On September 30, 1960, at 8:30 PM, ABC network aired the first episode of Hanna-Barbera-produced “The Flintstones”. The late broadcast hour was a recognition that initially “The Flintstones” were made with an adult audience in mind, a cartoon version of that new TV genre, the sitcom. The adventures of the two Stone Age families, the Flintstones and the Rubbles, went on for six seasons, initially a great hit, slipping in ratings in later seasons. For all that, in 2013, “TV Guide” ranked “The Flintstones” as number two on their Greatest TV Cartoons of All Time list, behind – of course – that other great American family “The Simpsons”.
I grew up with “The Flintstones”. This might surprise many people, who, if they think of it at all, probably think that children in the Eastern Bloc were fed a steady diet of Soviet-made cartoons of about brave Pioneers outsmarting Western spies, wreckers and black marketeers, or some sort of a reverse “Animal Farm” where the commie pigs are actually the good guys. In fact, communist film studios never produced a lot of animated entertainment for children, and what there was wasn’t too overtly propagandish. Most of the kids’ animation shown on TV, certainly in Poland of the 1970s and the 80s, was imported from the decadent West: Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny, of course, plus some European and even Japanese shows. No communist heroes, but also no capitalist and imperialist ones; all pretty ideologically neutral and safe, just a lot of slapstick and a coyote accidentally blowing himself up like a beginner jihadi.
And then there were “The Flintstones”, and I still can’t figure out why the Polish censors allowed the show to screen for the captivated audience of 5 ups.
No, “The Flintstones” is not a political show as such. But it’s a quintessentially American show, and to be American was political in those days forty years ago. To quote that fount of wisdom, Wikipedia:
The show’s premise is that it is set in a comical, satirical version of the “Stone Age” which, in spite of using primitive technology, resembles mid-20th century suburban America… Animation historian Christopher P. Lehman considers that the series draws its humor in part from creative uses of anachronisms. The main one is the placing of a “modern”, 20th-century society in prehistory. This society takes inspiration from the suburban sprawl developed in the first two decades of the postwar period. This society has modern home appliances, but they work by employing animals. They have automobiles, but they hardly resemble the cars of the 20th century. These cars are large wooden structures and burn no fuel. They are powered by people who run while inside them. Finally, the stone houses of this society are cookie-cutter homes positioned into typical neighborhoods.
It’s Stone Age (albeit completely ahistorical one, where modern humans coexist not just with mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, which is correct enough, but with dinosaurs too), but it’s an American Stone Age – it’s a Stone Age of the post-war American bourgeois prosperity and suburban life, even for two blue collar workers like Fred and Barney. It presents the lifestyle that an average person, average family, enjoy under the oppressive and exploitative capitalism, and there cannot be a bigger contrast with the reality of everyday life under the “real and existing socialism” of the supposed workers’ paradises of the Eastern Europe.
“The Flintstones” probably had a bigger political influence on me than just about anything else in my life, apart of course from actually growing up in one such workers’ paradise. Certainly, as a cultural product of creativity and intellect it had more impact on my future thinking and political direction than any learned book, movie or a work of art. There would not be The Daily Chrenk without “The Flintstones”.
I remember watching the show as a child of probably eight or nine and very consciously absorbing the vision it portrayed, virtually all elements of – the suburbia of detached family dwellings with gardens and swimming pools, widespread car ownership, fully stocked supermarkets and exciting shopping malls, the variety of entertainments from drive-in cinemas to bowling alleys, the space and the freedom – alien to life in communist Eastern Europe of the dreary Brezhnev era. I didn’t know what America looked like or what American life was like, but I knew that “The Flintstones” were meant to be a comical cartoon version of it. If this was America, I loved and wanted America. The Cold War was already won in my little head under the poignant slogan of “Yabba-dabba-do”.
It’s difficult to explain to somebody who has always lived in a developed Western country, but particularly a “new” society like the United States, Canada or Australia, how different the life on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain was. It’s also difficult to explain the burning desire to get a piece of it and emulate it to those for whom all the trappings of that Western society are not only familiar but familiarity-bred contemptuous. For so many the aspects of modernity like the suburban sprawl, consumerism, car culture, popular entertainment were and continue to be empty, soul-destroying, tawdry, sick and sickening, but by God, for us this was a vision of a paradise on Earth; a true workers’ paradise. Most Americans of course more or less actively embrace and participate in this lifestyle, but the contempt for the urban middle class values and lifestyle has been a very strong stream of Western intellectual and cultural life, from the Jeffersonians to “The American Beauty”, “Weeds” and just about any Stephen King novel.
Not that my 8-year old self would be able to understand all this or care even if I did. To live in a free-standing house with its own greenery and a lawn, to take advantage of all the great household appliances of the modern life, to drive around in a car, to exit a shop with a trolley-full of goodies, to actually go shopping and enjoy a variety of exciting and interesting stores, to indulge in outdoor hobbies and recreation – this was the vision of a good life that even the Western Europe was too crowded to offer but the Eastern Europe certainly too impoverished and ill-managed to be able to deliver for a majority of its people. We knew, I knew, that we were not any different to the Americans; to use the Stone Age analogy, both of us fellow Cro Magnons, but it seemed like ours was a less fortunate tribe looking at the other one that somehow has managed to progress more. Maybe that’s how some of our early ancestors looked at those who have conquered fire, made the first tools or domesticated cows (provided these less developed onlookers managed to survive and produce descendants). Whatever the others had that we didn’t, whatever the secret of their success was – fire, tools, plants and animals – we knew made for a better, more successful life and we wanted to ditch our old and inferior ways and embrace their way. Communism was great on rhetoric but it failed to deliver pretty much everything that it promised, certainly up to the standard it promised, but the West, by and large, did, thanks to its secret of fire – freedom, democracy and capitalism.
“The Flintstones” was a Trojan Horse of the American Dream that somehow slipped past the guardians of ideological purity, maybe because there woolly mammoths in it. But some of the best political tracts are allegories, like the previously mentioned “Animal Farm”. There were no pigs and horses in “The Flintstones” but there were certainly dinosaurs – it wasn’t exactly “Animal Farm” but it certainly was “Jurassic Park”, with a dino-sized not-so-subliminal message for me. I can’t tell you if many or even any of my young peers in that Poland which thankfully no longer exists had the same or similar reaction when watching the show. But I certainly did. Hanna-Barbera was my baby Hayek and Friedman, I bet they never expected that.
I’m now much older and have a more nuanced view of the reality – or a version of reality – that “The Flintstones” portrayed. Thirty years of life in Australia (as of this November) has certainly brought familiarity, but familiarity did not breed contempt. I can read and understand the critics of American life even if I don’t agree with them. Are the Bedrocks of modern life the pinnacle of human evolution and happiness? Well, despite the knockers and jeerers, they probably are for more people than ever before in history. Are they for everyone? Clearly not. But the beauty of the Western society is that it gives us freedom to make our lives the way we want to make them, not absolutely but again more than any other time and place in history; it gives us a choice to be a Fred Flintstone in Bedrock and it gives us a choice to be Oliver Wokestone in Trendyinnercityrock. And that’s something to celebrate today as much as 58 years ago.
Yabba-dabba-do, my fellow right-wingers.