70s Sitcoms Address Social Issues

With growing concern and decreasing morale in the events of the 70s, the rise of sitcoms became a staple on television and in the homes of many American households. Only three television networks were available and home to these belove sitcoms, ABC, NBC, and CBS. Many of these 70s sitcoms were produced by Norman Lear and addressed many social issues of the decade. Major social trends of the 70s include growing disillusionment of the government, advances in civil rights, increased influence of the women’s movement, and a heightened concern for the environment. Events of the time were typically reflected in media and entertainment, in the 70s, sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and Maude were the first TV sitcoms to include such topics. The cyclic nature of television concludes that today, we are in a 70s-esque era of entertainment that directly address social issues rather than the 80s and 90s where sitcoms either glossed over prominent issues or covered them in blatant irony. However, the current age of television sitcoms is far more socially conscious than any 70s sitcom. The rise in popularity of sitcoms was born out of discontentment with the news and current events of the time period. Sitcoms took attention away from the dreadful news and media that brought dwindling confidence for the future and brought to light relevant social issues through a comedic and dramatic lens.

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Major events and news in the 70s that initially steered the public away from watching the news was the post-Vietnam era and the Watergate Scandal. Similarly, the economy began to sink, the cost of living was 1/3 higher than in the 60s, the stock market was not doing well, and unemployment was steadily increasing. Coming out of the 60s, news became very popular and was found to make significant money, producing near 60% of a station’s profits, however, as the public began to shy away from news on television, the 70s introduced new forms of news. The news magazine was introduced and first used as a magazine edition of 60 Minutes. Also, local news was introduced and took on a more entertaining form, similar to morning news that provided a more light-hearted approach such as The Today Show and Good Morning America.

The American People felt so flooded with bad news that the humor of sitcoms took focus away from the bad. Even though many took a break from the news, relevant issues of the time period were still being addressed and openly talked about in these Norman Lear productions.

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According to Lear, “The issues came out of the lives we were leading and the lives we saw around us. It came out of the reality of living and northing more. What was more interesting to us – ‘Oh no, the roast is ruined, and the boss is coming to dinner,’ or ‘Edith Is facing menopause, and Archie has no patience for it’? We were interested in the reality of life.” The reflection of life into media is the key factor in what the American people were drawn to. Archie Bunker, WWII veteran and blue-collar worker from the sitcom, All in the Family, was a character that opened the door to these important conversations and acted as a more extreme version of the average American male. Though Archie expressed a disapproving opinion of many things and groups of people, he had woven the important topics into everyday conversation that eventually led to a wider acceptance and more open conversations about taboo subjects.

One of the topics that is still widely contested today that was addressed in the 70s sitcom, Maude, is abortion. Abortion continues to be fought over in America today, so with such new and progressive ideas just being introduced in the 70s, abortion was most likely not talked about or widely frowned upon. Maude had an abortion on the show a year before Roe v Wade even happened because women her age had faced the dilemma of surprise pregnancies. By openly addressing such a contested topic, the conversation starts, and women are able to see themselves accurately portrayed in the entertainment business which allows for relatability and could even let women know that this is ok to do. By publicly addressing abortion on Maude, women’s voices were heard, and safer options were shown and addressed. With sitcoms addressing such issues with a comedic lens, the natural light-hearted nature of the show kept the audience watching and enjoying hearing about issues they normally would not hear about.

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While the comedic and dramatic lens of 70s sitcoms remained, the decade seemed to be divided into two parts. The first part of the decade was very open in directly and passionately addressing social issues, while the second half focused more on nostalgia and escapism. According to CNN, the decade too divided and went “from demonstrations to disco” and television soon followed. As much as television and entertainment often reflected the world around them, audiences had grown weary of reality, and needed an escape to happier, more uplifting times. Saturday Night Live debuted on October 11, 1975 and is considered one of the decade’s breakthrough shows. Its anti-establishment humor highlighted an absurdist, sharp-edged comedy little seen on network television at the time. Similarly, Monday Night Football brought sports to prime time and Sesame Street revolutionized children’s programming.

Throughout both parts of the decade, television mainly provided an outlet for the general public to escape from the unfortunate events of reality in the news. With the devastations of war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal to Nixon’s resignation, and the sinking economy, there was very little room for positivity, and many had very little hope for the future. With the rise of sitcoms and the humor that they portrayed, the three television networks were able to produce useful conversations from their inclusion of social issues while radiating the positive spirit that the country so desperately needed. Maude aired an abortion, M*A*S*H demonstrated that TV comedy need not be funny to be effective in its portrayal of the Korean War and All in the Family set the trend for the decade with addressing such taboo topics. The element of escape and humor that sitcoms in the 70s provided allowed for a more positive outlook away from the news. Though the news began evolving into more forms that just television in this era, socially aware sitcoms were a main source of information and entertainment for the country.

Information courtesy of: Vulture, Variety, CNN, Medialit, and History of Journalism

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