Ask a Dork: Family
“What is family to you? What are some of your favorite non-traditional familial units in media?”
Outside of being considered a “basic social unit” by most intellectuals, family usually represents people being tied together. Whether they be by marriage, blood, or adaptation, those ties are important emotional and norming supports. According to sociology, the family has the primary function of reproducing society; biologically, socially, or both. I suppose most family models are defined by blood, but I don’t really share that view. I have family that are closer than friends and friends that are closer than family. In my mind, no bond is innately stronger than any other. To the same extent, no family structure is necessarily greater than another. While modern media still is intent on exploring the nuclear family, I find non-traditional units to bear a little more charm. With that in mind, I’d like to explore my three favorite examples of non-traditional family models in media: a single parent father in film, a brother-sister relationship in television, and family-by-adaptation in comic books.
Jersey Girl may not be Kevin Smith’s greatest outing as a filmmaker, but it certainly demonstrates a relationship that has long flown under the radar. In the film, Oliver TrinkÃ© is a former PR-executive who has struggled to find his place in the world since the loss of his wife and high-profile career. His only saving grace in life is his incredibly sharp daughter Gertie. This precocious little girl pushes her father to try new things and meet new people, despite his suffering through a seven year funk and a trepidation towards change. The traction that she provides not only forcers her father to grow, but also molds him into her personal hero. By becoming the father Gertie needed, Oliver obtained a more fulfilling life. It’s a meaningful narrative in its own right, but I feel like it also shines a light on what I consider to be an important family unit. I have friends who are single fathers and while many may underestimate the competencies of these individuals, I can’t think of a more heartwarming notion than a man turning down beers with his friends to watch Disney movies with his kids.
Brother-sister relationships are ever-present in media, but very rarely do we see one as strong as that of River Tam and her brother Simon’s. Rather than go into a long diatribe detailing the subtle aspects of Firefly’s fourteen episode run, I’m going to provide a quick synopsis. River was a child prodigy who was abducted and experimented on by a corrupt government known as the Alliance. As an adult she displays schizophrenia and often hears voices. Her brother Simon gave up a highly successful career as a trauma surgeon, using every ounce of savings he had, in order to rescue her from the Alliance. As a result they are now both fugitives. Think about that for second – Simon worked hard his entire life, spending years in school and working his way through the medical system, with the sole goal of raising enough funds to bust his sister out of a government facility. He knew that doing so would ruin any chances of a peaceful life for himself and that he’d likely go bankrupt in the process, but he did so anyway despite not seeing so much as her face for almost twenty years. Realistically, Simon could have easily continued with his incredibly successful life and let her rot under the jurisdiction of the Alliance. Thankfully, such was not the case as their relationship is ultimately the most important thing in both of their lives. It’s a strong example of a family model that is usually sequestered to the subplot territory of most modern narratives.
Finally, gotham’s defender is likely my favorite example of family-by-adaptation. As I’m pretty sure we all know, Batman’s origin story is very tragic in nature. Poor little Bruce Wayne lost both of his parents at the hands of a petty criminal. As an adult, when Bruce isn’t brooding, he surrounds himself with a surrogate family, usually composed of his caretaker Alfred and his sidekick Robin. What’s interesting about these two individuals is that they’ve also lost loved ones over the course of their lives. Thankfully, they have each other to lean on when times get rough. While this bonding is strengthened by their working relationship, I’d like to think that they view each within the scope of immediate family over that of co-workers. It’s an important non-traditional family structure within the scope of media, but I would also venture that it’s not incredibly uncommon in real life. Many of us count ourselves lucky to have close friends, but some of us also bear the benefit of friends so close they are in fact family. It may not be the most traditional social unit, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
While all of these examples of non-traditional family units offer something different, they also feature a common thread: people who care deeply for the well being of each other. The honest truth about family is that everyone will experience it differently. In that sense, the concept of family is very diverse – we just have to wait for the media’s representation of it to catch up.