It's the holiday season, and the customary scene in popular culture, from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "The Cosby Show," is of a warm, traditional family exchanging gifts and good cheer.
But something new is afoot this year. Families aren't looking quite the same. Consider the print ads for this season's surprise movie hit, "The Addams Family." In one, the all-American Cleaver family from "Leave it to Beaver" is pictured beneath the caption "You probably came from a family with positive life-affirming values." On the next page, there's a picture of the ghoulish Addams with the caption "Who wants to see a movie about people like that?"
In the new movie "Hook," the yuppie father is so busy with work that he has to watch part of his son's baseball games by videotape. Would Ozzie and Harriet ever have done that? From the popular response to "The Addams Family" to new movies featuring dysfunctional families such as "Prince of Tides," there seems to be a growing audience in popular culture for almost anything acknowledging the blissful "Father Knows Best" family is a thing of the past.
It's not just this season's movies in which family portraits are changing. There's TV's caustic "Married ... With Children" and "The Simpsons," not to mention last year's movie hit of child abandonment, "Home Alone." A new ad for Residence Inns urges readers to keep obnoxious visiting in-laws at their motels rather than at home, so "they'll think you like them." If the '80s were the decade in pop culture of the nurturing Keatons and Huxtables, the '90s look like the era of the Bundys and Addams eccentric, somewhat troubled families where relatives often seem to spend almost as much time trying to kill one another as they do being supportive.
"We have tapped into something here," said Brandon Tartikoff, whose studio made "The Addams Family." What kids see in the film, he said, "is a very weird, spooky family that's the original dysfunctional family."
To be sure, too much can be made about the current changes in family dynamics taking place on screen. Despite their eccentricities, the portrayal of the Simpson and Addams families is not all that radical. Both are still stories about nuclear families in which everything tends to work out in the end.
What's more, popular culture has always acknowledged the discontented family. Preoccupied parents exist in countless fairy tales; jokes about in-laws have circulated for centuries. Two decades ago, "All in the Family" presented a portrait of a family that hardly conformed with life among the idyllic Brady Bunch.
But it's hard to think of a recent period when neglectful parents or "weird" families seemed to strike as much of a chord with audiences particularly the young as they do today. There may be several reasons why. Because Americans move more frequently than they once did, close, extended families are becoming a thing of the past.
Moreover, given the prevalence of divorce, remarriage and abandonment, less than half of all children now grow up in a traditional, nuclear family. Yet old images are hard to shake: The reconstituted family of the '90s is still considered "weird" and somewhat illegitimate by the conventional culture. These new pop-culture portraits validate a new reality for their audience.
For the young, these hits also reflect a culture in which they often feel abandoned by their elders, and with good reason. Statistics show that a lot of their parents have walked out. Those parents who stay are often working late a reflection of two-career couples and tough times. Public support for the young whether displayed in school funding or support for dependent children is drying up. What's more, today's young are largely the children of baby boomers one of the most self-absorbed generations in the nation's history. It's no wonder their children identify with the Addams family.
The irony is that 25 years ago, their parents did, too. Then, part of the attraction of the original TV Addams family was that it offered a satiric respite from the conventional portrayal of families in popular culture. That conventional portrayal, of course, has lingered far longer than the reality it once purported to represent.
In contrast, audiences today seem to be responding to the Addams Family and their ilk more for what they celebrate than what they deride. For the first time in a long time, audiences can see screen families that resemble the families they have at home, warts and all. So it happens that in 25 years, "The Addams Family" has moved from camp cartoon to self-portrait. The new American family is creepy, and it's kooky, mysterious and spooky. And, for better or worse, it is us.
The family of the '90s is weird and spooky