In a sort of vicious cycle, the television Americans consume is a product of the culture of the time, which in turn, can change and influence said culture. This phenomenon is none clearer than in family sitcoms. Since their inception, family sitcoms have reflected and influenced what Americans believe to be the idealized version of family. Recently, many shows have been created to represent the growing liberal and diverse portions of America, seen in shows like Modern Family, Fresh off the Boat, and Black-ish, while some shows – like Last Man Standing – have continued to focus on the traditional and conservative view of what it means to be a family. This tug of war between liberals and conservatives over control and representation of media is not a new concept. These constant power struggles can be viewed as a microcosm of the larger political battle that exists in the United States. In that same vicious cycle, politicized television increases the radicalization of public discourse, leading to more profoundly biased content being made and released, consequently furthering the divide separating Americans.
In this essay, I will examine how historical and current conservative leaders control the public media, how conservative ideologies have been represented in media – mainly through the lens of family sitcoms – and, primarily, how these approaches exacerbate political intolerance across party lines. To do this, I have identified three types of conservative representation within the media: ironic conservatism, true conservatism, and reformist conservatism. To begin, I will examine some history of conservative influence over television starting with the rise of right-wing media in the 1960s.
Jesse Helms was a U.S. Republican politician from North Carolina who held and supported extremely conservative views. He not only strove to further his political agenda from within his Senate committee positions but also from his position as the vice-president of Capitol Broadcasting Company. Helms’s desires for his career in media were twofold. He wanted to convert audiences to the GOP through the tearing down of liberalism and the democratic party, and he wanted to elect conservatives to office. He would release his own commentaries on air, twice a day, five days a week. These segments would usually involve racist rhetoric, the comparison of liberalism to socialism/communism, and attacks on “liberal media,” which he believed was leading to the degeneration of morals in America. Within his position at the broadcasting company, he would also control which content was made and released to the public. “Television executives, he felt, should exercise their influence by programming entertainment and news that supported time-honored morality and promoted conservatism – the conservatism, he believed, that undergirded a free and prosperous society” (Thrift).
By 1968, Helms’s influence had spread across states and to over fifty radio stations. Through a combination of Helms’s influence, political pushback against civil right movements, Nixon’s ability to appeal to moderates, and changing opinions on the Vietnam War, politicians like Helm were able to secure the voting bloc and strengthen the number and conviction of conservatives across the south (Thrift). This influence was able to affect the American culture in all aspects and is still seen today. I will now begin to examine the three types of conservative media through the lens of family sitcoms that are present due to Helm’s influence and argue that these sitcoms, while appearing benign, are highly politicized and only divide the American public.
One of the most successful family sitcoms of all time was released in 1971 amid the height of the conservative media influence. This iconic series features a character that can be viewed as representing conservative ideals, but the way he is intended to be received is different from what you might think. All in the Family (CBS 1971-79) continues to be regarded as a sitcom with extremely well-done social commentary, mainly through the character of Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Archie is a character that expresses prejudice against about every major sect of people in existence that differs from himself. Now, this does not mean that all conservatives are racist, homophobic, sexist, etc., but his manner of conducting himself falls fairly well in line with that of conservatives of the time, especially Helms.
The character of Archie is interesting, however, due to the fact that viewers are not supposed to agree with his actions or beliefs. While we are not supposed to see eye-to-eye with him, we are put into an interesting position due to the fact that he’s just so likeable. You can’t help but root for him. His character is ironic. You enjoy him even though you disagree with what he stands for, which raises the question, “does All in the Family ridicule racist behavior or make it seem permissible” (Jones)? The answer was determined by whom you asked. Liberals saw the show as anti-racist and anti-bigotry in support of their own views while conservatives saw the show as reaffirming and finally acknowledging them (Jones). It was a perfect demonstration of the satire paradox in which the group that is being satirized does not see the work as derisive but, instead, sees it as unironically validating their belief system (Ellis).
True conservatism can be defined as the media portrayal of conservative ideas that the audience is intended to hold and agree with in a non-ironic way. There is no satire intended like what is exemplified in ironic conservatism. This can be seen in the recently cancelled sitcom Last Man Standing (ABC 2011-17) starring Tim Allen. Within the show, storylines and characters are written in which a conservative viewpoint is the correct one and liberal viewpoints are not. In other words, it is media written by conservatives for conservatives.
Reformist conservatism was coined by Daniel Hallin based on his belief that there is representation that “serves liberal progress but does not directly threaten the protected interests of media ownership and the dominant class” (Real). This can be seen in shows like The Cosby Show (NBC 1984-92) and Modern Family (ABC 2009-), in which minority characters are introduced but very much fit into a heteronormative, white, upper-middle class family structure set in stone by conservative values. In The Cosby Show, issues of race are rarely if ever introduced and discussed. There is very little that connects the show to any aspect of Blackness. This was done to “carefully avoid antagonizing any members of the audience” (Real). Creators of the show did not want to threaten the white, majority viewership by confronting racial issues that stem from a prejudiced society. This type of portrayal can be seen in Modern Family in the family structure upon which the show is built. The inclusion of the homosexual relationship and parenting appears to “represent the so-called ‘twenty-first century gay family,’” but “Cam and Mitch actually play two extremely gender-normative roles – roles it seems that the show has taken pains to concretely define” (LaVecchia). The show lets its audience believe that the series portrays a progressive notion of what it means to be a family, but the series simply restates the conventions of the ideal conservative family in a new light.
Now that the types of conservatism in media have been identified, I will now look at how these family sitcoms can divide viewers. To begin, I will focus on the feeling of underrepresentation by conservative Americans. Tim Allen is openly conservative, which is somewhat unusual among Hollywood actors, and he has publicly criticized former President Barrack Obama and just as publicly supported President Donald Trump. As a fairly liberal person myself, I do not agree with what Tim Allen has said about certain topics, but I unabashedly support free speech. What is difficult to listen to, however, is Tim Allen’s comparisons of being a conservative in Hollywood to living in 1930s Germany (Washington). Though I believe this to be a ridiculous hyperbole, what I find more interesting is the number of conservative Americans who share a similar viewpoint.
Conservatives in America feel that they are under attack and have felt this way for some time. Ironically, a powerful example of their frustration can be seen in the cancellation of Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing. Even though the show was cancelled alongside Dr. Ken, The Real O’Neals, and American Crime (three shows that are easily seen as left-leaning ideologically) and despite the fact that network executives gave solid reasons for the cancelation of all of these shows (they did not want to continue airing comedies on Friday nights), conservatives still saw the cancellation as attack on their way of life (Goldberg).
Many conservative news outlets have reported on or voiced outrage about the cancellation of the series, such as Fox News posting a few tweets from fans of the show arguing that the cancellation was attack on free speech (Savitsky). Fans began to provide their own reasoning as to why the show was cancelled with one of the most commonly accepted answers being summarized by the title of an article from The Blaze, “ABC canceled ‘Last Man Standing’ because Hollywood despises normal Americans” (Walsh). While I do not believe there is an attack on conservatives occurring in America, I am able to recognize and understand their viewpoint. For many years, a conservative and very stereotypically traditional way of life was really the only one represented on television. Recently, however, representation has shifted to favor a more diverse and, I would venture to say realistic, depiction of families. Simply put, there is not an attack on conservative America, as seen in the examination of the lasting effects of Helms’s influence, but social conservatives feel a lack of representation alongside the increased depictions of diversity on television, which leads them to believe they are under siege.
To continue looking into the divisiveness of these family sitcoms, the next logical step is to examine the way characters and situations are portrayed within the genre and how these representations cause political rifts. In Poetics, one of the earliest analyses of poetry and entertainment literature, Aristotle introduces the idea of characters being “objects of imitation,” meaning that they represent “men in action” or, in other words, real life. He adds to this idea, however, that these characters “must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral characters mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks or moral differences),” meaning that they must be portrayed better, worse, or equal to what they represent in the real world (Aristotle). When looking at sitcoms, it is easy to see how certain characters are written to fall into these better or worse representations.
To begin, we can continue looking at Last Man Standing. As previously stated, Tim Allen is conservative and plays one within the show. It is clear that, from an outside view, the audience should relate to Tim’s character, Mike, and to his struggles being the main character. This automatically leads viewers to favor a conservative viewpoint, as it is the perspective through which the show is intended to be viewed. Now, this is not necessarily a ploy to sway audience opinion, but when partnered with the demonization of opposing views, it can be viewed as a somewhat malicious attack.
In the “Precious Snowflake” episode of Last Man Standing, Mike is required to give a speech at his daughter Mandy’s (Molly Ephraim) school, but he must first ensure that it is approved by the school’s faculty. His daughter instructs him to be sure that it is free of microaggressions, which he calls a “liberal attack on free speech.” Mandy then goes on to explain that a list was created to include what not to say to protect the students, which leads Mike to ask, “From what? Ideas?” This type of dialogue insults a more liberal way of thinking and discredits its legitimacy. The title of the episode can even be seen as an insult to liberals as the phrase is often used to chastise the idea of politically correct language. This is not the only instance of demonizing opposing beliefs within the show.
The character of Ryan (Jordan Masterson), Mike’s son-in-law, is often used as a scapegoat of sorts for liberal ideas within the show. He is a steadfast liberal whose beliefs are presented in a negative light. Ryan is also often positioned in direct contrast with Mike, who garners the support of viewers as the main character. This can also be seen in shows like All in the Family. The character of Michael (Rob Reiner), Archie’s son-in-law, can be described as “Archie’s only constant rival” and “a parasite” due to his political position being much more liberal compared to Archie’s (Jones). He stands in direct contrast to Archie and is the least likeable of the main characters, which puts him at odds with viewers and can be read as a denunciation of liberal ideas.
In some ways, Last Man Standing can be seen as the modern All in the Family especially with regard to the sons-in-law characters, an interpretation that gives some credence to the previously mentioned belief that All in the Family was a more conservative leaning show than intended. Conservative shows are not the only ones to do perpetuate these patterns of representation. Many modern shows contain characters who are old, White conservatives, and these characters usually display some form of ignorance or prejudice, which presents all conservatives in a negative light that parallels the representation of overly sensitive liberals.
The depiction of Dre’s boss (Peter Mackenzie) in Black-ish and even Jay (Ed O’Neill) near the beginning of Modern Family’s run is as prejudiced, or simply ignorant men, and this does not help mend political estrangement. In shows like these, however, there is a feature that I find more peculiar: shows that include minority characters seem to be considered inherently more political. This appears to be a commonly held belief as Richard Dyer, a top scholar in star studies, says that “representation is always political,” and Denis Provencher states that “even though we may be talking about a piece of fiction, there’s a grain of truth in that fiction.” I believe it not uncommon to hear the idea that shows that include racial or sexual minorities do so for only two possible reasons, to meet some sort of diversity quota that exists or to “push an agenda” surrounding said minority. There seems to be an idea, more common within conservative circles, that representation equates with shoving ideas down viewers’ throats. How often have you heard the phrase, “I’m fine with gay people as long as they’re not all in my face about it?”
While it would be ideal to live in a world where a group of people could be represented and the motives for their presence not be questioned, there may be some validity to this idea. Ryan Murphy, an openly gay writer and producer who has released numerous shows focusing on gay characters (most famously Glee), has admitted to creating shows that are “clearly responding to current cultural debates about LGBTQ rights and families, ‘trying to mix it up’ by presenting show themes that play in what he calls ‘the political sandbox’”(Cavalcante). Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish, shares a similar belief, stating that “Culture and class are our themes, but it’s really about having a family show that’s talking about something…So much of that has been lost to zaniness. But true comedy does come from having a point of view and a perspective” (Rosenberg). Is it only possible that when we live in a society without prejudice where all are considered equal that a depiction of a minority will not be seen as pushing an agenda and, more importantly, will that ever happen?
The vicious cycle of media and political control will likely continue as long as television lasts. Those in power will always try to sway the general public’s opinion in their favor. While this not necessarily an uplifting outlook, I believe there is a silver lining when it comes to the media we consume. It is true that many family sitcoms are politicized, but I do believe that, at their core, all the creators of these shows really want to do is make their audience laugh. There is undeniable good these shows have done. They have provided representation for groups of people who previously had little to none, and they have – in some instances – caused many individuals to change their views on certain groups of people from negative to more favorable ones. These shows have a great amount of power and influence over their viewers. Maybe it is possible that they simply set out to create entertaining television, but the highly politicized audience projects its own issues onto the shows. What I see as most interesting, however, is looking at the fundamental core of all of these family sitcoms and realizing how little is actually different among them and how little has changed over time.
Tommy O’Haren is a senior at Wake Forest University from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a Biology major and a Chemistry minor.
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