How do TV series “talk” about family? This was the question that Stefania Grassini, Professor at the Catholic University of Milan, sought to answer during her talk at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross on March 23, 2023.
This presentation fell on the Fifth Interdisciplinary Study Day on the Juridical Anthropology of the Family, whose theme was The Family as a Primary Evangelizing Subject.
Garassini, who directs the Orientaserie.it website and has published several books on the topics of education, the digital world, and new media, spoke on “Family Narratives in TV series: Values or Disvalues?”
Family or families?
“Family is a wildly covered topic in TV series,” Garassini said at the beginning of her speech, “It has already gone through several evolutions, keeping pace with social changes and often anticipating them.”
She then continued: “One of the first characteristics of the representation of family issues in TV series is that it has broadened our definition of what constitutes a family.”
She was referring to the fact that since the 90s, shows have often depicted same-sex marriage as being the same thing as heterosexual marriage. She continued, “Today the boundary has been pushed to include the depiction of same-sex couples adopting children and issues related to transsexuality.”
Character psychology, fascination with the negative, and partiality for “the loner”
Why do TV series have the power to educate society and form new ways of thinking and understanding the family unit? No doubt, she said, TV series have the power to “portray the psychology of characters, performing a deep excavation into their motivations.”
What portrayal of couples and families prevails in TV series? According to her, “depictions of individuals who are not in relationships are given more airtime. … There is a focus on failure and ‘strange’ situations.”
She added that, “any goal shared between two people tends to lose its meaning and an individual’s and invidual’s own gratification becomes the rule… The value of a relationship is defined by what can be gained from it.”
The happy exceptions, when it comes to families, are usually in period pieces or in extreme situations that bring family members together to cope with a common danger or problem. “Finding a show that portrays normal, modern-day families is a rarity,” she pointed out.
The lecturer then pointed out various changes over the past few years. For example, she dwelt on the abysmal difference between TV series like Happy Days and Thirteen Reasons Why. Garassini noted that the “fascination with the negative” has increased.
Positive values about the family
In any case, there are still some TV series that show the positive side of family life. One of these is, for example, This Is Us, a show that exemplifies how we can all overcome adversity if we are united (an emblematic sentence, reflecting the tone of the series, is, “There is no lemon so sour that you can’t make something vaguely similar to lemonade out of it”).
There are also positive father figures, for example in Downton Abbey or The Walking Dead, and they are men who behave as fathers despite not being biological fathers (for example, The Sea Beyond or Ted Lasso).
When it comes to motherhood, there are significant examples that show deep, authentic bonds, although, for the most part, these portrayals focus on “the couple’s relationship rather than on the whole family.”