EVOLVING IMAGES OF FAMILY IN TV: 1950s TO 1990s
Jill W. Bishop; U of M ID # 1758728; AmSt1003/American Cultures
"The situation comedy ...has evolved into a ...continuous family chronicle..."1 It started with the 1950s television families, the Nelsons, the Cleavers, and the Andersons. They all portrayed white, traditional, middle-class nuclear families with a working father, homemaker mother, and 2 or 3 children. They all got along happily dealing with bland crises that barely caused a ripple in their ideal lives. The producers of these families showed "...not the reality of most family lives, but a postwar ideology..."2
The decade of the 1960s was a time when "...the great harmonious middle-class America was fraying at the edges, and the latent schisms of class, race, gender, and age erupted into open conflict."3 But television did not change its portrayal of the family until almost the 1970s when it acknowledged that families did not look like that 1950s ideal. A turning point in the feel-good sitcoms appeared in 1968 with Norman Lear's All in the Family featuring the bigoted Archie Bunker. It was the first TV family that was anything other than perfect. As the years went on in All in the Family episodes dealt with "...menopause, infidelity, divorce, alcoholism, impotence, depression ...the issue became the painful fragility of marriage and the family unit..."4
While the news programs on TV showed blacks in the violence of the civil rights movement, on network programs blacks appeared as fully assimilated citizens into white culture: in Julia, starring nurse Diahann Carroll, and in I Spy with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. It was a strong contrast between the newscast representations of blacks in America and the fictional portrayals in the sitcoms and dramas. Commercial sponsors wanted entertaining and comforting images to sell their products, not challenges.
Currently, in the family sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s, television still portrays traditional nuclear families, such as Roseanne and Home Improvement, but there have been numerous shows showing families with different structures. Grace Under Fire features a divorced mother with a sister and mother-in-law as key characters, unlike the 1950s sitcom family which was isolated from extended family. Two other popular programs varied the traditional nuclear family but still showed two distinctly separate roles: in Who's the Boss? two single parents lived together with reversed roles, he was the housekeeper and she was the breadwinner; and in Kate and Allie two divorced mothers lived together, one taking the role of breadwinner and the other the homemaker. Then in My Two Dads two men shared parenting roles because of the undetermined paternity of their shared daughter. (an obsolete plot with today's DNA testing)
So TV sitcoms have spread out to include different structures other than the traditional since the narrowly defined family of the 1950s. Families have divorced or widowed parents, extended families are a part of everyday life, and caretaker/guardians of children are not always biological parents. Parents' roles now include working mothers, although what little housework done by TV characters is still woman's work, and fathers are still primary breadwinners. The pointed exception was the series Who's the Boss? which emphasized the incongruity of the role reversal.
One large change in the family unit is the importance of careers for both men and women. Although the fathers in the 1950s sitcoms were presumed to be the breadwinners (they wore suits), their actual jobs were usually rather ambiguous. Two popular shows in the 1980s, The Cosby Show and Family Ties, showed traditional nuclear families, but both the husbands and the wives had careers. Other shows revolving around the workplace implied that "...the opportunities for emotional engagement and support no longer lay in the family, but in the workplace..."5 for men and women alike because of the instability of family life. In both the older Mary Tyler Moore Show and the recent Murphy Brown the fellow workers of single women take the place of family. They fit the overly broad definition of a family that Samantha in Who's the Boss? gave to her son as group of people who "...share each others lives and care about each other."6
"Because sitcoms build upon the lives of real-seeming families in real-seeming situations, television analysts pay particular attention to how these shows construct cultural ideals."7 Media critic Walter Shapiro bemoaned the lack of social engineering toward his own ideal when he criticized the dearth of reporting his reality of "What scant vigor remains in American capitalism... [rather than]...role models of scientists, engineers and factory managers striving to keep ahead of the Japanese..."8
Louis Gates, Jr., a black college professor, also expressed concern that the black people seen on television give a false image of his view of black reality. "...the representations of blacks on TV is a very poor index to our social advancement or political progress."9 He worried that "Cosby," as the dominant representation of blacks on TV in the late 1980s, "...suggests that blacks are solely responsible for their social conditions, with no acknowledgement of the severely constricted life opportunities that most black people face."10 Shapiro agreed, acknowledging that "...in their zeal to do the right thing, the architects of prime time are largely masking the strains in race relations and the social isolation of the black underclass."11 And by portraying the existence of minorities' lives in such a comfortable picture, "...TV breezily dismisses the crisis of the black family."12
HOMOSEXUAL AND MULTI-CULTURAL FAMILIES
Television families in the 1950s excluded people of color. Only white families were portrayed in the idealized American family. Blacks were only seen as domestics or in comic roles, and other minorities which appeared rarely were also portrayed as stereotypes, such as Tonto with the Lone Ranger. There were no Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, or anything other than Euro-Americans in normal family settings.
Now we have had The Cosby Show, Good Times, and numerous other sitcoms featuring African American families, but today there are still very few non-black people of color in sitcoms. Northern Exposure featured one Native American character, and LA Law featured Jimmy Smits as an Hispanic lawyer. One short lived sitcom, All American Girl, starred a very westernized Asian girl living with her very culturally traditional Asian grandmother and her somewhat traditional somewhat westernized mother. But there are few family sitcoms on prime time network TV featuring racial minority groups other than African American, even though Hispanics are the fastest growing racial group in America.
Homosexual parents on TV are slow to appear. Ellen Degeneres, star of Ellen, is lesbian in real life and is presumed to be coming out in upcoming future episodes. Although she is a lead character in a popular sitcom, her character is not a parent, and even though there certainly are homosexual parents in American society, strong prejudices against them are still being listened to in mainstream America. Friends character Ross's ex-wife is raising their son with her lesbian partner, but with that exception network TV, a commercial enterprise, is not quite ready to show homosexual parents in their family sitcoms.
So the family structure portrayed in TV sitcoms may have broadened since the 1950s, and the ethnicity of families now includes African Americans, but other ethnic groups are still largely invisible, and non-heterosexual parents are still largely taboo.
As the rapidly escalating permeation of cable TV and satellite television into American homes broadens viewers' choices beyond network television, the reality of a multicultural population in America is creeping into popular entertainment offerings. People of color appear in commercials, drama, and situation comedies. TV families have different structures than the traditional one portrayed consistently in 1950s television, and family members have different roles. In some instances TV characters of minority groups reflect the mainstream culture more than their indigenous culture, but that too is one reality; for some members of racial minorities do embrace the mainstream culture more than others. Television does not yet reflect the diversity of the American populace; it is still largely dominated by mainstream white culture. But it is moving toward a wider view of American life, further from the monocultural society portrayed in 1950s television.
1 Ella Taylor, "TV's Families: Three Generations of Packaged Dreams" Reading Culture: Contexts for Critical Reading and Writing (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) 451.
2 Taylor 451.
3 Taylor 452.
4 Taylor 454.
5 Taylor 455.
6 Taylor 460.
7 Diana George and John Trimbur, eds., Reading Culture: Contexts for Critical Reading and Writing (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) 443.
8 Walter Shapiro, "What a Waste of (Prime) Time" Reading Culture: Contexts for Critical Reading and Writing (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) 447.
9 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "TV's Black World Turns--But Stays Unreal" Reading Culture: Contexts for Critical Reading and Writing (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992) 464.
10 Gates 465.
11 Shapiro 448.
12 Shapiro 448.
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