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AS SEEN ON TV
By Chris Kerr
00 44 20 7344 1029
The Undying Myth of The Nuclear Family
MMI James Thurber, Miami Herald, and syndicated to The Sunday Times (
AS SEEN ON TV by Chris Kerr
If we know something well, we use an expression derived from the word ‘family’—we say we’re ‘familiar’ with it. This usage presumes we know our own family, and the family that everyone talks about as being the basic unit of human society and the moral rock upon which any civilisation’s foundations are laid. We know the family because it is an idea that permeates pop culture—in plays, poems, songs, novels, TV programmes, and movies. Family implies love, compassion, security, cordiality—that’s what you’re traditionally supposed to get at home from two God-fearing parents, one male dad, one female mom, and any siblings you might be lumbered with.
Enter Roseanne, enter Married With Children, enter The Simpsons. Here are TV programmes that seem to break the mould, aim to become the opposite of the normal family sitcom, the anti-family sitcom. We laugh at these shows because the humour comes from the viewer knowing what the family should be like and how say having Bart as a brother or Al Bundy as a dad is way different. Humour after all, is a socially acceptable method of saying what can’t be said seriously because of taboo.
So does this give these shows licence to do anything, to put to death the myth of the functional nuclear family? The answer is no. The reason why is this—these shows actually reinforce the idea of a normal family unit by portraying its opposite. Roseanne doesn’t deal with domestic violence, or the fact that you’re more likely to be killed by a member of your own family (the dad Dan) than by a stranger. The Simpsons doesn’t tackle issues like child abuse by portraying Homer as the family’s live-in patriarchal rapist. Married with Children doesn’t have an episode satirising sibling incest with Bud and Kelly getting it on.
Why?—because what happens on TV or in the real world is not allowed to interfere with the basic idea of normality, this behaviour model that is the myth of the nuclear family. We admit it—the dysfunctional family exists, in fact we likely came from one, but at the same time, we deny that very fact every time we think ‘I wish I’d had a better family’. If we know something well we say we’re ‘familiar’ with it. We use an expression which seems at first, and second glance to link the words ‘family’ and ‘liar’ closely together.