Why Is the “Normal Television Family” Always White?

Oh, I know the answer, of course.  A white nuclear family is what networks think everyone can relate to.  And even if people can’t relate, they see and recognize that “ideal” and know what sort of cultural message the writers are trying to send.  It gets across the message of Normal, Everyday, Good Old Down-Home FAMILY to people.

But you know what?  It’s started pissing me off.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love that more television shows are including diversity.  I dig it.  I’d much rather they include people of color somewhere, anywhere, than not at all.

But I’m starting to see the “ethnic sidekick” problem on family shows: that the ethnic or mixed families are being shown in contrast to a “normal” and “ordinary” family, and are therefore implicitly not normal or ordinary themselves.

Let’s take Modern Family. Now, I love Modern Family—I think it’s a smart, sharply-written show and that it does a lot of good with the diversity of characters it does show.  But part of the premise is clearly that the two families that are more “modern” versions of what family can be are being contrasted against the white nuclear family of a happily married mother and father and their three children living in suburbia.  The two families being contrasted? The mixed-generational couple of Jay and Colombian immigrant Gloria with Gloria’s son Manny—who becomes a stepson to Jay—and the gay couple with their daughter adopted from Vietnam.  All of the diversity in the show is bundled into the families that are billed as having “complications.”  What if, instead, Claire’s husband had been cast as an African-American man, and her kids were all half black?[1]  Or, even more scandalously, what if Jay’s first wife had been an Asian woman, and Claire and Mitchell were both happa?  You might argue that it wouldn’t be the same show, and, well, of course not.  But it’s a show that bills diversity as part of its message, and all I’m saying is, what if the diversity weren’t billed as being so “different,” but instead mixed in with what we’re meant to see as “normal”?

The new show The Neighbors is an even better example of this happening.[2]  The aliens who have taken human form have seemingly done so without regard to race (although, of course, the person billed as “their leader” chose to be a white man . . . who would have suspected?), and the lead alien family has a mother who appears black and an oldest son who appears Asian (the father and younger son appear white).  It’s cute, and I’m glad they do have that diversity,[3] despite the always-troubling aspects of aliens being the only people of color on a show (both Stargates, I’m looking at you).  But, of course, the family who moves into the alien development, the “normal” human family we’re meant to contrast the aliens against, is all white.  Because white is normal.  And human.  It’s the weird alien family who cry tears of green goo out their ears who have people of color among them; diversity is acceptable there.  Why not have had the human family be mixed-race, or Hispanic, or Asian?  Oh, I know why, of course;  I said it at the beginning—writers and producers think viewers can’t relate to people of color.  But, well, maybe I’m sick of being forced to relate to white people.

I’ll throw one more example into the mix, since I’ve been so sick I have been watching EXCESSIVE AMOUNTS OF TELEVISION lately.  I have to admit to being a fan of the ABC Family show Switched At Birth, despite teen drama not usually being my cup of tea, and as far as I can tell (not being Deaf myself), it’s pretty awesome at giving people great insight into Deaf culture and experiences.  And I’m all in favor of any show that treats a minority culture with respect and gives it attention, because media has a huge impact on how we all interact with each other culturally (plus all the Deaf actors who have jobs because of that show; mad props for that casting—Sean Berdy in particular should win an Emmy).  But this show does the exact same thing I’ve mentioned above: it contrasts the Kennishes, the white, upper class nuclear family, with the Vasquez women—the family that has a very poor single mother raising a Deaf daughter, the “different” family, and, oh yeah, the one with a mother who just happens to be Latina.  I do give Switched At Birth props for addressing race—Bay struggles with the fact that she’s suddenly Hispanic when she always thought she was white—but we still have the stable, nuclear family being the white one and the “different” family having the diversity.  What if Regina Vasquez had been Caucasian and Kathryn Kennish had been Latina, with everything else remaining the same?  What if the children of the rich nuclear family with with ex-professional athlete father had been the children of color instead of the other way around?

I have to admit, “family” shows (by which I mean shows about families) are not what I usually watch, so maybe this trend is not as universal as I think it is.  But for a sample size of three, we’ve got three shows that contrast “different” families with “normal” families, and in all three cases, the “normal” family is the white one and the “different” families are the ones that have the racial diversity in addition to their other “differentness.”  Just once it might be kind of cool to see the “normal” family have a little melanin.  Wouldn’t it?

Now, we could argue about the merits of a show making out one family to be more “normal” than another in the first place.[4]  For example, there’s nothing textual suggesting that Claire and Phil’s relationship in Modern Family should be seen as any more stable than Jay and Gloria’s or Cam and Mitchell’s, nor their family any more “normal” or “ideal.”  But I think it’s naive to think that the writers weren’t trying to set up the Dunphys as the white-picket-fence, 2.5-kids-and-a-dog type of “normalcy” so that they could contrast the other two families against them.  And I’m equally certain that for all three of the shows I talked about, the casting in terms of race was very deliberate, as it serves to heighten the contrasts between the families.

And does such casting serve to provide that heightened contrast effectively for most viewers?  Reluctantly, I have to admit that it probably does.  But it doesn’t mean that I can’t feel irked, nor feel like it isn’t a problem that we’re still constantly billing minority races as the families that are “different.”

[This post has been brought to you by either Lyme disease or typhus, whichever one I have, as I am STILL SICK and therefore watching far too much television.]
  1. This is not to say that I would want anyone other than Ty Burrell playing Phil; the man is brilliant.  Just making a point.
  2. Did not think I would like this show.  I watched it because a friend of mine works on it, and so far it’s like a train wreck: I’m not sure what’s so fascinating about it (other than Toks Olagundoye), but I CANNOT LOOK AWAY.
  3. Unlike, say, Third Rock From the Sun.
  4. Unless, of course, we are talking about a show like The Neighbors, in which the “different” family is an alien one.

10 thoughts on “Why Is the “Normal Television Family” Always White?

  1. Layla Lawlor

    First off, I really hope you feel better soon! Egad …

    I’m back from vacation, and I have time to comment on things now! :D (I always mean to comment on your blog, because you write lots of interesting and insightful things, but never seem to get around to it, because interesting and insightful posts seem to demand interesting and insightful comments rather than just “+1” …)

    But I +1 this whole post! As well as the racial issue that you pointed out, I think there is a flattening effect across the board when writers habitually reach for “average American family” and come up with something very specific: white, middle-class, able-bodied, mom + dad + 2-3 kids under the age of 15. Not a middle-class family that’s black or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern; not a gay couple with their three kids; not a blended family with two previously divorced parents and their kids; not an older couple and their grown children; not a family with a disabled mom, or a blue-collar family, or a couple who are happily childless …

    It’s SO specific. I guess that we should be glad that the TV definition of “typical family” has expanded to the point where it’s now allowed to include a couple in which both parents work!

    Er, none of which is meant to detract from your point, obviously! Along those lines, one thing that often jumps out at me in genre TV is the way that TV characters who are explicitly coded as “girl next door” or “average ordinary girl” or “average viewer’s window into these weird happenings” are invariably white (and, in frequently blonde — say, Rose on DW, or Keller on SGA). I like quite a lot of these characters, but there’s always the cognitive dissonance between liking them for themselves, and disliking the way they’re explicitly coded and signposted.

    Astrid on Fringe is one of the few girl-next-door type characters I can think of who isn’t white, but well, look at how she’s handled on the show: rather than being treated as the viewer’s safe island of normalcy in the middle of the weird (our “normal person’s eye view”, as the girl-next-door characters frequently are), she’s basically sidelined into being Walter’s Girl Friday.

    And similar for “ordinary average Joe” characters in sci-fi, too … Hollywood can handle a black Ford Prefect, but a black Arthur Dent is clearly a bridge too far.

  2. InMyBook

    I agree with Layla on the points she made, including her comment on interesting and insightful posts demanding the same types of comments. Now that we denizens of New Jersey are being beaten up by Hurricane Sandy, I have time to comment (quickly, before the power goes out!)

    Your main complaint is not so much against the lack of diversity on television, but regarding the fact that the diverse families are being compared to a perceived American “ideal” of a white, Caucasian nuclear family with 2-3 children. I can understand why this would be irritating to members of families not fitting this scenario. Minorities are struggling for a positive representation in the media, which is a powerful medium for change. However, rather than being an ideal, would you agree it can be considered a majority (or norm or average) of families?

    If the typical American family is being shown as an all-white, Caucasian, nuclear family, it is a sad commentary on family life in America that the family in “The Neighbors” also happens to be dysfunctional. Ideal? Don’t think so. Normal? Hope not, but ….

    In “The Neighbors,” the non-alien family needs to be dysfunctional as part of the plot. Don’t interactions with the aliens change and improve this family? It is part of the show’s message and appeal.

    It seems to me that the “comparison family” in the three television shows you discussed are a more powerful backdrop for the minority families presented as the main focus of the shows. Diversity shows up more easily when compared to typical or majority, doesn’t it? I think it would dilute the impact of the respective shows if the white, nuclear families were also made up of minorities.

    When you consider all the minorities and diversity in America, it gets complex trying to portray minority family members without causing controversy. For example, if John Kennish in “Switched at Birth” were played by an African-American actor, this would fit a negative stereotype about black society and athletics. Not fair. It would also make it improbable for the switch to take place and not be noticed when the two girls were born. I do agree that it is fantastic the show is starring deaf and Hispanic actors and presenting these minorities in such positive ways. But why distract from the diversity and the education for the American public by mixing up the diversity among everyone?

    Since I grew up in the 60’s, I am witness to the vast improvements in television shows as far as diversity goes. Although we had Ricky Riccardo in “I Love Lucy,” I cringe when I think back at what we used to watch. I know you are impatient for further change, and that is good. That will make it happen. But since the vast majority of directors are white, Caucasian males, I would love to see more diversity among directors. I believe this would enhance the diversity in television programming. But I don’t know if you want to necessarily change that average (not ideal!) American family being used for comparison.

  3. slhuang Post author

    @Layla — Wow, thank you for such a wonderful and insightful comment! Sorry it took me a few days to reply; I’m still having possible-typhus-interfering-with-brainspace problems. (And by the way, no worries on either not commenting or leaving “+1” style comments; I really don’t mind either one! No obligations here; I’m flattered you’re enjoying reading!)

    You make really, REALLY good points about all the other types of Hollywood archetypes that they feel they MUST portray a certain way. Hollywood always strikes me as being very far behind reality in a lot of fundamental ways—I look around at my friendship group, or my family, or my coworkers, or my ambitions in life, and it’s like Hollywood and I don’t even live in the same reality. It’s almost as if we are trained to think of one thing as “normal” within Hollywood and another as “normal” within our own lives—another good example is the way women look; when I see actresses in real life they look really odd standing next to normal people, and they stand out a lot, but on TV that kind of ultra-thin “attractiveness” is so much the norm that we notice when a woman’s a normal body weight! It’s so strange and backwards. Similarly, most families I know don’t fit the Hollywood archetype of “normal” in any way at all, but we still think it’s somehow progressive to show families with, like you said, *crazy* qualities like both parents working.

    And I haven’t seen Fringe, but I also think you’re totally right about what ethnic minorities are “allowed” to be—we’ve made great strides in diversity, but there’s clearly a glass ceiling still. The recent Hunger Games movie is another good example of what you mentioned—Rue can stay black (and look what bigotry that brought out of the woodwork!), but heaven forbid they even audition an POC girl for Katniss (if you didn’t hear about it, they explicitly made the casting call Caucasian, even though Katniss is described in the book as appearing multi-ethnic). The Ultimate Marvel ‘verse can racebend Nick Fury, but how awesome a world would we live in if people could accept a nonwhite Captain America? (By the way, I’m just waiting for the day when “all-American” doesn’t automatically code as Caucasian!) Um, I’m going to stop now before I keep listing forever, but basically, +1 to everything you said, too!

  4. slhuang Post author

    @InMyBook —

    I could not disagree more with a lot of what you say here.

    First of all, I do think that these white middle-class 2.5 kids families are being portrayed as some sort of ideal. Even if they have their nominal sitcom-esque problems, they’re still supposed to be not only people we can root for, but families we can root for, and even when they have issues with each other, the shows portray them as being strong families despite those issues rather than weaker families because of them.

    Second, you talk a lot about that sort of family being the “norm,” and, unless I am misinterpreting, you say that it’s useful for people to be able to associate themselves with that “norm” and be “educated” by seeing (the other) ethnic characters positively portrayed when those viewers associate themselves with the viewpoint characters.

    I do not hold with this. Do you have any idea how damaging it is to have Caucasian families so explicitly coded as “normal”? I don’t care if a certain race is the majority in America or not. Coding “white” as “normal” tells nonwhite children that they are explicitly not normal, and it tells Caucasian children that they are “normal” while POC are not. Both sides of this are damaging to our already problematic systemic racial attitudes in this country.

    Wouldn’t it be so much better if white people were instead forced to identify with POC occasionally? After all, POC are forced to identify with white protagonists all the time!

    Even if we were manufacturing these TV shows for a 100 percent white audience as “educational” videos, the message is completely wrong. It’s not okay to say, “YOU can have a normal family because you’re WHITE, but your Hispanic friends are going to end up single parents, and your mixed-race neighbors are so Other that hey, they’re probably aliens! Oh, but they’re still cool people, so we’re Educating you on ‘Getting Along’ and ‘Being Tolerant’ because that Hispanic single mom and those alien black and Asian people are being portrayed positively.” Do you see why I have a problem with that? It’s like the ethnic sidekick problem—the sidekick might be a positive portrayal of a POC, but, “the protagonist is always like you, but it’s okay for people of other races to be your supporting cast, as long as their stories aren’t as important” is NOT the right message to send over and over and over again.

    This type of trend shows up all the time and helps reinforce poor racial attitudes in this country, not only every time it appears, but by virtue of its ubiquity. I absolutely disagree that it’s somehow “useful” trope in combating people’s ideas about race. (Better than no diversity at all? Sure. But still problematic.)

    p.s. — Also, there’s an easy solution to being afraid of stereotyping POC (as in, an African-American man as a good athlete): just don’t stereotype! Write three-dimensional characters in general, and have enough diversity that no one person of any race is “representative” of that race, and the “problem” of writing POC goes away. (By the way, this—claiming it’s too hard to write POC without stereotyping—is an excuse creators use so often for lack of diversity that it has become tiresome. Just FYI.)

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