Selasa, 05 Mei 2009

Tenancy Culture Studies: the Fonz

Today’s subject of study is Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, better known as the Fonz or, affectionately, as Fonzie.

(The Fonz.)

The Fonz is a lodger; he lives in a room above the garage at the suburban home of Howard and Marion Cunningham and their children, Richie and Joanie, in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A mechanic and a motorcycling aficionado, a lover and a fighter, the Fonz is consummately puissant, such that at the click of a finger he can coax music from a broken jukebox and cause any woman (or ‘chick’, as Fonzie would say) to swoon. The Fonz is the coolest figure in the history of American television, if not all Western art.

At least, that’s how we would like to remember him. Originally conceived as a supporting character in the cast of the American nostalgic sit-com Happy Days, charismatic Fonzie quickly became the star of the show. Over the show’s 11 seasons, however, the Fonz changed further: he stopped his womanising, he became the part-owner of a small business, he adopted first a scruffy white mutt (Spunky) and then a scruffy orphaned boy (Danny). By the show’s end the Fonz had even become, of all things, a schoolteacher – the very opposite of cool.

Happy Days is, in truth, a tragedy: it is the tale of the downfall of the Fonz and the annihilation of his coolness.

One interpretation of this tragedy is to see it following from the popularity of cool Fonzie, as the TV executives found themselves unable to resist tinkering with their star, putting him through increasingly bizarre and demeaning events (a water-skiing Fonzie ‘jumping the shark’; Fonzie making the acquaintance of a friendly alien from the planet Ork) and misusing him in the trite moral-making formulae of sit-com story-telling.

On another interpretation, however, Fonzie’s downfall has a wider and deeper significance; it is the story, told in the peculiar language of the American sit-com, of the historical decline of the lodger.

This story is also told by Jacques Donzelot in the very different, if scarcely less peculiar language of French governmental sociology. In his major work, The Policing of Families (first published 1977 – the same year Fonzie jumped the shark and commenced his decline), Donzelot considers the various ways in which family life, from the eighteenth century onwards, has come to be regulated, and how family relations themselves come to be elements in the regulation of modern life.

Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, housing has been one of the chief instruments of this regulation. Donzelot observes the general strategy of this regulation:

[T]he woman was brought out of the convent so that she would bring the man out of the cabaret; for this she was given a weapon – housing – and told how to use it: keep strangers out so as to bring the husband and especially the children in.

That objective of keeping out strangers – that is to say, lodgers – was pursued by various means: in architecture, by building houses large enough for children and parents to have their own hygienic spaces, but too small for the inclusion of outsiders; and in law, by the inclusion in leases of terms prohibiting sub-letting. The objective of the elimination of the lodger was pursued most pointedly by the administrators of social housing, who were – and remain – obsessed with knowing precisely who is living in each and every one of their tenants’ houses, and their relations to one another within the household.

(The Policing of the Family in action: the Cunninghams and their lodger)

The early cool Fonzie represents perfectly the supposed dangers posed by the lodger. He is sexually potent; he is violent; he is a delinquent (so much so that he is a member of not one but two outlaw gangs). It is these qualities that attracted audiences to the Fonz, but when the writers of Happy Days placed him in such close proximity to the Cunningham family they had, after a century of housing policies that were directed to the extinction of the dangerous lodger, no stories to tell other than the elimination of what made the Fonz cool.