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The Evolution Of Families On Television Sitcoms

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the-evolution-of-television-families Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With shows like Modern Family, Black-ish and The New Normal, families represented on television sitcoms have significantly progressed since the early days of Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace and Father Knows Best. Themes of accepting homosexual relationships, adoption, and adolescent love stories are just a small handful of all the changes audiences have - maybe unconsciously - witnessed over the years.

We dove deeper into the progression and took note of how the power in sitcom households has shifted from strong patriarchies to predominant matriarchies.

Then: Leave It To Beaver, Bewitched, & Father Knows Best

The era of men knowing it all – and the rest of us just feeling blessed to stand in their sagacious presence. Ward Cleaver, Darrin Stephens, and Jim Anderson portrayed the ideal patriarchs of their otherwise crazy and unmanageable families.

(1954-1960) Jim Anderson, of Father Knows Best, was the responsible and sensible father who instilled honorable and decent values in his three children and “patient” wife Margaret. The Anderson family was held in such high regard by American audiences that people began using the show as a measuring stick for success and achievement even in the world outside of the television. In 1959, the U.S. Treasury Department created a special 30-minute episode that was shown in various schools and by civic groups, but not on the air.

(1957-1963) Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver not only held down a full-time job, but also remained the stern disciplinarian to his rambunctious and misbehaved son, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver. Even the Wikipedia entry mentioned, “Education, occupation, and marriage and family are presented as requisites for a happy and productive life.”

(1964-1972) Darrin Stephens of Bewitched was married to wife Samantha, a witch, and was constantly victim to her spells, mischief, and often distracted domestic interests. Darrin and Sam eventually welcomed a daughter, Tabitha, who became a further "burden" on Darrin who now was expected to manage his career and his house full of women and witchcraft.

Now: Everybody Loves Raymond, Roseanne, & Modern Family

Beginning in the mid-‘90s with shows like The Simpsons and Everybody Loves Raymond, audiences began seeing a shift attitudes towards men and women throughout sitcoms – women were suddenly in charge and they were doing a better job than men at running family homes while sometimes also holding down a job. In came the era of women holding their families together and had they not been around, households and life as we know it would fall apart.

(1988-1997) Roseanne Barr entered the sitcom space in the late ‘80s with her creation of the eponymous ABC show, Roseanne. Raising her family in a low-income neighborhood near Chicago, Roseanne remains the authoritative figure throughout the nine-year series while her clumsy and dimwitted husband, Dan, is portrayed as somewhat of an aggressor and untrustworthy in the home. Dan, played by John Goodman, is under the instruction of Roseanne while raising their three kids. Roseanne rules the roost.

(1996-2005) Ray Barone, father of three, lives across the street to his mother, father, and grown brother in the Ray Romano created show, Everybody Loves Raymond. He’s also married to Deb, the brains of the Barone household. Ray is a sportswriter who finds himself becoming increasingly incompetent in the home, but his wife Debra is always able to save Ray from either a colossal mistake in his relationship with his mom, his work or some other household duties. Unlike earlier sitcoms, Everybody Loves Raymond enters the genre scene with a dummy of a husband and father. Although there are rare glimpses of Ray acting sensible towards his wife, children, and family, he is mostly unable to maintain a functional life and routine without Debra. Ray often becomes scared of Debra and has little to no say about how the house, and their sex life, functions.

(2009-present) Phil Dunphy, America’s favorite millennial dad character was born in the Emmy award-winning comedy Modern Family. He’s goofy, keen on magic tricks, laid back, and kind of an idiot - but we love him anyway. With the guidance of his wife Claire, played by Julie Bowen, Dunphy balances his real estate business while remaining one of the kids. In fact, his wife’s stress often stems from the faux pas of her childlike husband. Phil can be seen getting hit in the head with basketballs in the backyard, cutting his hands on shattered CD's or accidentally turning the family van into an escort service advertisement.

Our television timeline, spanning nearly 60 years, shows a steady progression from patriarch-headed households on television to matriarch-headed households.

Oh, one other thing we've noticed? Even in these cooky relationships, love is not lost but gained through each mishap and comedic adventure. 

P.S. We know why the progression happened. What's the saying? “Who runs the world? Women, that's who.”

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