Thursday, April 16, 2009

Missing Family Members on TV

The stereotype is that 1950's television showed stereotypical two-parent, two-child families where nothing went wrong, and this was unhealthy for the attitudes of children growing up watching this. Leave It To Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet are cited as examples.

But more frequently, television killed off a parent somewhere and started the story later, with the bereft or even orphaned child adjusting to a new family situation. Rather creepily, Mommies got eliminated much more often than Daddies, though both parents getting the hook before the series started was also common.

Uncles taking care of nieces was big: Bachelor Father, Sky King, Family Affair. Dads left with the kids also seemed to be a big draw: My Three Sons, The Rifleman, Andy Griffith, Bonanza.

Circus Boy, My Little Margie, Danny Thomas, Gidget, Hank - there's dead parents everywhere. Or live parents nowhere might be a better way to put it. It's easy to see the sympathy draw, and perhaps the losing of a mother rates higher on the instant sympathy scale. Men taking care of kids also offered more opportunity for comedy. Still, it's weird how many moms they picked off here - maybe TV producers didn't like their wives or mothers or something. I can't think of any early single moms except for December Bride. Tough women left with the ranch out West came up though. It seems to be the reverse of the Dad-as-nurturer show - Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley winning against all odds.

Super-intact families were used more for comic effect in unusual situations: The Munsters, The Addams Family, The Flintstones, The Jetsons. Still are: The Simpsons, Family Guy. The Real McCoys and The Beverly Hillbillies both had multigenerational weirdness going, with missing relatives seemingly no problem. Maybe that was an Appalachian stereotype thing.


bs king said...

Man, the mothers are dropping like flies, and you didn't even touch Disney movies: Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Aladdin, Pinocchio (okay, he never had a mother to begin with), and Bambi's mother gets killed on screen. I always thought maybe men were easier to draw.

Erin said...

Great minds...
I was just about to add the missing parent syndrome in Disney movies. Don't forget to add missing parents in Finding Nemo & the Lion King (another on-screen death)

Retriever said...

Perhaps it reflects family dysfunction in Hollywood or in the family backgrounds of the scriptwriters and actors? Or perhaps it is a psychodrama writ large: generations that could assume two married parents putting family first, but still working the inevitable conflicts ,developmental stuff, that went on. Remember, houses were much smaller then, families larger and people stayed at home more. I often say, no wonder moms shooed kids outside to play until dusk! I've always thought that one of the reasons traditional families churn out accomplished kids is that the kids want to do well enough to escape and only return for visits!

Also when a family structure is assumed to be the norm, people might play more with depicting variations from it. WWII and Fifties propaganda and the general psychological received wisdom that if there were problems it was always Mom's fault must have made people feel just a tad confined in their roles at times. Different families offered the possibility of breaking free of the role assigned by chromosome, at least in fantasy and on TV.

The fantasy that mom is dead or the fear that she might vanish. The husband who wouldn't seek a divorce to marry his secretary until the 1960s could dream that she would tragically, painlessly and QUICKLY disappear, leaving him appealingly free and vulnerable to attract a younger, hotter, less tired mate to take over the kiddie care.

We used to debate what it would be like if one or other or both our parents died when we were kids. Perhaps there was more than a touch of the Addams family about our domestic situation ("they only need one boy".). Growing up Mom and Daddy such an oppressive united front who would impose demands and discipline with no appeal. A kid would fantasize about a single parent because of course kids, like jackals, sense weakness or a strong parent made vulnerable by misfortune or exhaustion, and take advantage of it.

Donna B. said...

Bonanza was a bit different as it was 4 grown men, 5 counting Hop Sing.

My theory on Bonanza is that none of them could keep a woman because it took all of them to make a "complete" man.

Gringo said...

Damned if I remember.