My fifth-grader daughter recently discovered reruns of the 1970s classic TV drama Little House on the Prairie, based on a family’s settling in the American Midwest in the late 1800s, and I couldn’t be happier.
I remember watching the show as a kid in the mid-1970s, trotting down two flights of stairs from our apartment to my aunt’s, in our Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. I especially enjoying her commentary, because as a young girl growing up on the tiny Dodecanese island of Nisyros only a couple of decades after Little House’s era, my aunt also herded cattle, raised chickens, and went to school in a one-room schoolhouse with children of all grade levels.
By the time I hit my teens and my family moved out of New York, the show didn’t much appeal to me any longer. But it made enough of a lasting impression that I’m glad my daughter’s a fan now.
You see, that show promoted universal values and morality. Yes, there’s such a thing. If, say, you ask 5000 people their views on abortion, legalizing drugs, same-sex marriage, racism, etc., chances are you’ll see a 50-50 split in their responses. But if you ask them whether they think murder and robbery are bad things that no one should commit, unless they’re purposely answering falsely for shock value, chances are that anywhere from 99 to 100 percent would agree.
Those are the kinds of values Little House on the Prairie espoused: go to school, do your homework, be polite, work hard, don’t lie, don’t steal, obey your parents, and be humble.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that any parent would have objected to those life lessons. The notion of an angry letter to the network along the lines of “how dare you teach my kids to do their homework and be respectful to others? We want them to be lazy, rude, and dishonest!” is preposterous.
Yet, the industry couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to push the envelope. Modern Family is arguably of the best sitcoms to emerge in the past 25 years, and from day one it featured a gay couple – Mitch and Cam – who adopted a little girl. The message was clear: it’s perfectly natural, normal, and even commonplace for two men to be in a loving, committed relationship and make excellent parents. Personally, it made no difference to me and I kept tuning in. But the many couldn’t bear seeing two men kiss on the air, and that doesn’t make them bad people as a result.
A more recent sitcom, the remake of One Day at a Time, which as a fan of both versions I think is even better than the original, included the teenager Elena, who came out of the closet to her family – including her conservative grandmother played masterfully by Rita Moreno – and later started dating Syd, a biological female who prefers to be addressed as ‘they’ and ‘them’. In one episode, when Elena and Syd temporarily separate as a trial run to prepare them if they potentially live away at different colleges, Elena, referring to Syd, says “I miss them so much.” The line got lots of laughs, including from me. But some people were mortified. Again, that doesn’t make them horrible human beings.
The networks picked the right characters to represent these issues. How can you not love Mitch and Cam? As for Elena and Syd, theirs was arguably a more convincing love story than various other contrived ones between heterosexual characters.
But those messages are not universally endorsed as are the ones on Little House on the Prairie.
Speaking of Moreno – who at 90 has the energy of a 30-year-old and is truly a national treasure – she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show in 2019, while Donald Trump was still president, and gave him ‘the finger’. Was that really necessary? It screamed of “I just want to make sure everyone knows that I’m in the Trump’s-a-Monster Club like all the other normal people.”
Actors, athletes, musicians, and other entertainers have fans of all political stripes. They should be mindful and respectful of that and not offend and alienate large swaths of them by showcasing their own social and political points of view. Mickey is a mouse for all people; Disney needs to pipe down.
There are notable exceptions. Rock legends Deep Purple, upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, spoke up. As lead singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover clarified, Deep Purple are apolitical (as well they should be!). But years earlier, they were guests of high-level Russian politician and former president Dmitry Medvedev in his home and for a special concert that Medvedev and Vladimir Putin both attended. Medvedev is a tremendous Purple fan, which proves that anyone can have at least one redeeming quality (reportedly, Hitler loved animals). It was important, therefore, for Purple to speak up and distance themselves from Medvedev (keyboardist Don Airey returned the autograph Medvedev had given him) because they had skin in the game. They weren’t just another high-profile entity seeking to flaunt their social responsibility record.
When in May of 2020 George Floyd died as a result of excessive force while in police custody and the event’s savagery was captured on video for the world to see, members of an organization for which I served as a consultant at the time implored me to write a statement on our behalf confirming our condemnation. “Why?” I responded. “If we don’t issue a statement, will people think we’re in favor of murder?”
By the way, though we never said so, we were also opposed to arson, kidnapping, and human trafficking, in case anyone’s wondering.