What makes a real family?


“We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family, to make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.” So declared George Bush Sr. in 1992

The quotation went on to become the programme’s most successful marketing slogan, and is still guaranteed to be repeated in any article or magazine spread about the Simpsons franchise.

In one line it tells the story of Matt Groening’s success: unlike the saccharine Waltons, which held up a cardboard cut-out archetype of domestic life, the Simpsons showed a family in all of their messy, real, embarrassing glory.

So the story goes.

But 15 years on, this description of the Simpsons starts to look a little dated. For its time, yes, it was revolutionary. We hadn’t seen a family on TV whose members were inconsiderate, abusive, and often violent toward each other, but whom we nevertheless loved and identified with. But how subversive was it? At the end of every episode, all problems were smoothed over with that catch all solution ‘love’, and the normal order of things was restored. Furthermore, the Simpsons had 2.4 children, a stay-at-home mom, and a pretty clichéd life in the suburbs.

In recent years, pop culture has chipped further and further away at the taboo that says that the more dysfunctional, embarrassing features of family life aren’t for mass consumption (let alone celebration).

Malcolm in the Middle shows what family life looks like with five boys running wild, with parents who are barely more sane and responsible than their offspring:

Over the past year or so, the anonymous weekly ‘Living with Teenagers’ column in the Guardian’s Family section has continued this trend. Fantastically written, with great comic timing, it’s full of sibling squabbles, teen angst, and parental guilt and resentment:

“A scream.
Becca is in the room. I open my eyes, shut them again. Maybe she’ll see that I’m sleeping and creep out quietly. Fat chance.
“Mu-um!”
“Oh God, what is it now?”
I don’t say it very nicely.
“Those fucking boys! They won’t let me watch my fucking TV programme. They’ve chucked me out of the sitting room. They have no right.”
“Becca,” I say quietly, “I’m trying to rest. But if you want to go and watch on the little TV in your father’s study.”
“Why should I? Why should I be the one to go into that hellhole? I don’t see why it should be me. Why can’t you just get off your butt and do some proper parenting for once?”
OK, I think, stay calm.

Writers are enjoying finding out how far they can go without leaving their mainstream audience behind. The answer, it seems, is pretty far. After all, even if you can’t relate to these families, it is always comforting to feel that your own isn’t so bad by comparison.

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