The Media Trauma Epidemic

Remember “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show”? That America is gone.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

Remember The Donna Reed Show? No, I don’t suppose you do. It was a TV show that originated in 1958 and ran for eight seasons. Donna Stone was married to pediatrician Alex Stone. They had two kids, Mary and Jeff, who had various gentle misadventures at home and school. But the kids never took drugs or drank, and there was no alcoholism, addiction, marital infidelity, or child abuse.

The same was true for Leave It to Beaver (1957, six seasons), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952, 14 seasons), Lassie (1954, 19 seasons), Little House on the Prairie (1974, nine seasons), and The Waltons (1972, nine seasons).

Things were more complicated with All in the Family (1971, nine seasons). There was no alcoholism or addiction. But Archie Bunker’s belittling his wife Edith as a “dingbat” and son-in-law Mike (“meathead”) would today constitute abuse. Still, there was no alcoholism or drug addiction (illicit or pharmaceutical), physical violence, or intense abuse—nothing was portrayed as traumatic.

This benign picture of the family held for other family dramas throughout the 20th century, even with slightly broadened parameters of normalcy, in shows like The Wonder Years (1988, six seasons) and Thirtysomething (1987, five seasons).

In the 21st century, family affairs opened up even more in The Sopranos (1999, eight seasons), Six Feet Under (2001, five seasons), Friday Night Lights (2006, six seasons), Gilmore Girls (2000, eight seasons)—and more so in the second decade of the century, including Shameless (2011, still running), The Americans (2013, six seasons), The Fosters (2013, five seasons), Transparent (2014, five seasons), and so on. These later shows, especially, include single parents, foster children, transsexuality, criminal behavior, and sometimes serious family misunderstandings—although rarely long-standing ones that fracture the family and damage its members irrevocably.

But that’s all over now, baby blue.

How benign and loving even shows about criminal and dysfunctional families (like The Sopranos and Shameless) now seem! Contemporary streaming shows and movies about families now depict, in nearly every case, severely disturbed homes, usually broken, with criminal, addicted, and abusive parents either absent or present. Indeed, it is hard to find a family show introduced today that cannot be said to be about trauma. 

Please examine these recent shows and movies and let me know if you agree: Normal People, Bloodline, The Florida Project, Marriage Story, Roma, Moonlight, In My Skin, Joker, Dr. Sleep, Deadwind, Prodigal Son, Honey Boy, and on and on.

There have certainly been portraits of trauma in families before, but never have they been so pervasive, as though it’s impossible to have a serious drama without portraying underlying trauma in the background.

Perhaps readers will find that I am overdramatizing. But I can rarely watch a contemporary family-centered drama today. 

And, so, this suggests a fundamental question. Have we always deluded ourselves about happy families? Was Tolstoy wrong to say, in the opening sentence of his great 1878 novel, Anna Karenina (who comes from and forms an unhappy family and commits suicide): "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Should that statement be: “There are no happy, non-traumatized families”? Are all families unhappy and traumatized? Or is that true today but not in the past? Or have we just figured out that this is true?

Or, at least, that’s what you’ll see on screen today.