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Family Values, or, Curse You, Michael Landon!
March 2004

Ethnic Stereotypes

The prairie – at least, the TV version of it – was full of all sorts of deep, meaningful lessons in regards to other cultures and ways of life. You’d think that someone born Eugene Maurice Orowitz would have some perception of ethnicities other than blanket stereotypes, right?


Outside of the “accept them as human beings” angle, all the Ethnic Others (TM xixax’s 90210 Wrapups) were dealt with in a heavy-handed, patronizing and formulaic way. First of all, they needed (members of) the white Christian Ingalls family to champion them and help make them acceptable within the town community (before they usually disappeared forever from Walnut Grove). And then there’re the Basic Messages the marginalized folks teach the citizens of Walnut Grove: Jews = tradition and pride. Italians = family and pride. Blacks = equality and pride. Injuns = nobility and pride. Fatties = “inner” beauty and pride. So when Albert befriends Isaac, the old craftsman who does woodworking, Albert has to learn an important lesson about how Isaac is upholding tradition. And when he befriends Gambini the Great, Albert has to learn an important lesson about how the Gambini family sticks together. Whenever Pa saves some Indians, he learns that they are deeply noble, despite circumstances. The “Wisdom of Solomon” is that all folks is equal, no matter what de color ob dey skin… which is also the wisdom of Samson the little blind boy, Hester Sue Terhune, Joe Keagan, and Dr. LeDoux.

But despite TELLING us that the Ethnic Others shouldn’t be all prejudiced against, the show then turns around and presents them as the grossest possible stereotypes. Like Percival’s parents. Papa is constantly yelling and rolling his eyes and appealing to God, and Mama is constantly going “Ach!” and “Papa!” and “Oi!” and stuff like that. And Joe Keagan is grinning and laughing and singing spirituals and quoting bible verses and saying stuff like “It’s okay Miz Oleson, black folks take baths too heh heh heh heh heh!” And Nels Oleson’s overweight sister Annabelle the Circus Fat Lady and Elmer the Fat Kid are all jolly and jokey and happy to hide their inner pains. So if “prejudice is WRONG!” as per the LHOTP Message Machine, then what does this kind of trite characterization do, huh?

Disabilities are Romantic! (So are sick people and near death experiences)

There’s Tinker Jones, who can’t hear, but always listens! And Mary and Adam, who aren’t blind to their love for each other! And on and on it goes.

Leslie the crippled pen pal is liberated by her love for Albert, and Annie Crane the blind painter (BLIND PAINTER?! Haw haw haw! Hee hee hee! Blind painter!) learns to really “see.” Daniel, the icky-creepy deaf guy who loves Laura, is rescued from savagery and uselessness after a week or so of sign-language lessons. So is Matthew the “wild boy” when Jenny Wilder saves him. And fatties and shorties like Annabelle and Elmer and Little Lou just need love so people can see how beautiful/tall they really are! This is pretty much the same lesson Laura learns about her dog, Bandit, for that matter, except for the fatty and shorty part….

The episode with the Jordan the fake-blind kid pretending his disability to keep his parents together illustrates this problematic message. But while the show criticizes Jordan (to an extent… it then totally backpedals when Jordan falls and gets amnesia about his whole fakery, so he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his actions), the show doesn’t criticize itself for promoting the same message. Ditto the old lady who fakes her own death to get her children to come visit her. In the end, the attention received and/or the results of the fake disability are more validating than any “lying is wrong” message.

Alcoholism is Romantic, Too!

Every violent drunkard and druggie in Walnut Grove can be cured through love and community/family support and prayer – with no dangerous backsliding or nuthin’. Like the Graham’s alcoholic father, who is cured when Pa moves in with him and saves him, or like Mr. Edwards, who goes to church and prays and has his alcoholism cured.

And with logic like this, thank GOD the show never tackled child molestation.

With all this Romanticizing of stuff, prolly the biggest message I took from Little House as a child viewer is that you can use your weaknesses and/or disabilities to get positive attention from people. Because you will “need friends”! And people will try to help you and save you! Right ON! Be WEAK! Be NEEDY! THAT’S the way to make friends! Yeah!

One-time-only Best Friends/Family Members

Walnut Grove is rife with Best Friends and Important Members of the Community who show up for one episode, and one episode only. Sure, they need plots and characters in Little House land, but c’mon… they all become BESTEST FRIENDS with the Ingallses or a member of the Ingalls family, and then, after the episode, they disappear. Wouldn’t’ve made more sense to have a couple more stock character families instead? Like Annie Crane the blind painter, or Jane the other blind friend, or dead Ellen, who each just… appear as Laura’s close friend.…? Dude, that confused the heck out of me when I was 10. Like “Um, should I know who this person is?” Or then there’re the token characters who FIGHT SO HARD to be accepted in Walnut Grove, like Joseph Spotted Eagle the Indian boy or the various kids who stuttered? Or the old codger who becomes Walnut Grove’s mayor, or Dr. LeDoux the black doctor, or hell, all the black blind children who walked to the new blind school? Yup… never seen or heard from again.

I suppose a sideline mention of this phenomenon was that, despite the fact that the schoolroom was full during the week, only the Ingalls children and Nellie and Willie Oleson went to church regularly. Unless the Widow Sanderson needed to bring her brood in for adopting or something.


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