Television Culture Creates Dialogue In Divorce Depictions

  • Television and film have shifted their depiction of divorce over the last 60 years
  • Depending on the genre, television can depict divorce differently
  • Research suggests discussing romantic comedies will benefit your marriage

"To normalize the circumstances through television is to create a dialogue with those going through them."

Societal norms present television as a window into a world outside of our own walls. It tells the stories of what’s happening in the world and details the stories from the minds of those that observe. For individuals experiencing a divorce, it can feel like the cultural perception of what you’re experiencing is negatively targeting you; that the programming no longer feels relatable, given what you’re currently going through.

It’s understandable to dismiss scripted programming altogether, but given the shifting attitudes toward divorce, the television culture has been slowly adapting to shifting opinion.

Cultural shift

Given the ever-shifting political climate of the U.S. over the last 40 years, it’s understandable that television and television culture would reflect those changes, and with no-fault divorce’s rise to popularity, portrayal of divorce has changed along with the institution.

From the earlier days of television in “Leave It To Beaver” storylines portraying to divorce as an institution that leads to insecurity and depression to HBO’s premiere of the television show literally entitled “Divorce”, the portrayal of divorce has been affected by shifting viewpoints. Even from “Leave it to Beaver” to the premiere of “The Brady Bunch” in 1969, there was a noticeable shift, as suddenly, the most popular show on television featured a widowed dad with three children finding love with a divorced woman with three children from her previous marriage.

The tonal shift in the culture of divorce portrayal continued with prominent divorced characters, such as Angela Robinson Bower from “Who’s The Boss?” and Dorothy Zbornak from “The Golden Girls”. The major focus in creating these characters was creating stories based on relatable circumstances. Divorces happen as a parent and as someone in the elder years of their life. To normalize the circumstances through television is to create a dialogue with those going through them.

Genre dependent

Depending on the television show’s genre, the perception can shift. In crime dramas, divorce can often be a motive to warrant suspicion for the crime, often creating a hostile and negative outlook on the act of divorce. In soap operas, divorce is a common practice that most characters go through at least once in their run on the individual show, due to the nature of the romantic narrative of the genre. In reality shows, it can create a whole different dialogue entirely.

Due to the sometimes scripted nature implied with reality television, the ability to shift a narrative toward a positive outlook can happen if the nature of the reality allows for it. In courtroom procedurals like Judge Judy or programs on truTV, the realities of the cases are factual and accurate to the lives of the plaintiffs and defendants. However, the judges and proceedings can often take on personas, creating character reputations of the “no-nonsense” judges, that scold those entering their courtroom ill-prepared or under less than honorable circumstances.

These people featured in these television courts are often divorced men and women, seeking a solution to their fight over money, property, and alimony. These divorces create a public perception that continues to guide much of the cultural discussion on divorce as an institution.

The seemingly scripted reality shows that have recently captured the attention of American audiences can often feature public and ugly legal separations and divorces. Both “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” have featured divorces that have resonated beyond the channels they air on and have dove deeper into the mainstream of public America. These divorces have started marital conversations regarding child custody, alimony, the impact of length of marriages, abuse, and resolution.

Searching for answers

With television and film creating these conversations about divorce, research is being done on its impact on marriages as a whole. The romantic comedy genre has created a niché to monitor the culture of television and film’s effect on the divorce rate, and this study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, found that discussing five romantic comedy movies over the course of a month could cut the newlywed divorce rate in half.

This research shows that while television and film’s culture can have an effect on marriage, it doesn’t define the perception of a perfect one, nor does it shame those seeking refuge from their own through divorce or separation. The culture surrounding television and film doesn’t speak to the individual intricacies of relationships, nor does it define those in relationships. Divorce or separation isn’t the same for everyone, and while television and films have been playing catch-up, trying to find different ways of depicting it, it will never capture the realism for those who have experienced it firsthand.

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