Television has always found interesting way to push the envelope when it comes to depicting socially constructed identities. And one of the ways it does this is by imagining households that departed from expectations. For example ‘Modern Family’ walks us through gay parents and adoption. Similarly, ‘Transparent’ talks about dealing with an elder’s transition. Shows about families offer great insight into positive social changes, and the ‘90s had loads to offer in that department.
The willingness to experiment with family structures was very noticeable in ‘90s TV Programming. CBS’ 1993 show ‘The Nanny’ tackled class and cultural differences, female sexuality, sexist double standards and remarriage. Will Smith starrer ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ looked at intersections of race and class. Many of these shows were packaged specifically as ‘family shows’ (meaning they carried old or reworked cultural inscriptions about society). And why is this important? Well for that we have to understand the social phenomenon that is a family.
Barring a few ‘pre-colonial’ societies, the traditional family unit has always been a sort of chariot for patriarchal power. The head of every house is the father, to whose authority the females and younger males must submit, and through whom property may be inherited. The hierarchies are a lot like another closely-related system – feudalism. In fact, Marxist-feminism notes how feudal society was defined by the ownership of property (both living and non-living), just as families are also defined by ownership and succession. And even when humans moved on from the feudal ages, this “patriarchal family,” as Sir Henry Sumner Maine called it, survived. And it was no happy accident that it bolstered (and was bolstered by) socio-economic structures around it.
So the traditional family unit effectively disempowers all ‘social inferiors’ of cisgender and able-bodied men. But it also boxes cis men into the role of the punishing or ‘benevolent’ patriarch, demanding from them a masculinity that may be the furthest thing from their natures. What would happen if you could reform the structure of the ‘family’, and challenge the ‘roles’ predetermined for its members? Would you have a more inclusive and equitable kind of family? In many ways, television set out to answer this question by imagining unconventional households.
One of TV’s most beloved sitcoms of all time, ‘Full House’ follows Danny Tanner as he raises three daughters with the help of his friend Joey Gladstone, and his Elvis-loving brother-in-law Jesse Katsopolis. While Danny works mornings as an anchor, the two other men pursue careers that were out-of-the-ordinary – a comedian and a musician. And all three of them got together on our screens to debunk the myth that men don’t make good caregivers.
‘Full House’ also made the case for this alternative parenting through the Tanner sisters – DJ, Stephanie and Michelle. The girls grow up in a home where gender-roles were put down the garbage-disposal (possibly by Danny and his yellow kitchen gloves). In their home, it was the men who did the house-work, helped with school and taught them about acceptance, loss, gratitude, self-worth and more. Raising kids is tough work, and the show covers all the major speed-bumps – whether it’s addressing issues of peer-pressure (Stephanie vs. smoking in “Fast Friends”) or eating disorders (DJ’s crash diet in the episode “Shape-Up”) or big medical challenges (Michelle’s amnesia in “Michelle Rides Again”). But there was always a support system ready to handle all of this with love and sensitivity.
And even though they didn’t have their mom around to complete the ‘traditional’ family unit, they all turned out pretty great! Better, even, than most kids. Remember the episode “Silence is not Golden”? Child services had to rescue Stephanie’s classmate from an abusive father, the kind of father that the men of the Tanner household refused to be.
The show’s writers were obviously pushing for a new kind of masculinity with Danny, Jesse and Joey, who were the furthest thing from the gruff, authoritarian, emotionally-distant father-stereotype, while still acknowledging that oppressive patriarchs existed. And it sure didn’t hurt to have a strong, career-oriented female role model in Aunt Becky! Thanks to this sort of upbringing, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that Michelle Tanner would have grown up to be a feminist.
Now, while Full House was new in a lot of ways, it was still based on blood relations for the most part. But shows in the ‘90s were all about redrawing boundaries and watching them play out.
In 1993, before ‘Friends’ ever became a thing, and waaaay before ‘How I Met Your Mother’ was even thought of, Fox Studios produced ‘Living Single’, a show about four black professionals living together in New York. It starred hip-hop’s feminist icon Queen Latifah as Flavour Magazine editor Khadijah James, Kim Coles as Khadijah’s ditzy cousin Synclaire, Erika Alexander as a cut-throat lawyer, and Kim Fields as the outgoing boutique buyer Régine Hunter.
It’s clearly no ‘Full House,’ where some members are dependent on others. But the dynamics between these four women supports the idea that friends are the family you choose. The traditional family was a fixed unit – even if you happened to throw adoption into the mix. But shows like ‘Living Single’ took a crack at presenting a more fluid understanding of family, and in this case, a family that’s all about black-sisterhood.
‘Living Single,’ which won the NAACP Image Award for best comedy series, has unapologetic feminist overtones. There’s a Rosie the Riveter poster in Khadijah’s office. Maya Angelou and women’s rights find mention in the very first episode. And the writing hits out at beauty standards (“all this for men we don’t even have!” Synclaire observes), internalized misogyny and disrespectful men.
It also does a pretty good job with the theme of female-bonding and looking out for your sisters. I mean, the refrain from the theme song is: “In a nineties kind of world, I’m glad I got my girls.” Sure all four women snipe at each other every now and then, but they care deeply for one another, especially where opportunistic men are concerned.
One of the most representative exchanges from the show has to be this one:
Régine: All I want is the best. I mean, all I want is a man that knows that fine wine doesn’t come with a twist off cap.
Khadijah : You know, I don’t know how you got to being so snooty. You ain’t but one generation out the Projects your damn self.
Régine: So what, I’m not supposed to want more?
Max: Of course. You can get it on your own. You can do anything, you’re a woman.
Synclaire: Hear you roar!
Max’s character must have been hugely cathartic to write, and even more cathartic to watch when actor Erika Alexander delivered unforgettably incisive lines like “Men are nothing but speedbumps on the road to happiness,” or “eventually we all get crushed by the male libido.”
While Max is most identifiable as the show’s womanist voice, Khadijah, Synclaire and Régine are equally valuable representations of it. Womanism, a term coined by Alice Walker, was an alternative to upper-middle-class and vanilla feminism of the ‘70s and ‘80s. ‘Living Single’ presented this new womanist family as a powerful alternative to the white-picket-fence-white-nuclear-family that the United States is supposedly built on. Though the show’s creator (and first African-American woman to develop her own show) Yvette Lee Bowser insists that “humor doesn’t really know colour,” using laughter to mainstream black lives and experiences was a pretty effective tactic, carving out a space in white-dominated pop culture.
Having bands of unrelated persons living under the same roof set the precedent for many things. Live in-relationships between unmarried men and women. Civil unions between queer partners. Young unattached women who are dedicated to their careers and to themselves. Watching these unconventional family sitcoms on our TV screens can certainly help us look more closely at the patriarchal family unit and imagine better systems of support. And it’s always nice to have a few good laughs thrown into the mix.
To read about how ‘Gilmore Girls’ broke stereotypes and Redefined female bonding, click here.
Read more stories from ‘The 90s Were Great Because’ here.