Sunday, June 5, 2016

Very Special Episode

"Gloria's Boyfriend" is an episode from the fourth season of All in the Family (2/2/74 is when it first  aired).   Just stumbled onto it a little bit ago on cable, and then rewatched the episode on You-Tube (here).  I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to help job seekers with developmental disabilities access good jobs in the community, and "Gloria's Boyfriend" is all about that very topic, albeit a little dated.  And yet the way the subject matter is handled and worked through reminds me of how much things really haven't changed too much.  Possibly the language has been overhauled (the "R" word is used both pedantically and insultingly in the episode), but the actual tropes and metaphors and fears still kind of linger when you approach the idea of someone labeled as developmentally disabled being able to be a part of the workforce, a contributor to the way we all get things done everyday.

 "Gloria's Boyfriend" tells the story of George the Box Boy at Ferguson's Grocery, and the one day he brings the groceries home as a favor to Gloria.  It's obvious he has a crush on her, and for a minute or two you get the feeling that's the creepy direction the story is going.  But the actual narrative gets focused around a subplot, in which Archie and Michael are using an adjustable bench-plane to help refit the upstairs bathroom door that isn't shutting properly.  That door becomes both a metaphor and a plot device, as does the faulty tool Archie is using:  the bench-plane's blade is not yielding any wood shavings as Archie glides it across the door. 

In the episode, George is given to us as a big, sweet guy who is a little slow, but capable of expressing himself as well as having the ability to understand when he's mistreated  and when he's welcome.   The conversation about him among the Bunker clan is a survey of the ways people with developmental disabilities have been represented and seen over the course of the 20th (and now 21st) Centuries:  menace, innocent, deviant, oversexed, simpleminded, and so on.  The pendulum from "how sweet" to "how dangerous" is quick and steady, especially when Archie talks.  In fact, Archie in the episode is a sort of stand-in for the way many people understand what "developmental disabilities" are.  He's constantly warning his daughter to watch out for George's advances ("Stop getting him all excited -- people like him have a one-track mind," he says), while when speaking directly to George he's condescendingly kind and didactic (he tells George to take a break, sit and watch as Archie and Michael try to whittle down the door so it'll fit, using the tool that does not work). 

The crisis moment comes when Archie again speaks to Gloria about the possible dangers of her friendship with George, and George overhears.  Archie feels the need to spell what he considers is George's main diagnosis and prognosis:  "You gotta be careful around a d-u-m-m-y."

It turns out George can spell, and he tells everyone that in fact he's not a dummy, and he's going to show them all he's not.  He runs out the backdoor.  This instigates a conversation among all of the family about how George from Edith's perspective is a "nice gentle boy," and Archie counters with examples of "his kind" from movies like Of Mice and Men and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while Gloria and Michael defend George as "special" and "retarded," but able to work and live in the world just like anybody else. 

Later in the day, Gloria goes back to Ferguson's to get ice cream, returns to tell everyone that George has been fired.  They all hope it wasn't because they asked him to stay a while earlier, and also because of what Archie had said.  Then a knock at the door, and George's dad comes to find out where George is, as he had heard from Mr. Ferguson about the firing, as well as the fact that George's last delivery was here at the Bunker's.  Another history and
sociology lesson occurs between the dad and Archie, with Archie asking why George is the way he is, why George doesn't live in one of those homes they have where they are taught how to weave baskets.

George's dad doesn't get upset.  You can tell he's totally used to the questions and insinuations and he answers it all succinctly, ending with:  "George is gonna make it on his own.  Like his brother," who happens to be a lawyer.  George's dad also says that "kids" like George aren't ever given a chance to prove what they can do because people are always looking for ways to fire them.

George comes back to the Bunker's then.  He has a cardboard sign he says he went and got from Ferguson's, where he had hung it as inspiration in the backroom.  The sign says: "Every man is my superior in that I can learn from him."  (Nobody credits that statement in the episode, but it comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson.)  And then George tells them that right after he got fired he went and got another job at a factory, on the loading docks.

"That's a job like yours," Edith tells Archie.

"I don't work Edith," Archie says, obviously trying to separate himself from George's world.  "I'm a foreman."

And in a final gesture, George takes a look at the adjustable-bench plane Archie was using, and in a few seconds fixes it.

"You had the blade in backwards Mr. Bunker," says George.  "That's okay.  I get things backwards too sometimes."

The end. 

The reason I've summarized "Gloria's Boyfriend" so specifically here is because as I watched the episode, I didn't feel like it was 44 years in the past at all.  As you can tell, most everything the characters were talking about still is talked about, considered, debated, held as truth.  All the prejudices and tropes involved in being developmentally disabled and trying to negotiate your life are touched on, without a lot of the politically-correct dancing we tend to do now that can often obfuscate the issue.  George is a capable guy who can contribute to the world, and he succeeds despite everyone trying to help him by pursuing what he needs, sparked by the realization that a lot of people think he cannot do it.  But his success comes because he has an internal need to prove everyone wrong. 

In its "very special episode" kind of way, "Gloria's Boyfriend" allots George a sense of agency and authority in order to escape a narrative that's been formed around his identity (an identity he can't escape) for a century or more, and that same narrative still informs the way we see and envision people with developmental disabilities:   we lump them all together in the most atrocious ways a lot of the time, still supporting them in mostly segregated congregations, even while we try to "introduce" them to the community.

And Archie Bunker, in the episode, becomes our avatar, condescendingly benevolent and very sure he knows what he's doing and thinking, and even worse suspicious, judgmental, prescriptive.  People with developmental disabilities are often so distant from the way we consider ourselves that the very thought that we might be co-workers or peers is almost taboo, beyond belief.  They don't fit into the way we want to see things. 

"Gloria's Boyfriend" does a lot of cultural and political work that still matters today.  Is there a representation of someone like George in our current media, on TV, movies, books, blogs?   Someone you can point out as to help explain that people with developmental disabilities can contribute in vital ways?  Just one person, one story that allows people to stop distancing themselves and realize that while many people with developmental disabilities may need extra support they don't need charity and condescension.  Just maybe a chance to prove they can do more than you think they can do.   I know a bunch of examples from real life, and I think part of my work is introducing them not as programmatic "success stories," but as people like everybody else.  That may sound cliché, but I truly think that's often what's missing in the whole situation, that simple declarative moment when people begin to understand in an Emersonian/Norman-Lear fashion:  "Well hell, I can learn something from this guy." 

Maybe something as essential as how to make sure the blade's not backwards.