The New Modern Family: Families of Color in the American Family Sitcom

Since TVs became staple items in American households, television shows have become a main source of family entertainment and education. Naturally, the family sitcom also became a staple for ‘family time’. These TV shows in particular are enjoyable and kid-friendly, making it easier on parents who want to make time for family activities. Think stereotypical, think cliche, think of Roseanne or The Cosby Show — a suburban family, consisting of a happily married heterosexual couple who live in a suburban house with a couple of kids.

The rise of the American family on screen can be seen as a result of pop culture’s encouragement of the growing population in the 1950s because of the Baby Boom. As families grew larger and cities became more crowded, affluent white families — and few affluent minority families as well — fled cities for a new living area called the suburbs. This featured sprawling, single family homes built on equal square plots of land. These areas and the types of people that lived in these areas became synonymous with the American Dream. As more people came to achieve this dream with the help of loans and credit, even more began to see the suburban family household as the image of success. The development and subsequent commercialization of television only further reinforced this image through sitcoms.

The family of Leave it To Beaver

Television shows in the ’50s like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver went deeper and conveyed not only the image of an American family, but their lifestyle and ‘family values’. Not only did the ideal American family live in the suburbs, they were also a nuclear family consisting of a stay-at-home mom, a breadwinner dad and around two to three kids, better known as a ‘2.2 family’. This constrictive image of a white, domestic, middle-class family does not leave much room for the parts of the country that did not look the same way. Black and brown families, impoverished and working-class families, single parent households and a whole list of other families are left out of the idealistic 2.2 picture.

The family of The Cosby Show

As the country moved into the ’80s and ’90s, television saw deviances from this traditional format with shows like The Cosby Show. The show was praised for showing a black family in a favorable light but did little to break the mold that had been set before them. The Huxtables were still a respectable, upper-middle class family consisting of a happily married couple and a set of five kids.

The family of Black-ish

Since audiences look to television for representation, the family sitcom is the perfect place to continue this initiative towards diversity. A parent wants their child’s learning and self-discovery to be nurtured in the home as well as at school and amongst friends. I know from personal and second-hand experiences that self-discovery can take place through identifying with characters in everyday media. The development of recent shows like Black-ishFresh off the Boat, and One Day at a Time showcase families of color, a welcoming departure from the family sitcom’s overwhelmingly white roots.

The family in One Day at a Time (2017)

Family structure is an aspect of the family sitcom that has remained intact but the Netflix original reboot of the ’80s family sitcom One Day at a Time breaks this mold. The show follows the story of a Cuban family consisting of a single mother and war veteran, her proudly Cuban mother, her unapologetically feminist daughter, her narcissistic son, and their white hipster landlord. In a deviation from the traditional formula, the foundation of this family isn’t a happily married couple but is instead two matriarchs — one recently separated and the other a widow, both trying to make ends meet. It is truly empowering to see them support each other as they navigate through the difficult process of parenting together.

More recently, family sitcoms have also become a space for discussions of important and polarizing topics that could not take place in the past. Black-ish has tackled black identity issues in ABC’s primetime comedy slot and One Day at a Time features storylines regarding immigration, coming out, and mental illness.

It is encouraging to see that television is willing to tell the stories of families of color through the family sitcom genre without erasing their identity and relatable experiences. This may only be a small start for the big screen but it’s a big step forward for representation and diversity on our screens.

Author: Danielle Fraiser

Editor: Khadija Ahmed

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