TELEVISION AS A MEDIUM FOR MODERN DAY MYTHS
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s television programming developed rapidly into more than an assortment of fact and fiction narratives; it became itself a social text for an increasing population, “functioning as a kind of code through which people gleaned a large portion of their information, intellectual stimulation, and distraction” (Danesi, 240). Since its inception in the mid-1930s, many of television’s programs have become the history of many cultures. French semiotician Roland Barthes (1915-1980) claimed that “television shows are often based around a mythologie, in reference to the fact that the original mythic themes continue to reverberate residually in modern-day societies, especially in discourse, rituals, and performances” (Perron, 35). In other words, television is a medium through which modern day mythologies become constructed, developed, and eventually discarded. Programs like Saved by the Bell, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Guy and The O.C. exemplify this concept by reinforcing or undermining traditional family structure, dictating the latest fashion, and moulding the ideal’ teenager. As a result, society plans their daily routine around these modern day values’.
The mythology of fatherhood that TV constructed and developed from the 1950s to the early 2000s began with the traditional patriarchal family structure. The produced father figure was one who was in charge of the family, with his wife working at home, making the husband comfortable. This mythology of fatherhood reflected the social mindset of the 1950s (Danesi, 229). In the 1960s and early 1970s the perspective changed drastically and the new view on the patriarchal family was that the father was an “opinionated, ludicrous character” (Danesi, 229). The deterioration of the 1950s father figure myth was most prominent in many of the sitcoms in the 80s and 90s. A typical example would be The Simpsons, “a morbid parody of fatherhood and of the nuclear family” (Danesi, 229). Homer Simpson, the father of the Simpson family, was boorish, idiotic, immature and disgusting. His wife, Marge, was still a stay-at-home mom and his son, Bart, was a menace, whereas the daughter Lisa was a brilliant second-grader. The males of the show were portrayed as shallow and despicable. The Simpsons (1989) and Family Guy (1999) and other “similar sitcoms constituted a scathing indictment of traditional family values and roles” (Danesi, 230). The fathers on these sitcoms were pathetic and undeserving of the title of father’.
The television programs of the 1950s and 1960s sugar-coated the typical family and built up the mythology of a patriarchal family. However, this mythology was challenged by the uprising of strong, independent, working women. For example, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990) depicted a clean-cut and wealthy family that was black, with a mother that was a professor at a university. The Cohen family in The O.C. (2003) drama television series represent a wealthy, white family, with a working mother who is the major bread-winner’ of the family. These shows and many others portrayed strong, independent women who were attempting to survive, socially and professionally, in a world that was deconstructing patriarchal structures (Danesi, 230). Strong-willed women are not the only force that is disassembling these traditions. The dysfunctional family is now also taking into effect. The show Desperate Housewives (2004) demonstrates the increasing number of families in this period that are separating and losing the traditional value of family’. This show contains cheating spouses, and generally wives who are desperately vying for attention and love. In this day and age, sitcoms and dramas deal with controversial yet honest groundbreaking discussions of current social issues.
Since the dawn of television shows, most of society select their clothes and have their lifestyle dictated by the actors and actresses of popular television shows (Thorton, 70). In 1989 when Saved by the Bell first aired, many young girls followed the wardrobe of the beautiful Kelly Kapowski, and boys kept up with Zack Morris’ taste in cars and girls. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air adopted the MC Hammer style with its colourful button-up shirts, big pants, and not to mention the high tops with untied shoelaces. In semiotic terms, a system is a field of related things and their meaning comes from how they relate to each other. Unlaced shoelaces may mean nothing when taken by themselves, for example, but when viewed within the system of teen fashion in the late eighties – a system that included the growing popularity of the imagery of the urban street gang – they may mean a lot. Projecting an image in that system was called hip-hop (Maasik, Solomon).
In the mid-90s, Friends came on the air and made a huge impact in the fashion world. The hairstyle of Rachel Gellar created a fashion frenzy in the year of 1994-1995, marking its place in historical fashion books and in culture. The clothing worn on the show by Rachel, Phoebe and Monica were desperately sought after by many girls for the next decade. The morals, principles and ideals of this group of friends reflected the values of the society (Miller, 93). The gang’s local hangout, Central Perk, made the idea of “hanging out” in a coffee shop appealing, and the idea of living with your friends seemed easy and fun. Because of the show’s appeal and humour, sleeping around was normal and praised. In 1998, That 70’s Show Okayed the return of bell-bottoms and confirmed the concept of sleeping around. The show also promoted “hanging out”, having fun, and hardly ever doing any homework. In the same year, the advent of Sex and the City came upon us and documenting our sex lives became the norm. The fashion of the four girls did not go unnoticed and their high class apparel was photographed in all the major magazines (Miller, 47). The O.C. is no exception to this phenomenon. The high fashion of Marissa Cooper and Summer Roberts tailored the fashion of 2000, making girls flock to the nearest Cosmopolitan-like store. The lifestyle of The O.C. is extremely laid back and compelling, making it highly coveted and mimicked. Consequently, clothing fashion is an ideological statement about the social values of the time, and the lifestyles portrayed on television represent the mythologies that will eventually be discarded and renewed by a new perspective (Thorton, 53).
Not only was the father-figure mythologically’ structured, but the archetypal teen was also identified. Since the very late-eighties did the ascension of rebellious teenagers occur and has continued to appear on all the television shows (Thorton, 86). Saved by the Bell instigated the up rise of teenage misdemeanor and light teenage angst. Its humour and coverage of social teen issues exuded the type of honesty that kids were able to relate to. Zack, the main character, and his crazy antics got him into a lot of trouble, however, he also got the girl’ and many viewers thought he was extremely cool’. The teenagers in this show gave the impression that in order for teens to be cool’, they would need a set of friends with both the opposite sex, who were able to have fun whenever they wanted, give or take a few chores around the house. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air emitted that same type of image. However, these teens also had the perfect body, face, clothes and style. They were also very popular and were only subject to simple teenage drama. This is also apparent in the show, That 70’s Show, where being the ultimate sex-symbol was important as a teenager. In The O.C., all of the aforementioned stipulations of the typical show about the ideal’ teenager applied and the good, well-off lives of Orange County teenagers became the lives that most teenagers desired. All of these shows contained beautiful characters with great friends and eventful lives complete with a local hangout’ and boyfriend/girlfriend problems. A large amount of teenagers today try to incorporate these lifestyles into their own (Maasik, Solomon). The myth that these teenagers behave and live in a fantastic social world is developed through the desires of society and is reflected upon the ideals of the community.
“Television, like a religious narrative, constitutes a social text that is directive of behaviour and lifestyle” which is evident through the examples of various television shows in the past century (Danesi, 228). Many television shows dictate the type of acceptable behaviour and lifestyle of the time and hinders individual thought and perception. The ideal family, life, fashion and image is indicative of the social values of society and can just as easily be constructed, developed and eventually destroyed. The social values of society must keep up with the changes that occur constantly. The irregularity of television only emphasizes the mythological effect that television shows attain, especially the power of change. Using television as a medium of projecting history and culture, also gives opportunity for technology to dictate our lives. The social standards of our culture are represented through the glass or LCD or plasma screen of a rectangular box. It can reinvent our entire culture, as indicated through the obvious change of family structures, fashion and lifestyle requirements, and teenage ideology. Be that as it may, television functions our way of life.
Danesi, Marcel. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Media, and Communications. Toronto. University of Toronto Press, 2000.
Danesi, Marcel. Messages, Signs, and Meanings: A Basic Textbook in Semiotics and Communication Theory. Toronto. Canadian Scholar’s Press, 2004.
Maasik and Solomon, The Semiotic Thoeory. www.cgjh.com/barthes/social/theory, 2002.
Perron, P. and Danesi, M. (eds.) Classic Readings in Semiotics. Toronto. Legas Publishing, 2003.
Thorton, G. Ronald Barthes Mythologies. NY, New York. NY Publishing, 2000.