Friday, January 11, 2008

I Hate Spunk

Long time readers of CoG know that I have an unhealthy obsession a strong interest in 1970s television. Actually, even short-time readers of CoG probably know that as well. Hey, I never claimed that this blog would be topical.

So when hulu.com went on-line, you can well imagine that I was the first to sign up. While the site could use more work and content, it is a means to pass time when I should have really been working on the Never Ending Research Project of Doom.

Many revelations have emerged from hulu. Who knew there was a sequel series to Knight Rider called Team Knight Rider? Who knew that a show could be worse than Knight Rider?

Skipping over the utterly unwatchable, I went to Lou Grant. It’s a show that I have vaguely warm feelings about, but not enough that I would actually bother acquiring the DVD’s.

While it has mostly been forgotten today, Lou Grant had substantial ratings in the pre-cable days of the late seventies. The show’s titular character made a highly unusual transition from its origins on a 30 minute sit-com (Mary Tyler Moore) to a one-hour drama.

At the end of Mary Tyler Moore, the fictional Minneapolis television station fired all the main characters. Grant, in his spinoff, decided to move to Southern California where he found a new job as the city editor of the Los Angeles Tribune.



Part of the show’s popularity developed from its reputation to tackle serious social issues. Yes, Lou Grant wasn’t afraid to take bold and radical positions like “Spouse abuse is bad” or “falsifying school records is wrong.” Those were heady times.

Watching the old reruns reminds me (again) of how poorly the mainstream media grappled with the major social movements of the 1970s. Lou Grant’s setting in Los Angeles opened the opportunity for the show to engage the Chicano and Chicana activists who were challenging the nation’s status quo.

All through the U.S. Southwest, some mighty determined Chicano/a young people demanded more equitable access to education, an end to police harassment, protection of their civil rights, and greater investment in urban neighborhoods. In 1968, Chicano/a students walkout of their public schools in Los Angeles, Denver, and South Texas in protest of racist policies. Revolutionary movements appeared in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and California.

Among their other concerns, Chicano/a activists demanded that the mainstream media provide better representations of people of Mexican descent. Most images that circulated of Mexicans/Mexican Americans presented them as either ignorant buffoons for laughs or as dangerous villains. Frito Lay even engineered a means to merge the two stereotypes in order to sell their fat-laden snacks. Between 1967 and 1971, the “Frito Bandito” appeared on television speaking broken English while robbing innocent Anglos of their salty snacks.



While Chicano and Chicana activists were able to win some important victories in terms of education, voting, and the law, the media proved remarkably recalcitrant. Lou Grant’s location in Los Angeles did not mean that the show’s regular cast would include an actual Mexican American (that would just be crazy talk). Sure, the city has the largest urban Mexican population in the world after Mexico City.

Producers of Lou Grant might have even looked around at actual Southern California newspapers that had prominent Mexican-American writers. This included the Los Angeles Times columnist Rubén Salazar who wrote a number of articles documenting the LAPD’s abuse of Chicano/as during the late sixties. Salazar died when police launched a tear-gas canister into his head during an anti-war protest in 1970.

Instead of thinking about that type of story, Lou Grant served up a fairly ambivalent image of Mexican Americans in the city. Lou Grant mediated the demands of Chicano/a activists by either renaming their complaints as problems entirely internal to the Mexican-American community or the fault of just a few bad Euro Americans.

An early episode entitled “Barrio” delivered a classic “message” Lou Grant. The plot centered on the newly-arrived Grant learning about East L.A. after a story comes across the wire that a Mexican-American mother was shot by a gang. On one level, the episode did acknowledge that minority neighborhoods were often cut off from city services and disproportionately poor. Yet, it also upheld the notion that the “barrio” was riddled with violence because it was populated by irrational residents who refused to conform to middle-class standards.

Grant assigned his (apparently only) woman reporter, Billie Newman, to the shooting story. Newman discovers that the pre-teen son of the shooting victim plans revenge on the gang that shot his mother. This permitted the show to offer up a gratuitous scene of a drive-by shooting, which we are informed is basically a daily event for residents in the barrio. Indeed, it is such a non-event for the Chicano family that the three-year old girl spends her time comforting Billie (!).

To get the audience further invested, Newman takes Grant on a fantastical tour of the mysterious and inscrutable section of the city known as East L.A. While there, Grant learns two important lessons: first, tacos are good!; second, that Chicano L.A. is populated only by gang members, want-to-be-gang members, or people who were once gang members. Unless, of course, you count the victims of the gangs (who are, of course, the immediate relatives of gang members).

Grant never meets any Mexican American who wasn’t, at some point in their life, a gang member. Even the hero of the story, George/Jorge Santos, was a former gang member who now serves as a youth counselor in the barrio.



While the show pointed to some problems that existed in real life, it placed the onus of those problems on the Mexican American community. East L.A. wasn’t in trouble because of a lack of economic development, minimal city services, or the disenfranchisement of the population. Instead, the Mexican-American community was simply dysfunctional. The youthful character of Henry explained to Grant, “The gang is like your family, No, it’s more than your family. It’s everything. It’s always been like that. My father was in a gang and his father was in it too.”

In many ways, this episode of Lou Grant anticipated the gangxploitation films like Boulevard Nights or Colors that would be so popular in the 1980s. It gave mainstream viewers a notion of Chicanos as predisposed to being gang members because they were both hyperviolent and also senseless followers.

Obviously gangs do exist in inner-cities. Young people’s motives for joining gangs, however, are more complicated than the bizarre “family tradition” or sense of inevitability posited by Lou Grant. Gangs provide actual economic and social benefits to their members which are mostly closed off to them by the larger society. Jobs and income (from illicit sources) are one of the main reasons that gangs are appealing, especially in areas where unemployment or underemployment are high. Likewise, gangs offer entertainment and protection for those who participate.

Of course, gang membership also represents a remarkably small percentage of the Chicano community. Lou Grant’s decisions to make gangs appear all pervasive in the barrio only replicated stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican Americans as “lawless” and in need of civilizing by benevolent white authorities (where gang violence apparently never happens).

Another episode entitled “Judge” presents a similarly compromised response to the period’s Chicano activism. The episode starts with an irate Chicana, Luisa Sánchez, visiting the Tribune to demand that Grant investigate the shoddy trial of her Chicano boyfriend, Esteban. This episode, like “Barrio,” acknowledges a certain level of unfairness in U.S. society. Indeed, it even starts fairly promising by exposing Grant’s own racist presumptions. When Sánchez challenges Grant, he offers to find a reporter who can speak Spanish. She observes that she does not need translation as she is clearly speaking to Grant in English.



The show kinda went off the tracks after that point. “Judge” got to play both sides when it came to Chicano/a complaints about the U.S. On one hand, the show exposed the injustice that many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans faced in the U.S. courts. The judge who presided over the case made racist remarks about the defendant, biased the jury, and clearly presumed the guilt of the defendant.

Yet, the show never suggested that the entire criminal system was biased against minority defendants. Instead, Lou Grant put forward the idea that it was only a few rogue judges who were causing problems for Chicano/as. If those rare individuals could be removed, then everything would be fine.

The episode further stipulated that Chicano/as would not do the figurative housecleaning of the U.S. judicial system. The two Chicano characters at the center of the plot are quickly sidelined as irrelevant. Esteban expressed extreme fear at bucking the system and passively resigned himself to his fate. While Luisa had started the episode with a zeal, she showed herself to be too emotional to handle the task. Both Luisa and Esteban need to depend on the Anglos to do the hard work of solving their problems.

Moreover, there was never any question that Esteban was truly guilty of the crime. By making his guilt unquestioned, the show suggested that Chicanos who faced the courts were there legitimately. They just deserved a fair trial before being sent to the slammer for the rest of their life. Rather than acknowledging the actual Chicano/a activists and lawyers who were demanding fair treatment from the judicial system, Lou Grant claimed that it was good-hearted and enlightened Anglos who would bring about social change.

Alas, Lou Grant wasn’t the only seventies television program to fumble with the social movements of the time. Even my beloved Wonder Woman had a troubling episode, "Knockout," that equated the Chicano/a movement with international terrorism. In an otherwise forgettable plot, Diana (played by real-life Chicana Lynda Carter) is dispatched to Los Angeles to investigate the disappearance of dreamy Steve Trevor.

Like Lou Grant, Diana must explore dangerous East L.A. to find answers. Also like Grant, she stops off for some tacos along the way (what is it with the tacos?). Unlike Grant, Diana has no sympathy for the Chicanos that she encounters.

After a quick costume change, Wonder Woman discovers that Chicano-criminal Angel Velasquez has all the answers. It turns out that a shadowy organization known as “the movement” engineered Trevor’s disappearance. In a unique twist, Wonder Woman presented Chicanos and African Americans working together within “the movement.” Caroline, an African-American police woman has teamed with Velasquez in a plot to kidnap high-ranking U.S. officials.Velasquez boldly proclaimed that the movement would "change the world by taking power away from those on the top and set free those on the bottom." Such proclamations were intended to make the movement seem crazy.



Wonder Woman’s vision of the Chicano movement was like Lou Grant’s in the sense that both presented the motives of Chicano violence as entirely irrational and without merit. Velasquez and Caroline are both misguided (the latter more than the former). Indeed, it turns out that a white man is the real leader of “the movement” who was simply using Caroline and Velasquez in a Soviet-driven plot (!). The message from this episode was that minorities shouldn’t rock the ship of state. If they tried, they were probably being mislead and duped by the supposedly smarter whites. Instead, Chicanos and African Americans should have faith in the system and, perhaps, Wonder Woman.

After watching such shows, one realizes how badly suited the mainstream media was to addressing the concerns raised by the Chicano(/a) movement(s). Keep in mind that these were considered positive visions of Chicano/as in the lat seventies. At least Mexicans weren’t being shown with a murderous desire for corn chips any longer.

All the same, these images only half-heartedly considered Mexican Americans' roles within the U.S. With friends like these, it is small wonder that the Chicano/a movement remained (and remains) mysterious to most Americans.

13 comments:

dykewife said...

like nearly all euro-canadians, i carry a backpack called "white privilege". it benefits me in ways that are too numerous to mention, but one of those is to have my entertainment as free of real issues as possible. white privilege also means that if real issues are encountered in the entertainment industry, they are made as palatable as possible. this palatability includes making sure that i'm secure in the knowledge that the centuries of colonialization, racism, exploitation and oppression won't be put on my shoulders, but will be blamed on those who were colonialized, are oppressed, discriminated against and exploited.

that's what the entertainment system is about, especially television, and especially in the 1970s.

it makes me very sad.

Tenure or Bust said...

As a Prof. of Spanish, I am amazed how much Spanish was deemed "acceptable" to a 1970s(?) audience with the Frito Bandito, with his "mucho' and "uno, dos, tres...." Nowadays, there is a lot more in commercials and shows, but back then. Wow.

Marlan said...

As a journalistm student in the late 70s at the other major U in your adopted state (yes, that makes us rivals!), I recall anticipating Lou Grant and watching it avidly--at least for a few shows--until its heavy-handed, pseudo-journalism style effectively killed my interest in MTM's spinoff.

Like Dykewife, I carry a backpack of white privilege also, and didn't really notice the plotline direction, just the lack of spunk from the writing team at MTM.

In retrospect, a truly good spinoff would have been something starring SueAnn Nivens. She could have whipped up a batch of tacos--and made a few salacious (yet positive) comments about the men of Mexico. Just sayin!

AL said...

Your statement about the Chicano/a movement in the U.S. is very true. I myself don't know much about it, though I recently taught essays by Renato Rosaldo and Gloria Anzaldua (well, an excerpt from one of her books). My students absolutely hate the Anzaldua excerpt, "How to Tame a Wild Tongue." She claims that her language is her identity, and that until she is able to speak without having to translate for Anglos, her tongue (Spanish-English blend) will always be illegitimate. Many of my students are working adults with families to support, and a lot of them are non-native English speakers. They all argued that if you live in the United States, you should speak English. And they absolutely hated her style of writing, and felt that she demanded too much from her readers. I don't know why I'm sharing this...it doesn't have anything to do with the television shows you've mentioned...but I guess I don't know how to help position my students to be more open to why Anzaldua's argument has merit. If you're familiar with the work, would you be able to give me your perspective on it?

Chad said...

I wonder how much of these issues came from the original writing sessions or from editorial intervention from above. Certainly high-ratings shows like "Wonder Woman" would have seen a great deal of studio influence over the writing process.

I read somewhere this is how some soap operas from roughly the same period managed to dabble in some controversial issues (for the time) like interracial marriage, abortion, and artifical insemination: they weren't taken seriously.

tornwordo said...

I'm glad I wasn't sitting there with you watching, lol. That really fired you up. Also, I got my code for hulu but they won't let me watch anything since I'm in Canada. I gave my password to my cousin. Sigh.

jp said...

I don't know that setting a show in Los Angeles dictates an expectation that the Hispanic population be adequately represented in the cast (though I'll agree that an opportunity was certainly missed.) Now if it would've been San Francisco and none of them were gay, I'd have a blogpost.

But that's not the real issue here. You made fun of Knight Rider. I'm not speaking with you for at least the next 2 hours.

Marius said...

As usual, great post! I've never seen the show Lou Grant. But I agree that they missed a great opportunity to address (real) issues that affected Mexican Americans living in California in the 1970s.

I had a similar reaction to a few episodes of Six Feet Under, one of my favorite television shows of all time. I was disappointed at how the writers portrayed the Diaz family, the token minorities. Specifically, Federico, played by the wonderfully cute Freddy Rodriguez, cheated on his wife with an exotic dancer who also happened to be Hispanic (of course!). Well, once Federico's wife found out, she went crazy, grabbed a baseball bat, and confronted her husband's lover. It was totally ghetto. It's like the writers were too lazy to create a more interesting and creative story line for the Diaz family.

Also, I have a question (er, comment?) about your use of the word Chicano. First, does Lynda Carter consider herself a Chicana? I suspect she doesn't. There are a handful of America actresses who have a lot in common with Lynda (e.g., Alexis Bledel, Catherine Bach, Jessica Alba, and others), and these women don't seem to identify as Chicanas. In fact, Jessica Alba, much to the chagrin of Latino bloggers, stated in an interview that she doesn't consider herself a Latina. I personally don't think the term should be used to describe all Mexican Americans. I'm sure some would disagree with me, but it's a term that means different things to different people. Also, the term Chicano is almost nonexistent in the lexicon of some Mexican American communities.

GayProf said...

DykeWife: It seems to me that the people who control the media are making bad assumptions if they presume that the majority of whites couldn't handle a critique of society based on race and class.

Tenure of Bust: I think that the level of Spanish would have only been acceptable in 1960s television because the figure speaking it was supposed to be comical and uneducated.

Marlan: Lou Grant was heavy handed, though maybe that is what people responded to in the late 1970s.

Al: It has been my experience that students often have a hard time coming to terms with Anzaldúa (or other Chicana feminists from that period). My only suggestion in terms of teaching would be to turn it back onto the students. If they disagree with her so strongly, ask them to explain why they think that her work has been so popular? Make them do the work.

Chad: It's hard to say who made the decisions on any of these programs. Clearly in the case of Wonder Woman, they probably weren't imagining they were making huge political statements. In the end, though, everything is political.

Torn: No hulu in Canada? That is just dumb. I tell you, the entertainment industry (especially music) has been the slowest to recognize that we live in a global market place. They are only harming themselves.

JP: If I made a casual reference to "Turbo Boost," would that help you forgive me?

Marius: You are right about terminology. In this case I chose "Chicana" for two reasons 1) as a political statement and 2) to provide some consistency of terms within this entry. They are all aribtrary terms, but that would have required too much time to explain in an already-too lengthy piece.

Lynda Carter, while not always advertising her racial identity, has also not actively distanced herself from being considered "Latina." The thing about Alba and others like her is that one's decisions about identification only carry one so far. Racial identities are decided as part of the larger discourse. Even if she (and others) repudiate that identity, it will still be assigned to her by others. At least, that's what I think this morning.

dykewife said...

gayprof, it is truly sad. the fact is that the entertainment business is first and foremost a business. they're not going to jeopardize advertising revenue by showing what the real world is like. even news programs are bits of soundbites with out much depth.

i'm feeling somewhat pessimistic tonight, i guess.

James Stripes said...

In the midst of the inconclusive coroner's inquest concerning the death of Rubén Salazar, LA Police Chief Edward Davis was in Portland. Oregon asserting, "the Communist Party in California said it was giving up on the blacks to concentrate on the Mexican-Americans." At least that's what Hunter S. Thompson asserted in "Strange Rumblings in Aztlan" in Rolling Stone (29 April 1971).

For Wonder Woman to then discover that El Movimiento was the work of "outside agitators" highlights the place of mainstream television within the Ideological State Apparatus: she appears to be employed by the public relations arm of the LAPD, as was Jack Webb and Dragnet that was able to silently work around the Watts Riot and the well documented tradition of police abuse against African Americans, assuring TV viewers that police were interested in "facts".

Roger Green said...

I used to watxch Lou Grant all the time, but not since it went off the air. Will have to check out.

The Frito Bandito was my second least favorite stereotype of my childhood, after Pat Boone's Speedy Gonzalez.

Anonymous said...

Was Jack Webb of Mexican descent?