A 50-year study reveals changing values children learned from pop culture.
- A new study tracked changes in values tweens (8-12 years old) get from popular culture.
- The researchers compared 16 values over a 50-year-period.
- The report was created by the UCLA's Center for Scholars and Storytellers.
A new report from UCLA's Center for Scholars and Storytellers focused on values espoused by television programs that were popular with children 8-12 between over half a century, between 1967 to 2017. The researchers looked at how 16 values changed in importance during that span.
The most important value in 2017, the last year the study looked at, was achievement, with self-acceptance, image, popularity, and belonging to a community in the top five.
Another interesting find charted the value of fame, which used to rank at the bottom for nearly 40 years (ranking 15th until 1997), then skyrocketed to No. 1 as a value in 2007. By 2017, it went down to No. 6.
Why was fame so important in 2007? The scientists tie it to the growth of social media platforms like Facebook (launched in 2004) and YouTube (launched in 2005). Teens quickly adopted these mediums and many content-creators from that first decade of the 2000s made "fame-focused tween shows," concluded the researchers. These platforms "which for the first time allowed anyone and everyone to seek a large audience, were brand new and seemed an essential part of the zeitgeist," they wrote in the paper.
Studies have also shown that this rise in fame-seeking corresponded to a rise in narcissism, while empathy decreased.
Change in values from tween television.
Other values, like community feeling and benevolence, also fluctuated in significance through the years, according to the study. The changes in value importance were directly correlated to changes in the culture at large. The importance of community was number one or two in four of the decades but fell to 11 in 2007. Being kind and helpful was in the second spot in 1967 and 1997, but only 12th in 2007. Now it's up to number 8.
Psychology professor Yalda Uhls, the report's author as well as founder and executive director of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, remarked on the trends:
"I believe that television reflects the culture, and this half-century of data shows that American culture has changed drastically," said Uhls. "Media plays an important role as young people are developing a concept of the social world outside of their immediate environment."
One big value shift the study pointed out has to do with the kinds of messages kids get from reality shows (evaluated since 2007) and fictional shows that are scripted.
The most popular shows among tweens in 2017, based Nielsen ratings, were "America's Got Talent" and "American Ninja Warrior." Among scripted shows, the top two were "Thundermans" and "Girl Meets World." The values conveyed by the scripted shows were self-acceptance, community belonging and being kind. While in reality TV, values like fame, self-centeredness and image were promoted.
Reality shows, which are created for a wide audience, but watched frequently by tweens, tend to center on competition and the value of being the winner at something. They also celebrate tactics like bullying and cheating in order to win.
Most watched tween TV shows from 1967-2017 in the U.S.
The report's lead author, Agnes Varghese, a fellow of the center and a UC Riverside graduate student, explained how shows influence the kids:
"If tweens watch, admire and identify with people who mostly care about fame and winning, these values may become even more important in our culture," shared Varghese. "Reality television shows continued to reflect the same trend we saw in 2007, with self-focused values such as fame ranking highest."
Researchers also point out that shows, whether scripted or reality, are misleading in that they don't really reveal the value of hard work that it takes to achieve fame, especially for an average person. This is a crucial shortcoming, considering that tweens form lifelong belief systems during these years based on what they perceive as desirable to achieve in the future.
Check out the full report here: "The Rise and Fall of Fame: Tracking the Landscape of Values Portrayed on Television from 1967 to 2017" (PDF).
The pieces don't represent an army, they stand in for the Western social order.
As I argue in my book “Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages," the game's early European players turned the game into an allegory for society and changed it to mirror their world. Since then, poets and writers have used it as an allegory for love, duty, conflict and accomplishment.
The game's medieval roots
When chess arrived in Europe through Mediterranean trade routes of the 10th century, players altered the game to reflect their society's political structure.
In its original form, chess was a game of war with pieces representing different military units: horsemen, elephant-riding fighters, charioteers and infantry. These armed units protected the “shah," or king, and his counselor, the “firz," in the game's imagined battle.
But Europeans quickly transformed the “shah" to a king, the “vizier" to the queen, the “elephants" to bishops, the “horses" to knights, the “chariots" to castles and the “foot soldiers" to pawns. With these changes, the two sides of the board no longer represented the units in an army; they now stood in for Western social order.
The game gave concrete expression to the medieval worldview that every person had a designated place. Moreover, it revised and improved the very common “three-estate" model: those who fought (knights), those who prayed (clergy) and those who worked (the rest).
Then there was the transformation of the queen. Although chess rules across medieval Europe had some variations, most initially granted the queen the power to move only one square. This changed in the 15th century, when the chess queen gained unlimited movement in any direction.
Most players would agree that this change made the game faster and more interesting to play. But also, and as the late Stanford historian Marylin Yalom argued in “The Birth of the Chess Queen," the queen's elevation to the strongest piece appeared first in Spain during the time when the powerful Queen Isabella held the throne.
A 'mating' dance
With a powerful female figure now on the board, jokes about "mating" abounded, and poets often used chess as a metaphor for sex.
Take the 13th-century epic poem "Huon de Bordeaux." Wanting to expose his newly hired servant, Huon, as a nobleman, King Yvoryn urges him to play chess against his prodigiously talented daughter.
"If thou can mate her," Yvoryn says, "I promise that thou shalt have her one night in thy bed, to do with her at thy pleasure." If Huon loses, Yvoryn will kill him.
Huon does not play chess well. But this turns out not to matter because he looks like a medieval version of "Queen's Gambit" breakout star Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. Dizzy with desire and desperate to sleep with this heartthrob, Yvoryn's daughter plays badly and loses the game.
In the 14th-century poem "The Avowyng of King Arthur," chess also stands in for sex. At one key moment, King Arthur summons a noble lady to play chess; together they "sat themselves together on the side of the bed" and "began to play until dawn that was day." The repeated "mating" on the board not-so-subtly hints at a night of lovemaking.
It also shows up to this end in "The Queen's Gambit." In an echo of Huon's game, Beth plays with her friend and love interest, Townes, in his hotel room. Their match, however, is interrupted when it becomes clear that Townes doesn't share Beth's feelings. Later in the story, Beth plays with Harry Beltik. Their first kiss takes place over the board and prefaces their sexual consummation.
Chess as 'life in miniature'
But much deeper and more interesting are the medieval allegories that use chess to reinforce societal obligations and ties between citizens.
No author did this more comprehensively than 13th-century Dominican friar Jacobus de Cessolis. In his treatise "The Book of the Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners on the Game of Chess," Jacobus imagines chess as a way to teach personal accountability.
In four short sections, Jacobus moves through the gameplay and pieces, describing the ways each one contributes to a harmonious social order. He goes so far as to distinguish pawns by trade and to connect each to its "royal" partner. The first pawn is a farmer who is tied to the castle because he provides food to the kingdom. The second pawn is a blacksmith, who makes armor for the knight. The third is an attorney, who helps the bishop with legal matters. And so on.
Jacobus' work became one of the most popular of the Middle Ages and, according to chess historian H.J.R. Murray, at one point rivaled the number of Bible copies in circulation. Even though Jacobus in his prologue implies that his book is most useful for a king, the rest of his treatise makes clear that all people – and the piece they most closely resemble – can benefit by reading his work, learning the game and mastering the lessons that come with it.
Jacobus' allegory becomes one of the central messages of "The Queen's Gambit." Beth reaches her full potential only after she learns to collaborate with other players. Just like the pawn she converts in her final game, Beth becomes a figurative queen only with the help of others.
But this is not the only modern work that deploys chess in this fashion. "Star Wars," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "Blade Runner," to name just a few, use versions of the game at key moments to show a character's growth or to stand in as a metaphor for conflict.
Grandmaster Garry Kasparov's observation ultimately holds true. "Chess," he once quipped, "is life in miniature."
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Yet, the real-world roles and expectations of fathers have changed in recent years.
From Homer Simpson to Phil Dunphy, sitcom dads have long been known for being bumbling and inept.
But it wasn't always this way. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, sitcom dads tended to be serious, calm and wise, if a bit detached. In a shift that media scholars have documented, only in later decades did fathers start to become foolish and incompetent.
And yet the real-world roles and expectations of fathers have changed in recent years. Today's dads are putting more time into caring for their children and see that role as more central to their identity.
Have today's sitcoms kept up?
I study gender and the media, and I specialize in depictions of masculinity. In a new study, my co-authors and I systematically look at the ways in which portrayals of sitcom fathers have and haven't changed.
Why sitcom portrayals matter
Fictional entertainment can shape our views of ourselves and others. To appeal to broad audiences, sitcoms often rely on the shorthand assumptions that form the basis of stereotypes. Whether it's the way they portray gay masculinity in "Will and Grace" or the working class in "Roseanne," sitcoms often mine humor from certain norms and expectations associated with gender, sexual identity and class.
When sitcoms stereotype fathers, they seem to suggest that men are somehow inherently ill-suited for parenting. That sells actual fathers short and, in heterosexual, two-parent contexts, it reinforces the idea that mothers should take on the lion's share of parenting responsibilities.
It was Tim Allen's role as Tim "the Tool Man" Taylor of the 1990s series "Home Improvement" that inspired my initial interest in sitcom dads. Tim was goofy and childish, whereas Jill, his wife, was always ready – with a disapproving scowl, a snappy remark and seemingly endless stores of patience – to bring him back in line. The pattern matched an observation made by TV Guide television critic Matt Roush, who, in 2010, wrote, "It used to be that father knew best, and then we started to wonder if he knew anything at all."
I published my first quantitative study on the depiction of sitcom fathers in 2001, focusing on jokes involving the father. I found that, compared with older sitcoms, dads in more recent sitcoms were the butt of the joke more frequently. Mothers, on the other hand, became less frequent targets of mockery over time. I viewed this as evidence of increasingly feminist portrayals of women that coincided with their growing presence in the workforce.
Studying the disparaged dad
In our new study, we wanted to focus on sitcom dads' interactions with their children, given how fatherhood has changed in American culture.
We used what's called "quantitative content analysis," a common research method in communication studies. To conduct this sort of analysis, researchers develop definitions of key concepts to apply to a large set of media content. Researchers employ multiple people as coders who observe the content and individually track whether a particular concept appears.
For example, researchers might study the racial and ethnic diversity of recurring characters on Netflix original programs. Or they might try to see whether demonstrations are described as "protests" or "riots" in national news.
For our study, we identified 34 top-rated, family-centered sitcoms that aired from 1980 to 2017 and randomly selected two episodes from each. Next, we isolated 578 scenes in which the fathers were involved in "disparagement humor," which meant the dads either made fun of another character or were made fun of themselves.
Then we studied how often sitcom dads were shown together with their kids within these scenes in three key parenting interactions: giving advice, setting rules or positively or negatively reinforcing their kids' behavior. We wanted to see whether the interaction made the father look "humorously foolish" – showing poor judgment, being incompetent or acting childishly.
Interestingly, fathers were shown in fewer parenting situations in more recent sitcoms. And when fathers were parenting, it was depicted as humorously foolish in just over 50% of the relevant scenes in the 2000s and 2010s, compared with 18% in the 1980s and 31% in the 1990s sitcoms.
At least within scenes featuring disparagement humor, sitcom audiences, more often than not, are still being encouraged to laugh at dads' parenting missteps and mistakes.
Fueling an inferiority complex?
The degree to which entertainment media reflect or distort reality is an enduring question in communication and media studies. In order to answer that question, it's important to take a look at the data.
National polls by Pew Research Center show that from 1965 to 2016, the amount of time fathers reported spending on care for their children nearly tripled. These days, dads constitute 17% of all stay-at-home parents, up from 10% in 1989. Today, fathers are just as likely as mothers to say that being a parent is "extremely important to their identity." They are also just as likely to describe parenting as rewarding.
Yet, there is evidence in the Pew data that these changes present challenges, as well. The majority of dads feel they do not spend enough time with their children, often citing work responsibilities as the primary reason. Only 39% of fathers feel they are doing "a very good job" raising their children.
Perhaps this sort of self-criticism is being reinforced by foolish and failing father portrayals in sitcom content.
Of course, not all sitcoms depict fathers as incompetent parents. The sample we examined stalled out in 2017, whereas TV Guide presented "7 Sitcom Dads Changing How we Think about Fatherhood Now" in 2019. In our study, the moments of problematic parenting often took place in a wider context of a generally quite loving depiction.
Still, while television portrayals will likely never match the range and complexity of fatherhood, sitcom writers can do better by dads by moving on from the increasingly outdated foolish father trope.