Portrayals of Stepfamilies in Film: Using Media Images in Remarriage Education

By Leon, Kim; Angst, Erin | Family Relations, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Portrayals of Stepfamilies in Film: Using Media Images in Remarriage Education


Leon, Kim, Angst, Erin, Family Relations


Abstract:

Media portrayals of stepfamilies influence societal views of stepfamilies and individuals' expectations for remarriage and stepfamily life. This study examines portrayals of stepfamilies in films released in 1990 through 2003. Using content analysis to understand how stepfamilies are portrayed and to identify film clips appropriate for use in remarriage education programs, we found that stepfamilies were typically depicted in a negative or mixed way. In addition, stepparent-child relations, remarried couple relationships, and issues related to former partners were frequently portrayed. Film clips illustrating themes of stepparent-child relationships, prior marriage, conflict with former partner(s), couple relations, couple conflict, stepsibling relations, and stepfamily strengths are discussed, as well as their use in educational programming.

Key Words: media portrayals, remarriage, remarriage education, stepfamilies.

The most current statistics on remarriage in the United States, which are from the late 1980s, indicate that about 46% of marriages are remarriages for one or both members of the couple (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). About 75% of divorced adults remarry (Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991) or cohabit with new partners (Bumpass, Raley, & Sweet, 1995), and remarriages bring unique challenges for which many couples are not prepared. Because remarriage or cohabitation typically occurs within months after beginning the relationship, many remarried couples are simultaneously developing couple relationships and negotiating stepparent-stepchild relationships (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000). This process may be challenging because remarriage is considered an "incomplete institution" (Cherlin, 1978) that lacks clear social norms or guidelines for role performance or resolving problems. Further, cultural beliefs perpetuated by media and folk tales either stigmatize stepfamilies (e.g., the wicked stepmother stereotype) or foster unrealistic expectations, such as the myth of instant love exemplified in the television show The Brady Bunch (Ganong & Coleman, 1997). These cultural beliefs may influence individuals' behaviors, perceptions, and expectations with regard to remarriage and stepfamily relationships (Segrin & Nabi, 2002).

The present study has two primary goals: to examine film portrayals of stepfamilies and to identify media images that can be used in remarriage education programs to foster realistic expectations about stepfamily life. We attempted to integrate empirical and applied perspectives in this study because we believe that this integration strengthens the work of both practitioners and researchers. Others (Pasley, Dollahite, & Ihinger-Tallman, 1993) have recommended that clinicians who work with stepfamilies should have a sound understanding of empirical work; we believe that the same is true for family life educators. In addition, it is helpful for researchers to understand the complexity of the challenges that stepfamilies face. Thus, we included an empirical content analysis of film portrayals of stepfamilies to provide a broad view of the media environment affecting stepfamilies, and a more detailed discussion of specific film clips portraying stepfamily dynamics and their potential use in remarriage education programs. We argue that media are an important part of the family's ecological context; thus, understanding the media context in which families are embedded increases understanding of families for both practitioners and researchers.

We chose to focus on film portrayals of stepfamilies because exposure to films is so widespread in contemporary American culture, and images portrayed in films are likely to play a role in the creation and transmission of cultural beliefs (Signorielli & Morgan, 2001). Films are described as "symbolic creations which signify social values and meanings through their narratives, plots, and characters" (Levy, 1991, p. …

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