In 1970, Mary Tyler Moore starred in a runaway television hit bearing her name. Her character, Mary Richards, was a tenacious, independent woman in her thirties who exercised the personal strength and resourcefulness necessary to “make it” on her own in the big city. Breaking with the social convention of the day, she was the first single female character in television history not waiting or even looking for a man to marry and support her. She helped lead a cultural revolution to secure a professional place for women in what had been a man’s world. Ironically, Moore’s television stardom had been established by her role as Emily Post approved, stay-at-home wife and mother, Laura Petrie (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”).
Moore was not the first television actress to shed her archetypal, happy-homemaker persona. In 1962, iconic comedienne, Lucille Ball, traded in the puritanical Lucy Ricardo image to become Lucy Carmichael, a middle aged widow and mother of two. The show chronicled her adventures as she successfully, but inimitably navigated life as a single mother: first, in suburban Connecticut (with roommate Vivian Bagley, a divorcée with one son), and later, living on her own in Los Angeles.
In 1975, Norman Lear introduced us to George and Louise (Weezy) Jefferson; a successful, upwardly mobile, African-American couple holding their own in the Anglo-American dominated world of business and semi affluent society. The show, by far the most successful spin-off of Lear’s “All in the Family,” would continue for a total of eleven seasons, making it the longest running series in American television history to feature a predominantly African-American cast. This paved the way for the incontrovertible success of “The Cosby Show” (premiering in 1984), which ranked first in Nielson ratings for five consecutive seasons and opened the door for an explosion of African-American centered series like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “A Different World,” “In Living Color,” and “Family Matters.”
In 1998, NBC gave us “Will & Grace,” a show whose creators and cast were outspokenly dedicated to normalizing homosexuality in middleclass America.
But, this is not a post about social breakthroughs in media or the impact of television on civil rights. And, though I often use this forum to discuss the intersection of faith and culture, I will refrain from expressing my less than amiable views concerning the extreme fundamentalist argument that our world began to spiral out of control when women left the home or that corporate American media is driven by a liberal, anti-God agenda. Those targets are far too easy and the arguments a wasteful diversion. Instead, I want to speak to the universal social value demonstrated in what seems to be a recurring theme in small screen theatrics.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.” My fellow “LOST” addicts will recognize the John Locke mantra. But long before actor Terry O’Quinn uttered the phrase, it had already served as anthem for centuries of epic hero stories—fables, poetry, art, music, literature, cinema, television, on and on it goes.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Super Bowl this year. I’m not much of a football fan. I’ve been known to take in a good college game now and then, but I cannot honestly say I’ve ever watched an entire professional league game. This year was different. It wasn’t that I suddenly developed a greater appreciation for the sport. It was the circumstance I found engaging.
My wife was born in Louisiana. I know firsthand how diehard Saints fans can be. I also know how much of a joke the team has been to the rest of the NFL. When they earned their place in the Super Bowl opposite the Colts, I posted the following as my facebook status: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” When the big game finally came around, I found myself cheering for the unlikely franchise. Not out of allegiance to my wife or her family, not out of pity or hope for the underdog— I rooted for the Saints because I love a good upset. It is not so much that I want to see the little guy win as it is that I enjoy seeing the self-assured, big guy get taken down a notch or two.
I laughed. I actually laughed out loud and for a long time when I heard that little-known Republican state legislator, Scott Brown, won Edward Kennedy's old seat in the US Senate. I was curiously ecstatic— not because or in spite of his political affiliation, rather because it seemed the people of Massachusetts went to the polls muttering, "don't tell me what I can't do."
There was something incredibly satisfying when my son’s U12 soccer team (who, consequently never won a single game in regular season play) knocked the number one ranked team out of the regional finals. When the odds are stacked against you, it feels good to have a little “don’t tell me what I can’t do” (a la Lucy, Mary, George, Will, or Locke) rise up from deep inside.
But, it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, this attitude has so permeated our sense of self and the social constructs of the average American community that we root for the underdog just to see the big guy fall. We simply can’t stand the thought that someone else gets to be right. But, just because someone or something is “wrong,” does that mean any opposition is “right” by default? Who decides? Before the battle, “sic semper tyrannis!”— but, what happens once Caesar is dead? You see, now the New Orleans Saints are the big guy to be beaten. Vindication rarely evens the playing field. Most often, all it does is rearrange the players.
While international and domestic equity assurance policies (e.g. Affirmative Action) are unquestionably noble in theory, in practice, they often seem to do little more than restack the deck. I’m not crying “reverse discrimination” here. I am simply pointing out that, when the dust settles, someone still wins and another still loses; someone gets the job and someone doesn’t.
I guess what I’m wondering is, from whence do our convictions come? Are they our own? Or, are they simply the opposite of what we perceive our enemy’s agenda to be? “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” When did we make the world about proving everyone else wrong? And, what does that say about humanity? Not everyone is right for every job. Not every team has what it takes to win the Super Bowl. Not every single (or single-again) man or woman is built to navigate life on their own. What makes us think that “on our own” is somehow better? And, while we certainly shouldn’t stack the odds against one another because of race, gender, religious conviction, marital status, and the like; anger and frustration and “don’t tell me what I can’t do” seem to lead to a mere shifting of the players and voices. Is this, ultimately, how we settle the issue of inequality? Is this the path to lasting peace? How many regimes must fall? How many leaders do we overthrow? How many amendments do we make? How many T.V. shows does it take?
Without argument, there are inhumanities that must be ended. There are egregious abuses to be redressed. This is not about acquiescence to oppression or a justification for tyranny. Even so, in the end, Mary Richards’ most formidable opponents were her own personal demons. She didn’t have to “stick it to the Man” to be happy. Lucy found the greatest joy among her friends and family, not in triumph over those she thought were her enemies. George and Weezy faced many of the same domestic and relational issues I grapple with daily, despite the differences in the color of our skin. Ironically, while Will and Grace boldly confronted unjust social generalizations and unmerited hatred, one petty quarrel would rob their characters of years of friendship. As for John Locke? ...well, I guess we’ll soon find out where “don’t tell me what I can’t do” gets him. Still, I cannot help but think there must be a better way. Maybe.