Television Discovers Family Values


April 07, 1993|By JOANNE JACOBS

San Jose, California. -- "El-din. I'm ho-ome.''

''Murphy, your ex-husband called from Brazil. He's coming back to marry you, so Avery will have a father to provide guidance and support. He'll have to take a boring desk job in Washington, instead of running around the rain forest, but who said parenting was fun and games?''

''Wait a second, Eldin. What about me? I'm not sure I feel like marrying him.''

''Don't be self-centered, Murphy. Think of what's best for your child. Haven't you read Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's Atlantic article on how tough it is for kids to grow up without a father, and how stepfathers and extended families don't fill the gap?''

''You have a point, Eldin. All the designer clothes and Brio toys I can buy won't make up for depriving my child of a close relationship with his father.''

''You can make the marriage work, if you stick with it, Murphy.''

''That's right, Eldin. And even if it's not the perfect romance, I have more important priorities now.''

* * *

OK, the new family-responsible Murphy Brown isn't quite as much fun as the old me-first Murphy. But just imagine what would happen if TV writers promoted family commitment over individual freedom, cast self-fulfillment as selfishness and showed meeting obligations, even when it doesn't ''feel right,'' as admirable.

Imagine two-parent families in TV movies in which Dad isn't a secret child molester or wife-beater, nor Mom the marked victim of a crazed rapist, and in which both parents are pictured as competent authority figures.

This may sound crazy, but ''Murphy Brown'' creator Diane English is planning to bring together female producers to develop socially responsible, pro-family programming, according to Janis Berman, who happens to be married to Rep. Howard Berman, D-Hollywood liberals.

Ms. Berman and Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council dropped by the paper last week and the discussion turned to the very bad news on American families: They're falling apart and all the programs in the world can't substitute for two adult parents.

Children Now had just come out with its annual report card: Violence, poverty and teen pregnancy are bad and getting worse. The national Kids Count report put its grim statistics on child welfare not in the context of society neglecting ''our'' children but in the context of failing families, saying that three risk factors -- out-of-wedlock birth, birth to a mother who's under 20 when she has her first child and birth to a mother who hasn't finished high school -- are ''a virtual guarantee of future disadvantage.''

Only 8 percent of children with no risk factors are poor, compared to 26 percent with one risk and 48 percent with two; when the mother was an unmarried teen-ager without a high school degree when she had her first child, 79 percent of children live in poverty.

Mr. From, the original Clintonian policy wonk, brought up Ms. Whitehead's ''Dan Quayle was right'' article, on the link between family disintegration and social disintegration, and Ms. Berman said Mr. Quayle's target, the Murphymeister Ms. English, was on the case.

Could TV help strengthen families?

TV writers could add teen pregnancy to its list of one-episode issues: AIDS, anorexia, child abuse, date rape, domestic violence, drugs, sexual harassment. Fortunately, these problems only affect non-regulars and can all be solved, by talking and hugging, in 22 minutes.

OK, it wouldn't hurt. Young people might be impressed by seeing a suave couple discuss birth control before the heavy breathing starts.

It also would be nice if TV writers found a way to create plots without breaking up characters' relationships: Rhoda has a lot to answer for.

I'd like to see TV shows in which young people weren't always teaching lessons to foolish, stodgy, crabby middle-aged people. And more TV parents who see their jobs as providing security, discipline and direction for their children, as opposed to the non-specific hugging that makes up so much of TV parenting.

But to really make a difference, TV producers must abandon deeply held values that stress individual happiness and rights over all else.

In an Associated Press article on the absence of smart, aggressive women -- tough broads -- in movies, and their presence on TV, I ran across a quote from the Clintons' chum Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, praising her ''Hearts Afire'' character, Georgie Ann Lahti, as a ''very assertive woman living life as she pleases.''

The value is: What's most important is to break through conventions to live life as you please, to find one's self, express one's self, be true to one's self.

A TV relationship must continuously enhance personal development, or the couple splits up. (Also, if the scriptwriters are desperate for plot developments.)

Adults are ''healthy'' when they pursue self-fulfillment; kids had better be fulfilling for their parents, or they're in trouble.

Influenced by the American political culture, which is based ''on individual rights, personal choice and egalitarian relationships,'' Ms. Whitehead writes, ''the family loses its central importance as an institution in the civil society, accomplishing certain social goals such as raising children and caring for its members, and becomes a means to achieving greater individual happiness -- a lifestyle choice.''

If TV producers want to be pro-family, they'll need to be anti-happiness and, in a sense, anti-American.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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