In the cultural conflict of family values, we need all the levity we can get to raise our spirits and inflate our hope that times are not as bad as some naysayers predict. As a means to that end, mockumentary style situational comedies provide a much needed remedy in the form of comic relief, as they comment on contemporary social themes relative to all our lives.
"Sitcoms" that seem to remain most in vogue across the television time-line continuum are those that focus on relationships, and those that seem most appealing are those that lampoon family relationships in particular. If we look closely enough, and are not too proud to admit it, each of us can see a lot or little bit of our own idiosyncrasies in the foibles of the characters displayed. It's comforting to know, when the world fails to recognize the beauty in our own flawed character, that at least we are not really alone. If we can laugh with them, the sting of others' laughter directed our way is softened.
For the most part, TV show families, in episodic vignettes, portray value dilemmas that we all face, such that typify normal social transactions and interactions of day to day living. One show in particular, Modern Family, challenges traditional taboos of divorce, interracial coupling, and gay mated couple configurations. It calls into question how marriage, the traditional institution that ritualizes and formalizes dimorphic coupling, is currently transitioning to include and recognize other types of pair-bonded relationships as equally valid forms of human being.
The show itself is about three branches of a single family tree and their multigenerational experiences as related through kinship bonds. While the families featured in the sitcom represent what is understood as the typical nuclear family model, the couple-bonds heading the families themselves are atypical to those normatively found in American culture, and certainly are not structures that are championed as representative of conservative mainstream American values. They in fact include a divorced/remarried, interracial/intergenerational couples and a gay male couple with an adopted Vietnamese child.
Historically, each culture in every place and era, has had its own set of both expectations and taboos around certain acceptable pair-bonding forms, and many persist even today. Pasternack et al (Sex, Gender and Kinship pg. 77) provide reasoning that "scholars assume that where customs, traits and institutions are universal across cultures, there is a clear adaptive advantage for doing so". Several theories are used to explain why stable dimorphic-specific mated relationships have evolved into a universal characteristic of the human species. While each theory does not apply universally to all forms of pair-bonding, there are certain characteristics that apply within the specter of diverse mated relationship forms, including those featured in the show 'Modern Family'.
According to one such theory, the adaptive advantage "solves the problem presented by gender division of labor" (Sex, Gender and Kinship pg. 78) such as getting food and other economic advantages. This definitely applies to the mated relationships in human primates where the female tends to defer to tasks centered around nurturing needs of the offspring, while the male provides for economic and protective needs of the female and their brood. In the show "Modern Family", we find an hilarious reversal of traditional gender roles, as its writers go to great lengths to portray situations in which the characters take responsibility for tending to tasks not traditionally assigned to their specific gender class. For instance, in one scene Jay and and his son-in-law Phil are assigned to take their sons out to the mall to purchase Halloween costumes. The experience of men shopping and dealing with transactions outside their normal social strata, is quite entertaining. Presenting yet another perspective, the writers of the show create a scene that shows how Cam and Mitchell, Lily's gay adoptive parents, share equally in the tasks of child rearing, with neither assigned to fulfill one specific role or the other. In these relationships, the basic idea of 'gender division of labor' is supported, though perhaps not in the traditional sense.
Another theory presented by Pasternak et al, relative to behaviors observed in pair-bonding habits of other species, is the dependency theory (Sex, Gender and Kinship pg. 80). This theory is considered pertinent to the human species as well because according to it, pair-bonding accommodates the long gestation period of offspring dependency, thus requiring the assurance of the provision of food, shelter, and protection. The families presented in 'Modern Family' have children as well, and the children seem to be the glue that binds them together. Even in the relationship between Cam and Mitchell, that of its own accord could not biologically produce offspring, the essential criteria for provision of food, shelter, and protection is satisfied, thus confirming their relationship as a valid form of pair-bonding mated relationship. Their infant daughter Lily's needs are met as one of the pair functions as the 'stay-at-home' dad (proxy mom), while the other goes out to forage for food in order to provide economic stability for the family unit.
But what of those who reject non-traditional mated relationships, argueing that they are unnatural (for moral or religious reasons), and as such they not be accepted as a valid proxy for traditional gender dimorphic arrangements? Morals are socially constructed, relative to adaptation under certain circumstances, and as such are not necessarily a part of this discussion. However, to address the question of why males and females share responsibilities in some cases but not in others, etiologists (Pasternack et al, Sex, Gender and Kinship pg. 80) answer that question by investigating another: “Why can females in some species do without males”?
According to Melvin Embers, a contributor to the book ‘Sex, Gender and Kinship’. the interference theory accounts for the fact that without the division of labor exhibited in the distribution of gender specific tasks, nonhuman primate mothers would have to be away from their offspring while foraging for food, leaving their infants vulnerable to predators. Thus, “natural selection would favor male-female pair-bonding if the mother’s feeding requirements interfere with her baby tending”. Embers found this hypothesis to be supported among birds and mammal species. This is relevant to human dimorphic pair-bonding, the assumption being that human mothers need help to manage all the tasks neccessary to ensure her survival and that of her offspring. But why, posits Embers, would this eliminate the option of female-female pair-bonding? A female partner could just as easily replace the male in a relationship like this, by taking turns in tending to the needs of the brood, while the other went out to forage for food. However, the problem encountered in this arrangement, would be that there may be occasions when both mother might simultaneously have a set of offspring, and neither would be able to leave the offspring and tend to the task of providing food. So that eliminates the potential reasoning for same-sex pair bonding between females. In defense of humans however, females are not the victims of biology that their earlier ancestors were, and are quite capable of dividing labor while planning to avoid overlapping gestational circumstances, if they so choose.
Human pair-bonding tendencies have been formalized through ritual and ceremony into a cultural phenomenon known as ‘marriage’. George Murdoch’s classic definition of marriage is “Marriage exists only when economic and sexual functions are united into one relationship” encompasses an inclusive range of broad relationship configurations that appear in the kalidescopic diversity of human culture. Male-female pair-bonding is not the only familial configuration that has prevailed across cultures as evidenced by anthropological and sociological scientists who have studied pair-bonding patterns for generations, including those that affirm the practice of polygyny (males with multiple wives), polyandry (female with multiple husbands -- among the Nayar’s of India’s Malibar coast [pg.83] ), female with female (Nandi of Kenya[pg.83]). Even the Cheyenne have engaged in socially sanctioned male-male bonding mated relationships. There have even been situations in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the last 50 years, where ghost marriages occured. And while that may seem strange to some who do not share the values supporting that particular cultural experience, these various pair-bonding configurations must be recognized for their capacity to convert friendship to kinship thereby satisfying the beneficent charge lying at the root of all mated relationships: to establish potentially useful connections between families and to strengthen social ties that serve to unite rather than divide us in the systemic networks that constitute our human commonalities.
Families have traditionally consisted of a pair-bonded couple, each fulfilling an inherent need for economic and social security and comfort. Our disparate values may divide us, individually and culturally. But if we stop and reflect, our eyes may be open to the possibility that we are less different than we imagine; that we are more alike than we thought, especially in terms of the methods we choose to survive the vicissitudes of life. Once we’ve secured that position, then we are free to satisfy that gnawing inherent longing to achieve the often elusive and most precious human values of beauty, peace, hope, joy, happiness and, yes, even laughter and levity, which somehow makes it all worthwhile.