The Waltons is often dismissed as simple nostalgia playing to a Conservative moral agenda, but its popularity endures. So what stops us from bidding a final ‘Goodnight John-Boy’ to this classic American series?
2012 was the fortieth anniversary of The Waltons’ first appearance on American television screens. In the intervening period the world has undergone momentous changes, not least in America itself. In 2013 we have grown used to the idea of an African-American President, perhaps even to take it for granted, but in the early Seventies the dust had hardly settled following the often-violent conflicts arising from the struggle for civil rights in the preceding decade. Things have certainly changed, then, but the appeal of The Waltons seems to endure, and it is still possible to watch the show on television, on the Inspiration Network (an American cable TV network currently available to around 70m households in the USA), which screens episodes of the show three times a day.
The reasons for the show’s enduring appeal are complicated. From our retrospective vantage point, it may be tempting to see the show as simply a nostalgic invocation of a ‘better’ time, when family (and the television family in particular) meant something other than the dysfunctionality that dominates television’s images of the family today. But there are problems with this view, not least that it would take some leap of the imagination to view the early Seventies – the aftermath of the civil unrest of the Sixties, the continuing war in Vietnam, stagflation, the oil crisis and political scandals at the highest level – as a much ‘better’ time than now, notwithstanding all the troubles of the present. Nor was the idealised view of family life presented in The Waltons typical of the time, with shows such as All in the Family and the ground-breaking PBS documentary series, An American Family, both presenting dystopian counterparts to 1970s audiences. Perhaps it is the 1930s, in which The Waltons is set, for which the nostalgic imagination yearns, but the depths of the Great Depression hardly seems an obviously better time than either the early Seventies or the present.
But then again nostalgia has little to do with the material realities of life in the times that are idealised through its lens, and everything to do with the symbolic needs of the present. Many years ago one of my greatest intellectual influences, Claude Lévi-Strauss, described myths as ‘interminable’, having neither beginning nor ending and achieving a kind of contingent unity only in the mind of the reader. Lévi-Strauss didn’t say it directly (although Roland Barthes would later on in S/Z), but readers exist in specific material contexts, and thus bring something from those contexts to the act of reading in which myths solidify into particular configurations of meaning. It is the hallmark of a successful myth that it is able to provide symbolic material sufficiently malleable that it is capable of being reworked to fit the needs of a variety of contexts inhabited by different readers. The Waltons provides precisely this sort of durable myth.
It is easy to dismiss a television show as trivia, as mere entertainment that has few political or cultural implications for society. But recognising the mythic character of some television programmes enables us to see that beneath the entertaining surface, ideological forces are at work. Myths communicate a conceptual order, a value system that attempts to orient the responses of members of a society to the problems of the day. In the early Seventies those problems were manifold. Key American beliefs had taken a battering in the Sixties, driven by obvious injustices like racial discrimination and the interminable war in Vietnam. As the Seventies started these problems were compounded by the abrupt derailing of the postwar economic boom and by a perceived moral decline, fuelled in part by the visibility of the ‘free love’ generation and by the first appearance of hardcore pornography in the cinemas of Main Street, USA.
At such a time of national identity crisis and loss of faith in the ‘American way’, The Waltons offered Americans an opportunity to recover their faith in the traditional American virtues, revitalising traditionalist tropes of American family life and reconfiguring them so that they appeared to specifically address some of the anxieties of the time. Fears about the character of American manhood in an age in which professionalism, corporate career structures and conformism (not to mention feminism’s efforts to erode patriarchy) had replaced the maverick spirit of the pioneers were quelled by maintaining the strong connections between the masculinity of the future (John-Boy) and that of past generations (father and grandfather) who lived more directly the ruggedly individualist ideal and who bestowed on son (and grandson) their sense of integrity and moral purpose, thus connecting modernity with the traditional ways of the past. Likewise, Mary-Ellen’s character would provide the vehicle for The Waltons to reconcile contemporary feminist demands for equality of opportunity, for the right to cast off the shackles of unpaid domestic labour and earn a living, and thus gain economic independence from men, with a more traditional and regressive vision of a woman’s place in the social order. Mary-Ellen’s qualification as a nurse seems to fulfil both of these contradictory demands, providing her with the ostensibly progressive movement into paid employment that had eluded earlier generations, but doing so by returning her to a setting with powerfully regressive resonances of the domestic and nurturing roles traditionally assigned to women.
In this way The Waltons transcends mere nostalgia. By connecting the idealised vision of the past offered by nostalgia with contemporary anxieties, The Waltons locates the solution to modern problems in the past. In so doing it symbolically diminishes the significance of those problems and offers the assurance that everything will be alright if people will just surrender to the ‘wisdom’ of tradition. The original problems to which The Waltons responded may now be long gone, but the show’s ascendency to the level of the mythological ensures that its ideological propositions can be called forth in answer to other crises of faith in the American way of life, providing the soothing reassurance that at the heart of the American dream lies an essential goodness that can overcome whatever problems an increasingly complex and globalised society produces. Therein lies the enduring appeal of this emblematic piece of American television. ■
Mike Chopra Gant is the author of The Waltons: Nostalgia and Myth in Seventies America and Course Leader in Mass Communications at London Metropolitan University. His other books include Hollywood Genre and Postwar America: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir.