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How Family Sitcoms Convince Family Men That Fighting at Home is Fine

Dr. Aileen Buslig studies television and its effects on viewers. She's got some bad news for fathers.

NBC/Paramount Television; Fatherly Illustration

On any given episode of Fraiser, the titular psychologist got into minor arguments with his brother, and major arguments with his father. On the pilot episode, the argument was about an armchair. Subsequent bones of contention included romantic decisions, dog training, and menswear. On the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum, Married With Children featured louder, less verbose arguments about drinking, sexual fantasies, and money. As the American sitcom came into its own, the dramatized sitcom fight took its place at the center of entertainment, just to the left of resolution. The implicit message? People who love each other communicate by fighting and that fighting leads toward resolution.

Unfortunately, what works in a thirty-minute broadcast window doesn’t necessarily work in life. You can’t strangle Bart and maintain custody. You also can’t watch fights lead to resolution nightly for years without coming to believe something fundamentally inaccurate about the experience of family. And, as it turns out, this is particularly true if you happen to be a man.

Dr. Aileen L.S. Buslig, an expert in interpersonal and nonverbal communication and a professor at Concordia College, believes that sitcom exposure has convinced many Americans — and I should note this is a reductive summary of her work — that confrontational arguments are a form of meaningful and potentially constructive communication. She theorizes that this isn’t something that just happened in the 1990s, but a product of a writing tradition stretching back to The Honeymooners, which treated domestic violence like a rimshot.

Fatherly interviewed Dr. Buslig on the subject to discover just how deeply entrenched this kind of thing is, and if there’s any hope for sitcoms of the future.

In your estimation, did American television ever really get past the implied violence of The Honeymooners? 

I think TV shows have gotten better since The Honeymooners, though there are plenty of modern-day sitcoms that make me cringe. I don’t think we really hear threats of physical violence on sitcoms anymore, and perhaps overt exertions of power or dominance are less as well.  I do think that many shows still rely on gender stereotypes—men bluff and bluster, women manipulate and whine—because they are easy and familiar to the audience.

You posit this notion that a lot of sitcom couples are “living in a fight.” Where do you think this comes from? Do you think that the American sitcom presents this sort of constant conflict in a way that’s different than, say, Shakespeare did? I suppose I’m asking if the problem is sitcoms or just the idea of comedic drama.

Conflict was a central theme of storytelling long before TV.  Books, plays, and so on, going back to Shakespeare as you note, and before too. Conflict helps drive a story, and obviously not just comedies. TV sitcoms may be more insidious because the form and length of a sitcom necessitates simplification. The conflict needs to be resolved within a half-hour and it has to resolve ‘happily.’  TV sitcoms can be passively consumed in much greater quantities too.  It takes active effort and a lot longer to read a book or attend a play. Even in TV dramas, married couples living in a fight have an hour to portray the conflict in a more nuanced way, and for stories that are serialized, a conflict may carry across more than one episode.

Okay, so, with that in mind, is the problem that sitcoms rely too much on conflicts that perpetuate myths about healthy relationships? Are there just too many sitcoms? Are viewers taking these shows too seriously?

I don’t think there are too many sitcoms.  They serve useful purposes—to entertain, to provide a bit of escapism, to bring levity.  With this in mind, it may be that viewers are not taking sitcoms as seriously as they should.  There is a phenomenon called the ‘third-person effect’ which suggests that people think others are more likely to be affected by media messages than they are themselves.

Past research by Mary-Lou Galician suggests that men are more likely to believe they are unaffected by the “unreal” portrayals of romantic myth in the media than are women.  So, when sitcoms portray conflicts in unrealistic and unhealthy ways — and this is the case much of the time — they can reinforce unhelpful myths about what makes for a healthy relationship.  However, if a sitcom can model “bad” behaviors or dysfunctional conflict, it theoretically could portray positive conflict behaviors, too.

Why would someone (in theory) take a sitcom “seriously” as a representation of reality? Intellectually, we know these aren’t real families. And yet, emotionally, we often can’t draw that boundary.

 The third-person effect is one reason people might be susceptible to the messages in a sitcom—they don’t think they are taking the message seriously.  Though humor is typically considered to be innocuous because it puts us in a pleasant, receptive state, we may absorb the relationship messages in sitcoms without a sense that we need to defend against negative message meanings.  We also tend to replay humor in our heads, or even repeat the humor out loud, as we fondly remember bits from a show.

Is there an old sitcom in which the good outweighs the bad in relationship to perpetuating family fight myths?

The classics like The Honeymooners, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy…all are problematic, in different ways, when it comes to how family conflict is portrayed. I’m having a hard time thinking of any old sitcoms that fill the bill.

What about a newer one?

This is a hard question for me too.  I can identify scenes from a show as good illustrations of effective or constructive conflict behaviors, or appreciate a scene in which poor conflict behavior is not rewarded, but it is hard for me to name a sitcom in which the good outweighs the bad.

There’s has to be one good example! There are so many of these things.

A story arc on Blackish is worth mentioning, as a good example of a TV show that did not minimize the destructiveness of dysfunctional conflict.

Last season, Bow and Dre got into a relatively small conflict that abruptly turned serious, and the escalation played out over multiple episodes. Attempts to repair the relationship, by both partners, went unnoticed or were rejected. Bow and Dre separated, and their children shuttled back and forth between them as they shared custody. Meaningful moments from their earlier, less affluent, life together were juxtaposed with their current, destructive, scenes of conflict, which highlighted how their communication had decayed into displays of exasperation and contempt. I remember thinking that it was one of the most realistic portrayals of the negative effects of dysfunctional conflict communication I’d seen in a sitcom.  At the time, I wondered if the show would break ground by being the first sitcom (in my knowledge) in which the main characters got divorced after several seasons of wedded bliss.

Of course, in the end, Bo and Dre were reunited and the marriage and family was saved, so the sitcom got its happily-ever-after moment in the end.

That’s beautiful, but I suppose that’s a lot to ask of writers, producers, and actors.

I appreciated this story arc because, contrary to most sitcoms, the show didn’t suggest that destructive conflict is easily overcome.  Sustaining this non-humorous storyline over several episodes was a bold move for a family situation comedy, where the typical conflict is resolved in a mere half-hour.