In this course, we have dealt with some of the major and not-so-major theories that guide research and thinking about the family.   Since the beginning of the course, we have come from the intuitive models of the family (all riddled with statistical inaccuracies, romantic ideals, and flat, one dimensional images of family members) toward an increasingly more sophisticated picture. In your essay examinations, you demonstrated that theorizing about the family is anything but a straightforward endeavor--it is very complicated.  And we still don't have a unified theory!

Well, here it is!
My answer to the question, What should an all encompassing family theory include.
As you all should know by now,  I believe there is a conspiracy--a spectre if you will--haunting American ideology.Mine is the kind of theory that explains why people put plastic covers on new furniture,  why we feel so bad when we dent our brand cars, and why some people can be surrounded by luxury and still be dissatisfied with our families and our lives.

We are confused as a nation about our wants, desires, and needs. The culprit is a social ideal  that motivates us hell bent toward amassing money to the exclusion of all other passions.

This condition is encompassed in folk sayings, such as: "Things perceived as real will be real in their consequences" W.I. Thomas and "Everybody wants to go to heaven,  but nobody wants to die!" Bunny Wailer and "My memory is deficient on that one, Senator," President Reagan and "Yes, I did smoke marijuana one time, but I didn't inhale" President Clinton and "People have a right to know if their President is a crook!" President Nixon and "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." Tom Waits and "Of all the things in life I've lost, I miss my mind the most."

If we divide the universe of human interaction into four non-mutually exclusive parts, we have a little table:
  The Individual Part              I, Me, He and She
  The Primary Group Part     Us  and We
  The Social Part  Global      We and Them
  The Economic Part             It

We should all agree that these are the parts (except for the Economic one, perhaps),  but how do they fit together?A portion of the answer lies in the notions of real and ideal culture, from cultural anthropology. Housed in the ideal are the dominant values of our society that are shared by all its members.  Concerning the family, these ideals would be notions about loving your spouse forever, providing a wholesome environment for our children, rearing children to be of good character and mind, and a general state of  blissful happiness.

Housed in the reality of our culture are results of living in society that are, at best, removed from the ideal.
Where we sing popular tunes about everlasting love, there is divorce, family violence, or at least a cooling off of the romantic fires that we stoked so vigorously early on in our relationships. The little house we bought in the neighborhood that seemed so wholesome for our children yet to come, now sits in a faltering neighborhood with alcoholic neighbors, drug sales on the corner or at the schoolhouse door, and increasing numbers of  undesirables moving in.
In other words, for every ideal, there is an equal and opposite reality with which we have to contend, or so it seems

The Ideal  Everlasting Love 
Fairness    It's a Small  World After All 
The Real Divorce, Family troubles 
Violence, abuse 
Injustice  It's a Jungle Out There 

This is NOT a cynical or pessimistic view of things.  It is, in fact, a very real, though alternative, point of view from the normal.  Why is it that what we value in the ideal is often so far removed from the reality of our lives?  And if our lives measure up, more or less to the ideal, then the lives of friends or acquaintances don't.

Maybe it is because we are caught in a crossfire of competing demands. Perhaps the needs of society don't always match our own, even though we want them to match so desperately. Maybe the  needs of society aren't always good for its membership. And maybe we are too lazy to think the whole thing through and do something about the disparity between reality and ideal. There are two possible ways for a person to live their lives, given my little model.
One can live as if:

The Ideal is Real serving the Primary Group first 
Then the Social, then the Individual 
and finally the Economic. 
Here, the individual is most important & most valued. 
You and your best pals, children, etc. 
Social relations, and the Economy exist 
only to serve the people. 
Here truth and beauty exist as Real Ideals. 
There is no such thing as Bleeding Heart 
Liberals, or Crackpot militarists-only Hope, Love 
and Compassion for one's dearest others are the 
currency of the Local Economy. 
Here, each person takes care of everyone 
in his or her field of vision. 
Here, furniture is for sitting. 
Here, a car is for getting around in. 
Here, luxury is a cold drink on a hot day. 
Here, people are the solution to problems. 
Here is where most folks would like to be.
The Real is Ideal serving the Economic first. 
Then  Individual Then the Social 
and finally the Primary Group. 
Here, the individual's search for economic security 
is the most important thing. 
The Primary Group aspects of life exist to serve the economy, 
because from IT comes all good things. 
Ideal is the chase for the bucks--making it good 
for oneself and one's own.  Children should be 
seen and not heard.  Social relations exist only 
 to further one's career. 
The only abuse is that which is inflicted on me. 
Here, each person is out for themselves only. 
Get all you can grab. 
Here, furniture is for deriving visual pleasure. 
Here, one is defined by his vehicle. 
Here, luxury is always just out of reach. 
Here, people are the problem. 
Here is where most folks probably are. 

By way of a discourse on Images of the Family In Popular Culture,
I will try to explain how we've come to be the way we are, and how we can change a little.

Images of the Family in Popular Culture

There is a reading entitled "Images of the Family in the Mass Media: An American Iconography." (Walstrom, 1979) in Arlene Skolnick's, The American Family in Popular Culture and Social Science.  In it, the author asserts that images in popular culture reinforce stereotypes and often the manifestation of them.  He maintains that this occurs due to a Freudian concept called optical memory-residues--that is, we see things as contrivances (ideals) first, and later we internalize them as real.

First comes : Objective Identification of Form and Object  which is transferred to
                    Subjective Matter of Motif and Concept (action and thought).

In the language of the conspiracy theory of thought and behavior control, we use the diet of stereotypes with which we feed our minds  to create a shorthand for categorizing events, situations and people.  However, in order for a stereotype to be kept salient, there need to be two conditions:

 1. It must be useful to the Economy. The image has to be useful in selling products.
 2. It must then contain some measure of conceptual or perceptual truth, no matter how slight.

In other words, we take what we are given by an intent society, and we make something out of it, much the way you have done with your essay questions!

If what we are given by society is the input, and we want to fix the problems we see in our culture,  all we have to do is change the INPUT.   We have to be careful, and remember what the computer programmer says, "Garbage in,  garbage out!."  Alternatively, given our short time on earth to make a mark, to enjoy what life has to offer, we have to emulate
Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  We have to dance and sing as though life was not as tenuous and unstable as we know it really is.

Anyway,  Ideals that we are given to process as reality are images from the media which are equivalent to the sacred images of other cultures.  As the media takes on increasingly more religious functions, the images by which we define reality and live our lives become increasingly controlled by persons other than those in our primary group.  Media provides heroes, myths, sacraments, and beatific visions for increasingly more and more folks.  In so doing, the media parodies several aspects of all institutions - imparting basic American values on us all.

For example, the Rugged Individualism of John Wayne and the self-reliant Rambo are understood by Americans so as not to conflict with the cooperative elements necessary for society to "progress".  Thus, males are not, by and large, presented as Family Men in the media; while females are, by and large, primarily presented as domestic and helpless.
Men are bound for greatness.  Women must manipulate or trap cagey males into familial relationships through the promise of never-ending sexuality or terrific meals (probably just the sex).

There are some problems in this male dominated media approach.  First, marriage and family life has consistently been shown to really increase the social power of the male, to be a more healthy state of being for men than women, and to actually curtail the freedom of women much more than men.  But we don't get to hear those messages on television, in the movies, or in the lyrics of popular music.  In fact, the messages of media send exactly the opposite ideal.

In the media Before Marriage: Men are presented as physically strong, serious and have a "big picture" world view.
They  are illusive, brave, and heroic.  Lois Lane is always attempting to maneuver Superman into romantic situations only to have to rely later upon his superior mental and physical powers to rescue her from the jaws of certain demise.   The furthest thing from his mind is settling down with one of his sweeties.  Women are presented as fun loving, "frisky" (a la puppies), demure, innocent, hopeful, and dreamy.  They are gullible, and single-minded in their quest for a husband.

After Marriage: Men are shown as balding, fat, befuddled, and prone to falling asleep if not constantly stimulated with the puzzling antics of wife and children.  They are emasculated, stupid, and selfish.  Women are crazy for shopping, at once lazy and pathologically preoccupied with domestic cleanliness. The woman is the "real boss" of the household, long suffering, worried, intellectually superior to the husband.

Sex Role Stereotypes of Children in Media:  Boys are tough, mean, inquisitive, always getting into trouble (or embarrassing parents)--dirt is magnetically attracted to them. They are loud and self-absorbed demons.  Girls are sugar and spice, spunky, have feelings that are easily hurt, always clean (and irritated when smudged by boys).  They are angels. Teenage boys and girls are sullen and confused, and headed for trouble because of the puberty blues. There are options in media presentation of the genders and family life, as social conditions give rise to social change.  Art is supposed to imitate life.

The Impact of Television.
There is a wonderful sequence of scenes in the movie Avalon (which is the story of one family's immigration to Baltimore from the Old Country). The extended family is shown sitting around the dinner table and talking/arguing/bantering with each other.  This is their family ritual. Over the years babies appear one by one, and children grow a little with each meal.  Then the family gets a television set. In the last dinner, we can see the t.v. blaring away in the background as the grandmother serves up the meal.  But the meal seems to be progressing as it has in the past until someone shouts, It's coming on!
Everyone grabs their plates and scoots into the living room to watch the Ed Sullivan Show!
They forget the baby, who is sitting alone in the kitchen ... in his high chair ... without any knowledge that things have changed.

The 1950s marked the first decade of electronically portrayed families.  Family life was/is presented either Pathological, Comedic, or Perverse. Further, there seem to be three modes of production in television.

First there is Drama - the "highest" form of television, in which art imitates life - seldom was family life portrayed in a positive way.  Productions of Steinbeck ("Grapes of Wrath") showed the family being torn apart by the depression and the injustice of daily social life.  True also for  Miller's  "Death of a Salesman" (alienation), Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (sexually perverse), Ibsen's "A Doll's House" (oppressive for women), and only occasionally do we have a positive view of family life (movies where Family life is all that stands between a Man's defeat and a healthy life) such as Thomas Edison's screen portrayal of a man who understands the importance of wife and family (the truth about ole Tom was that he hardly ever talked to his family).  Lesser dramatic television art forms, such as westerns like "Gunsmoke" were devoid of fully developed families, with the exception of the occasional "settler" family that always got caught between frontier lawlessness and poverty.
Matt, Doc, Festus, Miss Kitty, everyone west of the Appalachians were single and childless.

Second is the Situation Comedy - For adults there was The Honey Mooners, where Ralph and Alice (childless for the sake of lower production costs) constantly fight over money, prestige, and the conjugal upper hand. But they really love each other, even when Ralph threatened to send Alice to the moon!  Family shows (Make Room for Daddy, Father Knows Best, Dennis The Menace, Bachelor Father (what the author refers to as "abridged families" including My Mother the Car, Mr. Ed, and My Favorite Martian).  All attempted to show the "lighter side" of family relationships.  In all the years of  I Love Lucy  neither Lucy nor Desi had extramarital affairs.  They also slept in twin beds and wore pajamas, which makes one wonder how THEY ever made Babaloo so that Little Ricky could have been conceived in the first place (Lucille Ball's pregnancy was the first to be nationally televised however, credit where credit is due). But mostly, Lucy and Ethel were obsessed with breaking into show business by masquerading as singers to get into the Club (Didn't all fathers own a nightclub?).

Third, there are The Soaps, which found their plot lines in the things that can go wrong in the "relationship" between men and women.  Filing for divorce, marriage in name only, unwanted pregnancies, propositions for sex, auto accidents in which one half of the affair is rushing home to his or her lover to say how sorry he/she is for behaving like such a rascal but is knocked into a coma and never says "I love you". Lots of hospital scenes, combining the drama of the operating theater and the smooth operator doctors.  Loads of adultery, attempted murder of adulterous would-be and actual spouses, and mental illness.

The 1960s,  1970s and beyond.  The Abridged Family Form (missing a member) was a little ahead of its time, since single parent families were still in a minority.  The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Nanny and the Professor, My Three Sons, Bonanza,  and A Family Affair  were a form of programming that continued through the seventies and eighties.
Interestingly - in virtually all of these 1960s  t.v. shows, it was the mother that was always "abridged", leaving the Hapless-though-wise, father to raise his children either single handedly or with the help of a hired mother figure. In every case, the mother had died mysteriously (leaving several episodes devoted to heart to heart father-child conversations).  This is a particularly touching strategy, given the cultural view on maternal deprivation. Not having a mom at home is supposed to screw children way up.  I always thought it was amazing that Ben Cartwright had such rotten luck in choosing these unhealthy, accident prone women for wives.

In the seventies and eighties, we began to see the single parent change gender with One Day at a Time (with a recently divorced mother of two teenaged daughters), The Facts of Life (where the coquettishly pubescent characters were essentially orphaned by their parents to live in a girl's academy), Alice (divorced mother of a teenaged boy which was a comedy scripted from a very serious dramatic screenplay/novel Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.), and Kate and Allie (two divorced women pool their resources and problems to "blend" a family. One is a career woman, the other is domestic. Some critics maintain that such programs are answers to feminist pleas.  Certainly all women facing divorce are opting to become the wife and mother of another woman and her children.

It was during the seventies and eighties that the roommate genre was concocted as homosexuality entered the comedy bin.  Laverne and Shirley, Three's Company, The Odd Couple, Bosom Buddies, and Perfect Strangers. The idea was to show how much fun it would be for a man to have two or more jiggly/wiggly female roommates and be wrongly accused of homosexuality, or to observe healthy American males resort to transvestitism in order to get the only available living quarters in New York - a hotel for women.

Poverty and Race. The 1960s also brought social issues to television light, partly because of the upheaval of the times.
All in the Family dealt comedically with issues such as racism, sexism, sex itself, bigotry and prejudice, and life in a working class, two generation family.  Spinning off from this was The Jeffersons, which was a depiction of black family life among the nouveau riche noir. George Jefferson was touchy about getting the respect a man of his means deserved, their friends (the high rise universe) were an interracial couple, and a homosexual bachelor ambassador to the U.N.  Good Times placed the black family back in poverty - showing strong family values and a two-parent family living in a drug free environment.

The Cosby Show and Family Ties offered the same middle class family values as the earlier productions of the 1950s with contemporary themes.  And there are others.  The point is that the media presents us with false pictures of life, no matter how silly or funny they appear, that let us get our hopes up.  At the very least, these television productions do not enlighten, nor do they provide us with truths. At their very worst, they mislead and offer misguided advice on family matters.

Movies.  In the 1940s , family life was always portrayed as a joyous condition - the problems of family life taking on Hollywood proportions--It's a Wonderful Life and Father of the Bride. In the 1950s, The Defiant Ones and To Kill a Mockingbird brilliantly took on the issues of racism, with the subject tangentially treated in the 1940s in such movies as Inherit the Wind.  These were exceptional movies that made a point and made me feel good.  They told me something can be done about the sorry state of affairs in which we live. Of course, there were also the dumb ones like, Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Blob.

Later movies dealt with family pathology - Ordinary People,  baby boomers growing up in The Big Chill,  yuppie life in Baby Boom and Three Men and a Baby, custody suits Kramer vs. Kramer, working mothers & househubbies in Mr. Mom. Largely a one dimensional view of these subjects, Kramer vs. Kramer took to task the extremely difficult time any father might have in gaining custody of his child. A noble undertaking, except for the facts.  Never in the past ninety years of U.S. family law, has a father had any difficulty at all in gaining the custody of his children.  The fact is that 90% of the fathers don't even try because they don't really want to be bothered.

Family life has lately been a topic of movie scripts, while other social issues were treated much earlier.  Perhaps the best story-put-to-film about the black family was Sounder (with a bow to the television drama The Diary of Miss Jane Pitman). Raisin in the Sun (1960s) is the only non-rural depiction of the black family that comes to mind.
An overethnic view of Sicilian families was presented in The Godfather movies.

So What Does All This Mean?  One thing that our theories may agree upon is that media presentation of the family, gender roles, levels of violence in our society, and the cultural view of sexuality, impacts on the health and welfare of developing children, as well as whole families. People in our culture are often short sighted and tend to forget that mass media is always pushing them to buy products.  They forget that mass media is a science first, and an art second -  a business first, and a form of social commentary second.

If we take the benign approach, we tend to view the media as relatively harmless entertainment. It's only a movie, after all.
If we take the cynical approach, we tend to view all messages sent as clever, almost subliminal, strategies to form our opinions for us.  Our theories have all held that actions are born out of beliefs ... "things perceived as real will be real in their consequences."  The Structural Functionalists, for example, would see media as highlighting those aspects of family life that are prosocial. (i.e.,  black families are poor but happy, troubles of all single women are solved when they find a man, trouble always comes to those who get rich the easy way, and nothing beats an intact family).    It just may be that we desire to become the stereotyped images we watch.  Have we allowed ourselves to become the "cold commercialized" versions of the families we see?  Certainly, judging by the huge successes of some of the movies and television programs, we have substituted real personal experiences with other human beings for the media experience.

We tend to vicariously participate in the joys and sorrows of actors playing family roles on the screen, and feel a certain pride when Mallory (Family Ties) gets a good test grade or one of the Cosby Kids comes to grips with a fundamental fact of life. We get wrapped up in the t.v. family while our own familiess may be caught in a downward spiral of low level functioning. I have actually witnessed a father shushing his daughter, who was attempting to draw his attention to the "A" she got on a school project, because he wanted to watch the Cosby Show was on television.  The daughter was actually competing with Mallory for her Dad's attention.  And her father will, in the years to come, desperately wish for a second chance at that moment when his daughter wanted to talk to him.  She'll get the message soon, and will never think to herself that her father cares much about her.

If media wasn't so popular, we wouldn't need to consider its effect.  Short of satanic messages hidden in the grooves of rock and roll records, there probably is some wisdom in paying attention to and doing research on the effects of media.  The effects of becoming a nation of spectators can be empty, hollow, and soulless.

We have a choice.
We can believe in television, or we can make our own video movies.
We can become big fans of  popular musicians, or we can learn how to play our own music.
We can sit and wish and want, or we can pick up a tool and make something.
We can wait and hope for our families to love us, or we can actively court the affections of these people in an effort to make the world a better place.
I can honestly say I have never seen a movie character who had a life that I would trade mine for.

Conclusion to the Course
One Christmas years ago, when my father was having a very hard time making ends meet, he gave me the best present I could have ever received as a child.  Since he had no money to spend, he rounded up a set of wood working tools from spares he had.  He sharpened all the edges, polished and painted them, and even made a tool box for me to carry them.  On Christmas morning, he gave me my present and a big block of wood.

He said, "Dave, your present is inside this wood block. It is your job to get it out, and I'll help you."  My dad was well read, especially for someone without a formal education.  Through his demeanor toward me, my dad let me know in no uncertain terms that he held me in what psychologists  call "unconditional positive regard".  He never raised his hand or his voice to me, and always seemed happy to see me.  He taught me how to work, take up for myself, and value that which is important in life.  He never gave me money, but showed me how to make my own instead.  He never told me what to do, but always showed me where to find answers to my endless questions.   Growing up, I noticed other boys whose fathers didn't measure up to mine.  I felt sorry for them then, as I do now.  Today, although my dad is a thousand miles away, when I have troubles, I can actually feel his hand on my shoulder helping me steady my load.

 In this course, we've attempted to explain the complexity of family life that resides in a society filled with seemingly inconsistent values. The playing field on which family members live their lives is hardly level. In fact, it doesn't even hold its shape from one generation to the next. Expectations change as life becomes easier and more difficult at the same time.  I wouldn't want to be a teenager today under any circumstances.  Still, there are millions of teens out there who are ignorant of what life holds in store for them.   Family theorists would  be better off to incorporate some of my father's "build it yourself" philosophy.

If we don't like the way things are working out, then change those things in our corner of the world, right now, and without complaining.  It is our society, after all. 

Back to Syllabus
Forward to References