FATHER KNOWS BEST to Mother Knows… Everything

by Adam Adcock

Throughout television history, there has been a vast change in traditions and values in our society.  Media is a powerful tool of persuasion that changes the way we see morality, our ideologies, and the way we view one another.  One of the most significant changes since television has become mainstream in the 1950’s is the way an entire television audience chooses to view and acknowledge a traditional family (Castleman).  When audiences see their favorite television families and how they act on the screen, it show influences the viewers and ultimately, transforms the design and makeup of the traditional family, gender roles, and its values.  The mixing of taboo with popular culture allows television to present new ideas.

When classifying anything, in particular television shows, we use Genre Theory.  Genre comes from the French term for “group”, “family”, “genus”, or “type”.  As a television audience, it is important to know this theory because it will help classify shows making them easier to find through the hundreds of channels in circulation.  Television production is completely dependent on this theory and it is central to the organization and structure of the industry (O’Donnell).  Television’s characters use Genre Theory in a similar way by means of “archetypes.”  Archetypes are generated when characters are portrayed with recurrent patterns of actions that an audience sees subconsciously and relates that action with those of other characters (O’Donnell).  An example of an archetype would be “the hero”.  “The hero” can be classified as any character that overcomes an obstacle in pursuit of a goal that usually is for the good of his community or the entire world (O’Donnell).  Jack from Lost is a prime example of this “hero” archetype.  He takes it upon himself to become leader after his plane crashes on a deserted island leaving a number of survivors.  He is a doctor and makes it his goal to help those in need of medical assistance after the catastrophe, thus benefitting the community on the island.  Archetypes we see today are merely prototypes of original characters within myths such as the original hero, Hercules (O’Donnell).

One genre within television that changes the most is the traditional television family and what audiences view as a “family show”.  Television in the 1950s reveals a family who consists of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, one boy usually involved in sports, and a girl who lives for one thing; a date for the weekend.  These are all stock characters.  Cast in a family pet and wacky neighbors and audiences now have the basic formula for a sitcom.  The audience lacks a sense of complexity and character development however due to governmental restrictions on subject matter (McMahon).  “Television was new to families at this point and like all new guests in people’s houses, it must act as just that; a guest with respect and a consciousness of morality.” (Castleman 10)

In the show I Love Lucy, we are introduced to the Arnaz family.  At first glance, we see traditional family construction, which was a stay-at-home wife, a working father, and the wacky neighbors, but with a few twists.  The neighbors were the Arnaz’s landlords, the husband was a Cuban singer, Lucy actually had dreams of being something other than a wife, and the house in which they live is not in Suburbia, but in a one-bedroom apartment downtown.  This specific change reflects the history at this time as millions of families were leaving the cities and migrating to suburbia to raise their families.  Only the husbands travel to the cities to work and then return home to their families residing in the suburbs (Lawson).

Up until now, audiences nationwide have grown accustomed to seeing the nuclear family shown in shows such as Father Knows Best.  America was ready for a change.  The typical family was white, middle class, following specific gender roles, and was “nuclear.”  On the other hand, why did I Love Lucy gain such a large amount of success if it was so different and taboo?  Lucy was the first woman to ever be shown on the television pregnant.  It was considered taboo in television’s first years (Castleman).  Even though Lucy appears pregnant in some episodes, and the fact that the network airs the scene of her giving birth the very same day she physically gives birth to her real life son, the cast never is allowed to use the word “pregnant.”  Characters referred to Lucy’s pregnancy as her “condition” (Castleman).

So why is the word “pregnancy” such a huge milestone to overcome for the FCC?  The network’s ultimate goal, at this time, is to not offend anyone with their themes aesthetics in hopes that sponsors will buy advertising slots within their specific programming.  Such subject matter as pregnancy could be seen as mature content not suitable for some viewers.  Sexual intercourse is part of pregnancy, and could deter viewers from watching, thus ratings would falter, and in essence, the ad agencies would not be getting their money’s worth in audience numbers (potential buyers of their products).  However, Lucy’s childbirth airing and the show resuming its critical acclaim proves that America is ready to see the pregnant women’s story giving way for other taboos to infiltrate the television waves.

After Lucy’s childbirth episode, audiences are able to see how a family develops and are not just being thrown into a family with no back-story.  With I Love Lucy, we witnessed the world of the Ricardo family before, during, and after the birth of their son.  Television was changing from a typical “dreamlike” family that almost rarely existed, to a more accurate depiction of the postmodern family.  One example would be The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  First debuting in 1970, the show gives America its first glimpse of a family of one.  There was one woman, Mary, who is “making it on her own” (as the opening theme song states).  Family values change in the 1970s and this show depicts this change truthfully.  Suddenly, it is ok for a woman to be a woman, without the title of ‘mother’, making it possible for them to gain success without the help from a man (Douglas).

The 1970s era marks the height of the feminist movement and the goal of women to gain their own independence from men (Lawson).  Women’s issues are not being taken so lightly at this point.  Many women consider the original theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show controversial because of its lyrics, “You might just make it after all” (Heide).  By season two, the lyrics change to “You’re gonna make it after all.”  The word “might” depicts feelings of doubt in a time when women were liberated to definitely making it to success.  While being a mother is a huge accomplishment for women, and still a goal, there is a niche demographic of women at this time who want more in life than “The American Dream.”  Now, women are aspiring to become doctors, lawyers, actresses, etc., without children, or a husband holding them back.  Mary Tyler Moore pioneers the way for women to do just this.  Still, television shows are depicting the television family as traditional with their stock characters, but giving the genre more leeway to revolutionize.  We see these post-modern ideologies being illustrated on television, so our own lives become less taboo.  Single women can feel proud to be single and not “stuck” in a family because “if Mary Tyler Moore does it, then so can I.”  That is how powerful television is.

Another television show that is responsible for the transitioning of family tradition is Married…With Children.  In this sitcom, we witness the lives of the Bundy family.  They are the first family to introduce dysfunction amongst family with a comedic ‘raunch’ (Castleman).  In each episode, Al, the husband/father figure, returns home from his job selling women’s shoes and reflects on how much he hates this career.  He usually begins with a bantering story such as, “So a fat woman came into the shoe store today.”  In the late 80s early 90s when the show is at its peek, the storylines and scripts are fresh and original, and attracting a large audience.  Families are starting to move away from the modern ideologies of gender roles, values, and life lessons, and starting to see more androgyny amongst families (Douglas).   The Bundys piece together the missing link between the modern and post-modern family because now we see the father actually mad and fed up at the wife’s laziness and ambition to be a stay-at-home mother.  There is so much irony behind the gender roles here because these characters are similar to their 50’s stock characters, but polar opposites in its representational values.  Peggy Bundy, the housewife, is the epitome of laziness.  She lives by the idea that the woman’s place is the home.  It isn’t necessarily that she believes in the traditional female role of “housewife” but it is just the convenience of the privilege (Stacey, 1996).  Peggy sits on the couch watching Oprah all day eating bonbons and finds refuge in running up Al’s credit card bill while abusing the Home Shopping Network.  She never cooks, never cleans, and especially never claims her children.  She represents a new version of “housewife”, as “the waste of space.”  Al Bundy tries to earn money at his job selling shoes.  The irony behind this characteristic is that now the father figure is depicting the idea of being forced to support his family financially, rather than enjoying the pride within the accomplishment (Stacey).  Al despises his wife’s work ethic and hates giving all of his money away to his family.  He holds a job that is traditional in the fact that he is destined to be there till retirement, but lives paycheck to paycheck never seeming to get ahead.  In his own words, his family “sucks him dry” and he never receives anything in return.

The Bundy family sparks an array of other shows with similar characters.  The networks are beginning to change the stock characters that we see today.  We see the typical “dumb oaf father” in shows such as Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, and The Simpsons.  We see one dumb kid, one smart kid, and a stay-at-home mother.  We also are introduced to the personified dog in Married…With Children.  Buck becomes a main character featuring voice over.  He is also, coincidentally, the only one with the common sense in the house.  This is said to be where the idea of Bryan the dog from Family Guy originates (Castleman).  These animals have always been present in the sitcoms, but in post-modern television, they get to be a bigger part of the shows with episodes featuring them as the main character.  They can talk, and nowadays, even offer advice for their human counterparts.

This new form of family, challenges the modern, traditional family saying “life just cannot be that perfect.”  Now it is okay for a father to vent about his problems at home with his friends over a beer (Kelly, 1995).  This new form of television sitcom forces us out of our comfort zones.  Now, families can sit down, relax and watch families bicker and fight, while finding humor in the storyline since this is accurate.  Families can expect imperfections because, “if they can do it on television, then it must be okay” (Stacey).

Fathers, after shows such as Married… With Children, Unhappily Ever After, and The Simpsons hit the airwaves, are starting to feel less pressure with always having to be right.  It makes perfect sense.  Homer Simpson is a beer guzzling fool in most of the episodes of The Simpsons who almost never has a right answer for anything.  The same setup is shown within Peter Griffin from Family Guy.  Al Bundy is a public figure on television living paycheck-to-paycheck complaining about his deadbeat family, but loved them nonetheless.  The definition of archetype states that a recurring character trait is what gives archetypes new characteristics and room for change.  After the Bundys we are introduced to the Connor family in Roseanne, where Dan Connor is also struggling to make ends meet and does not always provide the right answers.   This imperfection is now the new standard for fathers around the United States (Castleman).  When fathers depict the notion that they should have all the right answers and be as perfect as possible, fathers struggle with intense complexes and self-esteem issues if they for some reason lacked a right answer or guided their child in the wrong direction accidentally (Kelly).  Perhaps they cannot afford to send their children to college, like in the Utopia that the 50s television sitcoms portray.  Finally, it is okay.  This is how strong the television sitcoms are.  They can change the way entire populations see themselves.  It has changed the ideology that family life is perfect life.

Apparently the world is now once again ready for a next step in family television.  “It started with Archie Bunker in All in the Family making his racist remarks and establishing some of today’s stereotypes” (Stacey 109).  This show introduces the world to stereotypes in the African-American, homosexual, and immigrant cultures.  This new type of family sparks controversy even today, but it also introduced the tension between a white family with bigot ideologies, and them dealing with the new African-American family that moves in next door (The Jeffersons).  This is one of the milestones of integration in television in the 1970s (Castleman).

Along with stereotypes, we also get a look at gender role reversal in shows such as Who’s the Boss.  We have a man who is the epitome of the male “machismo” prototype, but he is thrown into a successful woman’s household as a housekeeper.  For the love of his daughter, he moves to get her out of the dangers of the Bronx.  He takes whatever job he can find elsewhere.  He transforms from star of the Cardinals baseball team to live-in housekeeper cooking three meals a day and incorporating life lessons he has learned throughout his rough life, into this upper-class household.  These shows are pioneers of their kind and are something that audiences have never seen before.  The history of television illustrates the reasoning behind their success.  They go against the norm and strike up controversy and conversation through their storytelling.  The aesthetics behind each storyline is so complex because we haven’t seen them until now.

If you trace the history of television, you will witness the history of America.  Shows such as Married…With Children, Family Guy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and Modern Family challenge tradition paving the way for genres in television to morph and transition (O’Donnell).  The nuclear family is one genre that has changed the most, but what if Mary Tyler Moore had not made it after all, without the help of a man (Heide, 1995)?  What if Lucy’s “condition” was not aired (Castleman)?  Would women have the same amount of power as today?  Television changes as society transforms.  America is now able to see these dysfunctional families as depicted in Married…With Children and their post-modern problems and relate, rather than strive to become the perfect, “nuclear” family (Stacey).  The weight is taken off of our fathers with characters in Al Bundy and Homer Simpson, depicting a sense of accuracy within family.  Our mothers have different standards to uphold with much more slack, and room for being right.  Our sons can be free to be gay and our daughters can get pregnant on Prom night, and know that “we all make mistakes sometimes.  Look at what happened to ___”.  The world would be a much different place without these shows transitioning family values from modern suburbia and the nuclear family archetype into a post-modern, imperfect prototype.  What is in store for family television?  Is there anything left to uncover?  Taboos are being unveiled every day and it gets harder to offend or shock anyone.  Perhaps this post post-modern era we live in today marks the end of the traditional family transformation.  What if there is not anything left to change?  Will we grow bored of this new permanent family if more elements are not introduced to this genre?  Will eternal writer’s block from television writers and the lack of new ideas embark a fate meaning the end of family evolution?  Only time will tell.

Works Cited

Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik.  Watching TV:  Six Decades of American Television. Syracuse, New York:  Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Douglas, William. Television Families:  Is Something Wrong in Suburbia? Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Heide, Margaret J. Television Culture and Women’s Lives:  Thirty-Something and the Contradictions of Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Kelly, Janice. “Fathers and the Media: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, & Practice about Men as Fathers 7.2 (2009): 107-113. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 18 Feb. 2010.

Lawson, Alan.  The American Promise:  A Compact History.  Boston, MA:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

O’Donnell, Victoria.  Television Criticism.  Los Angeles, CA:  Sage Publications, Inc, 2007.

Stacey, Judith. In the Name of the Family:  Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996.