Culture Shift: The “Perfect” American Family

What do you think of when you picture the “ideal” American family? Personally, Norman Rockwell’s iconic oil painting Freedom from Want comes to mind ( ). It’s an image that most Americans have encountered. In it, a white family is seated around a table as the patriarch and matriarch of the family present the centerpiece of their Thanksgiving feast. The family, as it’s depicted, perfectly follows the “biogenetic” model, a view of kinship that emphasizes the “blood ties” between family members. This model is upheld as the ideal throughout American culture and many people pursue it as they form their own families. Only one third actually achieve this model, however. Despite the ideal, there are numerous variants of the American family: families divided by divorce and rebuilt with the addition of step parents; a single mother raising a child; or a homosexual couple adopting a child across transracial lines.

In her book, Broken Links, Enduring Ties, Linda Seligmann examines transracial and transnational adoption as a method of forming families. Many adopting parents that she interviewed were concerned with the obstacles and discrimination that their children would face in the world, by schoolmates, family members, and strangers. However, depending on the racial group that the parents were adopting from, their approaches to making peace with their contradiction to the ideal differed. For example, those adopting from Russia often did so because they wished to “pass” as a biologically-linked family, expressing the desire to protect their family’s privacy from prying eyes. They best way to do this, they determined, was to simply fit in. Thus, their actions served to conform to this structure present in American society. For families adopting from a visibly different racial group, like Asian or African, the approach was much different. They chose instead to field the invasive inquisition day to day and adapt to life as a mixed-race family formed through adoption. They were palpably uncomfortable as they learned ethnic hair care, sought out new acquaintances who had the same racial background as their child, and tried to instill a cultural appreciation in their children of their native land. These families act with agency by ignoring the ideal image, which seemed to occur more frequently than those hoping to “pass”.

In most cases, except for those attempting to “pass”, families were open about what made them different from the perceived norm. This is why I believe that the biogenetic form of family isn’t far away from becoming outdated. The Rockwell painting I mentioned in the beginning is a relic of the 1930s, where the nuclear family with a heterosexual, procreative couple lived in one household with their children. Many cultural shifts have occurred over the past 80 years that have seriously affected the family structure. For example, women are extremely active in the work force now and no longer dependent on a male partner to support her and any children she may have. Thus, she has the option to remain unmarried if she becomes pregnant, or she can form a family on her own through adoption or artificial insemination. Similarly, homosexual couples are rapidly gaining acceptance before the law and in their communities and forming their own families, often through adoption.

To highlight this shifting view of family with an example from pop culture, I would cite the TV show “Modern Family”. This show features three family units: the traditional nuclear, heterosexual family; the homosexual couple building a family through adoption; and a new family formed through remarriage. This is much more representative of the variety in family types that are now found in American society. Furthermore, its presence in the media and its popularity in American households demonstrate that people identify with it. To me, this is a sign that this show serves as a mirror of society as it exists in reality, instead of prolonging the outdated biogenetic model of family.

To sum up, there is a large culture shift currently occurring in America that is altering the way that people view family formation. The biogenetic model of family is rapidly becoming outdated, due to factors such as increased independence for women and acceptance of non-traditional, homosexual couples. Perhaps some may view this change as a “breakdown” in family values that our country was built upon. I, however, see it very differently. The acceptance of non-traditional families as mainstream is progress for our society. To hold onto a relic of the past in an increasingly globalized world would be to deny the change that is happening all around us. Today, we have more options than ever to build fulfilling family lives, and to deny that would simply rob us of a multitude of opportunities to achieve satisfaction with our endeavors.

by Brionna Mendoza

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