The Dynamic Of Traditional And Modern Family Roles

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As early as the 1950’s, sitcom families have not only depicted the way we live today, but also the way we should to live. Henceforth, television has continued to crank out comedy after comedy about family situations that range from the didactic model of domestic conventionalist and gradually to non-conventionalist ways of life. By a conventionalist way of life, it’s more like the representation of the typical “nuclear” family that consists of varying responsibilities, typical roles and gentle pushes of dominant authoritative energy that flow from the kind and understanding mother and intelligent, strong father to the compliant children. Examples of these types of shows between 1947 to 1990 that constructed more than 60% of family sitcoms included: The Cleavers, The Cosby Show, Father Knows Best, Family Ties, and Growing Pains. The novel nuclear families depicted in sitcoms such as Father Knows Best, were also defined by having a father who was seen as the breadwinner, the man in charge, the negotiator of issues and the rule manufacturer as well as a mother who was good natured and the typical stay at home mom. As for the kids, they were depicted as more respectable and well mannered. These conventional sitcoms worked as a formula that changed the expectations of viewers who would find these families not only amusing, but instructional and taught moral lessons each episode. And by non-conventionalist ways of life, I mean families which were “non-nuclear”, such as single parent families and gay families. These types of families made up 40% of the family sitcoms and included shows such as: Who’s the Boss, Kate and Allie, and Modern Family.

Making up more than 80% of the dramatic programs on television, the home and the family are the most common themes with many titles reflecting upon this focus: Home Improvement, Modern Family, Family Matters, and Full House (Morgan & Signorielli, 1990). The reason for this is because family is an experience that virtually all viewers can reflect on and get ideas about family life. The definition of a family was depicted as a social unit characterized by one or more of the following elements: dependent children that had an adult who was the head of the household, dependent children with married couples, adult children with married couples, and dependent children with adults that shared their housing with others. Furthermore, this definition of family had not been limited to a legal marital arrangement, nor was the dependent children status limited to natural or adopted circumstances. Thus, adults who performed parental duties as the head of a household were coded as a representation of family, regardless of their legal status.

A brief view of the 4 decades within the periods of 1950 to 1990 would show us a significant shift from the conventional nuclear family to the non-conventional modern family. Starting from the 1950s, the families were nuclear, where members worked together, understood their roles, and did what was expected of them; by the 1960s, there were a few sitcoms that began to undermine the television parent’s authority by privileging the independence of nearly adult or adult children; by the 1970s, the authoritative father began to disappear as they were no longer the central family member since real fathers were usually too busy at the office for the family; by the 1980s, the boomer parents gave their children much more independence as the families ran democratically by rarely laying down the law and practiced tolerance, a value that rebellious boomers wished their parents practiced; and by the 1990s, families were presented as psychotic and dysfunctional, almost “antifamily”.

Television’s social representations of the families today are illustrated much differently than during the 1950s. Drawing examples from the first 3 episodes of Modern Family, will show how the nuclear family hegemonic ideologies have been radically challenged and Modern Family offers a new view of family life. Shows like Modern Family dismantle the hegemonic structure of the family, but amazingly still keeps the basic structure of the nuclear family intact.

Modern Family is a family sitcom that involves 3 different families, that all are somehow intertwined. The premise of the show involves these 3 families experiencing the same problems but in different situations and shows the classic example of resolving all problems within 22 minutes (Morgan & Signorielli, 1990). Furthermore, each of the families’ problems also somehow affects one another and are usually solved cooperatively, showing a characteristic of the nuclear family where members worked together. So, while Modern Family continues on with the trend set by All in the Family, such as the different generations of the family fighting about sexual attitudes, ways to deal with the children, and how to preserve harmony within the families, they still keep a certain normalcy seen within the “nuclear family”.

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In episode 1 of Modern Family, we are slowly introduced to all 3 families and eventually find out they are all related. All 3 families are also vastly different from classic examples of The Cleavers or Fathers Knows Best, where these two shows embody an ideal rather than a norm and confines individuality (Kutalas, 2005). Whereas Modern Family depicts more current representations of families where the father’s authority has diminished, parents cultivate independence in their children, and parents practice tolerance (Kutalas, 2005). The families structure themselves also show more of a contemporary outlook as there is a major age difference within a marriage and is inter-racial, there is a gay couple, and a father who thinks he has got his children’s generation “down”. However, Modern Family also tries to show the 1950s ideal of raising the children to be crowd followers, people pleasers, obedient, and conformist (Kutalas, 2005).

Within the first episode, the family structure of Modern Family is as follows, Jay is a business man who seems to be in his 60’s, is passive, does not like gay people, and has remarried a much younger Columbian, for 6 months, named Gloria. He tries hard to keep up with this much younger and much more attractive wife who seems to be in her late 20’s. Gloria is from a small village in Columbia, is dominant, emotional, very in-love, and has a passionate son who is ten and a half years old from her first marriage. Jay also has a gay son who he does not really accept because of his traditional values, and a daughter who has a family of two daughters, a son, and a husband who tries very hard to be hip with the younger generation. Jay’s son, Mitchell, who is gay, has a boyfriend named Cameron, and they have been going out for 5 years. Mitchell is very defensive about his gayness as he tends to get mad over misunderstandings about people discriminating gay people. He also seems to be scared of discrimination or being an outcast because of his choice of sexuality as he suggests to Cameron that they should stop hanging out with people with names such as “Andre” and “Pepper”. However, Cameron is the total opposite of Mitchell; he is much more flamboyant about his sexuality and seems to have a stereotypical personality of homosexuals depicted on television, which never would have appeared in a traditional family sitcom. This stereotypical personality includes being a “drama queen” and ludicrously gay, as he presents the newly adopted baby to Mitchell’s family in a colorful robe and carries him out in the air to The Lion King music. This situation ends up with everyone being tolerant of Mitchell and Cameron’s choice of adopting the baby, except for Jay who strongly opposes it because he believes people cannot raise a baby properly without a real female figure, a concept much more accepted today.

Jay’s daughter named Claire has the family most in sync with the 1950s ideal but in a contemporary version. She has been married for 16 years, has 2 daughters and a son. She was out of control growing up and does not want their children to make the same mistake so she tries to lay down rules to make their children obedient, conformist, and people pleasers. She also seems to view raising the kids more of her duty, rather than collaborating with her husband, Phil. This is where she veers a little away from the 1950s traditional form of the family where supposedly “father knew best”. We also get the sense that she is still sexually active with her husband since she talks about baby oil in their bedroom, something that 1950s family sitcoms did not draw upon. Her husband Phil is also quite the character. Where Claire tries to lay down the rules so her children do not deviate from her view of the social norm, Phil does the opposite of her. As he tries to be a cool dad and hip by “surfing the web”, texting WTF to people thinking it means “why the face”, and knowing all the dance moves to High School Musical, he gives the children much more freedom to learn on their own and cultivates tolerance. He achieves this by doing things such as buying his son a BB gun and trusting him not to shoot his younger sister. In this scene with the BB gun, it further exemplifies Claire’s dominance in the relationship as the son, Luke, disobeys his father and ends up shooting his sister, straining away from the more traditional family dynamics.

In episode 2, it illustrates how each of the families tries to be a good dad. All three of the families have their own idea of how to achieve this. Within this episode, we see aspects of All in the Family, where there is an implicit boomer’s critique of the 1950s family dynamic. This episode draws upon how families do not always live balance and harmony, and how families clash, fight, and hurt one another (Kutalas, 2005). However, there is also the case of the didactic model from Father Knows Best and the Cleavers, as they attempt to teach social lessons. Jay begins with showing disrespect to his step-son and Phil’s son, Phil continues to teach his son through lenience and through freedom, and Mitchell and Cameron attempt to raise their adopted child with a lot of love and support it by any means possible, even if it is unethical. Furthermore, although there are differences between the 1950s family dynamic and Modern Family, the families continue to show support with each other and solve all their problems within the 22-minute time-slot, complying with the 1950s model.

As the show begins, Jay is still confused about how to be a good dad even though he has raised 2 children already, who he sees as not being the best offspring. As he drives his Mercedes convertible next to Phil, Claire, and Luke who are biking together, he sees that Luke is riding his sister’s bike and comments that he looks like “Little Bo Peep”. He also thinks Gloria’s son, Manny, is an obstacle for him that is keeping him from enjoying his fun with Gloria. Not only is he not very encouraging to Manny as he says Manny worries too much, he also makes racial comments towards Manny, and does not care for Manny after dropping a large piece of the ceiling fan on Manny’s arm. After the ceiling fan incident, Manny thinks his arm is broken but Jay insists Manny’s arm is fine without even bothering to check. This ends up in a fight between the two, where Jay even tells Manny that he does not enjoy living with him and that his car outside is a 2-seater coupe. However, he feels bad after making that comment and receives a call from Manny’s dad who was supposed to take Manny to Disneyland. Manny’s dad ends up telling Jay that he cannot take Manny to Disneyland because he is caught up in a game of Craps at the casino. After hearing this and knowing how much Manny sees his dad as “Superman”, he tells Manny that his “Superman” dad has arranged for him and Gloria to take his dad’s place instead. By the end of the 22 minutes, Jay realizes that being a good dad is 90% about showing up. For Phil, he is still learning how to be a “cool” dad but he sees being a good dad as portraying himself as a “buddy” instead of a father figure. To achieve this, he buys Luke a new bike after Jay insults the bike his son was riding. Again, he tries to cultivate independence within his son by letting him take care of the new bike and teaching him what responsibility means. In doing so, he hopes that Luke will learn for himself and be seen as cool, unlike Claire who makes all the rules and wants the children to live by it, again fraying from the traditional family roles. As for Mitchell and Cameron, they try to show a lot of love to the baby by providing the best environment they can for her. It was Lily’s first day at the day-care center and Mitchell did not want to be late. Not only did he not want to be late, he did not want Lily to be ridiculed by the other parents because of him and Cameron’s relationship, so they pretended to be straight. Cameron has a particularly hard time because he is usually very open about his sexuality but tries his best to hide it. Mitchell even tries to make the baby look very smart; he does this through unethical means of stealing the building blocks made by another baby and presents it to the class saying it was Lily who made it. In the end, they find out that there is another gay couple in the class and they shouldn’t be so conscious about how their own lifestyle may affect the baby.

In the third episode, it revolves around acceptance and family values. The issue about acceptance revolves mostly around Jay who is not accepting of Phil or Cameron. Jay’s family presents a non-traditional nuclear family, thus presenting chaos on the television screen. The roles of the household are no longer balanced, the father was no longer the one who knew best, but rather it was more likely the mother/daughter who knew best, the mother/daughter still understood while the father did not understand as much or at all, and the children were rather rebellious. All these examples go against what the nuclear family stood for and therefore may be the reason why the Modern Family was so dysfunctional. Although many problems may arise from the family not being “nuclear”, all 3 families are still able to find family bliss after working hard together to fix the problems. Even for a parent such as Jay, who represents a parent who may appear to have totally failed at creating a nuclear family—he has remarried, his son is gay, he does not fully accept his step-son, his daughter used to be wild, he does not accept his son-in-law—he is still able to find family bliss by reworking the 1950s family ideal with the help of Claire and Gloria.

Television has been always been a major player in the socialization process where it is basically seen by everyone, practically every day. The television families reflect both the nontraditional and traditional structures but the images are far from the stark reality of life. These shows that demonstrate factors such as solving day-to-day family problems with humor and within a 22-minute time slot may possibly play a factor in the popularity of the shows which depict this surreal form of life. Shows nowadays like Modern Family dismantle the 1950s representation of the “nuclear family”, which was the preferred social unit and was itself an exclusive unit in which the exclusivity gave the family much of its moral power over the lives of its members. The exclusivity also helped forge a sense of common destiny and mutual commitment that the unconventional families nowadays no longer show. However, even with this dismantled hegemonic structure of the family and with families as extreme as Modern Family, they are still able to recuperate and find family bliss. Furthermore, this may further draw more attention to these shows as these media portrayals of family cultivate but do not cause changes to the nature of the family in society. Rather it reflects and buttresses the changes that have already occurred in society and in family. Therefore, nowadays not only may families tune in to shows for self-reflection or an escape from reality hoping that their problems could be solved within 22-minutes, but they may also view it in a way to learn how to handle certain family or marital problems.

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