Sitcom Infantalization and the Death of America

the-big-bang-theory-castIt’s not difficult to peg precisely when the American sitcom moved away from following the lives of mature adults to idealizing the lives of overgrown adolescents. But there’s no question that two generations of Americans have now grown up in a world where virtually everyone worth watching on television is a twentysomething to thirtysomething without a home, a spouse, children, or even a solid job in many cases.

That transition began with the modern shift of the early 1970s, when CBS led the way in moving from traditional situation comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies to more urban-centered comedies like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family. Both of those shows focused on non-traditional situations. The Mary Tyler Moore Show focused on a single woman living with a roommate while working at a news station. All in the Family focused on a father and mother living with their grown daughter and son-in-law. The twist: the father was a bigoted moron, and the mother was a good-hearted idiot, while the liberal son-in-law, who didn’t have the ability to provide for his wife, was the smartest one of the bunch.

Fast forward forty years. There are still family-oriented sitcoms, although they all feature non-traditional families being equated to traditional families, or completely dysfunctional traditional families (Modern Family, Glee, Two and a Half Men, Family Guy). There are work-oriented sitcoms, although those sitcoms largely revolve around people who dislike their jobs (The Office, Parks and Recreation). But all of those sitcoms revolve around people who are in their forties.

What of people in their thirties? They are treated like people in their twenties used to be. The Big Bang Theory features late-twenties scientists rooming together, or with their mother, struggling with love; it took five seasons for one of the main characters to get married. Nobody on the show has had children. New Girl features three men living with a woman in an apartment. All are approaching or above age thirty. All but one have dead-end jobs. None are married, none have children.

That used to be the exception rather than the rule. Now, thanks in part to the plethora of television characters who live glorious and fun single lives without responsibility, that’s become the societal ideal. The median age of marriage was stagnant from 1950 to 1970; it was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women in 1950, and 23.2 and 20.8, respectively, in 1970. As of 2010, the median age of first marriage is now 28.2 among men and 26.1 among women.

As for childbearing the numbers are similarly stunning. The average age for first childbirth for women in the United States is 25, lower than the average age for marriage (no wonder there are such massively rising rates of unwed motherhood across socioeconomic lines). The median age in 1950 was 22.8. That may seem like a minor rise, but as Jonathan Last has pointed out in his fantastic What to Expect When Nobody’s Expecting, a rising age of first birth and a lower age of last birth means fewer children.

Not all of this is attributable to television – not even close. But television, as both a reflective and a transformative medium, has changed how people think about marriage and family. Marriage on television is largely relegated to negativity. Married couples are generally miserable (Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons), while single people lead glamorous lives full of sexy partners and interesting jobs (Sex and the City, Friends). Nobody has to live with the consequences of spending adulthood as in a suspended state of adolescence.

America, however, will. When Americans stop getting married, stop having children, stop aspiring for a home and a homestead, the predictable effect is an unmoored civilization, both morally and economically. We cannot all live in our father-in-law’s house. Someone has to pay the bills. And someone has to pick up the slack for a population that increasingly blows off responsibility for the fleeting fun of college-style living.

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  • Gettingby

    This site always puts out insightful, thought provoking articles, why are there so few comments?

    • Chez

      Just put one out….apparently, it’s “awaiting moderation”. Oh well.

    • quousque

      Don’t complain, enjoy ‘troll free zone’ while it lasts.

  • m4253y

    I call this the “checking-out” syndrome. Get a good socialist education, do next to nothing in life, get good at doing nothing, vote for the right marxist and let the government take care of you. Perfect future to look forward to

    • OfficialPro

      it’s the culmination of the hippie philosophy.

      “Tune in, turn on, drop out”. Literally. It’s no accident that many of them experimented with marijuana, which, whatever anybody says about it, does make people have no motivation.

      • Digli

        “whatever anybody says about it, does make people have no motivation.”
        Very clichéd, non factual generalization. Maybe it makes YOU lose your motivation. Think for a minute. Generalizing the behavior of everyone is better left to Liberals and the IslamoNazis. Ritalin is another example :Calms and focuses the hyper, hyper-activates the
        more lugubrious. No one size fits all.

        • OfficialPro

          well many drugs do have different effects on different people, but lack of motivation is something a lot of people agree on in regards to pot. Heck, even Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy agrees on that (and the writers on the Simpsons, and I’m pretty sure all the writers on BOTH those shows have personal experience to relate to it).

          I’ve never tried the stuff myself, but I know people who did.

          Now mind, this lack of motivation doesn’t necessarily extend past the getting-high part. However, if one’s getting high constantly on pot, one does extend the time period of lack of motivation. Occasional users would not have this problem as much.

      • Digli

        I was thinking more to the point of generalizing: Was it the Pol Pot regime that killed everyone who wore Glasses?
        Always many, many exceptions to generalizations which also shows the absurdity of Tribalism.
        There is one generalization that I like to believe:

        There are many stupid Conservatives but absolutely no intelligent Liberals.

      • m4253y

        Spot on!!! The same hypocrites running the corporate world today and still displaying, me, me, me, and ONLY ME!

        • johnnywood

          You forgot the fools who are now running the US government.

          • m4253y

            great point! my apologies as they are the proverbial leaders of the pack

    • Ambriorix_Le_Belge

      Thats a pretty good summary

  • defcon 4

    I saw two people in their late 40’s snogging like teenagers at a public restaurant. I don’t know if they were doing it to win a bet, make a scene or what, but it was bizarre and unreal. Maybe Western civilisation deserves to die.

    • Digli

      Seriously? I mean Seriously? Two people being affectionate in public and that’s the end of civilization? You do realize that you don’t just curl up and die after you turn 40. You might find out if you live that long that hormones keep sending signals right up into your 80’s. I think that’s why peoples eyesight goes….so that others still look desirable.

      I do like your British view of “Making out” and calling it “Snogging”

      And yes….How dare they? Put them in the Tower!

      • defcon 4

        “Affectionate”? There were freakin’ making out in a PUBLIC restaurant. My indictment wasn’t merely of them either, but the apathetic amorality of Western civilization as a whole. A civilization full of highly edumacated fools who try to tell me all religions are the same and that Christianity is “just as bad” as islam. But, just for the record, I prefer the apathetic amorality of Western civilization to the faux moral purity of an islam0nazi state.

        • Digli

          You’re right about the IslamoNazi’s. They’d put those people in the Tower and then stone them to death.
          Maybe you should visit middle America sometime.
          There’s no apathy or amorality. That’s just in the actions of brain dead liberals.

        • Digli

          “edumacated” lol “Saxamaphone” lol “Snogging”………

        • OfficialPro

          are we talking super noisy sloppy french kissing the kind of which I’ve ONLY seen on TV?

    • OfficialPro

      they learned how from sitcoms.

  • Chez

    “Someone has to pay the bills”….

    Or we can put off paying the bills and just keep racking up debt until the whole sh*t-house goes up in flames…..which seems to be our current modus operandi.

    Meanwhile, no matter how ignorant Norman Lear and his writers tried to make Archie Bunker, the character become as beloved in the annuls of American television as anyone. One of my favorite lines from Archie…

    “Patience is a virgin”

    During another episode, Mike is explaining to Archie how man is inherently violent…”homo sapiens have always been a violent species”….

    and Archie responds: “I know what a homo sapien is….it’s a killer f@g.”

  • Raymond_in_DC

    While occasionally very funny, the damage caused by “The Big Bang Theory” is beyond cultural. It also portrays the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as the province of nerds and losers. They not only portray those in the field as socially stunted, barely able to get a date, but also financially stunted. Who would be attracted to such a future?

    As to “Friends”, yes there were children born, but none the traditional way. One character gives birth as a surrogate. A second becomes a father when his now lesbian ex-wife gives birth (and the kid now has two mommies). Two characters have a child out of wedlock. And the one couple that finally marries adopts.

    • putthehammerdown

      When you stop and consider that Chuck Lorre is the one doing BBT, just come to the realization he’s pulling legs and mining for gold. He’s not serializing the Great American Novel or ‘telling truth to power’.
      Most of the other stuff I can do without, but this one as well as
      “Sullivan and Son’ are two I do view as often as possible.
      Now, about me not being able to get The Smithsonian Channel, there I just gotta’ get uppity about it. It’s on my channel guide, & I look it over and literally salivate but Bright House says it is a No-Go. [Some-a-da-B!tch…!]
      Al-GoreZeera, on the other hand, there, they’re ‘looking at that’ and ‘weighing their options’.

  • Ronald Williamson

    The public accepted this trash. They could have rejected it, but they didn’t.

    • Moto

      They could have, but they were conditioned not to reject it, as that would be “bigoted”.

      The fault is not the public’s unless you count failure to summarily execute psychopaths with teaching and media aspirations as a fault.

      • Ambriorix_Le_Belge

        People who watch TV are not expecting to be indoctrinated, so their guard is down

  • John Wettermark

    In All in the Family, the smartest of the bunch was Edith. She just didn’t push her views on the others. Yes, Archie was uneducated and bigoted, but the son-in-law was the bookend to Archie, still not very smart but certain he was.

    • OfficialPro

      The irony being, Edith was intended to be the stupidest one.

      I’ll never forget this exchange between Gloria and Archie:

      Gloria: “Did you know that [x number] of people are murdered each year by handguns?
      Archie: “Would it make you feel better, little girl, if they was pushed outta windows?”

  • Garison Fitch

    My favorite sitcom on TV right now is “The Middle” which is about a traditional family trying to make their way in middle-America. Every episode has me laughing hard, partly because I see my family in the situation. But I almost never see it mentioned by critics, reviewers or anyone else and I can’t help but think it’s because it pushes no boundaries: it’s just funny!

  • roastytoasty

    With little or no education about Marriage & Family at home or in school what should we xpect? The spiritual institution of marriage between one man and one woman is the foundation of human society in Western civilization. The Marxist Left has worked diligently for 160 years to corrupt the virtue of marriage. A sad example of the present dilemma is displayed on huge outdoor billboards along Interstate 20 between Birmingham AL and Atlanta GA where a cheap lawyer hawks his specialties:: BANKRUPTCY $599 /// DIVORCE $189 CALL TODAY!

  • 1uncle

    American decline began with LBJ. Now overrun with uneducated, lazy users bred to create demo voters, Damn the cost.

  • Digli

    What about the Andy Griffith show? One of the best morally ever on TV but just exactly where was Opie’s Mother? Andy,a single father had one child. Barney was in his 40’s maybe, unmarried, no kids. Likewise Gomer, Guber and Floyd the Barber.

    Your Thesis is kinda weak I think.

    The Big Bang Theory is just fluff, a cartoon.

    Is that hard for you to understand?

    The decline in American culture was caused in part by the Great Society and the welfare state that made it financially impractical for fathers to stay around when Moms could receive a better income from the Government without them.

    It’s not Rocket Science. TV has more than anything contributed to bad manners and bad taste helped along by I love Lucy and The Honeymooners.

    Big Government is more to blame for the break up of the American family and that part of our culture. Of course when politicians set a bad example as lawbreakers in the way our current President has and lying adulterers as our most recent Democratic ex-president has, it doesn’t help.

    • OfficialPro

      um, the premise of the Andy Griffith show was a WIDOWER with a son. AKA Andy’s wife had DIED. >.>

      • Digli

        Thanks for the clarification. I’ve watch all those episodes many, many times and never understood that. My point is still basically valid though don’t you think? None of the other main characters were married or were they parents.

        • OfficialPro

          well Aunt Bea took over the motherly duties to Opie more or less. So there was at least a female “role model” in there somewhere.

          You probably could be excused for not realizing Andy was a widower; it was barely mentioned in the show itself.

      • 12banjo

        It was common in those sitcoms days to have a single parent because it generated story lines–romances, conflicts between romance and kids, the tensions, the challenges. My Three Sons, Family Affair, Bachelor Father–it wasn’t One Day at a Time for most of these. I detested that last show because the mother got divorced on a caprice–

  • Recynd

    Although TV had been pushing the boundaries for at least a decade before with the show “Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home” (kind of an early “Family Guy”), things really took a turn for the worse when FOX’s “Married With Children” hit the airwaves. It’s been downhill ever since.

  • Trey

    Big Bang.. Gets most of the meme wrong both the science and the “geek” culture. Oh, and they would all have been fired a very long time ago from there “prestigious” jobs.

  • Digli

    To your point “abundans cautela non nocet” would be one way to view it but “ad usum proprium” might be as well. Being a Macfarlane myself I would have to add in regards to my cousin “condemnant quod non intellegunt”


  • danno

    Shallow. ABC was pioneering the urban sitcom much earlier (He & She, Occasional Wife, Bewitched), and frankly the Simpsons are not miserable. Bewitched is the first show in my memory where the male figure was an idiot, and the first show in my memory with an openly gay character (Paul Lynde). Yeah, Norman Lear was guilty, but he wasn’t first.

  • 12banjo

    Recommend “Boys Adrift”–good book that puts most of this In useful perspective. One quibble–I don’t think Mary Tyler Moore had a roommate — Rhoda was in the apartment next door. I have affectionate memories of this show, and it never seemed very political to me at the time.