TV Families: Stereotypical or Real?

30 Jan 2017

Television series are all the rage – mass phenomena that fuel discussions and study. Their influence on society is on the rise and their portrayal of reality can even influence that very reality.

María Fernanda Novoa (22) has put the spotlight on one particular aspect of TV series:  how they represent the family. In the Master’s in Social Science Research (MICS in its Spanish acronym), which she is studying at the University of Navarra with the support of a Social Trends Institute grant, she is making a diagnosis of the family as depicted in television fiction, to determine whether reality influences fiction or vice versa.

Why did you choose to study this topic?

Television plays an important role in society. Fiction analyses reality and tries to capture it on screen.  Screenwriters use different criteria to choose characters. Some of these criteria are simple and easily recognizable, which connects the audience with them immediately. On the other hand, the role of the family is changing, and I want to look into how audiovisual fiction, in particular TV series, seeks to adapt these social changes to the screen.

So fiction holds a mirror to these changes in the family?

Yes. There is a boom in series right now. Since fiction developed on television, it promoted the representation of the traditional family, which is still happening. However, new family models are increasingly represented, such as separated or divorced families, one-parent families and temporary unions. There is an increasing tendency to seek to represent social realities, and it is important to look at how the appearance of new roles on screens effects society.

Do you think that the fiction we view can affect social reality?

Fiction offers stereotypes that allude to reality and to which people can relate. Without a doubt, we can witness how fiction promotes behaviors, conduct and lifestyles in which each person has a role that the audience can easily identify. Audiences form affective ties to the content they view. Every piece of fiction relays a message that people can integrate into their real life.

And what is the dominant message about family models today?

What is referred to as the postmodern family is being portrayed these days. Today’s fiction seeks to reflect the new problems or dynamics that arise in the family environment such as work-family balance, teenagers’ search for identity, and family relationships in the face of new members. These models are introduced little by little. Nonetheless, the traditional family model still prevails. People still identify with this model, and it is not disappearing.  Rather, new models are appearing that aim to reflect contemporary society.

In TV series, is the family represented in all its complexity, or does it tend towards simplification and stereotypes? 

It’s very difficult to portray all the complexities of a family. Every family model is different and people don’t identify with only one model. So it tends towards the stereotypical, as fiction seeks an easy way for the audience to know what role each character plays in the family setting. 

So is the influence that fiction has on real families positive or negative?

I wouldn’t dare say whether it is positive or negative. But the way the family is represented can lead people to behave like what they see on television or assimilate certain conduct as valid. This is why fiction has so much influence on opinion forming and on the way people view the world.

Can the simplification of the family model lead to the simplification of real life?

We’d have to look into the studies that have been done, but I think that these portrayals do influence the perception of the family. Television is undoubtedly persuasive. Fictional representations of social problems tend to choose those difficulties that people can relate to. That is to say, the fact that people see themselves in a fictional situation –that they see something that really happens to them -captures their attention and holds it, because they discover a union between the fictional event and their everyday reality. 

Are those responsible for television fiction aware of the level of influence they wield in society?

Certainly. They promote people’s opinion on particular issues, seeking identification with and reactions to something that resembles their reality and social context. Studies on the effect of media reveal this. These factors are taken into account when developing scripts for series. They have great potential to influence, which is not always easily perceptible.  People who are exposed to fictional content may not always be aware to the effects it has on them. 

If they are aware of their influence, do they use it to the benefit of society?

Commercial considerations often take precedence, and content is created to benefit the industry. They seek something that will hook the audience, and it’s in this respect that fiction can be criticized, as can other television formats that do not always take into consideration their social responsibility. When economic goods are sought, the aim is to increase viewership, rather than to educate or promote social values, and entertainment and spectacle are the priorities. That’s why many series about families are comedies.