Family Myth to Family Reality
Do you love your family? Can you prove it on national television? A recent score of highly rated reality television shows reveal a renewed fascination with the "ideal family." You’ve seen these shows—wholesome enough for the whole family to watch over dinner: Amnesia, My Dad Is Better than Your Dad, Super Nanny, Wife Swap, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Deal or No Deal, or Moment of Truth.
Although these shows are differently organized, there is a common theme: They are a standing ovation to honor good parents and families. In My Dad Is Better than Your Dad, fathers go through extraordinary lengths to prove themselves to their children. They are given "exciting larger-than-life challenges testing dad’s strength, smarts and their ability to work as a team" (nbc.com). The winner’s son brags to all the viewers at home that "my dad is better than your dad." In another poignant example, Amnesia, contestants acquire money by correctly answering a series of questions about their personal and family history. The interrogations are an ultimate test of devotion to family, as the underlying assumption is that a good parent will get the question right. The wrong answer to a recent question (What was the song that your daughter’s boyfriend wrote for her?) brought disapproving head shaking from the family and audience. Deal or No Deal also uses the focus on the family as means for exciting their crowds. Recently a contestant sent one of her family members home every time she rejected a deal. What is more important to her? Money or family?
These shows represent more than just "bad" or "good" TV. They strategically distract us from the ailments of our country, and they symbolically repress the families with the least resources. Moreover, they are a reinvigoration of past shows aired during times of war: Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, Hazel, and The Partridge Family. All of these shows give shining exemplars and friendly reminders of what our families should look like, what our focus should be, and how to cater to our lovely, even if zany, children. Just as those shows focused on family as the epicenter of comfort, safety, and solidarity during WWII and the Vietnam War, we are returning to this safety zone during the fifth year of the Iraq War. It is paradoxical that in the midst of war, a slow economy, high rates of impoverished children, and two parents working overtime to make ends meet, that we emphasize a fantastic amount of money and time required for families’ health and happiness. At the time when we have the least to give, we demand the most.
It is trendy to reflect on the family shows of the 1950s and 1960s as idealistic and unrealistic, but have we come that far? What pressures are we putting on struggling families attempting to maintain a job and food on the table? Reality television? These shows promote the attainment of an unrealistic middle-class ethic of an intense familism while families are socially, economically, politically, and physically struggling.
Hephzibah V. Strmic-Pawl, PhD candidate, University of Virginia