Desperate Housewives; Dutiful Househusbands: An Undergraduate Thesis #TBT

I was cleaning out my files on my computer yesterday and stumbled across a gem from my undergrad days. My UNDERGRADUATE THESIS!

Looking back, its been almost 10 years ago to the day that I finished my final draft of my undergraduate thesis; just in time to submit it to my Thesis Readers and Advisors for review and defending. It was a long process and it’s not perfect, but reading it and looking back, it provides almost a foreshadowing of my life path and how I learn, teach and view life.

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Courtesy of imdb.com

So to put a twist on #TBT, I’ll be posting a chapter a week as my #TBT for the next couple of weeks.

So please enjoy the first Chapter of my undergraduate thesis: Desperate Housewives and Dutiful Househusbands: A Historical Perspective and Comparison of the Portrayal of the Family in the 1950s to the New Millennium

Until next time

Peace, Love and Pandas!


Chapter One

The Family and The Situation Comedy

 fam|ly (fam′ə lē; often fam′lē) n., pl –lies [[ ME familie < L familia, household establishment, akin to famulus, servant <? IE *dhe–mo–house ( < base *dhē-:see do1) > Sans dhāman, household ]] 1 [Obs.] all the people living in the same house; household: see also extended family 2 a) a social unit consisting of parents and the children they rear (see also nuclear family) b) the children of the same parents c) one’s husband (or wife) and children (Webster)

nuclear family a family group that consists only of father, mother, and children (Webster)

situation comedy a comedy, esp. a comic television series with a story line made up of contrived episodes involving stock characters (Webster)

The family and the situation comedy, also referred to as the sitcom, may appear to make strange bedfellows; however the two entities have become entwined and embraced by Americans in an ever evolving medium. This because of America housing the world’s largest entertainment city, Hollywood, in it’s midst.

This intertwined pair has become one of the defining factors of today’s American pop culture and at times the leading dynamic for the eternally challenging and changing issues of today’s society, while attempting to portray the constant changing American family. Researchers analyzing these family portrayals from 1950s to the 1980s tend to differ in their opinions on the representation of the family present in the sitcom, though most traditionally will claim a neutral stance that the television sitcom will “mirror the real world in some respects, but distort or fail to represent it in other respects” (Huston 37).

In the 1950s, the television began to enter the average American’s home. As the new ‘fandangled’ device gained popularity, the living room where the television set traditionally was held, continued to become the gathering place for families. However, unlike from years before when families gathered around pianos and comfortable chairs, listening to the radio, they began gathering around the television set. By the time Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver began to air, the “television set took the place of the piano” (Spigel 38).

In the early sitcoms of the 1950s  and 1960s, many “affirmed the view of a cozy nuclear family comprised of mother, father, and two or three children interacting in a warm, loving, comfortable relationship in which there are no major problems, or at least no problems that cannot be solved in 30 or 60 minutes” (Huston, 38). At this time, the television sitcom family came to portray the ideal American family through the sitcom, rather than reflect the decline in the stable nuclear family and the single parent family that had been created after the World Wars, when hundreds of parents did not return from the wars (Huston).

As the television and the sitcom evolved over the following decades, the television family became more of an embellishment and satiric image of the family.  By the 1980s divorce was on the rise and single parent families were becoming more frequent.  According to Huston, 90% of single parent families were female heads of household, breaking the traditional male head of household role. Though a wide variety of sitcoms, the format of the 1980s sitcom tended to lean one of two ways; “…some of which showed the struggles of divorced, female parents, as in Kate and Allie, and others that returned to the mom and dad and children family structures…” (Huston 39). Though returning to the nuclear family format, issues and family dynamics were severely altered. Currently today, sitcoms continue this trend of single parent families or the original family, as well as continuing a new trend which became the extended family;

extended family a group of relatives by blood, marriage, or adoption, often including a nuclear family, living in close proximity or together, esp. if three generations are involved (Webster) 

Examining and critiquing the television family brings to light many issues including family and its continuing evolution, issues of the culture during that time period each show was aired, as well as how society dealt with these issues both on and off the television screen. There are many ways to deal with how society deals with issues. Each professional considers different means of dealing. Mean could include as a method of escape or self reflection of the American family, which is one point this thesis will hope to address.

The following thesis takes a closer look at the television sitcom and the image of the family. This thesis will demonstrate how the sitcom family is continuing to evolve paralleling the altering image of the real American family, and that this tendency has been occurring since its conception in the 1950s.

The following sitcoms were selected for this paper; Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Sanford & Son, The Cosby Show, All in the Family, Married…With Children, Roseanne, Full House, Friends, Will & Grace, and Desperate Housewives.

There has been little substantial quantitative research performed on the family and its influence on or from television. As Stuart Hall says in the introduction of David Morley’s book, Family Television: Cultural Power and the Domestic Leisure;

“Television has to be seen less and less as an isolated and individual, more and more as a social, even collective, activity. Typically, it takes place in families (or whatever intimate social group now substitutes for them). However, we know next to nothing about how this everyday domestic context influences what we view, how we view it, or what sense we make of it. We know almost as little about what role television plays in family relationship – how family interactions influence the choices we make about viewing or the uses to which we put what we view. We know even less, if this is possible, about how we actually behave (as opposed to how we would like to think we behave) when the set is on –either our conduct towards the screen or towards each other”.  

This thesis hopes to begin to bridge the gap between each of the points made by Hall by suggesting common paralleling events between television sitcom and society at the time. With to no previous research on the American family, and the concept of the sitcom paralleling current events, selecting shows was vastly challenging. The previously mentioned situation comedies were selected for several reasons. Each of these television program were number 1 hits of the American people, winning, some of them, tens of awards each, including, Emmy Awards, Oscar Awards, and People’s Choice. This being discovered it can easily be assumed the American people had a connection and assimilation to these programs. Secondly, quotes and popular quips of these shows are mentioned daily, referring to these sitcoms, and many times the family values each represented. Also many times the innocence, or lack there of in some sitcoms, of the family and it’s family dynamics. As well, each sitcom pertains to a specific decade of television programming. The selected sitcoms correspond with the time period both for television popularity, representations, and current events. Finally, for a lesser academic purpose for selecting these programs, there is unfortunately only so much paper in the world and the amount of paper needed to study each sitcom program ever produced and aired would be a Nobel Prize worthy endeavor (Internet).

Americans now spend an average of more than 64 days a year watching television (Roberts). It could easily be assumed that television has an effect on the family, or vice versa. This thesis examines sixty years of television and the socio-historical context within which it was viewed. This journey will begin with the previously mentioned definition of the nuclear family, a brief synopsis of the television family, and the ideal family representation with Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver. By using the characters, the settings and the situations of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, this thesis will show the progression the image of the family in American television has undergone. In the following pages, these two sitcoms will be compared to some of the most popular families that have graced television’s screen, including the Huxtables, the Connors, Scavos, Bings, and Tanners. By creating these para-social relationships,  with these time-reflecting families, to the situations and events of the current culture at the time, such as the legislation and social movements, will hopefully lead to the conclusion of this thesis that the television family parallels the real life family and its social issues. This paralleling theory will be supported by the ABC television hit Desperate Housewives. The selection of this sitcom drama ironically and conveniently contains all the main evolution stages of the television family, which will be addressed, and places it on a one block street called Wisteria Lane.

Works Cited and Consulted

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows; 1946 – Present. 6th ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995

Butler, Jeremy G. Roseanne; U.S. Domestic Comedy. Ed. Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997

Chao, Elaine L. and Kathleen P. Utgoff. Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. U.S. Department of Labor, May 2005, Report 985. 12 March 2007 <http://www.bls.gov/cps/wlf-databook-2005.pdf>.

Dean, Pamala S. Sanford And Son; U.S. Domestic Comedy. Ed. Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

 Desperate Housewives. Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Touchstone Television, 2004. DVD

Friends. Warner Brothers Television, 1994. DVD.

 Generic Radio. 25 March 2006 <http://www.genericradio.com>.

Gunzerath, David. All In The Family; U.S. Situation Comedy. Ed. Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Hunt, Darnell M. The  Cosby Show; U.S. Situation Comedy. Ed. Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Huston, Aletha C., et al. Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992

Internet Media DataBase. 19 January 2006 <http://imdb.com>.

Kassel, Michael B. Father Knows Best; U.S. Domestic Comedy. Ed. Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Morley, David. Family Television: Cultural Power and the Domestic Leisure. London: Routledge, 1988. 15 March 2007 <http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=MtCzVaj6bUUC&oi=fnd&pg= PP9&dq=family+and+television+studies&ots=8ZSKQTjevZ&sig=wZHH5GzlyEPO2bmDKej9jqn-J1A#PPP1,M1>.

Neufeldt, Victoria. Editor in Chief. Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Editor Emeritus David B. Guralmik. 3rd ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1997.

Roberts, Sam. Who Americans Are and What They Do, in Census Data. New York Times. December 15, 2006, 23 February 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/15/us/15census.html?ex=132383 8800&en=0854d746f02031e3&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss>.

Orlick, Peter B. Leave It To Beaver; U.S. Situation Comedy. Ed. Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Ruggles, Steven. The Transformation of the American Family Structure. An American Historical Review, February 1994: 103-128. 7 April 2007 <http://www.hist.umn.edu/~ruggles/Articles/AH R.pdf.>.

Saluter, Arlene F. Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1994. Current Population Reports; Population Characteristics, 20 – 484. 15 April 2007 <http://www.census.gov/prod/1/pop/p20-484.pdf>.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room For TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Stuller-Giglione, Joan. Married…With Children; U.S. Situation Comedy. Ed. Horace Newcomb. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Tindall, George and David Shi. America: A Narrative History. 5th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. 2 vols.

TVLand. 29 June 2006 <http://tvland/tvhome.html>.

U.S. Census Bureau. 15 January 2007 <http://www.census.gov>.

Wikipedia. 29 June 2006 <http://wikipedia.org>.

Wober, Mallory and Barrie Gunter. The Television and Social Control. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988

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About bdproffer

I am currently the Assistant Manager for the University Activities Board at Michigan State University. After earning my B.A. from the University of Michigan-Flint, I entered the Student Affairs profession. After a few years in the field, I returned to school and earned my M.A. in Educational Leadership-Higher Education Student Affairs from Eastern Michigan University. In my spare time I blog about my thoughts and musings on current issues in higher education, student affairs, web 2.0, LGBT issues and general life inspirations and observations. I also volunteer for Kappa Sigma Fraternity.
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