The nuclear family is traditionally understood as being the most viable and acceptable family unit; characterized by clarity in family roles, stability and support within its members. It is this understanding of the nuclear family unit that has been portrayed over the years in family television shows (Stabile & Harrison 135). However, this portrayal has changed and current family televisions shows display or portray a more accurate picture of most families.
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This paper presents an analysis of shows that challenge the hegemonic view of nuclear families. Practically all television viewers can relate to an experience of family (Cantor 18). Modern viewers are confused by the images that are still being featured in numerous reruns of television sit-coms because most powerful visualization of traditional families is portrayed in these images (Coontz 23).
We have seen in many television families, like the Cleavers (Leave it to Beaver), a family being visualized as perfect, stable, secure and in harmony. This depiction of family is in conflict with what we know about family or state of family in modern world. What the modern viewer identifies with are the less than perfect typical families.
In television shows that depict a hegemonic view of the nuclear family, parents are portrayed as understanding and wise while children are good obedient to the authorities (May 208). Cleavers represents a perfect rather than a standard family. There are other television families like the Simpson which are meant to portray the true colors of a nuclear family. The constant quarrels among family members, frustrations and irritations that they face from day to day are typical of many families.
What the Cleavers portray is a happy and perfect family which makes viewers to wish life in their families would be just like that. The cleavers features a father who had a white-collar job, a house wife and a mother and children all who lived in a safe and secure small town. Everybody in the family was happy, got along and wanted to be together at all times. There were just enough conflicts to drive the plot but by the end of the show everybody in the family was happy again.
The roles of the family and rules were clearly portrayed. In the show “Father Knows best”, father (Anderson) was the breadwinner of the family; he set rules and was the wise one who settled disputes. Margaret, who was the wife and mother, was attractive, sociable and loyal to her husband’s authority.
She would also intervene on her children’s behalf when they did wrong. Princes, Bud and Kitten were the children of the family who were well behaved and they believed that their father knows best even on matters concerning their childhood. This show demonstrated proper family behavior and the family was a model of a modern nuclear family (Jones 97).
On television, the modern father was involved in his family life. He would occasionally help out in drying the dishes, playing with the kids, he was always around and he was the proper role model for his sons (Spock 55). Mom was supposed to be always sweet, loving wife to her husband and met her children’s day to day needs; emotional and physical and she cooked their meals (Spock 484). In normal life, fathers have continually become less essential to the family.
As families, over time, transformed into more of a consumer unit, father worked longer hours in order to fit and learn business. Roles were carefully balanced and this made a stable family. In hegemonic television shows, father figures were the only ones who know best. The mother was depicted as supposed to be sweet to her husband and understanding to the children. The children are well behaved and obedient to the parents and authorities. Without all these the family was in conflict.
‘Leave it to Beavers’ features the Cleaver family, which lives in a suburban home in a quiet neighborhood with a beautiful front yard and trees that provide good shade(Dale 12). The father always left home at 9am to a job no one knows. His wife was perfect and understanding mother and all she wanted was a clean carpet and a well done roast.
As a professional mother, she always wore a semi official dress even while doing the housework or baking cookies. Their kids Beaver and Wally were just like kids in the actual life because they were not mischievous and sometimes confused. Beaver and Wally grew up into mature teens.
Ward and June, the parents, successfully went through school and college. Their expectations are that their sons manage to do the same or surpass. The parents’ desire is to see their children finish college and pursuer great careers. Although the boys find all sorts of excuses and ploys to avoid homework and related studies, the parents counter their ploys with plans that ensure they study hard.
To the boys, homework and school is as a bother and in the episode “Beaver’s Secret Life”, Beaver decides to become a writer when He grows up because he believes he doesn’t have to go to school to know things but making up adventure stories, which have great potential of earning him money (Dale 56).
June and Ward represent a warm, happy, and successful middle class couple because they are happily married. The show seems to emphasize that being happily married is the measure of success for a middle class family (Dalton & Linder 54). Ward has a steady job though it’s unknown and he represents a successful, college educated, middle class professionals. In episode 40, when Beaver indicates that he is interested in lower class jobs, his parents are totally embarrassed at the prospect.
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June and ward’s awesome parenting capacity plays out very well in episode 41. The episode portrays them not only as people of good deeds but who also speak the truth. They are the ideal role models for their own children (Dale 32). They are portrayed as eager to impart good moral values on their children.
June is a typical wife and mother who remains calm even amid family storms and preserves a loving and warm home. She also provides guidance to her sons. Ward is the supervisor of the behavior and moral education of his sons. He is portrayed as an understanding and quiet father who solves issues with great wisdom and dignity.
In episode 91, Beaver buys her mother a flashy blouse on her birthday. Such an action really shocks the mother. However, being a good sweet mother she commends her son for such a beautiful gift. She accepts to wear it to Mothers’ club tea after Beaver persuades her. She dint wear the blouse and Beaver is hurt when he finds out. She admits to her son of wrong doing by not wearing it and goes on to explain to Beaver that being honest sometimes hurts another’s feeling (Dale 97). Beaver forgives her and they reconcile.
The television show “I Love Lucy” is a complete contrast of the Cleavers. Lucy Ricardo is featured as the mother and his husband is Ricky Ricardo. They have friends in their landlord and landlady, Mr. and Mrs. Mertz. Lucy and Ricky have a son named Little Ricky. Lucy is kind of ambitious and naïve. She is over-imaginative and always gets herself into trouble; it appears like she intentionally looks for trouble.
The most irksome issue in their family is Lucy’s excessive obsession with the idea of joining her husband’s show business. Her husband doesn’t approve of it because she sings off key, cannot play any musical instrument and has no other noticeable ability. Here obsession with joining her husband’s show business leads to a number of ugly scenes and embarrassment. Lucy was not a good role model and nothing much was learned from her.
Basically, this show challenges the idea that women’s place is in the house; house wives. She also demonstrates the characteristics of a modern female. These characteristics are standard of modern women who appear on television shows i.e. keeping age secret, careless with money, being a great and loyal housewife and an attentive mother to little Ricky.
Ricky Ricardo her husband is an up-coming Cuban American singer and also a band singer. He has an interesting personality. His wife constantly gets to his nerves by her usual antics thus testing his patience always. When this gets too much he always goes back to speaking in Spanish rapidly and on one occasion spanks Lucy for her mischief.
Lucy and Ricky are always playing tricks on each other. On one occasion Ricky tricked Lucy into believing that they were not legally married because there was a mistake in their marriage certificate. On another occasion Lucy also tricked his husband into believing that she was a compulsive thief. This kind of portrayal of a nuclear family is different from what is portrayed say in the Simpson show.
The first episode “Lucy thinks Ricky is trying to murder her”, Lucy is busy reading her suspense novel and she is totally engrossed in the story when Ricky surprises her. She is greatly scared and her novel flies out of the window. Her fears are compounded one morning because her land lady Ethel comes around and reads Lucy’s fortune basing on cards. Ethel tells Lucy that as per the deck of cards, her death is very close. Such like words coming from Mrs. Mertz bother her for some time but later she relaxes and concentrates on her novel.
The novel she was reading was called “The mockingbird murder mystery” (Dale 23). Later that evening, Ricky returns home and Lucy is still engrossed in her mystery book; she was so engrossed in the book to the extent of eating face cream unknowingly. Ricky gives her a kiss and again Lucy is scared and her novel again flies out of the window.
The plot of the novel revolved around a man having an extramarital affair and as a result of the same was scheming on how to kill his own wife. Lucy later overhears his husband talking with his agent; she only manages to get the last words that his husband was saying on phone. Misunderstanding the words, she compounds her fears about her husband wanting to kill her. This is what makes her conclude that Ricky is planning to kill her plot in the novel she is reading and Ethel’s card reading.
The next morning while Ricky is gone to work, Lucy finds a prop gun in the house and confuses it for a real gun meant to be used to kill her. Ricky comes back home in the evening and when Lucy sees him putting something in the gun she thinks he’s going to kill her; this makes her to start acting out in a strange way.
What is interesting is that despite matters often going out of handy or regular misunderstandings between Lucy and Ricky, largely due to the mischievous tendencies of Lucy, Ricky does not give up on her. In the traditional view of a nuclear family, it is the woman who is supposed to be patient with the man (Spangler 33). However, in this show, the roles are reversed and it is Ricky who shows kindness, forgives and confesses undying love for his wife.
‘Married with children’ is another show that challenges the hegemonic ideology of a nuclear family. It features Al Bundy and his wife Margaret “Peg” who is uneducated and merely a house wife. She has a red large hairdo, wears tight clothes and walks in a funny style because of putting on high heels. They have a daughter named Kelly, she is pretty and unintelligent. Their son Bud is unpopular, crazy about girls but also very smart.
The head of this family is Mr. Al Bundy. He personally believes that he can not succeed in life due to a curse called the “Bundy curse” (Spock 87). He was once a promising player of American football in high school and was headed to college when he impregnated his girlfriend.
He married her; he broke his leg and ended up a shoe sales man. Due to bad luck and poor judgment he has never been able to recapture his lost glory. Now he believes his family is the cause of his failure and he even fears having sex with his wife. Despite of all this, Al is still loving towards his family and provides protection to them.
Season five of the show portrays a view that is totally different from the traditional understanding of a nuclear family. Al is 43 and he has a very bad foot odor. He is always watching television and complaining about his dysfunctional family. His wife refuses to cook claiming that she allergic to fire yet she smokes. She is always seen seated on the couch. Not only does he have a bad foot odor but once he had a dandruff problem and he has terrible teeth due to poor dental hygiene.
Margaret is lazy and self indulgent; she refuses to cook for the family. In a traditional set up it is the responsibility of every mother to cook for the family. Instead of washing clothes, Margaret buys new ones to avoid the task of washing clothes. She doesn’t have a job and spends the whole day seated on her couch watching television. She frequently uses all the little money Al makes in buying expensive clothes and useless junk. She even steals from her children to get cash.
In episode two Kelly is portrayed as an intelligent girl and Bud often teases her for promiscuity and bleached hair. But she changes into a stupid girl by the end of the episode. She is the older child of the Bundy family and Al is always furious when anyone tries to make fun of her.
The show “Married with children” uses comedy to expose the realism family lives. The show tries to dismiss the belief that nuclear families are always a nit, happy unit. Each character in the show is different, Peggy is pictured as a lazy housewife, Al is a hardworking father, and he’s a shoe salesman. Bud is the smart son of his parents while Kelly is unintelligent and pretty.
In the typical nuclear family mother and father help their children to grow up well and if they go wrong, they bring them back in love (Spangler 58). A family should stick together through it all. From the show, Kelly is a good epitome of true filial love.
Although she is seen mocking Bud her brother on a number of occasions due to his habits of being obsessed, she shows support to him whenever he makes a good choice. Actually, one day when a girl tried to tease her brother, she came to his rescue by humiliating the girl. Through such like acts she shows the true essence of filial love i.e. it is not just about siding with but standing with each other despite weaknesses.
The shows “Married with children” and “Leave it to Beavers” represent how a typical nuclear family runs in its day to day life. It challenges the model of a happy and perfect family which was and is often portrayed in television shows. The shows also help in demystifying the nuclear family as the most desirable family unit (Cantor 36). What they show is that even in the nuclear family there are issues. It displays dysfunctions in a family because at times family is faced with problems and challenges (Jones 44).
In conclusion, the nuclear family unit as the most desirable and perfect kind of set up has been challenged by modern trends. While family television shows like the Simpson presented a wonderful view of the nuclear family, more recent family television shows have been more accurate in capturing the changing realities in families.
The shows analyzed, apart from the Simpson, are also good pointer to some moral and gender issues that inform family values and roles. These shows portray the nuclear family as a unit marred by intricacies, dysfunctional tendencies and struggles.
From the struggles of Lucy to be on her husband’s show business and the attitude of Margaret, the shift in gender roles is illustrated. The stereotype of father as sole bread winner and mother as caring home maker are challenged by the happenings in the current family TV shows (Spangler 54). For example, observing Margaret, one cannot help it but wonder if women are still the caring and protective beings portrayed in other television shows.
Apart from endeavoring to portray reality in the nuclear families, stabile and Harrison (144) also argue that modern family television shows have more representation of the marginalized groups. Marginalized families are those that have challenges based on their subculture or physical inability. For example, the Beavers by their grunts and chuckles represent a particular marginalized group (stabile & Harrison 144)
From the foregoing analysis, it follows that family television shows have been transformed to reflect the changing family values, gender roles, child upbringing concern and general attitudes in society towards nuclear family set ups. The hegemonic view or understanding of nuclear families has gradually given way to a more realism based approach to nuclear family set.
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