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  • The reason that people in Hollywood so eagerly produce content that does not reflect American lives is that they must impress the moguls to whom they report. Tweet This
  • At the Oscars this Sunday, one thing will be conspicuously absent from the art being celebrated: the depiction of happily married families. Tweet This

This Sunday, February 9th, the movie industry will gather to participate in the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, along with a U.S. audience of approximately 30 million television viewers. There will be many things on display—elegance, talent, and creativity among them. But one thing will be conspicuously absent from most of the art being celebrated: the depiction of happily married families. Only one of the films nominated in the best picture category, Little Women, features a happy, stable marriage. 

Hollywood vs. America is film critic Michael Medved’s 1992 book describing the tension between what we see on the silver screen and the lives that most Americans want to live. Nearly 30 years later, the movie content that Medved decried—especially the sexual content—has only increased. 

In that same span, we've not only seen an increase in gratuitous TV and film nudity and sexual content, a la Game of Thrones, but also a lack of depictions of happy, stable families. Thus, the line from Murphy Brown through to today’s Grace and Frankie runs only in one direction. As W. Bradford Wilcox and Wendy Wang of IFS described in National Review, the critically-acclaimed hit, Marriage Story, is the most recent in this line of depictions of couples who can’t seem to make marriage work. This, despite the fact that the fancy zip codes in and around Hollywood are as likely or even more likely than the average U.S. neighborhood to feature married households with children. 

Why is Hollywood so taken with portraying lives that many of those who work in the industry choose not to live? While at Syracuse University, I conducted research to explain precisely this paradox. At the time, people claimed that film and TV were full of sexy content because “sex sells.” In a paper I presented at the International Communication Association in 1997, I showed that there was no relationship between box-office receipts and sexual content. Instead, I found a relationship between sexual content and the number of Oscar nominations and awards a film received. 

This is consistent with the media sociology theory of media content. The theory, as proposed by my doctoral advisor, Pamela Shoemaker, explains that decisions about media content are not only made with the audience in mind, but also under the influence of the norms and preferences of media professionals. This includes norms that lead a news producer or TV writer to create content that earns the respect of their industry peers, respect that is confirmed by awards like the Oscar statuette. 

Still, that doesn’t explain why film producers would produce content that portrays families so unlike the actual families in America. After all, if most Americans want to marry and have stable families, and most people in and around Hollywood do, too, shouldn’t that affect the content they expect their audiences and peers to enjoy?

That would be true were it not for the fact that the people in Hollywood with the most power are, for the most part, less likely to have the stable families that the zip codes around Hollywood feature. True, most people in California want to have long-lasting marriages. But as we often see in polygynous empires like the Mogul empire of 16th-century India, a small number of very powerful people often choose not to pair bond but to have a plethora of lovers. It is appropriate that Hollywood power brokers are still referred to using the borrowed term “media moguls.”  

The reason that people in Hollywood so eagerly produce content that does not reflect American lives is that they must impress the moguls to whom they report—moguls like Harvey Weinstein, to be sure. But it’s not just despicable men who dictate moral values in Hollywood. Try to think of a major star in a long-term, stable, faithful marriage. While there are a few notable exceptions, like Tom Hanks, Hugh Jackman, or Denzel Washington, they are a minority among Hollywood actors and actresses and movie producers. 

Consider Jennifer Aniston and her mogul Friends. The six stars of one of the most successful sitcoms ever were part of a show that approving scholars said proved that, “...in the face of heterosexual failure and familial dysfunction, all you need are good friends.”1 As moguls who could then ask for $100,000 per episode, these actors are among the small number of power brokers that others in Hollywood want to work with. How are their family lives? Let’s consider them in alphabetical order:

  • Jennifer Aniston, aka Rachel Green. Married in one of the most celebrated weddings of 2000 to Brad Pitt, their marriage was considered a “rare Hollywood success.” That is, until Angelina Jolie showed up, triggering a paparazzi-pleasing divorce scandal. In 2015, Aniston married another Hollywood type, this one behind the camera. In 2017, they were divorced. At present, the final count stands at twice divorced with no children.
  • Courteney Cox, aka Monica Geller. Married to fellow actor David Arquette in 1999, they have a daughter, born in 2004. The separated in 2010 and finally divorced in 2013. A year later, Cox announced an engagement to musician Johnny McDaid, only to call off the engagement soon thereafter when McDaid moved back to England. After a six-month hiatus, they got back together and are happier dating without being married, living on two continents. Final count, one divorce, one child.
  • Lisa Kudrow, aka Phoebe Buffay. Married to Michael Stern in 1995 after dating for six years; the couple had a son in their fourth year of marriage. They are, drumroll please, still married and by all accounts are a happy couple. Final count, the one and only Friends' marriage still in effect, graced by one child.
  • Matt LeBlanc, aka Joey Tribbiani. Married to Melissa McKnight, a model, in 2003. Their daughter was born in 2004. The couple divorced in 2006, and despite some other relationships, LeBlanc remains single and dating. Final count, one divorce, one child.
  • Matthew Perry, aka Chandler Bing. Never married, though he dated Julia Roberts and Yasmine Bleeth, and has no children that we know about. His bouts with addiction are well-known. Let’s not kick a man who’s down. Final count, no marriages, no children.
  • David Schwimmer, aka Ross Geller. Married in 2010 to Zoe Buckman at the age of 44, and their daughter was born in 2011. In 2017, they announced they were taking some time apart from each other, leading ultimately to divorce. Final count, one divorce, one child.

Of six people, we have one continuing marriage, five total divorces, and four children. If the U.S. population was adequately represented by the cast of Friends, we’d have just 17% of adults currently married instead of 45%, and we’d have a population replenishment rate of 1.33, far below the replenishment rate of 2.1 that most demographers think a country needs for population stability.

These actors are wonderfully talented and have earned their fame and success. But let’s face it: it’s not systemic “heterosexual failure and familial dysfunction” that has landed them in their romantic and family outcomes. Kudrow’s rare success as a happily married mogul shows that the choice to have a stable marriage was available to the rest of them. 

Now imagine you’re an up-and-coming writer hoping to pitch a project to Aniston’s agent: you sense a hunger in the country for a movie that features hardworking, stable families that stick together and provide for their children come what may. How do you pitch that? You probably don’t. That’s what my 1997 study and media sociology theory suggests. And it’s what the constant deluge of award-winning movies and TV shows—hardly any of which feature stable marriages—continues to confirm.

James L. McQuivey (Ph.D., Syracuse University) has taught at Boston University and Syracuse University. He is a consumer behaviorist and analyst who is regularly sought for commentary by publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His research into family studies focuses on human mating strategies and the role of parents in determining positive life outcomes. He is the author of the book Why We Need Dad

Editor's Note:  The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. Sandell, J. American Studies 39:2, 1998, 141-55.