Television and Family
The Portrayal Of Family On Television
How television has portrayed the family is important because television is a source for learning about family: what families look like, what an ideal family is, how spouses are supposed to behave, how parents are expected to treat their children, and how families resolve problems. Most research has focused on capturing rich descriptions of the portrayals of family structure, the presence of diverse portrayals, and types of relational interactions within television facilities. Because U.S. media products have dominated international programming, most analyses of family portrayals have been of U.S. programs. Family structure and diversity. The portrayal of family varies by type of programming. Situation comedies, family dramas, and soap operas are often about family, and are the subject of most research into the portrayals of family. Programming types such as action adventure are less likely to use family as the core of their program appeal. Some programming reveals real families' dysfunctional structure, communication, and conflict. For example, distorted relationships, fighting, and jealousy among family members are often displayed on daytime television talk shows such as The Jerry Springer Show.
The comedies of the 1950s and 1960s started out with diverse families, ranging from I Love Lucy to the infamous Amos 'n Andy and the Jewish family of The Goldbergs. But by the middle of the decade, situation comedies and family dramas presented a traditional family structure—a nuclear family with two biological parents and their children, epitomized by Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. During the rest of the 1950s and 1960s, white middle-class families dominated programs. The 1960s, however, began to showcase more structural variability, with an increase in families headed by a single widowed parent, such as in The Andy Griffith Show. Throughout television history, however, married couples have headed most families and the most common configuration was nuclear.
The 1970s and 1980s saw an increase in racial diversity. Successful shows such as the ground-breaking mini-series Roots (1977) and the situation comedy The Cosby Show (1984–1992) created an atmosphere in which African-American programs could emerge. The Cosby Show is often credited with reviving the domestic situation comedy. With the explosion of programs on cable, the 1990s featured many African-American family programs. The positive and upscale images in Cosby contrasted with earlier negative images of African Americans. Historically, the portrayal of minority families has been distorted, with African-American individuals often depicted as irresponsible, lazy, and the target of humor.
Minority families continue to struggle for representation and positive portrayals. Native Americans appear infrequently and are often stereotyped as alcoholics with impoverished, dysfunctional families. Latino families are underrepresented and often portrayed as lawbreakers with little education, but with strong family ties. Asian-American families rarely appear. In the 1990s, unmarried relationships and couples without children were more common than ever on television.
Portrayal of family relationships. Historically, television has promoted a traditional family model with wise parents, little serious conflict, and mostly conforming behavior. Families on television during the 1950s and much of the 1960s talked with each other, and parents always helped their children through adolescence. Although the 1970s had a number of sentimental portrayals, such as Little House on the Prairie or the still popular Brady Bunch, it also experimented with more conflictual relationship patterns in such favorites as All in the Family and The Jeffersons. In All in the Family family members were likely to ignore, withdraw, and oppose one another, in addition to showing support and caring. During the 1980s, The Cosby Show dominated public perceptions of family portrayals with an enviable family. Prime-time soap operas such as Dallas and Dynasty explored the seamier side of extended families. The end of the 1980s saw a more cynical view of the family in such comedy hits as Roseanne and The Simpsons. By the 1990s family relationships were again portrayed more positively in terms of psychological health on shows such as Family Matters and Home Improvement (Bryant and Bryant 2001). Although conflicts in family programs have increased rapidly from the late 1970s, family members almost always successfully resolved the conflicts by way of positive, affiliative, prosocial communication.
In addition to showing how parents behave, television also presents a picture of the relationships among siblings. Like portrayals of parent-child relationships, sibling relationships generally emphasize efforts to resolve conflicts and to maintain positive emotional ties. There is, however, considerable variation depending on the program. Married with Children and Roseanne feature rather hostile sibling relationships, whereas The Simpsons portrays more affiliative and supportive relationships.
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