introduction of television after World War II coincided with a steep
rise in mortgage rates, birth rates, and the growth of mass-produced
suburbs. In this social climate, it is no wonder that television
was conceived as, first and foremost as a family medium. Over the
course of the 1950s, as debates raged in Congress over issues such
as juvenile delinquency and the mass media's contribution to it,
the three major television networks developed prime-time fare that
would appeal to a general family audience. Many of these policy
debates and network strategies are echoed in the more recent public
controversies concerning television and family values, especially
the famous Murphy Brown incident in which Vice President Dan Quayle
used the name of this fictional unwed mother as an example of what
is wrong with America. As the case of Quayle demonstrates, the public
often assumes that television fictional representations of the family
have a strong impact on actual families in America. For this reason
people have often also assumed that these fictional households ought
to mirror not simply family life in general, but their own personal
values regarding it. Throughout television history, then, the representation
of the family has been a concern in Congress, among special interest
groups and lobbyists, the general audience and, of course, the industry
which has attempted to satisfy all of these parties in different
ways and with different emphasis.
the early 1950s, domestic life was represented with some degree
of diversity. There were families who lived in suburbs, cities,
and rural areas. There were nuclear families (such as that in The
Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) and childless couples (such
as the Stevens of I Married Joan or Sapphire and Kingfish of
Amos 'n' Andy). There was a variety of ethnic families in domestic
comedies end family dramas (including the Norwegian family of Mama
and the Jewish family of The Goldbergs). In addition anthology
dramas such as Marty sometimes presented ethnic working-class
families. At a time when many Americans were moving from cities
to mass-produced suburbs these programs featured nostalgic versions
of family and neighborhood bonding that played on sentimentality
for the more "authentic" social relationships of the urban past.
Ethnicity was typically popular so long as it was a portrayal of
first generation European immigrants; Black, Hispanic and Asian
family life were almost never dealt with. When they were they were
the butt of the joke such as the Cuban Ricky Ricardo with his Latin
temper or the African American Beula with her job as the happy maid/mammy
in a white household.
on 1950s documentaries and in fiction programming the family often
served as the patriotic reason "why we fight" Communism---much as
it served as a source of patriotism in the Norman Rockwell magazine
covers of W.W.II. Action/adventure programs such as the syndicated
series I Led Three Lives, contained numerous episodes in
which Communists infiltrated families and threatened to pervert
American youth. Paradoxically, however, the family also provided
a reason why we fight the more extremist versions of anti-communism--especially
that espoused by Senator Joe McCarthy in 1952 when Edward R. Murrow's
See It Now presented "The Case of Milo Radulovich," about an Air
Force pilot who was suspected for Communist sympathies. Murrow used
interviews with Radulovich's sister and father to convince viewers
that he was not a Communist but instead a true American with solid
family values. From the outset then the family on television served
both sentimental and political/ideological functions and these were
the mid-1950s, as television production moved to Hollywood film
studios and was also controlled by Hollywood independent production
companies such as Desilu, the representation of family life became
even more standardized in the domestic comedy. By 1960 all the ethnic
domestic comedies and dramas disappeared and the suburban domestic
comedy rose to prominence. Programs such as The Donna Reed Show,
Leave It To Beaver, and Father Knows Best presented idealized
versions of white middle-class families in suburban communities
that mirrored the practices of ethnic and racial exclusion seen
in America's suburbs more generally. Even while these programs captured
the American imagination there was a penchant for social criticism
registered in l950s science fiction/horror anthologies (such as
The Twilight Zone's "Monsters on Maple Street" that explored
the paranoid social relationships and exclusionary tactics in America's
suburban towns.) Within the domestic comedy form itself, the nuclear
family was increasingly displaced by a counter-programming trend
that represented broken families and unconventional families. Coinciding
with rising divorce rates of the 1960s numerous shows featured families
led by a single father (including comedies such as My Three Sons
and Family Affair and the Western Bonanza), while
others featured single mothers (including comedies such as Julia
and Here's Lucy and the western The Big Valley). In
all these programs, censorship codes demanded that the single parent
not be divorced; instead the missing parent was always explained
through a death in the family. By 1967 the classic domestic comedies
featuring nuclear families were all canceled, while these broken
families, as well as a new trend of "fantastic families" in programs
like Bewitched and The Addams Family accounted for
the mainstay of the genre.
the level of the news these fictional programs were met by the tragic
break up of America's first family as the coverage of President
John F. Kennedy's funeral haunted America's television screens.
We might even speculate that the proliferation and popularity of
broken families on television entertainment genres was in some sense
a way our society responded to and aesthetically resolved the loss
of our nation's father and the dream or nuclear family life that
he and Jackie represented at the time. As the nation mourned, other
program genres showed cause for more general sorrow. Despite the
fact domestic comedy families were well-to-do the 1960s also included
depictions or America's underclass in hard-hitting socially relevant
dramas such as the short-lived East Side/West Side that explored
issues of child abuse and welfare in New York slums. Television
also presented documentaries such as Hunger in America and
Harvest of Shame that depicted underprivileged children,
while other documentaries such as Middletown or Salesmen chronicled
the everyday lives or typical Americans, demonstrating the impossibility
of living up to the American family ideal. This trend toward social
criticism was capped off in 1973 when PBS aired An American Family
which chronicled the everyday life of Mr. and Mrs. William Loud
and their suburban family by placing cameras in their home and surveying
their day-to-day affairs. As the cameras watched, the Louds filed
for divorce and their son came out as a homosexual. The discrepancies
between these documentary/socially relevant depictions of American
families and the more idealized images in the domestic comedy genre
were now all too clear.
generally the 1970s was a time of significant change as the portrayal
of family life became more diverse, although never completely representative
of all American lifestyles. Network documentaries continued to show
the underside of the American Dream, while other genres took on
the burden of social criticism as they attempted to reach a new
demographic of young urban professionals, working women, and a rising
black middle-class. Programs such as Norman Lear's All In The
Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons flourished. All
In The Family presented a working-class milieu and drew its
comedy out of political differences among generations and genders
in the household; Maude was the first program to feature
a divorced heroine who, in one two part episode also had the first
prime-time abortion. Other programs presented African America families
ranging from shows like The Jeffersons who had, as the opening
credits announced, finally got "a piece of the pie" to programs
set in ghettos such as Good Times. Interracial families such as
Webster depicted white parents bringing up black babies (although
the reverse was never the case). In the mid-1970s through the present
these new family formations have included programs featuring single
moms (who were now often divorced or never married) such as Kate
and Allie, One Day at a Time, and the more recent Murphy
Brown. Drawing on previous working-girl/mother sitcoms like
Our Miss Brooks or Here's Lucy the MTM studio precipitated
a shift from literal biological families to a new concept of the
family workplace. Here, in programs such as The Mary Tyler Moore
Show co-workers were also co-dependents so that relationships
were often ambiguously collegial and familial. Despite these innovations
the 1970s and early 1980s still featured sentimental versions of
family life including daytime soap operas, family dramas such as
Family and Eight is Enough, historical-family dramas such
as The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and the popular
comedy The Brady Bunch.
the course of the 1980s, the genre of prime-time soap opera served
as television's answer to the Reagan era dream of consumer -prosperity.
Programs such as Dallas and Dynasty presented a world
of high fashion, high finance, and for many, high camp sensibilities.
Despite their idealized upper-class settings these programs like
daytime soaps or the 1960s Peyton Place, dealt with marital
infidelity, incest, rape, alcoholism and a range of other issues
that pictured the family as decidedly dysfunctional. Perhaps because
these families were extremely wealthy, audiences could view their
problems as a symptom of upper-crust decadence rather then a more
general failure in American family life experienced by people of
all social backgrounds. Wealth was also apparent in the enormously
popular Cosby Show, which featured black professionals living
an ideal family life. Unlike Dallas or Dynasty, however,
which were widely appreciated for their escapist fantasies and/or
"camp" exaggeration, Cosby was often taken to task for not
being realistic enough.
addition to prime-time soaps and family comedies, other programs
of the 1980s and 1990s showcased dysfunctional families and/or families
in crisis. Made-for-TV-Movies such as The Burning Bed detailed
the horrors or spousal abuse. In addition, during this period the
television talk show has taken over the role of family therapist
as programs such as Geraldo, Oprah, and Jerry Springer
feature real-life family feuds with guests who confess to incest,
spousal abuse, matricide, co-dependencies and a range of other family
perversions. Unlike the daytime soap operas, these programs lack
the sentiment of family melodrama and thus appear more akin to their
contemporary cousin, the TV tabloid. These syndicated "tabloid"
shows such as Cops or America's Most Wanted offer
a range of family horrors as law enforcement agencies and vigilantes
apprehend the outlaws of the nation.
not only demonstrate how to catch a thief and other criminals, they
also engage in didactic editorializing which either explicitly or
implicitly suggests that crimes such as robbery, prostitution, or
drug dealing are caused by dysfunctional family lives rather than
by political, sexual racial, and class inequities. Still, in other
instances the family remains "wholesome," especially in the age
of cable when the broadcast networks often try to win a family audience
by presenting themselves as more clean cut than their cable competitors.
(For example, in various seasons on different nights ABC and NBC
have both fashioned lineups of family--oriented programs aimed at
mothers and children.)
the course of the 1980s and through the present, innovation on old
formats has also been a key strategy. Programs such as the popular
sitcom Family Ties reversed the usual generational politics
of comedy by making the parents more liberal than their conservative,
money-obsessed son. In the latter 1980s the new FOX network largely
ingratiated itself with the public by displaying a contempt for
the "whitebread" standards of old network television. Programs such
as Married . . . with Children parodied the middle-class
suburban sitcom, while sitcoms such as Living Single and
the prime-time soap, Melrose Place presented alternate youth-oriented
lifestyles. ABC's Roseanne followed suit with its highly
popular parody of family life that includes such unconventional
sitcom topics as teenage sex, spousal abuse, and lesbian romance.
By the mid-1990s ABC broadcast Roseanne's clone, American
Girl, the first sitcom to feature the generational conflicts
in a Korean family.
and unconventional topicality were not the only solutions to innovation.
If portrayals of contemporary happy families seemed somewhat disingenuous
or at best cliché by the end of the 1980s television could still
turn to nostalgia to create sentimental versions of family togetherness.
For example, family dramas such as The Wonder Years and Brooklyn
Bridge presented popular memories of baby boom America. Both
nostalgia and parody are also the genius in the system of the cable
network, Nickelodeon, which is owned by Viacom, the country's largest
syndicator. Its prime-time line-up, which it calls "Nick at Nite,"
features Viacom-owned reruns of mostly family sitcoms from television's
first three decades, and Nick advertises them through parodic slogans
that make fun of the happy shiny people of old TV. Other cable networks
have also premised themselves on the breakdown of nuclear family
ideology and living arrangements by, for example, rethinking the
conventional depictions of home life on broadcast genres. For instance,
MTV's Generation X serialized programs under the general title,
The Real World, chronicles the real life adventures of young
people from different races and sexual orientations living together
in a house provided by the network. Nevertheless, cable has also
been extremely aware of ways to tap into the on-going national agenda
for family values and has turned this into marketing values. Pat
Robertson's Family Channel is an example of how the Christian right
has used cable to rekindle the passion for a particular kind of
family life, mostly associated with the middle-class family ideals
of the l950s and early l960s. In this regard it is no surprise that
the Family Channel includes reruns of Father Knows Best,
but without the parodic campy wink of Nick at Nite's evening line-up.
television has consistently privileged the family as the "normal"
and most fulfilling way to live one's life, its programs have often
presented multiple and contradictory messages. At the same time
that a sitcom featured June Cleaver wondering what suit to buy the
Beaver, a documentary or news program showed the underside of family
abuse or the severe poverty in which some families were forced to
live. Because television draws on an enormous stable of representational
traditions and creative personnel, and because the industry has
attempted to appeal to large nationwide audiences the medium never
presents one simple message. Instead it is in the relations among
different programs and genres that we begin to get a view of the
range of possibilities. Those possibilities have, of course, been
limited by larger social ideologies such as the racism or homophobia
which effects the quality and quantity of shows depicting non-white
and non-heterosexual households. Despite these on-going exclusions
however it is evident that the family on television is as full of
mixed messages and ambivalent emotions as it is in real life.
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of Ozzie and Harriet; Amos
'n' Andy; Bewitched;
Brady Bunch; The
Cosby Show; Dallas;
Ties; Father Knows
Love Lucy; The
it to Beaver; Married...With
Mary Tyler Moore Show; Maude;