I am a Gen Xer. I was born in 1977. But as is the foundation of generational theory, when it comes to defining a generation, dates and years are just a starting point. What really distinguishes each generation is what was going on in the world during formative years.
Did you grow up during the Great Depression? Did you attend Woodstock? Were you a casualty of the dotcom bust? Were school shootings a constant in the news when you were a teenager? What happens in the world as we’re coming of age has a profound effect on who we grow up to be.
As a Gen Xer, there were many factors going on in the world during our formative years that helped shape who we are today.
Two factors that stand out:
#1 – Our consumption of all things media.
#2 – The change in the family dynamic.
It is estimated that by the age of 20, the average Gen Xer in the United States had consumed 23,000 hours of television. There was a definite shift happening at this time. Rather than just having one large wood counsel TV in the living room that everyone gathered around, the 1980s were a time when TV made its way into the kitchen and eventually into the bedrooms of America. What were we watching? Umm, what weren’t we watching? The 1980s saw the birth of MTV and CNN, giving us constant access to music videos and 24-hour news. And while many Gen Xers grew up learning to count and share on shows like Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and 321 Contact, no TV median was more popular or more powerful than the sitcom. Yes, before shows like Survivor and American Idol took over the world, the sitcom was king.
As Mike and Carol Brady were canoodling on televisions across America, a harsh reality was taking place. During the formative years of Generation X (born 1965–1979) the divorce rate in our country tripled. So for every Jason and Carol Seaver, there was another household in America being run by a single parent.
And with that, a fundamental change started taking place. The typical American family was starting to look not so “typical” at all. And soon thereafter, TV started to reflect those changes.
While I may have grown up in a town so small it had more cows than people, and my mom and dad are white Americans who are about to celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary, there was an entire pool of TV sitcoms that showed me that not every family looked like mine. Long before the brilliant Modern Family showed us all how a loving family can come in many different shapes and sizes, here are a few sitcoms that changed MY way of thinking about the modern family when I was growing up.
TGIF, indeed. Set in San Francisco, the show chronicles widowed father Danny Tanner, who, after the death of his wife, enlists his best friend Joey Gladstone (cut-it-out) and his brother-in-law Jesse Katsopolis (have mercy!) to help raise his three daughters, D.J., Stephanie (how rude!), and Michelle (you got it dude!). What really struck me about this show as a kid was that no matter how many times Danny, Joey, or Jessie made some kind of parenting blunder, trying to be both mother AND father to the girls, it didn’t matter. Those kids never doubted for a second that they were loved, and that’s some pretty successful parenting in my book.
To be clear, this show came before its doppelganger, Webster. And while I enjoyed Webster as much as the next Gen Xer, it was Diff’rent Strokes that introduced me to my first interracial TV family. Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges played Arnold and Willis Jackson, two African American boys from Harlem taken in by a rich white Park Avenue businessman. The show became known for its “very special episodes” that dealt with issues from bullying to drugs and even molestation. But at its core, this was a family sitcom about a family like no other I had seen.
The program starred Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown, a famous investigative journalist and news anchor. To me, she was the modern day Mary Tyler Moore. But with a twist. During a memorable season, Murphy learns she’s pregnant and chooses to raise the child on her own when the father expresses his unwillingness to give up his own lifestyle to be a parent. This, at the time, controversial decision was addressed by Vice President Dan Quayle who criticized the Murphy Brown character for “ignoring the importance of fathers by birthing a child alone.” His remarks sparked a public discussion on family values and diverse family structures. To this day, I can remember how powerful it was when in a special episode, produced as an on-air response to Qualye’s comments, the show brought out real-life families to signal their support of the show’s decision to have Murphy Brown raise her baby as a single mother.
If you want a real tear tearjerker moment, YouTube the scene where Murphy sings Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” to her newborn baby.
THe Cosby show
First of all, this is the show that made me want to live in a New York walk-up brownstone. It features the Huxtable family, an upper-middle-class African-American family living in New York. Until The Cosby Show made Thursday nights on NBC “must see TV,” much of the country had not seen an affluent black family on TV dealing with everyday family issues. A must see is the show’s first episode, “Regular People,” where Cliff walks his son Theo through a hilarious mock budget for living on his own to show him just how good he has it. Hilarious and accurate.
Some people say, “There’s the family you’re born into, and the family that you make.” What spoke to me about this show was that after college, I too moved away from home and to a city where I didn’t know a lot of people. For a good part of my 20s, my friends sort of became my surrogate family. Watching the hilarious dynamic of its six stars play out as they spend vacations and holidays together made me realize just how important strong friendships can be when you’re in that in-between time of leaving your home and starting a family of your own.
Equally important: having those strong friendships when that family of your own grows up and goes their own way (shout out, The Golden Girls). Thank you for being a friend, indeed.
While there were clearly many other shows, some more revered, that were trailblazers for the portrayal of families on TV, these not only kept me entertained, but they opened my mind. So the next time your mom apologizes for “letting you kids watch so much TV,” tell her not to feel bad. It is, in part, because of all those hours in front of the TV that you belong to a more enlightened generation. A generation that doesn’t blink when we see a family that has one mom or two dads. Or even a family with one mom and a male housekeeper who vacuums curtains upright. Or a family that is harboring a creature from outer space. Or EVEN a family that has a robot child that sleeps in a closet standing up (For context, see: Who’s the Boss?, ALF, and Small Wonder). As far as this Xer is concerned, family is what you make it.