Examining the Phenomena of Red Forman Syndrome

Like about half of the Americans I met in Finland, this guy was a know-nothing blowhard. He was explaining That 70s Show, the sitcom, to a group of Finns with the gravitas one would expect from a lecture on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The main character’s father, he espoused, was a mean old man that hated everything. He existed to be the foil, the enemy of fun, bane of the teenagers that were the main characters. On some level that may be true, but I think it’s a misread of the character. Blowhard was drawing a conclusion without understanding the full context. I’ve come to call it Red Forman Syndrome.

Red Forman Syndrome

Having lived through the 1970s, I knew people like Red Forman. Which means I’ve seen the full Hero’s Journey of the Red Forman archetype. America had made him a promise. If you do these things, follow this path, and keep the faith, you will be rewarded. Red was a veteran, and served his country in two wars. He had a strong work ethic, and was loyal to the factory that had employed him for many years. He believed in the American Dream.

Then, at the start of the series, he gets laid off. The company was not as loyal to him as he was to it. The world did not work the way he was taught to believe it did. While he stuck to his principles and stood up for traditional values, his anger was in many ways fueled by disillusionment. He was torn between teaching the teenagers to behave in the way society expected them to, and feeling betrayed by the same social norms.

Am I Overthinking It?

I know, you’re thinking “Berin, you’re reading a lot into a sitcom character that probably isn’t there.” Am I overthinking it? Probably. You need to understand, though, that Billy Joel’s song Allentown came out the year I graduated from high school. I lived 16 miles outside of that city, and 8 miles away from Bethlehem Steel.

Well, we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard, if we behaved”

That’s the Red Forman archetype that I know. It’s my own generation as well. I grew up with people who knew, from the time they were in elementary school, that they were going to go work with their fathers and uncles and cousins and older brothers after high school. Not just at Bethlehem Steel, but Victor-Balata, Mack Printing, and dozens of other smaller factories around the area. By the time we were ready to enter the workforce, those places were downsizing, or moving elsewhere, or closing entirely.

Curse Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal

It felt like a slap. These places weren’t just a source of jobs. They weren’t just the foundation for the local economy. People made places like Bethlehem Steel a part of their identity. It was the center of the community. If you didn’t work there, you knew someone who did. You drove past the massive facility on a regular basis. You heard the sounds, and saw the trucks and trains coming and going it.

These places were literally part of the landscape, and we were told they’d always be there. They represented stability, and continuity, and a validation of the moral benefits of hard work and diligence. Then they were gone. The world changed. The profits of the shareholders were more important than the livelihoods of the workers.

So when people say that Red Forman was an angry old man, well, I think he had a lot of valid reasons to be angry. But only if you know the full context.


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2 Replies to “Examining the Phenomena of Red Forman Syndrome

  1. I didn’t watch the show regularly, but through the comedy, I saw the sad background of Red Forman, even if I didn’t know the full context. Same with Billy Joel’s song. But it may be too much to ask of people to think even a little beyond the facade to the message behind.

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