Evolution of “Family”

by Jess Cosentino

Family. Such a small word, but rich with multiple meanings. According to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, family is “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also : any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family.” The hegemonic views that are nearly inextricably interwoven in the structures of society are evident even in this very basic definition. Would you agree that the non-traditional family, ie single parent families, blended families, and even homosexual couples raising children, are thought of by society as a whole as “equivalent to the traditional family?” After years of experience with either being in a non-traditional family (blended), or being the head of one (single parent), I don’t agree that these are seen as being on equal ground as the heterosexual, two parent household. I decided to look on Google in the images for what might come up when searching for the word “family.” I ended up scrolling through page after page of pictures of nuclear families, some of which were multi-generational. While there were many multi-racial and multi-national families, all but ONE picture that I saw of just a mother and her son were hetero-normative families; Mom, Dad, and happy kids. Even the clip art pictures had two parents, very obviously male and female, and most often two kids, a boy and girl. There seems to be less truth in Merriam-Webster’s definition than in what Patricia Collins says about “ideal families consist of heterosexual couples that produce their own children” (Collins, 62).

Approximately 6 decades ago, society as a whole changed with the invention of the television. Then, people were not just comparing themselves and their family to their neighbors, but also to what soon became the “perfect” families on the tv screen. What started with The Partridge Family all those years ago has led us, somehow, to shows like Family Guy (which is extremely offensive and is the antithesis to the expectation of the traditional family), American Dad (which isn’t much better than Family Guy), and Modern Family (which incorporates new types of families in with the average, middle class traditional family unit as well). While television has evolved over the years to include blended families as early as The Brady Bunch, to single parens with extended family helping in Full House, to homosexual couples raising an adopted child in Modern Family, the most prevalent and successful families still seem to be the heterosexual “modern” family, much like Judith Stacey states, “The ‘modern’ family of sociological theory and historical convention designates a form no longer prevalent in the United States-an intact nuclear household unit composed of a male breadwinner, his full-time homemaker wife, and their dependent children” (Stacey, 417). This type of family may not always be a possibility for everyone, I think it is still what is seen as the American Dream-esque family type. If it wasn’t the ideal, or what those in charge at the media industries wants us to believe as the ideal, then mass media would have no control over our thoughts and ideas of perfection. We know that media is a tool, nay, a weapon, that is used to shape society into what those in the elite circles wish it to be (Lull, 62). Anne Frank is quoted to having said “the pen is mightier than the sword.” If the written word is so powerful, imagine the strength that it has when it is acted out and shown on the big screen and our televisions at home day in and day out.

Since the family started appearing on tv, there has been an evolution in what families look like, how they act, and the roles in which each family member is able to play within those family dynamics. However, although we have seen the adaptation of new types of families included in the media today, such as Cam and Mitchell in Modern Family, we still see the “typical” family that needs to be striven for, according to the message that we get from these shows. We still see the mother/father role, even though they are both men, and there is the breadwinner and the stay-at-home parent for their adopted daughter. Everything revolves around the “normal” heterosexual aspect of being a family. Although we have come leaps and bounds from the days of old, when everything was the picturesque, 1950’s version of family, like in Pleasantville, we are still miles short of the ultimate goal of a true portrayal of a real modern family, especially from my search of Google images. What kind of world are we living in when I can’t even search for a picture of a family that looks like mine to show my son, when he hears his friends talk about having a mom and dad at home, and he just has me? And in the tv shows where there is a single mom, (take Pretty Little Liars or Twisted on ABC Family as just two examples) her child is often more of the wild child, which further goes to push the hegemonic viewpoint that a child needs a mother and father at home at all times (or at least every day) to become a useful and non-self-destructive member of society.

So, the ultimate question is, where do we go from here? What is the next step in the Family Evolution that happens before our very eyes on our television? I don’t know, but as for me, I am rather anxious and mildly excited to see what the next generation of families is going to show about our society.

Works Cited
Butt, Anaam. “The Evolution of TV Families Over the Past 50 Years.” PolicyMic. 26 Sep. 2013. Web. 29 Oct 2013.
carmelapark. Pretty Little Liars. “Know Your Frenemies.” Photograph. 18 Jan. 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
Cohn, Paulette. “Denise Richards Returns to series TV in ‘Twisted'”. Photograph. Examiner. 11 Jun. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “It’s All in the Family:Intersection of Gender, Race, and Nation.” Hypatia, Vol. 13, No.3 Border Crossings: Multicultural and Postcolonial Feminist Challenges to Philosophy (Part 2)(Summer, 1998), pg 62-82. Print
Daughtery, Kim. “‘Modern Family’ Takes a Closer Look at Family Dynamics.” Yahoo! TV. 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.
Jason H. “Modern Family: Reign of an Emmy Juggernaut.” The Entertainment Junkie. Photograph. 17 Sep. 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.
Lull, James. “Hegemony.” Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach. 1995. New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press. 61-65. Print.
Skywalker, Rachel. The Partridge Family. YouTube. 20 Feb 2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.
Stacey, Judith. “The Making and Unmaking of Modern Families.” Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth-Century America. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1990. pg 415-435. Print.
TheMrJamesWMilne. “Family Guy Mash Up-Lois.” Youtube. 19 Jan. 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

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One comment

  1. I like the ideas about family and how television definitely changed everyone’s view of what a family is! Something you did not touch on as much is how all of the television shows you listed have a lack of diversity. Full House, Modern Family, The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Family Guy, and American Dad all contain a majority white cast with little diversity of friends or other characters in the shows. I think this is an interesting thing to note because this is another “criteria” of what a modern or traditional family is. There have been examples of diverse families in media like The Cosby Show and That’s So Raven, but they are definitely overlooked when studying families. I think media is starting to catch on that we need different representations of ethnicities and race, but the next step is to not make fun of them. For example, Gloria on Modern Family is made fun of because of her accent and her past on the show. Another example would be how Family Guy is known to be racist (#5 racist show on television:http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/05/most-racist-tv-shows/family-guy) or make fun of people. It will be interesting to see how we grow as a society with media culture and how it will affect our views of what a family is!

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