While watching the beginning of this week’s episodes, I could not help but to think how much our society has developed over time and how this is reflected in television and popular culture. When scripted shows were the only type of television entertainment available, writers, producers, and directors had full power in deciding the types of characters and families they depicted. The age of the nuclear family presented shows like Leave It To Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which depicted the “perfect” American family.
Still from Leave it to Beaver, “New Neighbors” (Season 1, Episode 5, 1957.)
Ideally, similar families gathered around their own television sets to watch the relatable humor onscreen. During this time, divorce was highly uncommon and men and women filled much more rigid gender roles. This was reflected in television, with the goofy, breadwinner husband coming home to his docile, charming, homemaker wife. The mother was always the calm voice of reason or the damsel in distress, and her role functioned completely around her husband and children. In this moment television families were “real” families.
Over time, however, women began to abandon this role to establish their own careers and marriage became a secondary form of income and a lower priority. Divorce rates grew, men and women began to marry later in life, and family structures were no longer so singularly represented. In order to remain relatable, television also had to change with the times. Single parents, blended families, and otherwise “abnormal” dynamics started to become the norm to portray on television. One of the most interesting ways this is depicted is through the relatively new genre of reality television. Writers, producers, and directors no longer have full reign over creating the television family: real families are sharing their stories and shedding light on different perspectives. While the actual extent of “reality” is often questioned, there is no doubt that reality television is forcing scripted television to become more creative and more progressive. Shows such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians portray the extremely uncommon ventures of a mega-famous family, but when it was first released it centered on the notion of the blended family. As the series continues to unfold, the family dynamic is ever-changing and has helped shed light on several real life issues.
Still from I Am Cait, (Promo Clip, 2015; image via E!).
This opens the door for scripted television to enter, and the relationship between the two has helped bridge the gap between fiction and reality. For example, it can be argued that Caitlyn Jenner’s real life transition on Keeping Up made transgender characters such as Sophia on Orange Is the New Black more relatable. This is not to say that both are not met with extreme criticism, but the portrayal of different cultural issues through reality television can create a space for scripted television and sitcoms to explore similar topics.