By AJ Brannum ’13
Confession: I watch more TV now than I did in high school. That doesn’t really mean much, since I didn’t really give myself much time to watch TV in those days. At least now I can convince myself that my increased TV-watching habits are in the service of “cultural education.” This might actually be true, considering the recent circumstances: we’ve just come down from the rush of a contentious election in which many of the issues at stake in previous elections were on the table once again. In a scramble to get behind one candidate or the other – which I never quite managed to do – I gradually gave those issues more thought as I tried to locate my own opinions about them…as I prepared to vote for the first time. The results were foggy at best. Even though the pressure to choose sides has died down (at least, until 2016), I’m still floundering, trying to learn more about these things as I make the harrowing transition into Life Post-Princeton. Soon, any abstract political opinions I have will quickly be tried by fire. As I attempt to determine which candidate’s policies best represents my own views in future elections, will my alleged cultural education pay off?
Actually, that’s a possibility. Marketing research firm Experian Simmons conducted a survey in early 2010 that gauged the television viewing habits of Republicans and Democrats. The survey was intended, in part, to offer electoral campaigns basic suggestions as to “where to allocate their ad dollars to either connect with their base or reach swing voters.” While not the most scholarly of studies—publication of the findings was largely limited to news and entertainment outlets like the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Entertainment Weekly—it is among the few surveys that study the relationship between political preference and television viewing habits beyond the oft-examined field of broadcast news. The lists of the twenty-five most-watched network and cable shows reveal occasional instances of overlap, but a few distinguishable trends emerge.
Many of the conclusions presented are trivial. Consider, for example, that public television and shows “featuring female characters playing central or leading roles” tend to find favor among Democrats, while competition-based reality shows feature strongly on the Republican list. At best, these findings only reinforce crude partisan stereotypes about social preference. What’s most striking to me is the popularity of one show in particular—and what its popularity implies.
Modern Family is in the midst of its fourth season, and by now, its wild success among viewers and critics is old news. Such success, particularly among conservatives, may come as a surprise considering the creators’ decision to feature an interracial couple widely separated by age and a gay couple alongside a traditional family of five. Such a move is an obvious attempt at leveling the definition of what constitutes a family. Conservative backlash, however, was surprisingly quiet, even virtually nonexistent at the time of Experian’s survey; the show is ranked third on their list of Republicans’ twenty-five favorite network programs.
Party names, of course, are only crude stand-ins for systems of political thought, but let’s approach these results charitably. Let’s assume that Republican thought neatly encompasses conservatism; likewise for Democratic thought and liberalism. It seems nonsensical that a show which, in part, blatantly repurposes a “Republican” conception of the nuclear family would not only be acceptable to conservatives but also be listed as one of the most popular television shows among them!
Well, maybe not. Consider the fact that interracial relationships and homosexuality have long been touchy subjects for television writers and producers. Even today, the latter continues to stir up controversy from time to time; Glee, for example, has drawn fire for a number of reasons, one of which includes the presence of several gay or bisexual characters. There are a slew of other reasons, too; all of the characters, who are minors, have illicit sexual encounters of some sort, drugs and alcohol make casual appearances from time to time, the kids’ parents are never around etc… A show like Glee seems to have lost its scruples on all fronts. On the other hand, Modern Family may feature openly gay characters, yes; it is unapologetic about their sexuality, yes (though some critics consider Cam and Mitchell too sanitized or stereotypical); but at least, some might claim, the show has a strong moral compass. It places great stock in the nuclear family. It rarely minces its conception of right and wrong. It’s also fairly traditional as far as sitcoms go; apart from its mockumentary presentation, the show is structured in a standard three-act format, and each episode ends with some moral realization complete with hushed, enlightened whispers, group hugs, and gentle guitar strumming in the background, usually related to the importance of family. What may appear to counter a conservative conception of family actually reinforces it.
What we see, then, is a rift between “partisan” values, in the everyday liberal-versus-conservative sense of the word, and deeper convictions about interpersonal relationships that may or may not figure explicitly in a person’s partisanship. The latter is, as far as I can tell, what informs the foundations of political theorization, so for the sake of argument I’ll call it politics. I’ll refer to the former simply as values. Keep in mind that politics refers generally to interpersonal relationships, and isn’t explicitly partisan.
Now, if Modern Family actually seems to conform to a conservative politics, despite its initial appearance, how do liberals’ favorite shows speak to their politics? Consider two of the sitcoms on their list, 30 Rock and Community. Both have struggled to maintain solid ratings thanks to their offbeat tastes in humor and odd formal structures—they’re neither studio comedies nor mockumentaries, they don’t use laugh tracks, and they often augment the three-act structure with unusual approaches to narrative. They also differ from traditional sitcoms with regard to setting. 30 Rock is set in a workplace, Community at a community college. Most of the characters are either single or in ill-defined romantic relationships. Proximity, whether as coworkers or fellow students, is the primary means by which they are related to one another. Families, if at all present, are either troubled or rarely seen.
If we assume Democratic platform points are a fair representation of liberal values, this model of socialization isn’t surprising. Though the party’s 2012 platform includes a handful of appeals to “policies that value families” (a marked development since 2008), it devotes much more attention to the rights of individuals and the well-being of communities. As with conservatives, there is an accord between basic “liberal” values and the politics at work in these sitcoms. These shows enlarge their scope to examine relationships between peers, social classes, and spheres of authority. But even these relationships are shaky at best. They’re usually chaotic, fueled by insensitive or cruel behavior. “Looking at the Democrats side, I don’t mean to make light of it, but they seem to like shows about damaged people,” Experian’s senior marketing manager John Fetto says of the survey’s findings. “Those are the kind of shows Republicans just stay away from.”
How closely do sitcoms adhere to the premises which seem so telling? Character development and an expanded attention to continuity have altered the sitcom, which once existed as a series of generally unrelated episodes in the lives of its characters. The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks & Recreation are all built around characters whose relationships are tense at best. But, even these shows, in the interest of character development, have begun steering their characters into tamer waters. Long-term dating relationships and marriages have materialized between central characters and their love interests. Independent female protagonists have expressed the desire to start families despite their demanding work schedules. Tension between coworkers has morphed into a slightly stilted form of camaraderie. For me, a combination of all of the above characteristics are what transformed The Office from a cringe-worthy examination of office socialization into something less brilliant, more predictable, and (most embarrassingly) more sentimental. Honestly, I still feel a little betrayed when I think about it: At the beginning of the first season, these people could barely manage to speak to one another, right? Where, then, do they find the sense of togetherness necessary to recreate the JK Entrance Wedding Dance at the wedding of two coworkers they supposedly couldn’t care less about?
Maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical. Criticism of the nuclear family’s social primacy is not an implicit desire for disorder. An investigation like this deserves a fair amount of generosity; assuming that most Americans stand squarely on one side of the issue undermines the dynamic nature of our desires. It may be true that the nuclear family no longer holds the amount of social influence it once did, but that isn’t to say it’s lost all credibility. Socialization is more in a state of transition than resolution. Because social life straddles both the home and the workplace, people may feel the need to seek balance—to navigate both spheres instead of asserting the importance of one over the other. Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose recent piece for The Atlantic outlined the plight of professional women in such a situation, would definitely agree.
No doubt these ideas aren’t completely airtight. A myriad of factors influence a person’s decision to watch certain shows and avoid others. One might simply find 30 Rock‘s deprecating humor compelling, while another is turned off by Modern Family‘s moralizing. Maybe popular media doesn’t speak directly to consumers’ preferences or opinions. After all, if Steve Jobs’ apocryphal maxim holds any water – “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want until we’ve shown them” – then consumer demand seems to exert more influence in the buying-and-selling arena, and less in the creative realm. It’s possible that consumer choice is more an act of compromise than anything else; TV shows, like most things in life, come bearing both agreeable and disagreeable aspects, and the consumer has to take both in stride if any sort of satisfaction is to be gained. Perhaps, there’s no connection between one’s political convictions and tastes in TV shows. But, at a time in which the nature of socialization is perhaps more dynamic (or, depending on your perspective, irresolute) than it’s ever been, it is certainly worthwhile to examine how our political thoughts inform or align with social reality—or, more appropriately, the ways in which we conceptualize it. Retooling social programs, for example, or finding solutions to extant social problems of any sort is best done from a perspective which treats society-as-is as top priority. To do otherwise might be to choose a path which is costly, arbitrary, or otherwise unproductive. And if art – even popular art – can be said to mirror our reality, then TV viewing habits might be a good place to start forming that perspective.