The Dick Van Dyke Show first aired on television October 3, 1961. Immediately, the show began challenging cultural traditions, most noticeably gender roles. Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) frequently happened upon satirical situations involving his strong-willed wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), and the show found a chance to provide genuine criticism on American culture in Rob’s unorthodox reactions.
One of the show’s most blatant criticisms can be found in “The Bad Old Days” (1.29). Rob is confronted by a friend with an article claiming the American male is in decline, corralled to impotence by dominant women. Rob is rendered insecure and refuses to participate in domestic responsibilities, avoiding chores commonly assigned to women, despite normally aiding in these tasks without conflict.
Rob convinces himself he desires the “good old days”; a time when women were docile, unquestioning, adopting opinions and orders from their husbands. During his sleep, Rob is visited with a dream that reminds him of the reality of demoting one gender to the role of servant and the tyrannous role played by the counterparts imposing this unequal condition. Rob wakes, realizing his dream was a nightmare.
The Dick Van Dyke Show presented ideas that were controversial because they challenged common opinion, forcing the audience to consider new ideas they might not have practiced, rather than simply seeking to entertain and preserve the show’s following. Questioning gender roles became a recurring theme throughout the series.
Challenging in similar fashion seems absent many modern television shows; shows that instead pander to shock in trivial fashion. Ideas about gender and sexuality that were controversial and provocative have been desensitized and then transformed into entertainment by glamorous editing.
Game of Thrones receives attention for its use of sexuality and violence, but this material is not controversial or ahead of its time. Depicting female characters as rape victims, prostitutes, and treacherous fiends who betray men presented as warriors obsessed with displays of physicality and sexual prowess is not original; and provides viewers with much titillation but little reflection.
Game of Thrones presentation of rape and male dominated sexual perspectives does not make ethical statements about these practices, but rather idealizes these gender roles to entice viewers into following the show and allowing its profitable production to continue.
Mad Men is often praised, but the show provides little reflection of 1960’s times when sexist ideals prevented women from working and participating in society. Admiration for the show’s presentation of misogyny is only a fascination with its depiction for the purposes of stimulation. The show is essentially American Psycho without teeth: Mad Men is appreciated only for nostalgia because it lacks critical narratives.
Controversial topics like social equality or the lack of genuine female/LGBT representation in media and government are seldom driving forces on television, all too often only appearing as means for stealing attention in the same way nudity and sexuality are exercised by stale producers.
Unfortunately, challenging issues won’t likely recur in a television series until America accepts them first; and those who provide controversial themes will always risk displeasing audiences and condemning themselves to cancellation or censorship.