Family in Sitcom Reflecting Societal Norms

By Jake Moross

As has been echoed in many other blog posts, what we’ve read and learned about so far has truly emphasized the way that the role of the family and the depiction of the family on television has changed overtime, most commonly reflecting political and cultural norms at the time. Early on in sitcom television, we saw families such as the Cleavers from Leave it to Beaver, who represented the ideal, white middle class, white-collar family, with a hardworking man of the house, a caring, stay-at-home mother, and perfect children operating in a way that complied with the norms, or the idealized norms, of the culture. This represented the way in which television families often served as examples for what should be seen in real-life families – people watched sitcom families, such as the Cleavers, and desired to be like them. I thought Kutulas’ use of the word “seductive” here was perfectly explanatory of the way that the sitcom family was seen in the eyes of the world. In this way, television was used as a means of modeling what was the supposedly perfect way to live.

This modeling of “perfect” in sitcom families was not long lived, as The Honeymooners soon came around and depicted a family that failed to adhere to these masculinity-fixated, ideal standards – it almost served as a way to scare off the real world families watching at home from falling into the pit that Ralph, the protagonist of the series, fell into. Ralph, a working middle-class father, failed to involve himself and partake in the consumer culture that became the standard for middle class families in postwar America. Not only did he fail to take part in it, he physically could not do so because of his shortcomings as the familial breadwinner – the role that the father was to play in the family. As a result, Ralph experienced significant difficulty socially and domestically, as he was ostracized by those who knew of his public failures and verbally chastised by his wife. His failure to serve as the prototypical, breadwinner husband led to a disastrous marriage and life, in general, for Ralph. Thus through this sitcom we are able to contrast the perfectly-conforming, happy, successful family, such as the Cleavers, with the Kramdens, whose failures as a family to conform to the ideal standard left them in distress and difficulty.

However, these ideal standards were soon changed and pushed in a new direction, as the baby boomer generation grew and began to take on new political and social roles. The standards changed and it became more and more common to push to explore new cultural norms and more liberal, open-minded political ideals. Families in sitcom shows at this time, such as the Bunkners in All in the Family, shifted in nature, and now were comprised of slightly different dynamics and members as to reflect the shift that the baby boomers had. Television changed to be suited to the baby boomer generation as a way to reflect their novel cultural norms and the changing society that resulted as an enormous generation of children were born to the families of the husbands that had served in the war. As we see from these examples, sitcom television, specifically the depiction of the family in the shows, was highly dependent on the cultural and political environment at the time – the families in the shows tried to depict how it seemed it would be ideal to function, thus the changing environment led to significant changes in the way that a “family” was seen on sitcom television shows.

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