July 30, 2013

Despair in cocooning times, resilience in outgoing times

One of the most successful television genres of the 1980s was the sit-com featuring a non-traditional family. A typical episode would show the members coping with the same problems that everybody faces, with the twist that their domestic support base was made up of people outside their nuclear family. Much of the comedy comes from the unique challenges of having to negotiate the trust and caregiving relationships between people who are more distantly related or not at all.

The success of these shows -- among others, Full House, Diff'rent Strokes, and Who's the Boss? -- is a reflection of how resilient people were at the time. What resonated with them was not gloom and feeling sorry about yourself, but relying on a broad social network to keep you going and make it through your troubles. When bad things happen today, there's such a somber and devastated tone, whether it's fictional or not.

Back in the '80s, even Punky Brewster, a sit-com for children, found a way to deal with the explosion of the Challenger shuttle right after it happened. You wouldn't see that on a kids' show today, or on a show from the '50s. All of those "very special episodes" seem weird today because you can't openly discuss the more out-there kind of situations that a normal person might face -- it's too emotionally awkward, reminding you that you aren't in total control of what happens to you, and that you'll need the help of others to get through it. Not good for people who want to shut out the rest of the world.

Also, those episodes appear to be treating a heavy subject too lightly by current standards. There are no slo-mo shots of actors with downcast eyes, no sparse and pathetic piano notes, etc., to remind you that you're watching Something Serious. Victims of sexual abuse or burglary, friends of someone who's suddenly gotten into drugs, or run away, or died -- they all appear shaken up, but they don't waste time reflecting on how bad the news is, or on how devastated their lives might become. They respond by thinking on their feet, looking for a practical way to cope with their trouble or loss, and ultimately moving on with life.

Why is there such faith in resilience in an outgoing period like the Eighties, and why is there such a pervasive atmosphere of despair, malaise, anxiety, etc. during the mid-century as well as the Millennial era?

I think the fear of utter devastation should something go wrong comes from a semi-conscious awareness of how vulnerable we make our lives by socially isolating ourselves from everyone else. All support is concentrated into the nuclear family unit because trust extends no further.

Moreover, individuals start to rely primarily on themselves for support, because even within the nuclear family, members aren't that close to and open with each other. Ward Cleaver and the Beav weren't as informal and trusting of each other as Steven and Alex P. Keaton were. In Leave it to Beaver, Wally and the Beav get into some typical childhood trouble, and get a fair-but-firm lecture from their father reminding them of what they've already learned for themselves. Although physically very close in the claustrophobic sense, father and son are psychologically distant.

Whereas in Family Ties, Steven gives his son advice based on the extensive experience he's had that his son has not yet had, and for situations where Alex has not already figured out for himself what the larger lesson is. Beyond that, the parents and the children help each other through the unpredictable troubles that fate throws in our way, including some fairly out-there situations. There's no pre-programmed lecture as there is when the situation is so familiar; instead, both parents and children alike must resort to trial-and-error to discover the best way through such unfamiliar territory.

The mid-century world of Leave It to Beaver was not coincidentally the Age of Anxiety because folks were aware of how little support they had. Basically none outside the nuclear family, and very little "value-added" advice from within. With such flimsy support, of course small troubles will appear to have devastating consequences.

The Reagan Years had more of an attitude of "we can get through all this" because support networks were more broadly diffused, giving each person plenty of slack should any one of those links weaken. Even if those weakened links struck the nuclear family. In Who's the Boss?, Tony raises his daughter as a widower, though with the help of the woman for whom he works as a live-in housekeeper, as well as his boss' mother who lives there as well. His boss is a divorcee and benefits from having a father figure for her own son.

It seems like it was only during the '90s that the majority of Americans started to get all emo about the devastating effects of divorce on children, how it would scar them for life. Not that people thought it was harmless during the '80s, but that the kids and adults were resilient enough to cope with it and still lead normal, fulfilling lives -- not unlike having to cope with a sudden death in the family. Popular attitudes thus returned to the mid-century norm, which itself was a reversal of the attitudes of the Roaring Twenties, when like the Go-Go Eighties divorce was at least perceived to be getting more common, but that we'd all get through it somehow.

So, perhaps divorce is somewhat devastating -- but only in the context of minimal connections and support outside of the nuclear family, such as during the '50s or the 2000s. There's no slack in the system. It would be interesting to compare the children of divorce, or divorced adults, whose nuclear family broke up during, say, the '80s vs. the 2000s. Or during the '40s vs. the '80s.

Aside from the greater slack in the system during the '20s or the '80s, those affected by divorce probably bounced back more because they weren't so unrepresentative. When only 1% of the population gets divorced, they're probably very troubled or toxic marriages, and the people are probably more anti-social and disturbed. When it's 50% getting divorced, they're more normal personality-wise, hence more capable of springing back.


  1. I don't remember any 'very special episodes' about kids watching 9/11. The 'Friends' chicks banged a fireman or two, all I remember.

    Really, the CNN coverage was a disgrace. "We're showing you the same fifteen minute clip for the next 72 hours straight because we have no idea what else to do.' Over and over. No background, no suggestions regarding ANYTHING. Oh, 'We have some REALLY gross stuff of people splatting into the ground, and we're going to hint around showing it for the next week straight, but our lawyers won't let us show it.'

    Edward R Murrow was at least man enough to be damned.

  2. The event itself was so horrific that you didn't need to show "extra details"(which would have been in poor taste).

    Most of the coverage of 9/11 and the War on Terror was done well. It wasn't until around 2006 that people stopped caring.



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