TV & Society


TV and society- how the evolution of television mirrored the changes in society.  From a dichotomous world of black and white- to technicolor rainbow

I know it is radical to think about, but that TV in your house is much more powerful than you might think. It serves purposes much further reaching than just something to point your furniture at. Television is one of the most accurate reflections of a society. It is a microcosm of the society’s social standings, and an immensely powerful socialization agent. As society changes, so does television, and vice versa. Viewers see reflected on their television screens some sort of version, warped as it may be, of reality. Television can act as a powerful mirror for society, reflecting the morals, values, and ideologies of its given population at a particular point in time.

TV and society, as society changes TV follows- from housewives to hippies

The 1950’s were a strange time for America. A massive war had just come to an end, and the nerves of American society were shot. As quiet and prosperity once again fell over America, American values became extremely conservative. The era of the lucky housewife ruled, and women were expected to stay in the kitchen as men ventured into the working world. The realms of personal and private were kept strictly apart, and a new revolutionary medium of communication was quickly gaining popularity-the television. Drugs and sex were taboo subjects both in the real world, and on television. Society was dichotomous, men and woman, good and evil, black and white- and so was television. 1950’s TV was a beautifully accurate reflection of the dichotomy that reigned so prevalently in society. Men and woman were never shown sleeping in the same bed, blacks and whites rarely shared screen time, and men clad in fedoras and crisp suits ventured out of their suburban bubbles to work, as their wives were kept tucked behind their white picket fences. Show like I love LucyLeave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and the Jetsons, reflected the sentiments of the time. The happy housewives, the working father, and the obedient children-the ideal white middle class nuclear family-the American dream. A woman’s place was in the home-and a career was kept perpetually out of the question. In I Love Lucy for example, even though Lucy strived for a string of different successes, she was always comically prevented by some obstacle. She would then settle back into her place as housewife next to her successful husband, showing audiences the inability of woman to truly succeed outside the realm of the home.

Blacks were rarely seen on television, and when they were, they were frequently portrayed as dim witted or lazy, and relegated to the universe of cooks or maids. Gays were all but nonexistent in TV land, as homosexuality was still seen as an illness.

As the 1950’s gave way to major societal revolutions, the television landscape began to drastically change. The Civil Rights Movement ushered in the era of the feminist revolution followed by the Stonewall riots, and the subsequent gay rights movement. Bras were being burned, free love was flowing, and change was in the air. It was the healthiest and wealthiest generation in a long time, and the 1960’s and 70’s saw a birth of a whole new wave of television shows. The once black and white bubble of dichotomy in American society violently burst, giving way to an explosion of color and variety in the world, as well on television. The era ushered in a decade of more liberal values, with the nation led by a decidedly liberal president, Kennedy. TV shows began showing a different kind of family unit- gone were the days of the perfect nuclear family in the suburbs. As society began to recognize and accept different kind of family units, so did television. The concept of the dysfunctional family, the “mixed” family, and even families of divorce, which was too taboo to even previously address- were suddenly on TV screens across the nation, explored in shows like The Brady Bunch.  Single parent families were now also prominently shown on television, with shows and films like Kramer vs. Kramer. Blacks were now given more screen time, and featured in more upwardly mobile positions like in the popular TV show The Jeffersons and the 1968 show Julia, which featured a black single mother and nurse. Lower income, uneducated white families were now also depicted in shows like All in the Family. Woman were also featured in a drastically different light. For the first time, independent, male counterpart free females were featured in lead roles. The Mary Tyler Moore show was a groundbreaking example of the societal female change. Although network execs originally dug their heels in about having their lead character be female-and dare I saw-single, the producers won, and for the first time in television history, an independent career woman was featured-headache, I mean male free.

As the 1980’s crept up, America welcomed a new president, Reagan. Reagan was staunchly conservative, and society, as well as television, began to reflect the conservative flavor that was in the air. The cold war posed a threat to American values being compromise, and forced many Americans to retreat back into societies old ways.  It was a decade of going back to the roots. Shows began to slip into the reflection of old values, with a yearning and nostalgia for the good old days. Television began to portray the typical family unit reflected in many 1950’s and early 60’s TV shows. Shows like Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and Alf reflected the an intense longing for the past.


Letting it all hang out-TV in the present day-nothings off limits

The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw yet another television revolution. The era of singletons. This was the era that singles ruled the airwaves. The 1990’s saw a shedding of the conservative values of the 1980’s, and a regeneration of more liberal, open ones. Sex began to be a topic openly discussed on airwaves, and the desperate need to portray family values withered and died. A boom of TV shows that portrayed young, single, and fabulous characters flooded the airwaves. Friends, Sex and the City, and Seinfeld began to reflect a new reality for young people. A reality in which dating, and sex ruled, and monogamy was no longer a societal must. Talking about blow jobs over brunch, and doggy style during diner, was now commonplace television  banter.

 A strong nuclear family unit was replaced by a world in which a close knit group of friends dominated any natural family. Woman were shown with vibrant careers, some childless, some not, some with husbands, some not. Blacks were shown in lead roles as prosperous and successful, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Gays became prominent members of prime time with shows like Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which the gay men are seen helping the bumbling heterosexual male-quite a telling role reversal of power.

In present day, our airwaves are ruled by reality TV, and reality TV stars trying to break the internet. Shows like the ever so tasteful Jersey Shore, the philosophically oriented Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and the brilliant Tori and Dean (which I had the bad luck of stumbling upon one evening, and has made me develop a twitch the likes of which I still haven’t  been able to shake) are now prominent TV fixtures. TV in present day is more reflective of the current “Me”” generation, which echos the sentiments of young people’s modern day obsession, over, well, themselves.

Minorities have also gained a foothold in the television world.  Blacks are a dominating market force, with entire networks geared towards black culture-ie BET (Black Entertainment Network). Gays and lesbians are now also given front billing with popular shows like The L WordOrange is the New Black, and most recently HBO’s Looking. Even transgender characters are getting heavy screen time with top rated shows like Transparent, which for the first time ever stars a transgender character. Television today represents everything and everyone. With seemingly hundreds of cable channels available on demand, straight, gay, questioning, married, divorced, perpetually single, or just seriously confused, there is truly something for everyone.

Available on our tablets, iPhones, iPads, and laptops- wherever and whenever we want, its a new generation of television, and with it comes a whole new power.  From one channel, to one thousand channels, the fifty plus years of  TV existence have seen such dramatic changes, we can only imagine what the next fifty years will bring. But I will say this-if Tori and Dean is still in syndicated reruns-I’m moving far, far away. Its uncertain where TV will go from here, and the repercussions it will have on society, and vice versa. In the meantime, excuse me while I go binge watch Netflix.




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