CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Television and Families

Jul 28, 1994

Not long ago the Pope came out with an attack on television, claiming that it was anti-family and undermined traditional values. Critics quickly responded saying the Pope was ignorant and out of touch. One newspaper editorial even claimed that if anything, television features the traditional family too much. Who’s right – the Pope or his critics?

One person who should know is American film critic Michael Medved. His movie review show, Sneak Previews, is watched by millions of Americans each week.

Medved has recently come out with a book-length critique of television and Hollywood. Entitled Hollywood vs America, this book has stirred up quite a controversy in America and abroad.

Medved’s central thesis is that the values portrayed in Hollywood products (movies, television, music videos, etc.) are hardly representative of the values of most Americans. Hollywood productions tend to belittle religion, the family, and traditional values, while most Americans, argues Medved, embrace these values.

Surveys conducted on the subject seem to back up Medved’s thesis. For example, one survey found that whereas 45% of television executives had no religious affiliation, only 4% of American hadn’t any; whereas 49% of the executives thought adultery was wrong, 85% of all Americans did, etc.

Medved provides a wealth of documentation to support the view that television is generally hostile to marriage and family. For example, Medved lists the plot lines of some recent made-for-television movies, most of which have been aired in Australia:

— a dental hygienist who’s beaten to death by her dentist husband, who then tells the police she had been sexually molesting their baby (In a Child’s Name)
— an overweight socialite who vengefully guns down her ex-husband and his new wife after he has jilted her (A Woman Scorned)
— an innocent wife (Donna Mills) who is imprisoned for the misdeeds of her manipulative and homicidal husband (False Arrest)
— a mother of four (Susan Dey) who is savagely beaten by her lawyer husband until she stops him with a bullet through the chest (Bed of Lies)
— an adulterous housewife who is wrongly accused of knocking off her best friend, and is finally chased around her house by the real killer (The Woman Who Sinned)
— a manic-depressive mother (Sarah Jessica Parker) whose illness creates a nightmarish situation for her five children (In The Best Interest Of The Children)
— a fast-talking con man (Treat Williams) who persuades his married lover to murder her husband, while he pulls the trigger on his own longsuffering wife (Till Death Do Us Part)
— a gifted commercial artist (Blair Brown) with two perfect daughters and a seemingly rock-solid marriage who suddenly learns of her husband’s infidelity, then reveals her own dark past … as a prostitute (Those Secrets)
— an unsuspecting single mom (Cheryl Ladd) who’s framed by her drug-dealing boyfriend and whose imprisonment causes her three children to fall apart (Locked Up: A Mother’s Rage)
— a superficially happy wife and mother (Pamela Reed) whose family is destroyed when her husband and neighbours discover she is actually an escaped con (Woman With A Past)

There are also many other TV movies about alcoholic fathers (Keeping Secrets); sadistic sons (My Son Johnny), and violent, avenging moms (A Mother’s Justice).

Moreover, a case can be made that most of the American sit-coms produced today hardly reflect or promote healthy family life. Think of Rosanne and Married . . . With Children, to name but a few. Families portrayed here and in other shows invariably feature broken, dysfunctional and unhappy homes as the norm.

This leads to the question, are most American (and Australian) homes this bad? Again, the evidence indicates not. The Bureau of Statistics says that 86% of all Australian households are couple families. And more people marry than divorce. 

Medved shows how the mischievous handling of statistic gives the impression in America that every marriage has a 50% chance of failure. But in fact, only 10% of all ever-married men, and 13% of all ever-married women have ever been divorced. In other words, almost 90% of all marriages survive. The problem lies in comparing the number of marriages to the number of divorces in a single year. This leads to inaccurate figures.

Mind, you, Medved does not argue that marital problems don’t exist, nor that Hollywood should ignore these problems. He simply complains that the lack of balance results in a very skewed picture of family life. Says Medved, “No one would complain about the presence of a few TV movies about abusive husbands or worried moms with guilty secrets; the problem is the absence of alternative visions of married life to balance these nightmares. It’s the wildly disproportionate emphasis on the darkest, most downbeat aspects of marriage that betrays Hollywood’s antifamily agenda.”

The Pope then, it seems, was closer to the truth than most of his critics would admit. Television does need to clean up its act. This being the Year of the Family, television producers should rethink the whole issue of the way they treat marriage and the family.

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