Many television shows portray the lives of typical American families; both African American and European American. I have chosen to compare and contrast two television shows: Family Matters and Home Improvement. The two shows are surprisingly similar in many aspects, but there are a few differences in the communication styles and other aspects of the two families. Communication theories can be used to help show and analyze the communication between each family. These theories include interactional, dialectics, speech community, and cultivation.
Do prime time television shows really represent and portray the differences and stereotypes between African American and European American families? Family Matters first aired on ABC in 1989 and lasted until 1998. There are 215 episodes that tell the story of the middle-class Winslow family from Chicago. The show focuses on Carl, a police officer and his family: Harriet, Eddie, Laura, and Judy. Harriet is Carl’s wife. Eddie is their eldest child, Laura is the oldest daughter, and Judy is the youngest of the three.
Also living in the Winslow household is Harriet’s newly widowed sister, Rachel, and her child, Richie. In the “Pilot” episode Carl’s mother, Estelle, also moves into the house. The Winslow’s have a stereotypical nerd next door neighbor, Steve Urkel, who is constantly causing mischief. He is introduced midway through the first season and quickly becomes a favorite main character for many. The shows’ episodes usually involve a minor problem or conflict, but by the end of the 30 minute episode it has been resolved and everything is alright again. In the very first episode we meet Carl and his family.
They are African American, but they appear very normal and much like a European American family. The first main problem in the episode is that Carl does not want his mother to move in even though Harriet has already told Estelle she can. Carl is torn between wanting to keep his mother out of his home life and wanting to make her happy and let her move in. This is an example of integration versus separation from dialectical theory. Carl knows that his mother will want to control his life – setting him up on a diet, telling him how to discipline his children, always wanting the final say.
He does not want to have to allow her into the house 24/7 because she will cause a major change in the household. Despite his attempts to convince Harriet to change her mind about Estelle moving in, Estelle moves in. Carl was right, “Mother Winslow,” does start to try and control the rest of the Winslow’s lives. Carl begins to feel that his role as head of the house is being compromised by having his mother living in the house. After a few days Harriet convinces Carl to talk to his mother about how he is feeling. In the end Carl and his mother talk and agree to compromise and give each other more space.
In dialectical theory this is known as a responding to the dialectic with neutralization, which is a compromise that meets both needs somewhat, but neither is fully met (Wood, 2004). Another example of opposing tensions in Family Matters happens in episode four, “Rachel’s First Date. ” Rachel’s husband has been dead for about a year and she has avoided dating during that time, but recently a man from the church choir, Alan, has been calling to ask her out. Finally, she agrees to go to dinner and a movie with him at the end of the week.
When the day rolls around she is found in her room trying on nearly every dress in her closet. Harriet comes to console her and help, but Rachel is adamant about not going on the date anymore. Mother Winslow shoos everyone out of the bedroom except for Rachel and sits her down. The two women have an emotional talk about how Rachel feels guilty for going on a date with another man. She says that she was so comfortable with her past husband that she can’t imagine even being happy with another man. She experiences the opposing tensions known as stability versus change.
Rachel loved the familiarity and constancy that she had with her past husband, but now that he has been dead for a year, she is having feelings of wanting stimulating change and dating other men. The problem is solved by Mother Winslow convincing Rachel that her husband would have wanted her to be happy and that she is not hurting him by going on a date. This is response to the dialect is known as separation, which attempts to meet both contradictory needs by satisfying each one in separate situations or spheres or relational life (Wood, 2004).
Eddie is the typical teenage son. He is constantly trying to fit in with his friends, go out to parties, and bend his parents’ rules as much as he can. In the second episode Eddie tries to convince Carl that he just has to have a this new pair of shoes that everyone at school has, Carl of course says that they’re too expensive (“Two Income Family“). Eddie tries to sway his Dads decision by cleaning the car, doing the laundry, and being extra nice; it doesn’t work. In the meantime we find out that Harriet has just lost her job and that the family is having financial troubles.
Eddie again asks Carl for the money, this time Carl tells Eddie he will have to work for the money himself. Eddie ends up making the seventy dollars needed for the shoes, but when he finds out that the family is in money trouble he gives the money to his parents instead of spending it on himself. In symbolic interactionism theory this would be considered an example of the I and ME. The I is the impulsive side of people that is “generally unburdened by social rules and restrictions” (Wood, 2004 p. 91). This is Eddie wanting the shoes for him and thinking he must have them.
The ME is “…evaluative, and above all aware of social conventions, rules, and expectations” (Wood, 2004 p. 92). This is Eddie realizing that he does not actually need to shoes and should give the money to help his family. The I and ME are seen as complementary, you can’t have one without the other. Eddie deals a lot with balancing between the two self’s throughout the series. Family Matters tried to portray the average African American family in the 90s. Minority families are struggling to for representation and positive portrayals. Family Matters showed a happy, though sometimes dysfunctional, family learning good family values.
The show portrayed African Americans as average, normal, not any different from European Americans. A question that could be asked though is how did the producers of the show find out what a “typical African American family” was? Home Improvement first aired on ABC in 1991 and lasted until 1999. The show focuses on the European American Taylor family from Detroit, Michigan: Tim, Jill, Brad, Randy, and Mark. Tim, the father and husband, is the stereotypical American; he loves power tools, cars, and sports.
He hosts his own home improvement show called “Tool Time. Jill, the mother and wife, is the typical mom, always taking care of the family and being the voice of reason. Brad, the eldest son, and Randy, the middle son, love to gang up and pick on the youngest son, Mark. Together the five Taylor’s make up a comical and loving family. “Tool Time” is a show that involves Tim doing demonstration of tools and offering ways that people can improve their homes. Tim is always getting into accidents on the show, but the audience just believes that they are done on purpose to show that you must be careful when handling the tools and equipment.
Tim is always using terms and words that describe and explain the tools. Every tool has its’ own special name and use that it seems that only a group of people actually interested in tools would know. In the second episode Jill is making fun of Tim for being so attached to his tools and how each tool has its’ own place in the garage (“Mow Better Blues“). Tim tries to explain to Jill that his tools are like her record collection; they are very important and special to him and have sentimental meaning. Jill can somewhat relate, but she still thinks that Tim is too into his tools.
This idea of having only a group of people understand the terms and the rules of something is part of the speech communities theory. Tim has his own “speech code” that he using to communicate with other people that are just as interested in tools and home improvement (Wood, 2004). People on the outside, like Jill, are not able to fully understand. In the first episode of Home Improvement Tim goes through a phase where he believes he needs to reclaim “the male spirit” (“Pilot”). To do this he enlists his youngest son, Mark, to help him improve the dishwasher.
Mark is the youngest of the boys and is often picked on by his two older brothers, because of this Tim and Jill often have to console and cheer up Mark. Tim has been helping Mark become “more manly” since he was little; he teaches him how to use tools, fix home appliances, and always telling him he’s smart and funny. Mark has been brought up to believe that even though his two older brothers pick on him consistently he is “better than them” because he is smart and funny and not always creating mischief. He is defined as being a “momma’s boy” and his brothers use every excuse to make fun of him for it.
The is Mark’s self, which comes from the theory of symbolic interactionism. A persons’ self “doesn’t exist at birth. …self is developed through interaction with others” (Wood, 2004 p. 91). Mark is easily shaped by the influences of his brothers and parents, making him into the person he has become. Both of these television shows offer many of the same characteristics. They both highlight family values and open communication between each other. They both mainly take place in the household and try to portray a realistic family. They both are made mainly for white audiences.
How television portrays family is important because watching television is a source for learning about family. Television has cultivated our attitudes about what families should be like. According to these two television shows families should consists of a working father, a part-time working mother, three to four siblings that fight, but are always there for each other, and a nice house. There are problems within the family everyday, but by the end of the day the problems have been communicated, solved, and end in a family hug. People who watch these shows continuously can begin to believe that this is what real families are really like.
The two families in these shows are not 100% perfect, but they come close. They are not a misrepresentation of what a family is like, but they do represent what the most idealistic version is like. Television represents the interaction between families, between spouses, between parents and children, and between siblings. In some shows people are able to directly relate to the situation shown, this is called resonance (Wood, 2004). I am able to directly relate to Home Improvement and Tim Taylor as a father because that is exactly what my father is like.
I grew up learning how to use every tool in the garage and was always involved in the next “home project” my father decided to start that weekend. I have huge resonance with this show because of my own personal experiences. Relationships shown in the two shows are very similar. The husband and wife relationship and role are very similar between Tim and Jill and Carl and Harriet. Both the husbands are the main supporters and workers of the family whereas the wives are in charge of the households. In the two shows the spouses both playfully fight and make fun of each other consistently.
Harriet does have a job and she is very persistent in keeping her job; she likes being able to help support the family financially. Jill stopped working when her children were born, but in the first episode she has an interview for a job. She tells Tim that she wants to be able to have a life outside of the house and her independence. Unfortunately she does not get the job. In both of the shows the wives are the “glue” that hold the family together and the husbands are responsible for fixing things, whether it’s an appliance or an argument.
Ultimately the wives have the final say in everything; which is fairly congruent within relationships of real spouses. The relationship between father and their children in the two shows in different. In Family Matters Carl is often scolding his children for being too loud, asking for too much, and for being messy. He often gets into arguments with his son, Eddie, because he has strict rules set for his children. It is obvious he loves his children, but he does not try to directly relate with them and do activities with them.
This could be because he has two daughters and does not know how to interact with them. In Home Improvement Tim is always interacting with his children. He often asks for their help in fixing various things in the house. He relates most closely with Brad, the oldest son, because Brad is the most interested in sports and cars. Overall he works very hard to maintain good, close relationships with his three sons. The relationships between mother and children are similar in the two shows. Harriet is very aware of her children and their problems and is always willing to listen and help.
Harriet can be a bit overbearing on her children and towards her sister, Rachel, but she always means well. Jill is a very motherly figure and comes from a military family. She uses her tough upbringing to often solve problems that arise between her sons. She is the only women in the family and it is apparent she is sometimes sad she doesn’t have a daughter to share those experiences with. She is closet to Mark because he is able to like some of the things that she does, instead of just being a predictable boy. Both mothers are very affectionate with their children, hugging them and kissing their foreheads.
They are also very firm with them and try to teach them valuable lessons when needed. The relationship between siblings is also comparable in the shows. In both shows there are three siblings. In Family Matters there is the one boy and two girls. The two girls appear to be very close even though they are often arguing and fighting over who should be allowed to do what. Laura, the oldest daughter, loves her sister very much. In the fourth episode she tells Rachel, her aunt, that even though she may argue with her sister she would do anything for her.
Eddie, the oldest of the three, does not appear to be very close with his sisters; this could be because of the age difference. In Home Improvement the relationship between the three boys is very close. The two oldest boys are seen hanging out together all the time, though it is often because they are into some type of trouble making. They enjoy playing pranks and picking on Mark. Mark is sometimes included in the older boys trouble making but often times he ruins it by messing up the plan. The three boys are able to have fun together seeing as they are all fairly close in age and can usually find at least one thing in common.
There is a major difference in the households between Family Matters and Home Improvement. In Family Matters it is not just the nuclear family living in the household, the grandma, aunt and nephew also live in the house. This is probably where we see the biggest racial stereotype; African Americans are often known for having multiple family members living in their household. Estelle has a very stereotypical grandmother role, she is wise and very defensive of her grandchildren. Rachel is often seen leaving her son with the two girls, Laura and Judy.
These two additions to the household, just make the household more crazy and fun. Though Family Matters is an African American family you do not subconsciously realize it because they are so similar to what a European American family is like. This could be the media trying to appeal to a wider audience. The differences in African American and European American are not really touched upon in this show. There are very few stereotypes that are seen in Family Matters about African Americans. So does this show actually portray a typical African American family?
I do not know, because most of my exposure to African American families is from the media. This is the problem with cultivation — we often make assumptions based on what the media tells us and we do not have any way to know if they correct or not. Communication is key in both families. Many problems arise and it is shown that they only way to solve it is to confront the person and talk it out. The mothers are much more direct in their communication and the fathers are more easy going and joking in their communication.
A family is a system; everyone must work together because “all parts are interrelated” (Wood, 2004 p. 163). The Winslow’s and the Taylor’s are a group that is always trying to organize themselves and work together. The Winslow’s had to make adjustments when Rachel and Richie moved in and then again when Estelle moved in. “If you change any part of a system, you change the entire system” (Wood, 2004 p. 163). Roles were changed, Harriet didn’t have to make dinner every night, the children could be watched by their aunt and grandmother, many aspects were changed.
This idea of interrelated parts is from interactional theory. Historically, television has tried to promote a customary family model. A family that includes intelligent parents, well behaved children, with little conflict arising. Television has evolved over the years and has learned to make shows more realistic. Family Matters tries to portray a typical African American family with good morals and life lessons to be taught. Home Improvement is an average European American family with a sports and tool crazy father strong mother, and three healthy boys.
In both shows there are conflicts and problems, but it is shown that with good communication and being open anything can be solved. The media has cultivated people’s attitudes to believe that this is what family life is like and sometimes it is like the lives of the Winslow’s and Taylor’s, but other times life’s problems are not easily solved. The shows are a good form of entertainment and they do offer a representation of what family life is like, but that is about it. You should not expect your life to be as easy and simple as these two families, but you can expect it to be just as fun.
Courtney from Study Moose
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