I was reading my general conference edition of the Ensign and I ran across Elder Perry’s talk “Why Marriage and Family Matter—Everywhere inthe World”. One part of his talk stuck out especially to me and I wanted to share it and my thoughts on it.
Concerning factors contributing to the difficulty of raising good families today, Elder Perry said:
One problem is that much of the media and entertainment that the world shares does not reflect the priorities and values of the majority. For whatever reasons, too much of our television, movies, music, and Internet present a classic case of a minority masquerading as a majority. Immorality and amorality, ranging from graphic violence to recreational sex, is portrayed as the norm and can cause those who have mainstream values to feel like we are out of date or from a bygone era. In such a media and Internet-dominated world, it has never been harder to raise responsible children and to keep marriages and families together.
As a writer who is working on a first novel and who has noticed the conventions of certain types of story-telling, I can say that there are reasons for this.
Modern story-telling is designed to hook with extremes. Extreme love, extreme violence, extreme whatever. This is to compete with everything else that is out there in order to capture eyeballs and draw advertising dollars. Extremes desensitize.
Modern entertainment requires excitement, and the things that excite the world are not the same as what interests those who have been converted and changed by the Holy Ghost. The natural man and the spiritual man like different things.
Writers writing scripts about family dynamics may be handicapped by less-than-deal upbringing themselves. If all they experienced was yelling and fighting, then any portrayal of a peaceful family is going to seem cheesy and unrealistic to them. They will write what they know.
Also, depending on the demographic the movie/TV show/ book is designed to appeal to, this sets certain limits on characters, types of plots, and types of things that can happen to make the story work. These limits tend to construct story in certain ways and leave out things that would be more realistic.
Take a movie with a child protagonist. Protagonists must be active and make significant choices. In real life, many big decisions are made for children by their parents. So, in order for child protagonists to make important decisions for themselves, writers have to set the child protagonist in a family situation that is not ideal:
1) The child is an orphan
2) One of the parents is missing (divorce, death, abandonment) and another parent is neglectful or distant
3) Or both parents are missing and the child is being raised by an older sibling
4) Or the child is away from the parent(s) for whatever reason—school, camp, job, with friends, etc.
The fact that writers have to work so hard to get the child protagonist away from the parent is actually a nod to the truth that parents matter and that they make things better for their children. Or the writer writes the parent characters so they are dysfunctional and then the conflict between parent and child becomes part of the plot. Sadly, this doesn’t help build respect for parental authority.
In the past, episodic stories were a good way to develop all the characters of a fictional family. They also did a pretty good job of showing the types of little funny situations families would get into and then develop them to bring out the humor. This essentially gave rise to situation-comedies (sitcoms), many of which had wholesome family dynamics and situations. But they’ve been getting edgier and edgier for a long time.
So, be aware that the demands of story-telling and entertainment for authors and producers have been allowed to take higher priority than family values of stability.
Another way that entertainment values tend to overshadow traditional family values is by the addition of conflict. In real life, our goal is to get rid of conflict and smooth things over. In story, however, conflict is an important tool for building tension in a story that creates interest, and authors must try to create conflict to draw people in. (When I was a teenager I remember after seeing a play that was labeled a “family drama,” I decided the definition of a family drama is: a show in which family members take turns yelling at each other to make the other feel guilty and the one with the last word wins.) So, story conflict is not a true gauge of the conflict in reality, nor should it be used as a guide for settling conflicts in reality because story solutions are often slip-shod, hand wavium.
Let’s consider what is required to produce a fairly popular film about family.
Films must have one or two main characters, otherwise the story gets too unfocused. If the main characters are the parents, then the conflict will arise because of the children. Too often, the children in the movie demonstrate smart-alec disrespectful behavior, but the film writers also give them a lot of witty dialogue to maintain our interest, so that kind of behavior is essentially glorified. Hopefully plot problems will be resolved in a way that demonstrates good skills, but this doesn’t necessarily happen if there is hand wavium.
If the main characters are the children, then the conflict will arise because of the parents. Thus, to create dramatic conflict required for the story, the parents have to be portrayed with all sorts of faults—overprotective, or neglectful, or overbearing, or whatever-- and that doesn’t do well for reinforcing respect for parental authority in real life.
A two-hour film only has time to develop one main conflict and maybe two sub-conflicts. This is really very artificial.
So what alternatives do we have for entertainment that that shows good examples of good families?
I want to share with you a few of my favorite books that I think do a better job.
Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey – This is is the story of a family of twelve children, whose father was an efficiency expert around the time when cars were horseless carriages. He applied his work to his family life as well. It is fascinating to see the challenges they faced and how they solved them. The dad is a great example of someone who creates fun ways to encourage his children to learn. There are also great examples of family counsels and how siblings were protective of each other.
Who gets the Drumstick? By Helen Beardsley – This is the book on which the movie “Yours, Mine, and Ours” (starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda) was based. It is the true story of how a widow with eight children met and married a widower with ten children and how they made their huge blended family a success. It gives us a sample of the systems they had to create to make their family run successful and how they solved some of the interpersonal conflicts as children had to adjust their family rolls to make room for new siblings.
The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss – This is the true story of an infertile couple that gradually adopted twelve children (some of different races). It gives a very nice family flavor of their challenges and interactions. What is also rather amusing is that all the way through it, the father is absolutely convinced that this time, this adoption is the last one.
The modern approach to story telling is not how it has always been, however. It gradually evolved over time, so it is possible to read stories from earlier eras that are much more in line with our values and which catered to different reader expectations. One of my favorite series to read are those written by L. M. Montgomery. She is best known for her Anne of Green Gables books. In that era, writers were often expected to include some sort of moral in their fiction, and it might be done with heavy-handedness, or it might be more graceful and light. I personally think Montgomery used a lighter hand, but compared to what you see now in fiction, her writing has such a wholesome tone to it.
We are not confined to just the popular entertainment of today. We can find better stuff out there, stuff that has stood the test of time because of its goodness and skill. Yes, we have to search for it, but that is part of our faith – “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” And once we find it and enjoy it, we have good alternatives to enthuse about to our friends and neighbors and coworkers.