Looking back on An American Family

Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 12, 2011

Action Speaks!, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, continues its fall series with a look back at An American Family, a documentary that chronicled the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California.

The show, which aired in 1973, tracked the dissolution of Bill and Pat Loud's marriage and the coming out of their son Lance. It was riveting stuff for a nation reared on Leave It to Beaver and in thrall of The Brady Bunch.

The panel, moderated by Marc Levitt, is scheduled for October 19 at 5:30 pm and is free and open to the public. Guests will include Alan and Susan Raymond, two of the filmmakers behind American Family, Lynne Joyrich, a Brown University professor of modern culture and media, and Robert Self, a Brown history professor.

The Phoenix, a sponsor of Action Speaks!, caught up with Self for a Q&A via email.

REMIND US HOW SHOCKING IT WAS, WHENAN AMERICAN FAMILY DEBUTED IN 1973, TO WATCH REAL PEOPLE LIVING THEIR LIVES ON TELEVISION. Shocking may not be the best term. Since its birth in the late 1940s, television had a strong "reality" component. Americans' TV screens were always filled with a jumbled mixture of actors, celebrities, and ordinary people — the latter were on game shows, interview shows such as You Bet Your Life, which was hosted for many years by Groucho Marx, and reality-based shows such as What's My Line? If Americans were accustomed to seeing ordinary people on television, the intimacy of American Family was new. It was both new and uncomfortable, and therefore irresistible, for the camera to break the boundary of the domestic sphere and invade the privacy of the home.

WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE ROUGH TREATMENT THE PRESS GAVE LANCE LOUD, WHO CAME OUT DURING THE FILMING AND WAS ESSENTIALLY THE FIRST GAY CHARACTER ON TV? ANNE ROIPHE, IN A PIECE IN THENEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, REFERRED TO HIS "FLAMBOYANT, LEECHLIKE, HOMOSEXUALITY." I would hesitate to reduce Roiphe's review of the show, or Lance, to a single line. She identifies with Pat Loud (the mother) and her struggles to comprehend the direction her son's life has taken. There is subtlety, not just a thin veil of homophobia, in her characterization. That said, Roiphe's description of the gay world of Chelsea in 1971 (when the show was shot) reflects the larger society's discomfort with homosexuality, transgender, and everything that we might call "queer" today. Taking Pat's side, Roiphe worries that Lance is over-dramatizing his own life, casting himself and his sexuality as an "interesting" production for the camera. It's a critique of the youthful, self-dramatizing counterculture as much as it is a critique of his queerness.

But that is why An American Family is such a fascinating time capsule. Gay cultures had virtually no presence in mainstream media in 1971. The Stonewall riots had occurred less than two years before. Gay liberation was a new phenomenon in American life, to say nothing of American television, where middlebrow shows like The Brady Bunch and My Three Sons predominated. Gay rights was barely a recognized concept in the larger culture of the nation. Roiphe was, like most Americans, both ignorant of and fascinated with a gay world that was just becoming visible in 1971 on the national landscape. Thus even otherwise liberal figures such as Roiphe could not escape a society-wide homophobia that cast gay worlds as shadowy and exotic.

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