Situational Comedy: Representational of Family
Some preface to the paper below: I wrote this article for a family psychology course at Portland State. We could choose any content and as a film student I decided to analyze the depictions of families in popular mass media (in this case, television). While it may need some editing I am choosing to leave it as is, I got a good grade on the paper with the note that I didn’t quite get APA format correct considering I used direct quotes. From Fall 2014.
Three popular sit-coms on television were observed in order to determine how families are depicted in current and popular mass media. The results indicate that the family structure of television characters has not changed drastically. There is still the dad that is considered “goofy”, the over-protective mother, the silly (and slightly perverted) grandparent, and the stereotypical child categories of: popular, dork, bookworm, artist, etc. The results also indicate that families have become slightly more diverse, interesting, and “modernized”. The inclusion of a gay couple, the multi-racial mother, and the adopted daughter from a foreign country all signal a larger variety of family members.
Keywords: sit-com, television, diversity
Situational Comedy: Representational Family
Families are a staple in popular media whether that’s in animated television such as The Simpsons, a satirical comedy such as Arrested Development, or a drama such as Switched at Birth. The situational comedy is a genre that attracts a large audience due to it’s lighthearted, comedic, and yet dramatic nature. Three shows that are representative of popular television are Black-ish, The Goldbergs, andModern Family. Two of these are fairly new and one has been on the air for a little over six years.
The “family model” has changed slightly since the 1960s yet some things still remain the same; from working father and stay-at-home mother to working father and working mother, from two parents and children to two parents and one step-child, adoptee, or otherwise. It brings up the question as to whether art imitates life or life imitates art. Do the families on television reflect the families in society, or do the families in society reflect the families on television? Scribner stated “…the families seen on TV aren’t necessarily a true representation of families in the United States” (2014). Todd Gold told Respers France that “There’s a family for just about everyone on TV today. That’s pretty remarkable and says something about TV and the way it explores social trends and our society” (2010). Interesting that Gold was speaking in 2010 about there being a family for everyone and just four years later Scribner suggests there isn’t.
Wortham discovered in a 2012 Census Bureau report that “mixed-race Americans, while still a minority, are one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the country, driven by immigration and an uptick in intermarriage” (2014). She adds that it is rare to see multiracial characters “portrayed as part of a dynamic family structure raising children and going about their daily lives.” Wortham brings up a great point, if television is supposed to be representational of our society it is not enough to merely place characters in television shows for diversity, they need to have character development and reason for being there – especially when they are a part of a family structure. The goal of this study is to examine how families are depicted in popular situational comedies of the 21st century as well as if they are representational of families in the United States.
I watched two episodes of three different “family-centered” television shows on Hulu.com in order to observe how families are depicted in modern popular media. I selected two newer television shows as well as one that is in its sixth season in order to compare and contrast the differences and/or similarities.
First there is the brand new show Black-ish which revolves around a black family living in a white, upper-middle-class neighborhood. The father, Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson, Sr. works as an advertising executive. The mother, Rainbow ‘Bow’ Johnson is a doctor. They have four children. This is currently in its first season. The grandfather (Dre’s father) is another central character.
Second there is The Goldbergs which is a television show set in the 1980s and currently in its second season. The father, Murray Goldberg, owns a furniture store and his wife, Beverly, is a housewife. They have three children. The grandfather (Beverly’s father) makes the occasional appearance.
Third there is Modern Family, which is currently in its sixth season. This show has three families as its main characters. There is the patriarch of the entire family, Jay Pritchett who owns a closet company. He is married to a Colombian woman with a son from a previous marriage. They also have a son together. Jay has adult children from his previous marriage, Claire Dunphy (who works at her father’s closet company) and Mitchell Pritchett (who is a lawyer). Claire is married to Phil Dunphy who is a real estate agent and they have three children. Mitchell Pritchett is married to Cameron Tucker and they have an adopted daughter from Vietnam named Lily.
Season 1, Episode 5 of Black-ish discusses “spanking” and whether they are the type of parents to spank a child (Nickerson, C. & Scanlon, C. 2014). The father discusses this idea with coworkers who are initially for the plan and consider the children of today “too spoiled” without spankings, turn on Dre when they find out he was talking about his own son. In the end the father tells the troublemaking son that the reason they are so upset with him when he hides is because it scares them that he might be missing or worse, kidnapped. Dre tells his son he’s disappointed which garners tears.
Season 1, Episode 7 of Black-ish written by Saji and directed by Nelli Jr. follows the father on his quest to teach his children to not take anything for granted (2014). He wants them to know and appreciate how good they have their life. In order to do so, he takes the two eldest children to work with him and the two youngest stay home with their mother and open a lemonade stand. The episodes lead Bow and Dre to realize that parenting in itself is a lesson to learn. His elder daughter has a promising following on YouTube for her makeup and style videos while his elder son attempts to spill up messes he makes purely by accident.
Season 2, Episode 5 of The Goldbergs leave the grandfather with nowhere to live but at home with his daughter Beverly and her family (Scanlon, C. & Schneider, L. 2014). Murray does not enjoy having him around because he does not follow the house rules. The grandfather is kicked out when he has a few mishaps (a hook-up, a popped waterbed, etc.) and is excited that he has the opportunity to move to a retirement home. Beverly does not want him to live there because of her own fears of being abandoned when her children become adults. The youngest son enjoys the company of his grandfather because he acts much older than he is. The eldest cares primarily about her image, and the elder son is interested in being “fit” and trying to date his sister’s friend.
Season 2, Episode 6 of The Goldbergs written by Firek, M. and directed by Katzenberg, D. follows helicopter mother, Beverly, as she tries to take up matters into her own hands when her son is injured in gym class (2014). She gets her way and the gym teacher is fired. Murray feels bad and offers him a job at his furniture store. Eventually Beverly feels bad and makes a deal with the principal that allows him to teach gym at the school again. The youngest son feels bad about the whole situation because he cannot control anything his mother does.
Season 3, Episode 13 of Modern Family written by Chupack, C. and directed by Koch, C. depicts Claire running for a local political position, Cameron and Mitchell trying to convince Lily that swearing is bad, and Jay’s concern for his dog Stella and her inability to swim (yet her constant diving into the water) (2012). These three stories mix together during the debate that Claire participates in as well as the wedding at the end. Claire’s children attempt to offer support and assist her in practicing her answers as well as providing constructive (yet not always tactful) criticism. In the end Lily swears at the wedding to a room full of laughter.
Season 6, Episode 2 of Modern Family follows the Dunphy family to college as one of her children makes an attempt to decide where she would like to go (Ganz, M. & Mancuso, G. 2014). The other family members bond at the university over signing up for a psychology experiment and then believing the experiment has begun (when they are merely in the waiting room). Cameron and Mitchell struggle to tell their daughter about her awkward smile and try to get a nice picture for a family photo. Jay and Gloria Pritchett make each other meaningful anniversary gifts and realize that while they adore those, they also want something spendy.
Black-ish, The Goldbergs, and Modern Family all depict families in a more “modern” sense: a multiracial mother, a homosexual couple, working mothers, second spouses, an adopted daughter, and a half-sibling. At the same time these shows tend to follow the familiar television clichés with mildly dopey fathers, helicopter mothers, goofy grandfathers, and the stereotypes that can befall children: one popular, one dork, one intelligent, and one creative. These three families all have endearing qualities mixed in with the dysfunctional that nearly every family seems to own. In all three shows the audience is able to see what the parents do for their employment, in Black-ish we experience both the advertisement agency and the hospital, in The Goldbergs we experience the furniture story, in Modern Family we experience the closet company, the law office, the high school, and houses for sale. The children have quick wits and participate in comic banter. They even engage with their parents. Though the ages range greatly from 6 years old (in Black-ish) to nearly 21 years old (Modern Family), each child is treated as an adult and spoken to as such.
Families are depicted in fairly similar ways to which they have always been depicted in television: the siblings argue, the parents bicker, shenanigans ensue, and everything returns to stasis at the end. It is interesting is that these shows have three very different premises with completely different actors, yet they are almost interchangeable in the way they tell stories due to the genre of the situational comedy. The episode of Black-ish where the father is concerned his children are too spoiled could just as easily been an episode of The Goldbergs or Modern Family. The role that the children play in these three shows is deliberate to provide variety in conversation, dynamics of the family (sibling rivalries, cousin crushes, etc.) The children in Black-ish are placed in categories: popular (eldest daughter), bookworm (eldest son), know-it-all (youngest daughter), and the dim-witted individual (youngest son). The children in The Goldbergs can occupy the same categories: popular, know-it-all (eldest daughter), bookworm (youngest son), and dim-witted (eldest son). The same can be done with Modern Family: popular (eldest Dunphy daughter), know-it-all and bookworm (youngest Dunphy daughter), dim-witted (the Dunphy son). The only thing that seems a little different in the structure of Modern Family is due to the number of children in the show. There is room for the clever child (the adopted Tucker-Pritchett daughter) as well as the artist (the Pritchett step-son).
Are these three shows representational of “modern families” in the United States? To a certain extent, yes. Black-ish provides an African-American family, The Goldbergs provide a Jewish family, and Modern Family gives us a homosexual couple and two divorcees with children. There is still a large gap to be filled in order to be representative of our society though. Black-ish is alone on the popular sit-com front for representations of African-Americans families. “Either race is largely absent or exaggerated to the point of caricature” (Wortham 2014). Ryzik, a fellow writer of Wortham’s at the New York Times says “Though Jewish characters are common on TV, a series focusing on a Jewish family is about a once-a-decade phenomenon” (2014). It seems that the sentiment is shared by both authors that societal representation is lacking. There is a surprising lack of mainstream black television which “is strange given the current popular culture landscape which is overflowing with prominent black figures” says Wortham (2014). Perhaps Black-ish is just the beginning and the fall line-up of 2015 will portray even more diverse characters, families, and story-lines. Could we see a single mother, a mixed-race family, or an emancipated minor on television in the next year or two? A final quote from Wortham, “Television is still both a barometer of social change and an evolutionary force that can help change cultural attitudes.” In the end, with a situational comedy about families and familial relationships the only thing that truly matters is that you can relate to the characters. Having more diverse characters would allow more individuals who watch these types of television shows to relate with specific characters and identify with their struggle, or awkward phase, or questions. And according to Maureen ‘Mo’ Ryan, a television critic for AOL, “The most successful shows…have families that you can look at and see parts of your family in them.”
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