DEVIANCE AND THE SHIFTING OF THE CENTER IN TV DEPICTIONS OF AMERICAN FAMILIES
In sociology, the term deviance refers to behaviors or attitudes which go against certain cultural norms. The predominant cultural norm for American families at the beginning of the century was the nuclear family. In popular culture, such as through Norman Rockwell paintings and early family sitcoms such as The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver the family norms depicted were primarily white and upper middle class. Additionally in these shows and depictions the gender roles were traditional in the way that the men are the sole providers and the women are homemakers. Heterosexuality, of course was compulsory and their was almost no depiction of people of color. While the some Americans did not fit into this upper middle class income bracket, many aspired to this ideal of a two parent family with 2.5 kids in the newly created post war suburbs.
Sociologist Laura Oswald sums up this 1950’s ideal perfectly in her article, “Branding the American Family”:
Regardless of whether programs like Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver, or The Donna Reed Show represented the reality of most families, they mirrored an unspoken ideal of white middle-class contentment, based on rather limited roles and expectations of family members and society. Ethnicity, homosexuality, and “the dysfunctional family” were not yet admitted or discussed openly, and no one was expected to question tradition (316).
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want”
“Leave it to Beaver”
The Times They Are A Changin’
During the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s and 70’s there were many social change movements which took place such as the civil rights movement, the formation of the National Organization for Women and the Gay Rights Movement. These movements all affected the values of many Americans. These movements emphasis on the questioning of social institutions such as government, business and higher education played a part in a new sense of individualism.
Some would argue that these movements and sense of individualism also gave way to a change in the family structure from a hierarchical one controlled by the male head of household to our current one in which all family members are segmented and decisions flow in all directions.
Consequently, these societal changes led to changes in family structure and norms. Slowly, more diverse family structures were represented on TV as a reflection of the changing family structure. The families depicted in the following t.v. shows are very deviant from the 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” ideal and some shows such as “Sex and the City” and “Will and Grace” are even deviant from a more urban contemporary lifestyle norm in which single parent, multiethnic and gay and lesbain families are a part of everyday life. In “Will and Grace” and “Sex and the City” the characters form a family of affinity with each other. That is, a family that does not have a mother and father, but one of extremely close friends that support each other in the same way family members usually support one another.
Here are some facts about the changes in the family from the 1998 Census:
- Between 1960 and 1998 the US population doubled, but the proportion of two parent households declined by 3 percent
- Fewer people are marrying and over 1/3 of all single men and women household heads were never married
- In 1970, one parent families with children accounted for 13 percent of all families with children . By 1996, it was 31 percent. 44 Percent of African-American households were headed by women in 1996.
- Births to unmarried women accounted for 33 percent of all births in 1994 versus 11 percent in 1970.
Many more women today are graduating from college and are becoming successful enough to support themselves without a husband. Some of these women have given up on the “Leave it to Beaver” American dream and decided to become single mothers through the assistance of a sperm donor. A recent article in the New York Times interviewed several women who chose to start a family this way.
Color TV ?
One of the first TV shows to show a family deviant from the nuclear family was Julia. It was broadcast on NBC in 1968 and was the first sitcom to have an African American in a starring role since Amos ‘n’ Andy. Diahann Carroll played Julia who was a widowed nurse raising her young son Corey in a multi-racial apartment complex. The show was somewhat successful lasting three years on NBC
Despite breaking the color barrier, the show was very controversial and had both black and white critics. Some people thought the depiction of black life was not accurate because so many black people were living in the ghetto while the character Julia Baker was living in a luxury integrated apartment building. Other critics viewed Julia as a sell out because she did not address any of the racial issues of the time. One critic called her “a saccharine projection of the good life to be achieved by those blacks who did not riot, who acted properly, and worked within the system” (Bodroghkozy).
The sociologist Aniko Bodroghkozy analyzed the controversy over Julia by reading scripts for the show as well as viewers’ letters. One revelation from Bodroghkozy’s research indicates that Julia‘s producers were very sensitive about the race issue and did not want to depict blacks in a stereotypical way. It was tough for them to do this, because there were few depictions of blacks in television sitcoms that were not racist. Sometimes it is tough to be the trailblazer. In one of the scripts the mother of one of Corey’s friends was changed from a black woman living in a slum to an upper class black woman who is preoccupied with money and has no time for her daughter.
For Bodroghkozy looking at the viewer letters are important because they revealhow different groups reacted to the novelty of having such a prominentblack character in prime time. The letters expressed a variety of views and different readings of the TV show. One trend was that white viewers wrote that even though they were white they still enjoyed the show. Perhaps the novelty of seeing a show with a black main character caused these viewers to start to think about racial definitions of identity and difference. The image of Julia was so nonthreatening to the many white viewers who were used to only seeing images of blacks on tv such as in civil rights riots and sit-in.
A viewer from Virginia expressed that sentiment when she wrote, “Your new series has told me that at least SOME people have an idea of a peaceful and loving existance.”
Many black viewers, however, were unhappy with the show and saw the depiction of Julia as unrealistic because they did not know anyone like her. One viewer wrote that the show was “rather a story of a white widow in black face. Even though she does posses the physical appearance of a black woman she lacks that certain touch of reality.”
Other viewers were offended that the program promoted a negative stereotype of the black female headed household which was thought in the Moynihan report to “imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many negro women as well.” The Moynihan report implied that a female headed household was part of a pathology that contributed to the poverty of blacks.
Overall, Julia was an impressive effort to address the issue of putting a positive depiction of blacks on TV, but since there was nothing to compare it to many people took different meanings from the show. From the different reactions, we can see the different attitudes about race that were present during the 60s.
Roseanne Pilot Part 1:
The show was based on the stand up comedy of the comedian, Roseanne Barr. Her character on the show is the exact opposite of June Cleaver from Leave it To Beaver. She is crass, loud and overweight. Her husband Dan is a construction worker and they have three unruly kids. Through depiction of her struggles such as juggling her work and family responsibilities in the pilot she contradicts the American Dream that is epitomized in the sitcoms of the 1950s. This is especially true in the scene where she is imaging her future after her sister Jackie tells her about a visualization seminar she attended. She constantly jokes even about getting rid of her her own kids because the constant attention they require gets in the way of her happiness. In a later episode she even has a dream sequence where she fantasizes about killing her whole family so that she can just enjoy her bath.
The feminist critic Janet Lee discusses Roseanne’s impact as an inspiration for femenine resistance. She believes that Roseanne
” comes across as a woman who knows her own mind and has a strong sense of her power as a working class woman.” Lee also points out another form of resistance in that the series is written and co-created by the star, Roseanne Arnold, a woman.
Another way in which she has broken ground as a feminist is her physical presence. Usually overweight women are not depicted as sexual beings, but in many scenes in the series Roseanne is openly affectionate and sexually aggressive with her husband.
As a result of the feminist movement, many started to question traditional gender roles. Roseanne does this by violating cultural normas by being loud, brash,overweight and sexually aggressive. At the time that the show came out this led to some mixed reactions about the show. The feminist Katherine Rowe discusses this using the paradigm of the “unruly woman.” She writes that “Through body and speech the unruly woman violates the unspoken feminine sanction against making a spectacle of herself. I see the unruly woman as a prototype of woman as subject-transgressive above all when she lays claim to her own desire.” In other words, by being so “unruly” Roseanne gains power as a woman over men and people who try to control her. According to Rowe, this is the reason she offended some critics.
In history, strong women have never been received too well. Although she is not overweight or crass Hillary Clinton has dealt with some of these same issues for being so outspoken.
Warning: The following clips are are R rated and contain coarse language. If you are easily offended by strong language and nudity please don’t watch
A Woman’s Right to Shoes
Will and Grace: A Queer Family of Affinity
Will and Grace was a groundbreaking sitcom from the late 1990’s, a period in which gay rights were in the forefront of the national media with Clinton’s gays in the military fiasco and high profile gay marriage laws enacted in many states. The show depicted the relationship between an gay man, Will and a Straight woman Grace as well as the friendship between them and Will’s gay friend Jack and Grace’s assistant, Karen. In much of the humor the butt of many of the jokes was Will and his friend Jack’s sexuality.
Karin Quimby writes that the relationship between Will and Grace was in effect mirroring a gay marriage because the relationship between a gay man and a straiight woman is often dismissed in popular culture as well as gay culture:
Because such nontraditional relationships as Will and Grace’s often go unrecognized in straight culture and are dismissed at times in gay culture with the fag hag apellation, the significant cultural and political work that this television comedy undertakes is the taking seriously of this form of queer affiliation.“
Sociologist Thomas J. Linneman, however takes a more negative view of the program. He studied many different episodes and concluded that oftentimes many of the jokes about Jack or Will’s sexuality centered on a feminization of gay people, which is a common sterotype and perhaps a form of homophobia. He writes, “feminization may also serve to castigate the gay man, stigmitizing him as ‘no better than a woman’ These latter moments simultaneously oppress women and gay men.”
On a personal note and as a gay man I disagree with Linneman’s reading of the sitcom. I realize that the depiction can serve perhaps to promote sterotypes and homophobia, but I think any representation on a national show is a step towards equality and recognition of gay people as human beings and an acceptable lifestyle choice.
The clip below is an example of the relationship and friendship between Will’s friend Jack and Karen:
Bodroghkozy, Aniko. “Is This What You Mean by Color TV?” in Private Screenings:Television and the Female Consumer. Mann and Spiegel eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Garrison, Marsha. “The Decline of Formal Marriage: Inevitable or Reversible?.” Family Law Quarterly 41.3 (Fall2007):491-520. SocIndex with Full Text. EBSCO. Hunter College Library, New York, NY. 14 Oct. 2008
Lee, J. “Subversive Sitcoms: Roseanne as Inspiration for Feminist Resistance.” Women’s Studies 21.1 (1992): 87.
Linneman, Thomas. “How do You Solve a Problem Like Will Truman? the Feminization of Gay Masculinities on Will Grace.” Men and masculinities 10.5 (2008): 583. .
Morgan, Michael, Susan Leggett, and James Shanahan. “Television and Family Values: Was Dan Quayle Right?” Mass Communication & Society 2.1 (1999): 47.
Oswald, Laura. “Rebranding the American Family: A Strategic Study of the culture, Composition, and Consuimer Behavior ofFamilies in the New Millennium.” The Journal of Popular Culture 38.2 (2003):309-334
Quimby, Karin. “Will& Grace: Negotiating (Gay) Marriage on Prime-Time Television.” Journal of Popular Culture 38.4 (2005): 713-31.
Rowe, Kathleen K. “Roseanne: Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess.” in Feminist Television Criticism. Brunsdon, D’Acci and Spiegel. eds. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1996. pp.74-83