The family values of Brothers and Sisters
Bad TV. Naughty marital upheavals. Evil, self-centred friend-tionships.
This – give or take some neologistic hyperbole – is the view of British academic Frank Furedi who is upset that popular culture doesn’t depict more “functional” families.
Of particular concern to the man cited as being the UK’s most cited sociologist is the high-end American soap opera Brothers and Sisters which screens on Monday nights on the Seven Network
Starring Rachel Griffiths, Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and (up until recently) Rob Lowe, Brothers and Sisters revolves around an extended California-based clan called the Walkers.
The Walkers have high disposable incomes, mixed political and sexual preferences, and personal lives that make Silvio Berlusconi’s look simple.
There aren’t any actual bunga bunga parties, as such. But the romantic intrigue is labyrinthine.
Over the past five seasons, widowed 60-something matriarch Nora Walker (played by Field) has hubba hubba-d with a high falutin’ handyman, a ruthless Republican strategist, a superannuated stoner, a swinging architect, and a shady, motorbike-riding oncologist.
Her five adult offspring are equally exuberant in the dating department – though those with current or pending marriage certificates usually stick to their authorised dance-with-no-pants partners.
Despite such acquiescence to nuclear family norms, Furedi’s oh-no! editorial in Inquirer Kicker last week tch tchs over a recent episode in which an 11-year-old Walker grandson expresses fear that a potential second marriage for his mother won’t last.
The man who has theorised about the irrationality of terror in relation to terrorism, then engages in some fear mongering of his own about the “dissolute” marriages depicted in popular culture.
He also sounds alarm bells over the friends-is-the-new-family theme in series such as Sex and the City and Entourage where the bromance and ladyfair (I refuse to use the popular slang term “ho-mance”) rule.
“[T]here is something sad about a group of young men sharing a condo,” Furedi writes, “even if a posh one.”
The big question he then proposes to himself is whether Brothers and Sisters merely gives dramatic form to the concerns expressed by real life children, or whether TV encourages “its audience to perceive dysfunctional relationships as the norm”.
Furedi won’t commit. But there is one thing about which he is absolutely certain: “Televised drama has become estranged from depicting resilient intimate commitments.”
The first, obvious point here is that while resilient intimate commitments make great life, they’re pretty limp in the entertainment stakes.
Imagine a television drama where the end-of-season finale concerns a happily married couple’s agonising over whether to spend Saturday night playing a companionable game of Scrabble, listening to a Radio National podcast, or trying a new goulash recipe together.
Really cliff hangerish.
Unrealistically epileptic soap opera plots are hardly a recent development, either. When Number 96 premiered in Australia in the 1970s, it convulsed from one racy theme to another.
Blackmail, Nazi bikers, pantyhose murder, knicker snipping, full frontal female nudity…
Phwoar! I mean, what a shame the relationships weren’t less rocky and the crime rates weren’t as boringly low as they are in real life.
Trash TV in the 1980s and 1990s was much the same. This is why The Bold and the Beautiful wasn’t The Risk-Averse and the Averagely-Attired, and The Young and the Restless wasn’t The Old and the Equable.
At this point electrophobes should note that classic literature is equally reliant on the novelty-value and audience-pulling nature of familial dysfunction.
As Tolstoy observed in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Hamlet would certainly lose much of its je ne sais mayhem if it was stripped of all the madness and poisoning.
And imagine the dullness of Oedipus the King if its troubled young protagonist had gone to therapy and become a meditative Corinthian herdsman instead of killing his dad, getting it on with his mum, then having his own eyes out.
It would have been straight to video.
To me, Brothers and Sisters is like a grown-up version of playing with dolls in that a collection of intrinsically unexceptional figures are manipulated in over-the-top situations.
When I was a girl, I enjoyed observing the effect on my Cindy doll when she lost limbs in bedroom space catastrophes or DIY cave diving (i.e. toilet flushing) incidents.
When I’m Watching Brothers and Sisters, I gain similar pleasure from seeing what happens when Kitty runs for a Senate seat or when Holly loses everything in a ponzi scheme.
Call me crazy, but I really don’t tune in for the interpersonal equilibrium or nuanced marital guidance.
Yet despite the someone-always-has-to-think-they’re-up-the-duff restraints of the soap opera format, Brothers and Sisters still manages to pack in a motherload of family values.
It’s central, titular premise is that a bunch of people have been born into the same family, for God’s sake. Blood ties are its raison d’etre. (Note that it’s not called Condo Buddies and Manolo Mates.)
Sure, there are a lots of verbal fisticuffs and hissy fits over the bundt cake. But deep down everyone absolutely adores everyone else and any family members who get too antsy are usually able to bury their differences before bedtime.
I wonder, therefore, whether Furedi is confusing “resilience” with “problem free”. After all, the mark of a functional human is not whether they live in blissful uneventfulness, but whether they’re able to navigate sticky situations with grace.
And I actually think that establishing a supportive “found” family of friends indicates a terrifically high level of resilience – particularly if your biological relations are horribly absent or just plain horrible.
Traditionalists may also find it difficult to appreciate that 21st Century family values are very different to those which thrived in the 1950s.
One of Brothers and Sisters’ truly remarkable aspects is its depiction of gay relationships, with a central character – Kevin Walker – dating, marrying, attempting to have children with, and frequently pashing off his delightful long-time partner, Scotty
These affectionate depictions of man-on-man amour are one of the reasons the show took out top honours at last year’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) awards.
I’m also a big fan of Brothers and Sisters’ sensitive portrayal of adoption and multi-racial family units, as well as its acknowledgment that women are multidimensional rather than only: a) asexual homemakers; b) ruthless career bitches; or c) cleavage-heavy femme fatales.
Given Furedi’s objections to self-obsession, it’s ironic that he packages his own such personal views on stable marriages as indisputable commonsense.
The real moral of this story, however, is that our tastes in family values – like our tastes in entertainment – are rooted not in universalities but in individual preferences.
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