"‘How did you get away from the lousy bum?’
‘Cake. I-I-I hit him with the cake I was baking.’”
~ Archie and Edith Bunker, All in the Family
On October 16th, 1977, 40 million people sat in front of their televisions, riveted as a man in a grey suit and a blue and gold striped tie lied his way into the Bunker household. What they saw next was one of the most historic events in television history.
Norman Lear spent over a year researching, writing, and producing the groundbreaking, hour-long “Edith’s 50th Birthday” episode of “All in the Family,” in which an intruder attempts to rape Edith while the rest of the family is next door getting ready for her surprise party.
Though somewhat flawed by today’s standards, the accuracy of the episode is nothing short of impressive.
During the year of production, Norman Lear consulted with Gail Abarbanel, the founder and director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital, and held advance screenings at hospitals across the country.
Lear’s hard work and research paid off, and paired with Jean Stapelton’s outstanding acting, resulted in a painfully realistic portrayal of sexual assault.
Edith’s fight illustrates “THINK, YELL, RUN, FIGHT, TELL,” the five principles of Empowerment Self-Defense, so beautifully you might think they’d been posted on the wall of the writers room.
And the power that Edith showed while she was defending herself was something people needed - and still need - to see.
The Five Principles of Empowerment Self-Defense
From the moment Edith realizes that the man with the blue and gold tie is such a huge threat, it’s clear from the look in her eyes that the wheels in her head are spinning.
Edith, who the show usually portrayed as sweet but not too bright (her own husband regularly referred to her as a “dingbat”), comes up with one self-defense strategy after another without missing a beat.
From telling the intruder her husband was next door and would be coming home at six, to pretending she was going to “be sick all over him,” the strategies she used prevented the rape her assailant promised was “going to happen.”
In the last moments of her fight, when Edith removes her burning birthday cake from the oven, there’s a sudden look of confidence on her face when she decides to shove the cake into the man’s face.
Edith is known for her shrieky, high-pitched voice. But in the darkest moments of the episode, we hear Edith’s voice as we’ve rarely heard it before.
Even with her politeness and the fear in her trembling voice, her “Oh, please, don't do that. Please go away!” comes off as assertive.
We also hear her scream.
The easy way out for Norman Lear and the show’s writers would have been for Archie or Mike to come home and rescue Edith.
But that’s not was happens. Edith is given the opportunity to be her own hero.
And the fight could have ended with the burning cake to the attacker’s face. But it doesn’t.
Edith uses her own physical strength to successfully fight off a man at least twenty years younger, and presumably a lot stronger, than she is.
She grabs him and pushes him out the back door and locks him out.
Once her attacker is out of the way, Edith runs next door and gets help.
This is one episode where Archie doesn’t tell Edith to “stifle.” In fact, he does the opposite, and encourages her to share her story.
In the hours and days that follow the assault, the Bunkers gather around Edith and encourage her to talk to them and the police.
And in the end, Edith goes to the police station to identify the rapist and file a report.
(Note: Even though Gloria is a sexual assault survivor herself, her angry response to her mother’s hesitation to going to the police would most likely not be something we’d see on TV today.)
The Episode Lives On
As Norman Lear told The Smithsonian Magazine, “Television, entertainment, and activism are intertwined, because I have always wanted to be a good citizen.”
He has certainly lived up to that claim. In 1996, “Edith’s 50th Birthday” was listed #64 in TV Guide’s list of 100 Most Memorable Moments in TV History. In 2012, Gail Abarbanel honored Norman Lear at a Rape Foundation brunch.
Yet, over forty years later, we rarely see sexual assault depicted the way it was in “All In The Family.”
We still don’t see enough women defending themselves the way Edith did, and when we do, we’re still shocked. Seeing strong women in TV and film should be the norm, not a relief, and definitely not a surprise.
And yes, we do believe that the messages and examples we receive through the media matter.
According to this study from 2016, “The research by the Institute and JWT finds that 90% of women globally feel that female role models in film or TV are important, 61% said female role models in film and TV have been influential in their lives and 58% said that women have been inspired to be more ambitious or assertive.”
And this study found that, “Women who watched weak characters in sexually violent situations became twice as anxious as women who watched SVU or Buffy, who in turn actually reported less anxiety than the control group.”
Perhaps more importantly, it was also found that “Males who watched sexually violent shows with submissive female characters reported more negative attitudes about women than the control group. This effect did not occur for men who watched shows with powerful women.”
The recent overwhelming response to the Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel movies shows that women want to see strong, heroic female role models. Seeing female superheroes on screen is a wonderful and important phenomenon.
But so is seeing a relatable fifty-year-old housewife in an apron, living in a realistic world, find an inner strength she didn’t know she had and become her own hero.
The proof of that? The applause from the studio audience after Edith fought off her rapist were the loudest and longest of the entire run of the series.
After the episode aired, it was shown at rape crisis centers and used by the NYPD to bring awareness to “the woman’s side of rape.”
At a screening of the episode that took place on Capitol Hill, women in the audience, many of whom were survivors of sexual assault and worked as volunteers at local rape crisis centers, shed tears as they watched Edith fight.
Yes, the tears came from a place of pain. But they also came from a place of healing that was the result of seeing Edith deal with trauma and get through it.
Fighting back, no matter what the outcome, reduces the likelihood that a women will blame herself, and increases the likelihood that her healing and recovery will be quicker and deeper.
“Edith’s 50th Birthday” is a way for all of us fight back vicariously.
An article by Tom Shales that appeared in The Washington Post the night the episode aired ends with these words:
“But tonight's program, as one might expect, is [Jean] Stapleton's particular triumph, an eloquent portrait of fear, vulnerability, dignity and, finally, victorious resolve.”
Today, as we deal with #MeToo and all the trauma that surrounds it, that “victorious resolve” is something we can learn from and hold on to as we strive to make the world a safer place for everyone.
* What powerful examples of women defending themselves have you seen on television or in the movies? Please let us know.