Families and television series: what is the relationship between these two realities? How is the family portrayed in the most loved TV shows today?
These and other questions have led us to analyse how soap operas and telefilms portray the institution which, according to many sociologists, remains the primary cell of society, or rather, the micro-community from which the whole social fabric stems.
The power of the images
The media can be considered a mirror and amplifier of reality, conveying the dominant mentality of the contexts in which it operates and at the same time acting as a spokesman for certain messages and values. Thus contributing to shaping and modifying reality.
This also applies to movies and TV series: stories convey cultural changes in morals and, through stories, the audience gets some practical reasoning about characters and life experiences. In such a way, they are able to give consistency to society changes, thus affecting, in the long term, the viewer's way of thinking.
As far as the family is concerned, what messages are television series sending?
The current family situation
Sociologist Pierpaolo Donati, in his book Family: the genome that gives life to society (Rubbettino, 2013) – (mentioned in a previous article) explains that nowadays we find it increasingly difficult to recognize the intrinsic and essential characteristics of the family. According to the postmodern mentality, in fact, there would be no "objective criteria" - derived from the anthropological structure of the human being - to determine what family a family is and isn’t....
The burden of establishing which relationships can give rise to a new family nucleus is left to the subjectivity of each individual: to obtain the moniker of "family", all that would suffice would be the desire of individuals to live as a family and a sentimental connection involving two or more subjects.
If, therefore, each union can potentially create a family, the so-called "traditional family", formed by a man and woman married with offspring, becomes little more than one of the possible family models. Indeed, today, it is considered to be quite similar and comparable to monoparent nuclei, homosexual unions, factual coexistence, extramarital relations.
The criticisms highlighted by Donati are reflected in many famous television series and followed with passion by very large audiences. Below, we will propose only a few examples of these trends.
The Bold and the Beautiful: passions and betrayal overwhelm the stability of marital union
The Bold and the Beautiful is a US soap opera, created by William J. Bell and Lee Phillip Bell for CBS, which has aired since 1987. Released in about 100 countries, it is the most beloved soap opera in the world: followed by 300 million viewers daily.
The protagonists of the story are two families: the Forresters and Logans. However, the heart of the soap is passion and betrayal, which has little to do with the dynamics of married love: the relationship between Ridge and Broke, the main characters of the soap, has kept the audience holding their breath for over thirty years.
Authors are more interested in creating an intriguing plot than leaving any kind of message to their fans. And to achieve this, they tell us stories of tumultuous love - that begin, crash, end, restart - without showing, instead, that projectuality of a relationship that passes from the period of knowledge of the engagement and then reaches the stability of marriage.
It does not follow that the audience "reads" all those betrayal and re-compositionsin a plausible way, but interprets them as narrative mechanisms, cliff-hangers to advance the drama. That is, do not consider the characters of the soap as models of virtuous behavior with which to compare their lives.
Nevertheless, showing certain lifestyles can leave sediment of normalisation, makes appear normal what is not. Apart from that, why writers give up to create captivating stories without necessarily destroying the institution of the family?
"Modern family", "Amore Pensaci tu": if the traditional family is just one of many
There are also some series that seek to overcome the differences between unions of different kinds.
Consider Modern Family, a US television comedy created by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan and produced by 20th Century Fox Television. The authors present three different nucleus families, formed by people related to each other: the first is Jay Pritchett, joined in second marriage to a much younger Colombian woman, Glory, who had already had a child from a previous union. The second family is that formed by Claire, Jay's firstborn daughter, husband Phil and their three children: Haley, Alex and Luke. The third nucleus is made up of Mitchell, Jay's homosexual son, and his partner Cameron, who marries during the fifth season: the two also adopt a Vietnamese baby girl, Lily.
Behind the narrative of the various vicissitudes of everyday life, one can see the author's clear intention to show that the "modern family" (from which the sitcom title) no longer has to follow patterns: there is no longer a unique form of family ... It can manifest itself in so many different ways, as many as the wishes and whims of the characters that bind themselves emotionally.
A series with a similar objective was also aired in Italy, although it has not been very successful. It's Amore Pensaci Tu ( Darling, you take care, dont you?), aired on Mediaset, based on the format of the Australian series House Husbands.
The protagonists are four men, dealing with everyday life problems and managing their particular domestic situations.
Luigi defines the classic "Latin male", who does not move a finger in the house and avoids taking responsibility for the management of the children. He conquers Gemma, with whom he has a child, but has two other daughters, the result of two previous unions.
Marco is married normally to Paola and has two children. Unlike Luigi, he deals heavily with his family and his family to allow his wife to make a career.
Then there is Jacopo, a well-known footballer, divorced and with three children, with a regreattable past. His wife has come back. Jacopo, at first seeking to regain the woman, will end instead falling in love with another and settling for not losing the love of the children.
Finally there is Francis, accompanied by a man, Thomas. The two were entrusted to the grandson of Thomas, the daughter of the deceased sister. Taken with a petulant and intrusive "mother-in-law", the two seem like a married couple like so many.
Even the authors of this series conceive the family not as a natural institution with well-defined features, but rather as the sum of more or less stable relationships that change to ever-changing external factors, feelings, and personal desires.
There is every taste for it: everyone can choose the type of family they want or who can build.
"A Family Doctor", "The Cesaronis": If the extended family becomes the main family model
There are also other TV series that allow us to talk about how often the extended family is presented as the most common family model: children, brothers, husbands, husbands, wives, ex-wives, new comrades and old flames live together together or still live serenely, giving the impression that the end of a marriage is one of the most natural and normal things in life.
This is the case for two very beloved dramas: The Cesaroni (produced by Publispei for RTI) and a family doctor (based on the format of the Spanish series Telecinco Médico de familia)..
The protagonists of these shows are, in fact, two families, which season after season rise and rise again on the remains of previous unions.
In both cases, scriptwriters are able to create and transmit a sense of harmony and serenity that strikes with (contradicts?) the fragility of protagonists' relationships, subject to easy breaks.
The family identity crisis also permeates TV series
In conclusion, we could say that the identity crisis facing the family is also reflected in many of the most beloved drama and soap operas: as we have seen, there are serials in which the family is "watered down", that is, in continuous disintegration and rebuilding due to deceit and betrayal; others in which we are presented in parallel to different types of union as if they were in the same family; still others where the main family model is the "extended family".
The natural family (which for many does not even exist) or that solid union between a man and a woman who swears eternal fidelity and who commit themselves to educating the offspring together, even if not completely eliminated, is often relegated to the sidelines.