Teen Dreams: Let’s Talk About Sex: Race, Class and Sexual Double Standards in Happy Days and Good Times

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By Kerensa Cadenas

As the great lyricists, Salt ‘N’ Pepa aptly note in their amazing song “Let’s Talk About Sex”:

Let’s talk about sex/for now to the people at home or in the crowd/It keeps coming up anyhow/Don’t decoy, avoid or make void the topic/ ‘Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it

Teen TV has always talked about sex, and despite any haters (I’m looking at you, Parents Television Council) sex will always be an intrinsic part of the teen show.

Sex in teen TV is portrayed in a multitude of ways: equal parts heart-wrenching and awkward, exciting and kind of gross, and above all else completely transformative and life-changing—much like how many of us probably thought about sex while we were teens. And it’s consistently used as a major plot point for the drama and comedy of losing one’s virginity. Nothing feels more commonplace in a teen show (especially sitcoms) than when THE SEX is supposed to happen but due to some sort of hilarious mishap or emotional epiphany it doesn’t.  Both the Happy Days pilot and the Good Times episode “Sex and the Evans Family” timidly tackle sex (or lack therof) while creating commentary about race, class, and sexual double standards.

Both shows debuted in 1974, and during their second seasons competed in the same time slot. Both shows were spin offs—Happy Days from the Love, American Style teleplay “Love & The Happy Days,” and Good Times from the sitcom Maude starring the iconic, flaw-free Bea Arthur. Both shows’ first seasons celebrated a good amount of ratings success, with Happy Days at #16 and Good Times at #17 in the Nielsens.

While both shows aired at the same time and both focused on families and their teenagers, their environments couldn’t have been more different. Happy Days is set in 1950s Milwaukee, while Good Times was set in the projects of modern-day Chicago.

Happy Days is a prime example of the nostalgic teen show—with shows like American Dreams, The Wonder Years, and even That 70’s Show following in its footsteps. A program we can watch from a future vantage point to be nostalgic for things that weren’t even representative of the time that they occurred in. The pilot is introduced with a nostalgia-inducing montage of the boys grooming themselves, laughing at the expense of dumb girls, and going on double dates where the smooth operator move of the yawn and stretch is employed. But when the two guys accidentally brush hands, they recoil back automatically: No homo. (Please note ironic usage). The show opens at the teen hangout soda shop with Ralph (Donnie Most) bragging to his friends Richie (future director and Arrested Development narrator Ron Howard) and Potsie (Anson Williams) about a hickey he recently got. No one believes Ralph’s story.

But Ralph’s hickey serves a major plot purpose—to get them thinking about sex.

Potsie has decided to set up Richie with Mary Lou—a girl with a reputation! Potsie claims he’s done “stuff” with her but urges Richie to make himself more worldly for her since she’s into seniors and allegedly dated a sailor. Ah! The change-everything-about-yourself-to-get-laid trope emerges, which always works out so well in the end!

After an awkward first encounter, Mary Lou asks Richie to help her babysit. The subsequent encounter is equally awkward. Richie starts off reading to her and despite Mary Lou’s obvious make out signals remains oblivious until she asks him outright if he wants to neck. Richie goes too far in fumbling with her bra through the back of her sweater and she yells at him. They decide to not continue making out and play chess instead.

Richie, of course, allows his friends to believe that he had sex with Mary Lou but feels insanely guilty. After seeking out some fatherly advice, classic TV dad Howard Cunningham (Tom Bosley) tells Richie he should tell the truth and not get sexual information from street corners (the Internet of the ’50s?). Richie ends up confessing to everyone that he didn’t sleep with Mary Lou.

Unsurprisingly, throughout the episode Mary Lou is characterized as a shallow blonde twit whose sexuality is completely passive and defined by the guys around her. Mary Lou is completely shocked that Richie tells the truth about their encounter: “The boys are always saying I did things with them and you are saying you didn’t.” She is very aware of what the boys are saying about her and even mentions a sexual assault attempt by her gym teacher—all of which are brushed off as comedy.

Happy Days, at least within the pilot, creates a whitewashed boys’ club that reinforced tired gender and sexual tropes echoed in Potsie’s closing line of the episode: “There’s two types of girls: those you marry, and those with reputations.” In 1974, the world was a rapidly changing place thanks in part to events like President Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade the year before. And we tend to turn to nostalgia for comfort during times of upheaval (look at our current bout of ’90s nostalgia). Happy Days’s revival of an idealized 1950s fit the bill perfectly. Its gender and sexual reinforcement through a patina of ’50s nostalgia was in direct contrast with Good Times—a show that looked directly at contemporary issues of race and class.

Good Times focused on a black family living in the projects of Chicago. Though much of the show’s humor seems hokey now and even the way this family is portrayed was potentially racially stereotypical for the time period, having an all black cast heading a sitcom was revolutionary. Hell, I’d argue that it’d still be revolutionary even now, given the 2010s’ currently very white network lineup.

In the episode, both J.J. (Jimmie Walker—made famous by his catchphrase, “Dy-no-mite!”) and his sister Thelma (BernNadette Stanis) have been dating around—he with apparently every chick in the neighborhood and she (who is 16) with a 21-year-old graduate student. The family is cool with their teens’ dating habits until a binder entitled “Sexual Behavior in the Ghetto” is discovered in the living room. It chronicles explicit details about the sexual proclivities of the youth in their neighborhood. As any parent would, Florida (Esther Rolle) freaks out upon discovery of this smut-ridden notebook.

However, Florida and her husband, James (John Amos) don’t freak out as much as expected because they automatically assumed it belongs to J.J. Dudes are always looking at porn and porn-adjacent material, right? So when Thelma casually claims the notebook as her own, James especially has a meltdown, because girls (and especially his daughter) can’t be interested in sex at all.

Our typical sexual double standards, similar to those on display in Happy Days, are heavily upheld by James. He goes on about how Thelma used to be such a “good girl,” suddenly banning her from dating and even slut shaming his wife during her attempts to speak up in Thelma’s defense.

This episode actively reinforces sexual double standards (ones that are still certainly in place today), while Happy Days merely writes them off as unquestioned truth even the context of sexual assault. Still, feminist glimmers appear within the discussion on Good Times—ones that largely stem from the contemporary conversations being had in 1974, conversations that couldn’t enter into Happy Days‘s world.  And the explicit class context of Good Times‘s setting also permeates throughout the show’s schlocky humor.

Florida, while concerned about what her daughter is doing, calls James out on the double standard to which he’s holding their children. At one point he says, “Boys don’t get pregnant,” to which Florida responds, “But they are usually around the scene of the crime.” And Thelma herself is unapologetic about owning the “Sexual Behavior in the Ghetto” binder (which is later revealed to be an in-progress thesis written by her boyfriend), in her anger calls her father a male chauvinist.

Good Times’s discussion of sex is more frank, at least as much as it can be on a sitcom, and this is in part thanks to the larger context of the show. In contrast to its time slot competitor, Good Times tackled current race and class issues explicitly as opposed to literally whitewashing issues of race, class, and gender under a nostalgic guise. While obviously Good Times upheld the sexually repressive and contradictory mores to which we are (still) accustomed, at least those are undercut in tiny increments by women who were actually given enough personality to fight back.

Previously on Teen Dreams: The Partridge Family and Feminism, Dull TV, and Singing Heartthrobs

Kerensa Cadenas writes for Women and Hollywood, Forever Young Adult and is the Research Editor for Tomorrow magazine. You can find her other published writing at her website. She’ll be live tweeting her Heathers group costume on Halloween. She can rap all of the aforementioned Salt ‘N’ Pepa song.

2 Responses to “Teen Dreams: Let’s Talk About Sex: Race, Class and Sexual Double Standards in Happy Days and Good Times”

  1. Dean

    I’m skeptical about your conclusions because I think you are reading both of these shows too literally.

    In both of the episodes described I believe the audience is intended to read them ironically. We are intended to think both Potsie and James represent an older, repressive society.

    These characters and their attitudes serve as the source of comedy. We are not intended to adopt the attitudes they represent, but to laugh at and ridicule them.

    Reply

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