Family Structure in Sitcoms Essay
Every family in the United States has a different structure to it. Whether it’s growing up with both a mom and a dad, with only one parent, with grandparents, or with no biological family at all, there is always a structure. Before going further into this, it’s important to define what a family is. According to Lumen Learning, the term family can be defined as “a socially recognized group, usually joined by blood, marriage, cohabitation, or adoption that forms an emotional connection…” (n.d.). For this research, everyone living in the household will be looked at as “family”.
The traditional family structure during the 20th century was a wife and a husband, with approximately 2.5 children. The roles within the family were quite traditional as well. The wife would stay at home with the children, while the husband would go to work. However, going into the 21st century, both the family structure and the family roles, began to change. This is partly due to the movement in the 1960’s that allowed women to enter the workforce. As women began working, the husbands of these women were required to help out with the household duties. Similarly, according to the article “The American Family Today”, with the rise in divorce rates and cohabitation rates, the traditional family structure was challenged (2015). There are now families where there is only one parent, or families where both parents work, and even couples with no children. Within these families, the heterosexual normative of traditional relationships is also challenged. Same sex couples are more prominent today, and with the process of adoption, those couples are able to have children, therefore changing the structure of the traditional family.
How it works
For the purposes of this project, I will be conducting a content analysis, researching how the portrayal of the family structure has changed throughout family sitcoms. Within this topic, I will also be touching on the portrayal of sexuality and gender norms within these families. It’s important to take note of how the family structure has changed throughout these shows, and to see how these shows depict sexuality and gender roles, to see if it resembles the changes that we see in society. It’s also important to study this as the media can potentially affect how people think about those specific things. There is a relationship between the media and the audience, in the sense that we as audience members are shaped by the media we see, while simultaneously doing the same thing to the media (Raymond 2013).
Sitcoms are a popular and influential genre, and have been for some time. They were especially popular from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. They are watched more by the public, than any other genre (Chaney 2018; Miller 2017). According to Crotty, sitcoms “present us both as we would like to be and in the way we really are” (1995: 12).
When looking at media, specifically sitcoms, researchers have focused mainly on the portrayal of race, gender, sexuality, and family values. When focusing on these specific attributes within the media, they used content analysis to gather their information (Crotty 1995; Raymond 2013). Other researchers have focused on the setting and spacing of the show and how the suburban family life is depicted within specific sitcoms, similarly using content analysis to gather their data (Haralovich 1989; Miller 2017). Mary Haralovich found that how the house in the shows were designed and how the characters interacted with those spaces, were related to gender norms. For example, she found that men would be the typical ones in the garage, while the women would be in the den or the kitchen (1989).
During the 1950’s and the 1960’s, the focus of sitcoms were families, specifically showing the American traditional family (Crotty 1995). The research gathered by Mary Haralovich used the setup and spacing of the show to talk about how the American family was portrayed during that time. She found that shows, similar to Leave it to Beaver were made to appeal to the entire family: the mother that stays at home, the father that goes to work, and the children that grow up within that home (1989). Heterosexuality was also seen as the social norm. Raymond notes that heteronormativity is shown in the actions of people, i.e. the character’s use of words and their body language towards certain situations (2013).
One article in particular, notes that sitcoms produced during the 1970’s and 1980’s had the families wanting to stick with the traditional ways, regardless of any change going on around them within society (Crotty 1995). However, as Crotty found, even during this time, sitcoms were beginning to introduce topics that were unpleasant to society, such as sexuality and divorce, things that would change the traditional family structure (1995).
There is still a lack of research on how the portrayal of family structures has changed in sitcoms. While some of the research that was presented does focus on family values, sexuality, and gender, there is no concrete discussion about the change in family structures overtime (Crotty 1995; Raymond 2013). My research will focus solely on how the portrayal of family structures has changed, while also studying the change in gender norms and sexuality.
How has the portrayal of family structures changed throughout family sitcoms? I will be conducting a content analysis of what’s considered to be some of the most popular of all the family sitcoms, ranging from the 1970’s through the 2000’s. According to Vulture, Happy Days (1974), Full House (1987), and Home Improvement (1991) were some of the most influential family sitcoms (Chaney, Seitz, and VanArendonk 2018). A content analysis is appropriate to answer this question because it allows me to look at the set-up of the shows and make interpretations of how each aspect of the show depicts what I am looking for. Part of studying family structure is analyzing the gender roles and sexuality of those in the family, therefore content analysis will be useful in studying how the characters in the show interact and react to each other.
Full House, created by Jeff Franklin, started in 1987 and ended in 1995. This show follows the lives of the Tanner’s, specifically focusing on how a widowed father, with the help of his brother-in-law and best friend, raises his three daughters. Home Improvement, created by Carmen Finestra, David McFadzean, and Matt Williams aired in 1991, ending eight years later in 1999. This show focuses on the life of the television star Tim Taylor, raising his three boys with the help of his wife, Jill. The show Happy Days was created by Garry Marshall, airing in 1974 and coming to an end in 1984. The main focus of the show is the Cunningham family and their lives together. My research will cover a total of 12 episodes, 4 from each show. I will solely be looking at the first season for all three of the shows because I want to study the initial set up of each. In choosing the 4 episodes, I will be selecting the first episode, the last episode, and two episodes in the middle. I am choosing the episodes this way because this will allow me to get a better understanding of the family structure.
In doing the content analysis of Happy Days, Full House, and Home Improvement, both latent and manifest indicators will be analyzed. The manifest indicators I will be looking at include: the number of people in the house, gender and race of each member, occupation of the family members, and the kind of role each member plays in the family (i.e. grandparent, uncle, aunt, etc.). The latent indicators that I will be looking at are: how the characters interact with one another, how they react to situations involving gender roles and sexuality, the relationship between the members, and body language. Analyzing both these manifest and latent indicators will allow me to study the family structure portrayed in each show as well as the gender roles and sexuality within those families.
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