The Andy Griffith Show: A Feminist Critique

I am not much of a fan of The Andy Griffith Show, but I currently live with my grandma, who quite enjoys the program, so I sometimes end up watching it with her. For those who aren’t familiar, Andy Griffith plays Andy Taylor, the sheriff of a small town called Mayberry in the southern United States. Andy lives with his young son, Opie (Ron Howard, well before he directed Apollo 13 and narrated Arrested Development), and his Aunt Bee. The comedy aired from 1960 to 1968 and focuses on life in a quirky small town and often features Andy playing the guitar and singing with his neighbors.

As with many examples of black-and-white, family-values, classic Americana, there are elements of The Andy Griffith Show that were considered basic standards of life in the ’60s but come off as problematic today. The women do the cooking and the cleaning while the men make the money, and women are routinely criticized by men for talking too much or gossiping. Generally the lower a character’s social status is, the less intelligent they are. (There are probably more examples, but these are the ones I’ve observed consistently in my limited experience with the show.) Now just because I identify problems with a show (or movie, book, video game, etc.) doesn’t mean I think it’s bad or evil or anything like that. (Case in point: I love Supernatural, which is one of the most hypermasculine shows out there, with a serious lack of female and non-white characters that survive for more than a handful of episodes.) But being a critical consumer of stories and media is tremendously important for understanding where society’s (and our own) problematic attitudes come from and where they lead.

Earlier this week, I saw an episode of The Andy Griffith Show entitled “Briscoe Declares for Aunt Bee,” and I was shocked by how much this particular story undermined female agency and promoted rape culture. In summary: Briscoe Darling’s daughter has recently gotten married, so he and his four sons are left to cook and clean for themselves. (The Darlings live in the mountains outside Mayberry and are therefore less civilized than the townies.) After they are thrown out of the local diner, Andy invites them over for dinner, and Briscoe is quite impressed with Aunt Bee’s cooking and the cleanliness of her house. He misinterprets Aunt Bee’s hospitality for romantic interest, and after dinner he asks her to marry him (he “declares for her,” in the local parlance). Quite taken aback, she declines more than once, and eventually Andy has to step in and send the Darlings home. But they come back in the middle of the night, playing music outside Aunt Bee’s window, and she again has to tell Briscoe she’s not interested and shoo him and his boys away. The next day, Opie comes home from school for lunch and finds a note from Briscoe that says he has taken Aunt Bee to his home. Andy sends Opie over to a neighbor’s house to eat, and sets out for the Darling homestead. Aunt Bee has not been physically hurt, but the Darling men aren’t letting her leave. When Andy arrives, she asks the legitimate question, “Andy, why don’t you just arrest him?” But Andy takes Aunt Bee outside for a little chat, and they come up with a crafty plan. Aunt Bee pretends to acquiesce to Briscoe’s proposal and tricks Briscoe and his sons into showing off their strength by cleaning and moving furniture around. Then she makes dinner and enforces the use of good manners, such as only taking one baked potato at a time and placing napkins on laps instead of tucking them into shirt collars. Getting more and more frustrated, Briscoe finally revokes his “offer,” saying he can deal with some rules and regulations, but Aunt Bee’s attempts to civilize him have gone entirely too far and he won’t put up with them any longer. Aunt Bee pretends to be contrite, and then she and Andy go on their merry way, pleased with how well Andy’s plan worked.

Can you see any issues in this story? I sure hope so. Let’s start with the minor plot point of Andy assuming that some local housewife will be totally fine with an unexpected drop-in guest for lunch. Maybe he and Mrs. So-and-so (her name is mentioned, but I can’t remember it or find it on IMDB) have standing agreement to take care of each other’s kids whenever a situation arises, but I doubt it. In the other episodes I’ve seen, Opie always goes home to his house at lunch time (a lot of kids used to do that in the ’50s and ’60s, in case you didn’t know), and Aunt Bee always has food waiting for him.

Next, let’s talk about Briscoe Darling. To begin with, he assumes that Aunt Bee will agree to marry him when they’ve presumably just met, or at least never had a meal together before. In some cultures, marriages tend to work that way, but other episodes prove that that’s not how things usually work in Mayberry. Briscoe also won’t take “no” for an answer: Aunt Bee is forced to decline his offer more than once in the living room, and then Briscoe shows up outside her window, not only being creepy but disturbing her sleep, and then what happens? Oh yeah, he KIDNAPS HER! All of this misogyny makes me worry for Briscoe’s son’s future behavior and makes me wonder what kind of man his daughter married.

And finally, let’s talk about how Sheriff Andy Taylor, the paragon of morals in the Mayberry community, handles this strange situation. He gets points to begin with, letting Aunt Bee handle the unexpected proposal herself and then stepping in when it becomes clear that Briscoe isn’t getting the memo. But Andy loses all those points and more when he ignores Aunt Bee’s request to arrest her kidnapper. (And yes, they do use the word “kidnap” in the episode.) Maybe he thought he was giving her agency by letting her play the “clever housewife,” but his lack of enforcing the law (you know, his job) sends a message that it’s okay for men to forcibly abscond with women — they might end up outsmarted and a little embarrassed, but they certainly won’t face any legal action.

These damaging ideas, when contained within a folksy TV show, may not seem all that dangerous, but we see their direct descendants playing out in the real world: Men who think women are at their beck and call, whether they know the women or not. Men who think all women want to go home with them and get upset when someone tells them “no.” Police, prosecutors, jurors, and judges who refuse to take seriously female vicitims of rape and other violence. Rapists and other violent offenders who receive little to no punishment because it might damage their reputation and their future, with no regard for the trauma they’ve put their victims through. When these kinds of stories are showcased in our media, what kind of messages are we sending to our kids?

There are many positive elements to The Andy Griffith Show: little to no violence, no profanity, families spending time together, lots of music, and happy endings galore. Compared to a lot of the things kids these days see in movies and on TV, it’s a walk in the park. But if we don’t talk to our kids about these problematic elements (or discuss them with other adults), those issues will be absorbed and perpetuated into the next generation, and I, for one, would really rather that didn’t happen. Let’s make sure we’re using our critical thinking skills when watching TV shows, new or old, and make sure we’re reminding others to do the same.

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