The portrayal of divorce in popular media has undergone a significant shift over the past few decades. This shift coincides with a change in societal expectations regarding divorce and family values. However, attitudes about divorce largely remain negative, regardless of society’s general acceptance of it.
Divorcing parents should be particularly concerned about their children’s exposure to portrayals of divorce in popular media. For the most part, children do not consume information from the media with a critical eye. At a fundamental level, children internalize things they watch on TV—such as criminals being “bad” or friendship being “good,” for example.
Children of divorcing parents are susceptible to how divorce is portrayed in popular media, especially with fictional stories that aren’t clearly framed as a fantasy. As a result, children might adopt unhealthy or harmful attitudes about their parents, themselves, and interpersonal relationships.
Negative Portrayals of Divorce
During the time when divorce was largely considered to be a taboo in society, it was common to see popular media portray a traditional family as good, while families affected by divorce were characterized as dysfunctional. Since the 1950s, popular television programs centered around the notion of a functioning nuclear family, and the importance of family values—such as “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and even the more outlandish show, “The Adams Family.”
In contrast, divorce has often been portrayed as an aberrant circumstance. Some films and television shows characterize divorce as something to avoid or “fix.” For example, in the 1961 film “The Parent Trap,” the story focuses on the children’s efforts to rekindle their divorced parents’ love, concluding with their decision to remarry.
This was often conveyed implicitly in the characterization of ex-spouses as villains and antagonists that stood in the way of the story’s heroes and protagonists. For example, in the more contemporary and progressive sitcom, “Modern Family,” DeDe Pritchett—the ex-wife of the patriarchal character Jay Pritchett—has been largely depicted as someone with irredeemable character flaws and is suggested to be mentally ill.
Furthermore, a common archetype in film and television shows is the wicked stepparent. Stepparents have frequently been characterized as a force the main character must overcome who does not understand their stepchildren. Many shows also heavily imply that stepparents or subsequent spouses may have caused the marriage of the main character to fail, positioning them as an adversary.
Divorce Portrayed Positively
Recently, popular media has portrayed divorce in a more positive—or at least earnest—light. The film “Eat Pray Love” focused on the personal exploration of a recently divorced woman as she traveled the world. The story reveals how divorce can open opportunities for someone to further enrich their life.
Furthermore, shows such as “Parenthood,” “7th Heaven,” “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce” have more well-rounded perspectives on divorce. These shows depict the challenges that divorced couples and parents face without necessarily presuming that the idea of divorce was a problem instead of a solution to a problem. Importantly, these shows don’t place the blame for a marriage’s end strictly on one character.
On rare occasions, television shows present a more sophisticated portrayal of a character’s relationship with their former spouse. Some shows have positioned the former spouse character as a person with significant insight regarding the main character and their personality. For example, in the popular 1990s sitcom “Frasier,” Lilith, the titular character’s ex-wife, isn’t portrayed as a villain. Instead, the show depicts how Frasier and Lilith have come to terms with their divorce and continue to respect each other, sometimes expressing affection.
Ultimately, parents should be mindful about how media portrayals of divorce affect their children, and the lessons they learn from such portrayals. Parents don’t have to strictly control the media their children consume, but should be prepared to talk about such issues with their children and correct any misconceptions they might be adopting.
Contact the Law Offices of Jonathan Merel, PC
Divorce can be challenging to deal with for families. As a result, you should retain a licensed attorney with experience handling divorce cases and other family law matters. At the Law Offices of Jonathan Merel, PC, you can count on us to zealously advocate for the best interests of you and your children.
Call our office at (312) 487-2795 or complete our online request form to schedule a consultation about your case today.