South Central L.A. to teach kids about basketball and life (“The White Shadow”), and an aging cop refuses promotions because he wants to contribute to the safety of his community (“Blue Knight”). Week after week outsiders are shown fitting in: a scholarship student at an elite girls’ prep school (“The Facts of Life”), a New Mexican Marshall in Manhattan (“McCloud”), police transports to the Bay City (“Starsky and Hutch”), and an alien from Planet Ork (“Mork and Mindy”). When given a choice, characters reject a cushy lifestyle and opt instead to remain true to their working class origins. In Philadelphia, a waitress takes pity on a customer she believes to be poor but turns out to be a blue-blooded pediatrician. They marry and move to a mansion, however, turned off by the arrogance and materialism she encounters, she convinces her husband to move to a much smaller home (“Angie”). Constraint, not conspicuousness, was in vogue. This decade, after all, was a time when wearing upscale Jordache jeans instead of Levi’s or Wrangler’s ran you the risk of censure for “showing off.”
Granted, the 70s also had its share of the paranormal. With regular sightings of Big Foot, UFO, and the Lochness Monster in the news it should come as no surprise that shows featured a woman with ESP (“The Girl With Something Extra”), a man afflicted by gamma radiation exposure (“The Incredible Hulk”), a man suffering from a bite by a radioactive chelicerate arthropod (“Spider Man”), a man immune to every disease on earth (“The Immortal”), a man who could not be seen (“The Invisible Man”), a man with webbed fingers and feet (“The Man from Atlantis”), a man and a woman with surgical implants (“The Six Million Dollar Man,” “The Bionic Woman”), and a man and a woman who swapped brains (“Turnabout”). This being the decade when Earth Day and Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation appeared, non-human animals received representation (“Planet of the Apes,” “BJ and the Bear,” “Grizzly Adams”). Even puppets had their own venue (“The Muppet Show”).
In the 1980s television shows still addressed topical issues and featured ex-cons (“The A-Team,” “Hardcastle and McCormick”), aging feminists (“The Golden Girls”), aliens (“Alf,” “Alien Nation”), half-man/half-animal (“Beauty and the Beast”), an atomic-powered robot girl (“Small Wonder”), cross-dressers (“Bosom Buddies”), a man who can become invisible (“The Greatest American Hero”), as well as the African-American working class (“Amen”), middle class (“Family Matters”), and upper middle class (“The Cosby Show”), a multi-ethnic family (“Gimme A Break”), blended family (“Full House,” “Kate and Alli”), at-home dad (“Growing Pains”), male nanny (“Who’s The Boss?”), and jobs as an ex-Green beret turned fashion photographer (“Cover Up”), nun (“Sister Kate”), Trophy hunter and guide (“Bring ‘Em Back Alive”), football coach (“Coach”), cartoonist (“Duck Factory”), Vermont innkeeper (“Newhart”), viticulturists (“Falcon Crest”), movie stunt man/bounty hunter (“The Fall Guy”), fake-priest drifter-turned foster dad (“Father Murphy”), pony express riders (“The Young Riders”), mutant crime fighters (“Misfits of Science”), ex-model turned detective agency CEO (“Moonlighting”), half-alien/half-earthling teenager (“Out of this World”), crime-detecting senior citizen Mystery Writer (“Murder She Wrote”), and a fugitive lycanthrope (“Werewolf”). Non-humans also made regular appearances, including a computer-generated image (“Max Headroom”) and a holograph projection (“Quantum Leap”). Shows were set in Arkansas (“Designing Women”), Iowa (“Coach”), Southeast Asia (“Bring ‘Em Back Alive”), Vietnam War-era hospitals (“China Beach,” “Tour of Duty”), a parallel universe (“Otherworld”), and a mining spaceship populated by a half-human/half-feline race (“Red Dwarf”).
Unlike “Gossip Girl” where Dan Humphrey’s sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy provides a running plotline, in 1980s shows it is the cash-strapped characters who have credibility and call out the hubris of the comfortable class. In high school settings it is the outsiders and underdogs who teach the value of honesty, hard work, and humility (“Saved By The Bell,” “Square Pegs”). They serve as the moral compass outside of school halls as well (“Roseanne,” “Harper Valley PTA,” “Checking-In,” “Cagney and Lacey,” “Punky Brewster,” “Rags to Riches,” “Three’s A Crowd,” “Silver Spoons”). Working class worries about finances still abounded on cop shows (“Hill Street Blues”) and comedies (“Barney Miller,” “Taxi”). Even the forerunner to “ER” takes place in a hospital that teeters on the edge of financial insolvency (“St. Elsewhere”).
Just as the 1970s was mislabeled the “Me Decade,” the 1980s cannot be reduced to the “Decade of Greed.” It was a period of transition where ideologies of the left along with the right, charity as much as avarice, remained very much in play. Yippies morphed into yuppies, and Baby Boomers who had marched in the streets against the Vietnam war and participated in the counter culture, wrestled in the Reagan Era with the principles involved in a fattening bank account. Owner of a small ad agency, Michael Steadman (“Thirtysomething”) worries about compromising values and “selling out.” He debates with friends about authenticity, affluence, and risking comfort to work for social justice. In a dream sequence, he is put on trial for “ideological corruption” and “decadent materialism.” He is charged with being a “profit-mongering capitalist” who deceives people in his “insatiable quest for corporate hegemony, blindly aping the current fashions of the decadent ruling class.” He is found guilty of being “a dupe of the imperialist yuppy elite” who avariciously rushes into bourgeois trappings. During the second season, he goes bankrupt because he and his partner overextended their company, an event that is portrayed in a positive light. In Columbus, Ohio, Young Republican Alex P. Keaton preaches Reaganomics and aspires to be a Wall Street mogul but remains grounded thanks to his liberal, ex-Peace Corps, pacifist, anti-nuke, pro-ERA parents (“Family Ties”).
Days before Reagan took the oath of office, secretary Krystal Jennings embarks on a marriage to her boss, banking and oil tycoon Blake Carrington (“Dynasty”). Building on the success of the Ewing cattle and oil empire (“Dallas”), the show’s first season places Krystal’s homespun values against the aggressiveness of Blake and his promiscuous grown daughter Fallon. With the appearance of Blake’s British ex-wife at the beginning of season two, however, the shows moral register swings in favor of the indiscreet decadence of the ruling class. Shortly thereafter, the show moved into the Top Twenty and two of its biggest fans made guest appearances: Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger.
Just as the trappings of aristocracy combined with a plutocrat’s pocketbook helped ease Krystal’s acceptance of her husband’s ruthless business tactics, so too did Anglophilia help ease America’s slouch toward unfettered capitalism and imperial prowess. Beginning in 1981 when PBS aired “Brideshead Revisited” until the Revolutions of 1989, as the economy improved and patriotism peaked, Americans took virtual correspondence courses in how to become more comfortable with their renewed position. They looked not to Thatcherite England but to the period roughly from 1815 to 1945, when the British Empire spanned the globe. In the visual representations of Brits falling in love, visiting Italy, and ruling India, Americans saw a citizenry at ease with their pedigree, undisturbed by their imperialism. PBS, ironically, played a sizable role in trotting out works of British classics, including Jane Austen (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey”) and George Eliot (“Silas Marner”). Stories based on British authors appeared on the PBS series “Mystery!” (Agatha Christie, Miss Marple, Dorothy Sayers) and “Masterpiece Theatre” (“The Churchills,” “I, Claudius,” “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”), including one about the waning years of the British Raj in India, where the lower-class officer Ronald Merrick is a social-climbing sadist while high-bred Daphne Manners and Sarah Layton are models of tolerance (“The Jewel in the Crown”). The most popular series premiered in 1981, featuring Charles Ryder, a commoner of modest means, who becomes infatuated with the aristocratic Marchmain family (“Brideshead Revisited”). The fad for the Pax Britannica style influenced fashion (Ralph Lauren, Laura Ashley, Brooks Brothers) and Hollywood (“A Passage to India,” “Maurice,” “A Room with a View,” “A Handful of Dust”), including a tale about the 1924 Olympics when Lord Lindsay proves himself a paragon of self-sacrifice and nobility by swapping races with a Christian teammate who will not compete on the Sabbath (“Chariots of Fire”).
By 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and Communism across Europe disintegrated, the pump was primed for unabashed celebrations of secular free-market democracy. The End of History was proclaimed and now pursuing the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” became a primary pastime. America won the Cold War. Why create visual representations of any other ideology?
Yet the pendulum does swing back. Throughout American history an enduring tension has existed between republican civic virtues of modesty, thrift, and duty and corruption, whether in private or public life. Washington Irving published his short story “Rip Van Winkle” in 1819 the year of the first great Panic of modern American capitalism, when virtuous entrepreneurs lost everything despite their hard work and integrity because of the boom-and-bust cycles inherent to this new economic arrangement. As Scott Sandage argues in Born Losers: A History of Failures in America—which chronicles the story of bankrupts in a nation that glorifies winners—“down and out” characterizes the story of this country as much as “rags to riches.” In the Nasdaq '90s the stories of these Americans became eclipsed by images of bling and bravado. During times of economic malaise corporations restructure, culture refocuses, and values reshuffle. I am looking forward to this recalibration and to more shows that reflect, and thereby legitimize, dissent from the ideology of unbridled capitalism. Although, I have to admit, I could do without after school specials and their overly subtle titles (“My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel,” “My Mom’s Having a Baby,” “Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom,” “The Day My Kid Went Punk”). Already, for the first time since emerging from the rabbit hole that is graduate school in the humanities, the coalescing sensibility of the times feels familiar, like an old cardigan. Speaking of which, my closet has been waiting almost three decades for the fashion sense of “Cagney and Lacey” to come back in style. Plus, Paul Volcker is back. Solid.
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