Family TV shows have always been popular, and, whether audiences have known it or not, they have always sent a message through their portrayal of the “typical family.” Leave it to Beaver is a TV show set in the late 1950s that portrays a functional, white, middle class family. The shows in this era were most concerned with portraying the nuclear family unit and traditional patriarch. Leave it to Beaver reinforces gender norms: Girls look pretty, boys fool around, fathers earn money, and mothers do the housework. Quotes like, “I never saw a mom lying down in the daytime before,” show that the TV show was not only created to portray the typical family in the 50s, but also to subtly send the message that that portrayal was the “ideal.”
As cultures changed and families changed, so did TV shows. The nation’s divorce rate climbed in the 1960s, creating increasingly split-up families. Hence, the next big TV show that emerged was The Brady Bunch. This “blended family” featured a man, Mike, with three boys marrying a woman, Carol, with three girls. Each episode in the 5 seasons highlight different situations within the family unit, each coming back to their harmonious familial system by the end of the episode. The TV show pushed very few socially controversial buttons. Overall, The Brady Bunch showed that a functional, blended family was attainable and even desirable. The Bill Cosby Show emerged during this same era. It was a remarkable show in that it showed that a functional African American family was fairly similar to a functional white family, which was hard for audiences to comprehend during that time. The show’s comedic nature distracted audiences from disputing this powerful social statement.
Roseanne, another popular sitcom, was one of the first portrayals of the “realistic” family in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Both parents worked outside the home, the lead characters were overweight, and it featured a female dominated household and homosexual characters. Since Roseanne, there has been a greater push for acceptance of all types of families in the media, particularly regarding homosexual relationships. In the TV show Happily Divorced (2011-2013), the main characters get divorced on good terms after 18 years of marriage because the husband comes out as gay. Shows like this, showing happiness even as divorced or gay, simply did not exist in the 1950s. Society has come a long way.
Another example is 7th Heaven, created in the late 1990s/early 2000s. 7th Heaven shows how a minister father and stay-at-home mother raise their 7 children, mess-ups and all. The Simpsons, created in 1989 and still airing today, is an animated, satirical depiction of working-class life. Because the show is animated, some argue that it is easier for the producers to make fun of society because creators have the power to create the character’s own universe. Since the show is still airing today, writers can continue to put comedic twists on current political and economic situations. “In The Simpsons, politicians are corrupt, ministers such as Reverend Lovejoy are indifferent to churchgoers, and the local police force is incompetent.”
Modern Family, perhaps the most influential family show currently on TV, depicts a dysfunctional family in the 21th century. On ABC’s website, the show is described as follows: “Modern Family stars the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan, a wonderfully large and blended family. Together these three families give us an honest and often hilarious look into the sometimes warm, sometimes twisted, embrace of the modern family.” Modern Family portrays the new versions of the family in a humorous light. More and more families are changing to reflect the dysfunctional model seen in Modern Family.
Society’s views of family have changed drastically since the premier of Leave it to Beaver, and they will continue to change after the last episode of Modern Family airs. As media changes its portrayals of the family, the “quintessential family” is beginning to fade out of focus while the acceptance of all types of families is slowly coming into view.