Monday, April 16, 2012

Family Values in the Media

          Through the sociological lens of the functionalist theory, which states that “various social institutions and processes in society exist to serve some important (or necessary) function to keep society running,” family is an institution that perpetuates society’s ideals (Conley 27). Parents socialize their children, helping them to "internalize the values, beliefs, and norms of a given society and learn to function as members of that society" (Conley 112). American family dynamics have shifted over time from strictly patriarchal to more egalitarian; the responsibilities of socialization and earning income are shared between parents. Also, with the rise of more diverse family units, the characteristics of which "vary dramatically" by several factors such as race, age, and socioeconomic status, gender roles have slightly deviated from those traditionally delineated to the father and mother (Wetzel). These roles are now more equally distributed, which is correlated with the "changing economic role of women" (Klein). However, certain expectations of the parents' roles are still perpetuated; society for the most part still expects the father to be the “breadwinner,” and while the mother may or may not work, she is still expected to take on most of the domestic responsibilities (Aarons-Mele).

          A shift in media’s portrayal of the family parallels the changing family dynamics and structures that we see in today’s society. According to the sociological reflection theory, media as a visible form of culture projects the underlying structure of society (Conley 88). In this case, certain family-related TV shows reflect what contemporary Americans expect of families, their roles, and their values. Our research seeks to answer the question, how do certain popular shows such as Full House, the Simpsons, and Modern Family portray the makeup, beliefs, and interactions of the “typical” American family in today’s society? Furthermore, how do these shows illustrate how socialization occurs and how gender roles are perpetuated or altered?

Credit: Google Images
          Our first show, Full House, is a sitcom about three men, a father, his brother-in-law, and their best friend, helping to raise three young girls. The men take on all the household responsibilities after the father’s wife was killed in a drunk driving accident. Family values are depicted in a variety of episodes illustrating what it means to be a contemporary unit of family life. Generally, the episode begins with a conflict and concludes by presenting a resolution. Full House does not embody the traditional family component of one man and one woman joining to raise a family. This family unit deviates from the social norms associated with nonmaterial culture by not adhering to the conventional dad and mom roles. Rather, it is a collection of three men dividing parental responsibilities among each other. We do not see this combination readily in our culture; socially it is not the most acceptable means for raising children. The common approach is to see the mom and dad working together to create a nuclear family dynamic. However, the three men do not lose credibility as parental figures simply because they do not meet the generic imprint regarding what parenting looks like.

          Full House exemplifies family values through introducing the concept of socialization into the episodes. The children are taught lessons or are given advice from the parental figures about certain matters. As a result, the children reflect on the parental figures’ guidance and thus shape how they internalize the world. (For more on the factors that affect the socialization of children, refer to Carolyn R. Tomlin’s article on the topic.) For example, in "Claire and Present Danger," Michelle, the youngest daughter, rebels against the family values by dressing and acting in an unorthodox manner. The father confronts Michelle’s rebel exterior and discusses how he feels about her demeanor and the need for an immediate change to go into effect. As a result, Michelle responds to her father’s outreach and her behavior is modified.

          Full House demonstrates what it means to blur the lines of customary gender roles in society. By definition gender roles are “sets of behavioral norms assumed to accompany one’s status as male or female” (Conley 125). However, the three men take on both parental roles by working as well as taking care of the kids and the house. In this case, Full House addresses family values from a nontraditional angle by having three men raise a family without a female figure.

Credit: Google Images
          Our second show, the Simpsons, centers on a dysfunctional middle class family, consisting of a father named Homer, a mother named Marge, two daughters, Lisa and Maggie, and a boy named Bart. The family parodies modern nuclear families, with an alcoholic and unintelligent father who provides for the majority of the family’s income. Marge is portrayed as the typical stay-at-home mom who cooks, cleans, and takes care of the baby. The oldest child, Bart, is the typical mischievous adolescent male who engages in many pranks and other more male-dominated activities. The middle child, Lisa, is the artistic brain of the family. The youngest, Maggie, does not speak and, aside from her bow, is not really shown as someone who has a gender-specific personality. The children are influenced by both the mother and father, which reflects the modern nuclear family’s value of shared responsibility of child rearing by both parents.

Credit: Google Images
          In a recent episode called "Politically Inept, With Homer," Homer becomes the new "voice of America." After the release of a viral video recorded by Bart, many Americans began looking towards Homer as their spokesperson. Homer soon got his own show and gained popularity and influence, obtaining the nomination as a candidate for the next US President. Lisa and Marge, the voices of reason, realized how disastrous an idea it was for someone like Homer, who is completely politically inept, to be nominated as president, and tried to stop him. In an attempt to socialize Homer and teach him a lesson, Lisa and Marge formed an elaborate plan to help Homer realize his stupidity. At the end of the episode, Homer realized that he was, in his own words, “full of crap” and realized that his family was right all along. This episode showed that instead of the father, who is normally the head of the family and the one who bestows his intellect, philosophy, and life lessons upon his children, it was the complete opposite. Deviating completely from the old idea of "father knows best," it is clearly shown in this episode that the father does not know best and that it is the wife and kids’ duty to educate the father. This is a family value that is emphasized in today’s society, that everyone has something to learn in life, that parents could learn from their children as well, and that husbands could learn from their wives. 

          Our third show, Modern Family, portrays three families with very different structures which more accurately reflect the diverse makeup of today’s American families. Content analysis of two episodes reveals that modern socialization occurs from parent to child and vice versa. However, the father figure works while the mother remains in the domestic sphere, indicating that these expectations of family roles are still widely held by society.

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          The nuclear family in the show consists of Phil, Claire, and their three children. Phil supports the family with his real estate job, while Claire stays at home to take care of the kids and house. In the episode “Slow Down Your Neighbors,” Claire tries to catch the neighborhood speeder, attempting to draw more widespread attention to the deviant and hopefully correct the behavior. In doing this, Claire communicates to her children the importance of following formal social norms, teaching them appropriate social behavior. However, the oldest daughter, Haley, reprimands Claire for being embarrassing, reflecting the need to conform to informal social norms as well as showing how socialization can occur from the child to the parent. Additionally, contradictory messages being communicated in this particular episode convey that while some family roles and dynamics are shifting, more old-fashioned views are still maintained. Claire wants to mobilize her family and their neighbors to catch the speeder, but Phil suggests that she just contact a police officer privately about the matter. There is still the idea that women should remain in the domestic sphere and not embarrass themselves by expressing their opinions in public. Claire’s call for social change is viewed as ridiculous. Later, Claire enlists Phil’s help in putting up her signs. While this demonstrates an increase in women’s power, it also preserves the belief that it may be necessary for a man to be working behind the scenes for a call for social change to be taken seriously. (For more on how men and women are portrayed stereotypically and how traditional roles are emphasized, refer to Julia T. Wood’s paper on gendered media.)

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          The second family, Jay, Gloria, his much younger Colombian wife, and Manny, Gloria’s son from her first marriage, is a product of divorce and miscegenation (multiracial marriage). Both of these social trends are prevalent in American society; the US has the "highest divorce rate of any comparable Western country" and multiracial marriages have been increasing in number, creating blended families (Conley 458, 464). Traditional gender roles are also prescribed to Jay and Gloria. Jay is a wealthy businessman while Gloria stays at home to take care of Manny and the house. Jay is also responsible for socializing Manny and Gloria; he teaches both of them how to ride a bike without training wheels to fit in and not be laughed at in public. This demonstrates the power of society in defining what values and skills are expected to be taught within each family unit so that each individual can be a functional member of society.

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          Finally, the third family is made up of Mitch, Claire’s gay brother, his partner Cam, and their adopted Vietnamese daughter Lily. Gay couples are also becoming more prevalent today, but society still prescribes heterosexist roles to couples. Regardless of biological sex, society still expects one parent to be more masculine while the other is more feminine. In this case, Mitch is the “father” figure who works as a lawyer, while Cam is the more feminine of the two and stays at home to take care of Lily. This indicates that society’s perpetuation of heterosexual ideas is projected onto gay couples even though they present a different dynamic. Regardless of their prescribed gender roles, though, both Mitch and Cam are agents of socialization, as they collaborate in "Little Bo Bleep" to tell Lily how to dress and that swearing is inappropriate.

          In conclusion, shows such as Full House, the Simpsons, and Modern Family exemplify the structural diversity within contemporary family households. However, they still reinforce a common heterosexist perception of gender roles where the man of the house is expected to work while the woman, whether or not she works, is responsible for the domestic sphere. Furthermore, the responsibility of socialization has shifted from just the father, who has over time been viewed as provider and head of the household, to a more shared responsibility among parents and children.

Works Cited

Aarons-Mele, Morra. "The Shifting Roles and Expectations for Men and Women." Huffington Post. 25 January 2011. Web. 17 April 2012.

Conley, Dalton. You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011. Print.

Klein, Herbert S. "The Changing American Family." Hoover Digest. Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 2004. Web. 17 April 2012.

Wetzel, James R. "American families: 75 years of change - The American Family During the 20th Century." Monthly Labor Review. March 1990. Web. 17 April 2012.