The Cultural Impact of SVU

This is a new research project I am embarking on, studying the impact of the long-running television series Law & Order: SVU (1999-present) on mainstream knowledge of sexual assault and feelings towards victims, perpetrators, and law enforcement.


From Elizabeth Dehner to Katrina Cornwell, an exploration of Star Trek and post-traumatic stress

a photo collage of four Starfleet counselors
[Image] The mental health professionals of Starfleet: Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman), Katrina Cornwell (Jayne Brooke), Ezri Dax (Nicole deBoer), Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis)


        Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was a military and commercial pilot who survived multiple crashes. From inception his utopian vision of the future included clinical counselors as part of the main crews of his Starfleet. The various Star Trek series and episodes did not always present a clear, concise, accurate, or helpful portrayal of Post-Traumatic Stress, however, providing stories of a variety of peoples addressing PTS symptoms for a variety of reasons allowed the disorder to appear more mainstream and potentially helped educate one subset of the audience, while representing another. I wish to view the evolution of the series portrayal alongside the increase of understanding and acceptance of the disorder and answer the following questions:

  1. How does STAR TREK present post-traumatic stress?
  2. How has the portrayal changed over time?
  3. How has the portrayal affected the audience?
  4. How has the audience (and wider society) affected the portrayal?


  • Episode: Star Trek “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966)
  • Episode: Star Trek “The Conscience of the King” (1966)
  • Episode: Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Hunted” (1990)
  • Episode: Star Trek: The Next Generation “Family” (1990)
  • Film: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine  “Emissary” (1993)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine  “Hard Time” (1993)
  • Film: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Voyager “Extreme Risk” (1998)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (1998)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Voyager “Lineage” (2001)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Enterprise “The Forgotten” (2004)
  • Film: Star Trek: Beyond (2016)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Discovery “Into the Forest I Go” (2017)
  • Episode: Star Trek: Discovery “The War Without, The War Within” (2018)

Select Readings:

  • The Unheard Cry for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
  • Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman
  • Shattered Assumptions, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman
  • Shell shock to PTSD: Military Psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf War, Edgar Jones & Simon Wessely
  • Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier, Travis Langley ed.
  • Stress Appraisal and Coping, Richard Lazarus
  • The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk

Memory, Story, and Sucker Punch

The following paper contains references to physical, emotional, and sexual assault, trauma, and institutionalization, and spoilers for the film Sucker Punch

Narrative therapy is a form of psychotherapy that relies on collaboration between the therapist and the patient to create or define the story of their life, or more pertinently the story of their self. This narrative integrates the individual’s past and present, creating a through line from what happened to what is happening and what can happen going forward into the future. It can be particularly effective for patients who have experienced trauma and struggle with how to make sense of their suffering (McAdams and McLean, 2013).

Constructing a narrative identity requires three “key components” : autobiographical memories, narrative scripts, and life stories (Singer et al., 2013). Memories are the specifics of what happened. Some are mundane and vague, others distinct and detailed. Scripts turn those memories into scenes, providing meaning and purpose to the linear occurrence of events. The life story is the resulting narrative the individual plays out. Memories are not stable and can be altered, particularly if the remembered event is traumatic or threatening. One way the brain protects itself against being re-traumatized is dissociation (Bromberg, 2003).

Fundamentally, dissociation is a detachment from reality. It is a natural process that everyone experiences and is understood to be a continuum from mild daydreaming to the extremes of mental disorders. Dissociation is a potential symptom in Clinical Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as the various Dissociative Disorders. Although dissociation can occur without any specific cause, stress and trauma are the most common triggers of dissociative disorders and dissociative events. It is a coping mechanism: mild dissociation occurs when someone is bored, extreme dissociation when one is attacked. Pathological dissociation can manifest in a variety of ways: as a fugue state where the patient becomes wholly unresponsive, fragmentation into separate self-identities (formerly termed Multiple Personality Disorder), amnesia or loss of memory, or depersonalization where the patient experiences the world and/or themself as ‘unreal’. The protagonist of the film Sucker Punch displays all of these.

Sucker Punch follows the story of a young woman known only as ‘Babydoll’ (Emily Browning) as she plots to escape an asylum before she is lobotomized against her will. The film takes place in Vermont, in the sixties, over the course of one week.

Babydoll is traumatized repeatedly throughout the film. Her father died prior to the action of the film and her mother is revealed to be dead in the first moments. Upon learning his late wife left her estate to her two children rather than him, Babydoll’s stepfather attacks them. She fights back but is unable to save her sister. Babydoll is then blamed for her sister’s death and institutionalized against her will. Her stepfather bribes an orderly to have her lobotomized in a week’s time. All of the assaults against Babydoll, her sister, and the other girls in the asylum, are implied to be sexual in addition to physical.

In reaction to her trauma and assault, Babydoll retreats to a succession of alternate realities. First, she reimagines the asylum as a bordello where she and the other patients, now prostitutes, are forced to perform elaborate dances to entertain the male investors. While Babydoll is dancing she retreats to yet another layer of fantasy where she receives weapons and a quest from a Wise Man (Scott Glen) who speaks in riddles. She must complete five tasks in the fantasyland in order to win five objects that when combined will allow her to escape the bordello, and therefore the asylum. Babydoll is joined in her quest by four other girls: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). While we don’t learn any specific details about their history, it is clear that all of the girls are imprisoned and performing against their will. The girls are directed by Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), who is their analyst in the asylum, and the main antagonist is the man who runs the bordello, Blue (Oscar Isaac).

The film is unpopular, criticized for being overwrought, confusing, and prioritizing style over substance ( The characters are hollow, the dialogue is cryptic, the narration is affected, the imagery is derivative, the music lacks subtlety and “Emily Browning plays Baby Doll as a blank slate – she doesn’t seem to emote much, or show reactions to the outside world.” (BARCC, 2011) These complaints miss or ignore that Babydoll spends the majority of the film in a dissociative state. Babydoll is a blank slate because she is an incomplete self-state of the protagonist in a narrative being constructed around her. Each of the characters exists only in response to the others. And they do not react to the outside world because, until the final shots of the film, there is no world outside of Babydoll’s narrative.

While on screen the characters describe Babydoll’s dancing as sensual, provocative, and deeply emotionally engaging, the audience never watches the dance, instead following Babydoll into her fantasy. They experience the story entirely and only from the perspective of the protagonist. In the climax of the film the role of protagonist, and the lens through which the audience watches the story, switches from Babydoll to Sweet Pea. First there is a thinning of the tribe of self-states as Rocket sacrifices herself, Sweet Pea is imprisoned, and Amber and Blonde are killed. But backed into a corner and alone, Babydoll uses the tools she’d amassed to dispatch Blue, free Sweet Pea, and escape. As they run, the bordello fantasy and the asylum reality start to blur together. Finally, Babydoll chooses to distract their captors one last time to allow Sweet Pea to escape, telling her “You going home and living, that’s how we win.”

There is clear evidence throughout the film that Babydoll and Sweet Pea are two aspects of the same character. The first switch between realities occurs immediately after Babydoll is introduced to the asylum floor, populated by other patients, and the concept of acting out a narrative as therapy. Sweet Pea is shown to be center stage, working with Dr. Gorski, and she takes Babydoll’s, and therefore the audience’s, focus. Behind Babydoll, her stepfather and the corrupt orderly make a deal to lobotomize her and as they speak, the camera switches to the point of view of a young woman undergoing the procedure. The girl objects to the scene and the camera pulls back to reveal she is Sweet Pea. Moreover, the wider the scene has shifted from the asylum to the bordello. Sweet Pea is not only enacting Babydoll’s lobotomy, she is dressed in a sailor suit and pigtails, which is recognizably Babydoll’s costuming. This is a clear visual link that is also tied directly to the switch between spaces.

The two share one vital characteristic: they are both older sisters whose younger sisters die despite their efforts to protect and rescue them. The death of Babydoll’s sister opens the film and lands Babydoll in the asylum; the death of Sweet Pea’s sister, Rocket, sets off the climax of the film and ultimately allows Sweet Pea to escape the asylum. Rocket is Babydoll’s closest friend in the bordello and both Babydoll and Sweet Pea want to protect her. Instead, she sacrifices herself to save them. Rocket’s death is redundant, a kind of torture porn, if she is merely Sweet Pea’s sister. But both her death and life gain significance if she is a self-state of the protagonist.

And there are textual links. A cover of the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” sung by Browning plays over the first three minutes of the film, as Babydoll’s traumatic backstory is revealed, suggesting the scene, and perhaps the entire film, is Sweet (Pea)’s dream. Similarly, Sweet Pea’s reaction to the lobotomy scene she acts out in that first switch refers —notably negatively — to Babydoll’s surface characterization in the overall film as well as the role she is playing in the scene:

“This is a joke, right? Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient, right? That can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable? How about something a little more commercial, for God’s sakes?”

This rant suggests that the film intends the audience to blur the lines between the realities and the characters. And the final exchange between Babydoll and Sweet Pea is blatant:

Babydoll: A map, fire, a knife, a key, and one thing more. One thing more. It’s me.
Sweet Pea: What?
Babydoll: Oh, it’s me. Of course it’s me. It’s the only way this ever could have ended.
Sweet Pea: What do you mean?
Babydoll: I’m saying you go home. Go out and live a normal life…You have to live for all of us now.
Sweet Pea: Baby, no. You can’t do that.
Babydoll: Yes, Sweet Pea. You’re the strongest. You’re the only one of us that ever had a chance out there. You going home and living, that’s how we win.
Sweet Pea: There’s gotta be another way.
Babydoll: No. This is right. This was never my story. It’s yours.

Babydoll realizes she is a part of Sweet Pea, who is the true protagonist-patient, and by taking herself out of the narrative she is integrating their selves into a healthy whole.

Babydoll comes to this realization seemingly all at once, but it had been building slowly from the beginning. One marker is her stylized history/memory presented as what amounts to a music video that plays over the opening credits. According to Singer et al. (2013), “A wealth of research points to a relationship between memory specificity deficits and psychological disorders.” (p. 574) Babydoll, Sweet Pea, and Rocket all remember experiencing a traumatic childhood, but the details blur together. Take this exchange between Babydoll and Rocket:

Rocket: Have you just ever wanted to just take something back? You know, something you said. Something you did.
Babydoll: All the time.

No specifics are given for either girl. The audience may infer that Babydoll’s guilt is due to the death of her sister, but even there it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Either Babydoll arrived too late and was framed for her sister’s death, or Babydoll accidentally shot her sister when attempting to shoot her stepfather. In neither case should Babydoll be held responsible for her or her sister’s trauma; in both cases her guilt is real.

As for Rocket, there is no explanation for her words, or even how she ended up in the asylum and/or bordello beyond “I ran away”. But given “the common thread in the overgeneral memory-psychopathology connection is a defensive strategy learned in response to trauma and emotional threat” (Singer et al. 2013, p. 575) the audience may infer she experienced an emotional, and potentially physical, threat similar to Babydoll’s trauma. Another explanation is that Rocket is not a companion at all, but an overgeneral memory herself: “While explicit memory is mediated by a single system, there are  a variety of different brain system that store memory implicitly, allowing for many aspects of the self to co-exist.” (LeDoux, 2002, p. 31) Rocket is a kind of sub-self-state representing both the memory of Babydoll’s lost sister and the guilt Babydoll feels over her inability to halt sister’s trauma and death.

Vera Gorski is the only character with a name, as opposed to a stage name, in the film. She exists in both the real world of the asylum, as a psychiatrist, and the fantasy world of the bordello, as a dance instructor who facilitates the girls performances for its customers. In each setting she is shown to be both colluding with, and standing in opposition to, the antagonist as well as the protagonist. In both settings she is in a position of power, but also trapped in a system that is both corrupt and specifically sexist: Gorski does what she can and it is not enough, something the film is sympathetic to.

Neither of Gorski’s alter-egos exist in the third layer of alternate reality, where Babydoll’s superheroine self-state performs tasks, first alone and then accompanied by the other four girls. Instead, the mantle of guide falls to the Wise Man who tells the girls what they need to accomplish in order to receive their prize. Both Gorski and the Wise Man give specific directions, but couch their advice in stylized commentary and riddle. They are not explicitly analogues, but they serve the same purpose in the story. In narrative therapy, the therapist’s role is not to construct the narrative for their patient, but to guide them and work with them to create and re-create the story of their lives. (Singer et. al, 2013; Bromberg, 1996; Bromberg, 2003)

Like Gorski, Blue, the film’s main antagonist, exists in both the asylum and the bordello. In the real world of the asylum Blue is an orderly who arranges for Babydoll’s lobotomy, and generally mistreats her. In the bordello fantasy world he is in charge of the show and controls the girls, as well as Madam Gorski, with fear. In both realities he arranges and is paid for Babydoll’s trauma and in both realities he assaults her, but is unsuccessful in her attempted rape. Blue is unambiguously a villain which allows Babydoll to dispatch him without pause or guilt.

Blondie and Amber are relatively non distinct secondary characters who are ultimately marked disposable. Amber, the least developed character, is tasked with stealing a lighter – ‘fire’ – from the cigar loving Mayor while he is distracted watching Babydoll’s dance. She is successful but otherwise contributes little to the narrative. Blondie, however, plays a crucial role. She is found crying by Madam Gorski and admits to being afraid. Blue overhears the exchange and when pressed, Blondie informs them of the plot to escape. This leads directly to Blue murdering Amber and Blondie and assaulting Babydoll, a necessary conflict that ultimately frees Sweet Pea.

It is significant that Blondie communicates directly with Gorski. In his discussions of psychotherapy with dissociative patients, Bromberg notes that when an analyst “allows himself to form relationships with each of the patient’s selves or self-states…[the self-state] can, without shame, communicate to another human being its unique sense of self, purpose, personal history, and personal truth” and that in his own work “this experience … led directly to the source of the symptom or behavior pattern that until then has been ‘resistant’ to change.” (1996, p. 519) Blondie confessed her fear of consequence to Gorski, which lead to those fears being realized. But in the confrontation with Blue that Blondie feared, Babydoll was able to fight back against Blue. And as the conflict between Babydoll and Blue mimicked the earlier conflict between Babydoll and her stepfather, it asserts the idea that Babydoll was not to blame for what happened to her and casts her as a fighter, a survivor. Thus Babydoll redeems the story of her assault.

In addition to a passing reference to using theatrical scenes to help the girls “deal with their issues”, the film begins and ends with narration — spoken by Sweet Pea, the real protagonist — that urges the audience to take control of their own story. This narration is explicit and self-referential. “Everyone has an angel, a guardian who watches over us. We can’t know what form they’ll take: One day old man.” — Such as the Wise Man — “Next day, little girl.” — Such as any and all of Babydoll and her companions. It continues:

“Yet they’re not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart, reminding us it is us, it’s everyone of us who holds the power over the worlds we create…They can speak through any character we can imagine. They’ll shout through demons if they have to, daring us, challenging us to fight.”

These lines from the opening narration are later echoed and enacted by Dr. Gorski to Sweet Pea, “You control this world. Let the pain go, let the hurt go, let the guilt go. What you are imagining right now, that world you control. That place can be as real as any pain.” and then Madam Gorski to Babydoll, “You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.” Gorski, in the role of therapist, advises her patient, the protagonist, to re-story her life. The refrain is repeated in the final narration, which again directly references the film while stressing the thesis that everyone has control over their narrative.

“And finally, this question: The mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain, of who sets the stage. Who is it that chooses our steps in the dance, who drives us mad, lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that does all these things? Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us and at the same time sings we will never die? Who teaches us what’s real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we die to defend? Who chains us and who holds the key that can set us free? It’s you, you have all the weapons you need, now fight.”

This paragraph expresses over and over that every character in the film it proceeds is a part of “you” or the protagonist, who was trapped in her fantasy as well as her reality, but by taking narrative control of her fantasy she was able to be freed in reality as well.

A traumatized individual can become stuck in a dissociated state: “the person, through continual enactment of the affective memory, creates a world of miniature versions of the original situation and lives in that world as a dissociated reality that continues to be substantiated through his ongoing relationships.” (Bromberg, 2003, p. 561) But that dissociative space can function as an interpersonal process, “a space for thinking between and about the patient and the analyst…a twilight space in which ‘the impossible’ becomes possible; a space in which incompatible selves, each awake to its own ‘truth,’ can ‘dream’ the reality of the other without risk to its integrity.” (Bromberg, 1996, p. 514) After repeated trauma Sweet Pea/Babydoll retreats to an alternative version of her reality, populated with self-states and reimagined versions of her therapist and her abuser, initially to hide or rest, but ultimately to craft a narrative that allows her to not only face her trauma, but to address it, and finally escape the nightmare.

The protagonist-patient rewrites her script not by changing her memories but by changing her reaction to her memories. She practices redemption, moving a negative event to a positive outcome. As Singer et al. explain: “Healthy narrative identity entails a capacity to narrate and draw meaning from emotionally evocative memories, while gaining freedom from narrative scripts that lead one in self-damaging directions. Accompanying cognitive-behavioral changes produce revisions in the internalized life story, enhancing agency and redemptive possibilities.” (2013, p. 578) Through her experiences as Babydoll and Sweet Pea, Blondie and Rocket, Sucker Punch’s protagonist faces her monsters and defeats them. The film ends with Babydoll smiling through her lobotomy, trapped in her fantasy forever — but Sweet Pea is on a bus home in the real world.


  • Bromberg, Philip M. (1996) Standing in the Spaces: The Multiplicity Of Self And The Psychoanalytic Relationship. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 32, 509-535
  • Bromberg, Philip M. (2003) SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES Trauma, Dissociation, and Conflict: The Space Where Psychoanalysis, Cognitive Science, and Neuroscience Overlap. Psychoanalytic Psychology Vol 20, No 3, 558-574
  • Dave. Movie Review: Sucker Punch. Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. Web. 11 April 2011.
  • LeDoux, J.E. (2002) The synaptic self. New York: Viking.
  • McAdams, Dan P. and McLean, Kate C.  (2013) Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science Vol 22, Issue 3,  233 – 238
  • Pals, Jennifer L. (2006) Narrative Identity Processing of Difficult Life Experiences: Pathways of Personality Development and Positive Self-Transformation in Adulthood. Journal of Personality. 74:4, p1079-1110
  • Singer, Jefferson A., Blagov, Pavel, Berry, Meredith and Oost, Kathryn M. (2012) Self-Defining Memories, Scripts, and the Life Story: Narrative Identity in Personality and Psychotherapy. Journal of Personality 81 (6), 569-582
  • Sucker Punch. Dir. Zack Snyder. Per. Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011.
  • Sucker Punch Aggregate Review. Rotten Tomatoes. Web.

Anika Dane
SCIE 623
May 19, 2018

Dystopian Young Adult Fiction is an Analogue for Adolescence

The following paper contains references to trauma, sexual assault, murder sport, and fascism, and spoilers for the Hunger Games series. 

As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.

-The Hunger Games

Dystopian fiction is at its highest popularity since the 1960s. The Hunger Games, the first novel in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins that follows the adventures of teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, as she fights, first to survive and then to overthrow her corrupt government in a dystopian future America called Panem, is poised to overtake George Orwell’s 1984 as the most popular dystopian novel ever. Dystopian young adult fiction is burning up the bestseller lists and box office rankings — but dystopian fiction has also long been taught to adolescents in schools across the country.


The Hunger Games series is popular with its teenage audience because they can relate to it as an analogy for adolescence. Teens will relate to any coming-of-age story, but dystopian extremes can counterintuitively feel even more real. Dystopian young adult fiction takes the chaos of adolescent development and transforms it into a narrative which provides both an outlet and a map to the teen audience.

Can neuroscience explain the popularity of The Hunger Games?

Adolescence is a time of dramatic change. From age 10 to 25, approximately, the human brain goes through significant structural transitions as it is both built up through the maturation of the various areas of the cortex and the myelination of neurons, and thinned out through synaptic pruning, a kind of specialization. The teenage brain advances in a back-to-front pattern. The prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for executive functions such as impulse control, emotional response, decision making, planning and judgement, is not considered fully matured until the mid-twenties.

As the brain matures, it undergoes a structural remodeling of gray and white matters. Gray matter, responsible for processing gathered information, thickens throughout childhood and achieves peak thickness in early adolescence or just before. White matter is a kind of service network that connects parts of the brain and carries messages between them. It is made up of axons, nerve fibers that act as information carriers, surrounded by a myelin sheath, white in color, which insulates and protects the axons, allowing faster communication between the different thought processing systems. The better the insulation, the faster the communication. During adolescence the brain loses gray matter and gains white matter as the most frequently used synapses go through myelination and the least frequently used synapses are altered or eliminated.

Teenage brains are developmentally different from adult brains: they are slower to decide because there is too much information to wade through, network connections are still forming, and the prefrontal cortex is still developing.

In the Hunger Games twenty four combatants, one male and one female tribute aged 11 to 17 from each of Panem’s twelve districts, are put into a controlled hostile environment and pitted against each other for however long it takes for all but one to die. Some of the tributes are conditioned for combat to the death since early childhood and have an obvious advantage. Others, like protagonist Katniss, have gained survival skills from their harsh upbringing. Many tributes form early alliances but must ultimately betray them in order to win. Tributes are mentored by previous victors and may also gain sponsors on the outside who can send supplies and cheats to their favorites.

Synaptic pruning works in a similar way. Although there are many thousands more than twenty four synapses in an adolescent’s brain, and the activity is not as contentious, the synapses are chosen to retain space in the adult brain based on what is strong, what is used, and what is learned. Like the tributes, the brain’s prime directive is to survive, and then prosper.

For the most part, fortunately, the teenage readers of the Hunger Games trilogy will never be required to fight their peers or survive an environment created to destroy them. However, they are biologically wired to relate to the struggle of synaptic plasticity or the “use it or lose it” principle. Their brains are making hundreds of thousands of choices based on the same questions of “what do I need to know to survive?” and secondarily “what do I want to know to enjoy?” The older they get, and the more maturely developed their brains are, the quicker the choices are made as the myelination forms over the ‘winning’ synapses and the excess, weaker, unnecessary or redundant gray matter is weeded out.

While the overall volume and thickness of the brain’s gray matter decreases through adolescence the gray matter within the regions that make up the ‘social brain network’ — those associated with the mentalizing process including dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), and anterior temporal cortex (ATC) — continues to thicken into the early twenties of late adolescence. This indicates that areas of the brain responsible for deciphering the intentions of other people are still forming throughout adolescence 1. Additional data suggests that adolescents engage their social brain network even when there are no social cues 2 – in other words, teenagers expend energy to consider what others, and especially their peers, may think about everything they are doing or wanting to do. Combined these two ideas explain how teens may get stuck in the decision making process more often than adults or children.

Katniss is quick to make life or death decisions in the arena because her survival skills are well honed. However she has many difficulties deciding what she wants beyond survival. The novels are written in the first person so the reader is privy to all of Katniss’s questions, fears, and self-doubt. She doesn’t trust the society she was born into, the system she must work within, or any of the people she encounters, including her family, her mentors, and her peers. But she also doesn’t entirely trust that distrust or her own point of view.

Katniss begins the series at age sixteen which is the very end of the book’s teen tribute spectrum, but still right in the middle of adolescence in terms of human brain development. Her brain is still maturing, her synaptic social brain network still forming, which leads to her overthinking every decision, every option, and leaves her overwrought. This is frustrating not only for Katniss but for everyone around her and for adult readers who prefer she would decide, and act, rather than ‘whine’ about it internally. But teenage readers in the same developmental stage as Katniss can relate to her indecision and to the pressure she feels from adults, peers, and societal norms. They recognize that the struggle to articulate her desires reflects Katniss is actually moving away from childish egocentrism and toward an adult social engagement and awareness 3.

As Katniss is going through the process of building her own identity, there are many forces around her fighting to do it for her. There are the forces of the Capitol, led by chief antagonist President Snow, who use the spectacle of the Hunger Games to keep the upper class masses entertained and the lower class masses enslaved. There are the forces of the rebellion, led by President Coin, who shape Katniss into the symbol of their revolution. There are the people closest to her, Gale and Peeta, at odds for her affection and representative of different paths of social interaction. And there are many individuals and groups who share traits and outlooks with one or more. And every one of them requests — requires — Katniss to be more than the adolescent girl she is or the adult woman she is becoming.

Adolescents are highly susceptible to external influences, especially peers. They are far more likely to engage in risky behaviors in the company or service of their friends or like minded people 4. The brain learns by taking a concrete sensory experience and moving the data through its cortical network to reflect, observe, consider, and hypothesize, and finally act. Adults make decisions by weighing options, considering various sides, thinking abstractly. Adolescents are not developmentally capable of the same thought processes. They misconstrue external data such as facial expressions and put too much emphasis on peer evaluation 5, worrying ‘what everyone thinks of me’. Katniss’s experience with celebrity in the Hunger Games is a heightened reflection of the teen experience of living in a bubble.

Faction Before Blood: Teenage Self-districting

Adolescence is a period of self-discovery. As teenagers move away from their parents both physically and metaphorically they start to recognize the ways in which their identity is tied to their family, their community, and the beliefs of others. They become more self-aware and start to ask questions about who they are separate from their parents and teachers, who they want to be and what they want to believe in, what type of peer groups and connections they want to foster, and what they want to do with their time, what they want to matter. These are complex questions that require a great deal of both thought and experimentation which results in the adolescents pushing boundaries, questioning values, breaking rules, and taking risks. What adults may consider “acting out” is really an important, healthy, process of exploration and discovery.

During adolescence peer groups start to take precedence over family 6. Young adult fiction often builds this natural tendency into the experience of the characters, and in some cases directly into the structure of the story. In J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful Harry Potter series, the students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are sorted into one of four Houses by a magical talking hat. The House system can be found in many real world boarding schools across both England and America, but in Harry Potter the Houses are directly linked to certain attributes the Sorting Hat can sense within the student: Gryffindors are brave and foolhardy, Ravenclaws are intelligent and awkward, Slytherins are ambitious and conniving, Hufflepuffs are loyal and unremarkable.

Readers identify with the various traits, and with the various characters, and choose which House they believe they would be sorted into. In lieu of the magic hat, there are thousands of online surveys which will grant a Hogwarts House based on the participants’ answers, one even designed by the Rowling herself 7. But the author also makes it clear in the text the Hat takes a student’s desires into account and any student may request the House they want 8:

“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to be in Slytherin…”

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more. “Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Thus readers may feel secure in their choice.

Veronica Roth’s Divergent series takes it one step further. In the trilogy’s post-apocalyptic Chicago, society is divided into five factions based on their members disposition: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intellectual. Factions are chosen at sixteen and while the teens are given a personality test not unlike the online Sorting Hat quizzes to determine their best match, it is entirely up to them which faction they decide to join. Protagonist Tris is coded ‘divergent’ because the results of her aptitude test indicate she has traits from three of the five factions. She chooses Dauntless which separates her from her parents in Abnegation and her brother in Erudite. Tris’s situation fictionalizes many common adolescent anxieties: the desire to fit in and be understood, the need to leave her family which can be both welcome and frightening, the pressure to choose a life path at an increasingly younger age, and the fear that if she is comfortable in more than one area, or doesn’t know which she values most, she is somehow aberrant and lesser 9.

Teens practice self-distracting in many ways outside of fiction — sports, clubs, cliques, tracked classes etc. — but fiction is not as dependent on external influence. Fandom, the peer groups that build up around a certain property, or more simply “people who like the same things I like”, is self-selecting, emphasizes inclusivity, and has no barriers on numbers or geography. The internet allows fandom communities to span the globe and unlike joining a team, there are no tryouts and everyone gets in. While gatekeepers exist, they do not hold any particular power; to be welcome in a given fandom a teen only has to be a fan.

In giant fandoms such as Harry Potter and Divergent subfandoms appear around the Houses and Factions. These divisions represent traits shared by the people within the subfandom — e.g. Gryffindor or Dauntless — and in opposition to the people in other subfandoms — e.g. Slytherin or Erudite. Adolescence is an eternal internal struggle between individuality and conformity. Self-sorting allows teens to choose which of their own individual traits to recognize so they may conform to the group which legitimizes and rewards them.

Self-districting, however, does not do away with external districting. In The Hunger Games, Panem is divided into fourteen areas: the aristocratic Capitol, twelve working class districts, and a wasteland that was once the thirteenth district. Unlike in the other fandoms the characters are born into an area and there is no movement between them. While some characters born in the Capitol choose to join Katniss’s revolution they are committing treason, and no one in the Districts can earn a space in the Capitol, nor choose to leave their District for another no matter how wealthy or successful they become.

Modern America is not as divided as Panem, however, racism and classism are pervasive and color teen choices even as they make efforts to embrace diversity and equality 10. An honors student is likely to value her intelligence, choose to represent herself as a Ravenclaw, and seek out other self-selecting Ravenclaws within her honors classes. Black and Hispanic students are significantly underrepresented in honors classes and often isolated even when present 11. Our Ravenclaw would not consider it racist to befriend only other perceived high achieving students but systematic failures result in her ‘House Pride’ translating to disproportionately white pride. Fandom is an expression of the imaginary but it exists within the real world. As they are navigating it teens are bombarded with societal divisions, ideas, and expectations.

Reflections of Guyland and Girl World in The Hunger Games

When asked, young men and young women alike can present a list of presumed societal guidelines that govern their behavior and attitude. These teens report feeling as if they must follow these “rules” or they will be bullied and ostracized by both their peers and their community of adults. The rules are different for boys and girls, but there are correlations between the two. These rules are passed down by parents, mentors, and the media and they are ever present and seemingly inescapable.

Michael Kimmel’s book Guyland: The Perilous Place Where Boys Become Men lays out a “Real Guy’s Top Ten List” 12 of presumed rules compiled by interviews with 400 ‘guys’ aged 16 to 26, most of them straight, white, and upper middle class, all cis and American.

“Boys Don’t Cry”
“It’s Better to be Mad than Sad”
“Don’t Get Mad — Get Even”
“Take It Like a Man”
“He Who Has the Most Toys When He Dies, Wins”
“Just Do It, or Ride or Die”
“Size Matters”
“I Don’t Stop to Ask for Directions”
“Nice Guys Finish Last”
“It’s All Good”

In the Hunger Games series there are three main men of adolescent age: Gale Hawthorne, Peeta Mellark, and Finnick Odair. All three conform in certain ways to the “Real Guy” vignette as listed above, and all three encourage the audience to examine the “Real Guy” concept. This combination of familiar roles and subversion of same makes the characters particularly relatable to adolescents.

Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend turned freedom fighter, is the clearest example of a “Real Guy” of the three. He explicitly hits nearly every example on the Top Ten list. Gale is introduced as a literal hunter and a provider for his family and community. He is more rebellious and political than Katniss, wanting to take a stand against the Capitol from the beginning and is first to fight back when the rumblings of war begin. Where other characters are driven by despair, fear, hope or love, Gale is consistently driven by anger. In Catching Fire he is caught fighting in a raid of the district’s marketplace and is lashed in the central square as a punishment and warning. Gale ‘takes it like a man’ — “His teeth are gritted and his flesh shines with sweat.” 13 — and it only makes him more committed. Gale maintains his overt masculinity and ‘Action Hero’ persona throughout the series. In the final chapters he is a leader in the war effort and unapologetic about the death of innocents, including children. This end is considered controversial as he is depicted in a morally ambiguous light but he remains a hero to “Real Guys” in the audience.

Gale is one leg of a love triangle between himself, Katinss, and Peeta, her partner in the Games. The three grew up in the same village but while Katniss and Gale spent their days hunting game outside the town barriers, Peeta apprenticed at his family’s bakery. In contrast to Gale’s rage, Peeta is measured and diplomatic. He is not an ‘Action Hero’ and in fact plays the ‘Damsel in Distress’ to Katniss’s ‘White Knight’ on more than one occasion. He is more of a caretaker than a provider and is thus coded feminine rather than masculine. However, Peeta is not without masculine or “Real Guy” traits. His physical strength is stressed, he makes bold moves, and he is willing to do anything to protect Katniss.

In the first Hunger Games he participates in, Peeta allies himself with the ‘career’ tributes who had been trained and groomed to fight in the tournament. With this alliance he is able to keep himself and Katniss alive by sticking close to the biggest threats as they pick off the weaker players. In order to fit in, Peeta must play act a “Real Guy”. In this way Peeta is enacting the process the ‘guys’ reportedly go through in Guyland. Thus Peeta is theoretically, if counterintuitively, positioned to be the most relatable ‘guy’ in the series.

Though not a love interest for Katniss, Finnick Odair is the closest the Hunger Games series has to a romantic lead — the ‘Prince Charming’ type marketed to girls and women. Like Gale he is a warrior and provider, and like Peeta, he is also victimized and allowed to show emotions other than anger. Finnick displays many prescribed behaviors of masculinity: he is fit, brilliant with his chosen weapon, marries and fathers a child, goes down swinging. He is attractive and flirtatious, has charmed the whole country, but his heart belongs to one delicate woman. He’s not as rugged as Gale but ‘guys’ can relate to him, and he makes young women swoon within the story and the audience.

But Finnick’s story also subverts the “Real Guy” stereotype. He is a kind of spy, dealing in secrets and playing both sides. He is also a victim of sexual assault. Since winning his Hunger Games, Finnick was sold as an ‘escort’ to rich donors by President Snow. Finnick uses the opportunity to gather intel for the resistance which is a move far more Black Widow than James Bond. Finnick uses his charm and his body to collect gossip, taking it not like a man, but like a woman. Finnick also shows ‘weakness’ in his emotions, openly crying and showing both fear and love.

Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World does not provide a Top Ten List of “Real Girls” guidelines and has stated that not only do girls most often encounter rules by breaking one, the rules are different for different girls 14. Moreover many of the ‘rules’ of “Girl World” can be described as contradictory. In the image below artist Rosea Lake 15 makes the point that there is no length of skirt a young woman may wear without judgement:

The Hunger Games series certainly addresses the regulation of appearance as each tribute is assigned a stylist and team of people tasked with making them as attractive to the Capitol’s elite as possible in order to obtain sponsorship which translates to help in the form of tools, medicine, or food while the Games go on. The social game does not come easily to Katniss who is described as “sullen and hostile” by her mentor. She later watches one of the other tributes, “one of the giants, probably six and a half feet tall and built like an ox” 17, perform and reflects “If only I was his size, I could get away with sullen and hostile and it would be just fine!” 18. Katniss is aware of the rules and vacillates between attempting to follow them and defiantly rejecting them to varied results. Her instincts, more often than not, guide her to follow the rules of “Guyland” rather than “Girl World”. But this is less subversive than Peeta or Finnick being coded feminine in some areas. “Girls can wear jeans/And cut their hair short/Wear shirts and boots/’Cause it’s OK to be a boy/But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading/’Cause you think that being a girl is degrading” 19. Many girls in “Girl World” and “Guyland” set themselves apart as ‘not like other girls’ which translates to ‘better’ because they also think that being a girl is degrading.

Johanna Mason explicitly states that she is “not like the rest of you” 20 in response to Katniss and Finnick’s emotional reaction to recordings of their loved ones being tortured, and she spends the series proving it. In fact, Johanna shares the most in common with Gale and his “Real Guy” credos – but as a woman she cannot actually be a “Real Guy”. Johanna is a reflection of the anger young women feel to conform to rules that are not even laid out clearly, and the anger they are taught not to admit to, or preferably, not to feel at all.

The Hunger Games series provides its teen audience with many examples of reactions to the uncontrollable emotions of adolescence coupled with the societal expectations that police those reactions and emotions. Johanna is one extreme and Annie Cresta is another. Annie is introduced as driven mad by her experience in the Hunger Games. She is presented as requiring rescue in her first appearance — her one time mentor, Mags, chooses to take her spot in the special Hunger Games made up of former winners. Annie is held hostage through most of the action, both physically and mentally. She is used as bait and tortured to attack and control her lover Finnick. When finally reunited they immediately marry and conceive a child and it is suggested love and family ground her so she does not retreat into madness again at his death. Annie is described as Finnick’s “poor, mad girl back home” 21 and clearly suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She is a warning but also, in her quiet way, she allows girls who prefer to curl into their emotions and avoid the traumas and tragedies of “Girl World”, real or imagined, the hope they can and will survive it.

Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’s younger sister, is the most recognizably feminine of the adolescent characters in the series. As one of the youngest characters she is innocent, a Spring maiden. Like Annie, the first action surrounding Prim is someone — Katniss — volunteering to take her place in the Games, indicating she is in need of protection. She is described as fair and pretty with gentle features, unlike her sister who more resembles their father and the masculine Gale. They are also dissimilar in personality: Prim is kind, compassionate, empathetic, friendly, warm, eager. Where Katniss can struggle to make friends, everyone loves Prim. Katniss is a hunter and Prim is a caretaker. In the terms of Wiseman’s book, Prim is presented as a “Floater”, what the author considers the best option with the most optimal outcome in “Girl World” 22. But in the dystopian world of The Hunger Games, Prim is selected to fight to the death, bombed into near oblivion, and finally killed by friendly fire. “I don’t think there are real Floaters,” says Liza, reported by Wiseman, “Maybe I’m just bitter, but most of the time they are too good to be true.” 23 In Prim’s case she is too good to survive.

None of the adolescent characters presented in the Hunger Games series follows all the rules of “Guyland” or “Girl World” and many of them push the boundaries in ways that bring up interesting questions and encourage thoughtful discussion. The adolescent audience responds to both the questions and the exaggerated but recognizable reflection of their own realities.

Empathy and Activism Through Fandom

Adolescents don’t have the vocabulary or life experience to express themselves with depth so their fandoms become a kind of shorthand. This can be a powerful tool, though it may also obscure the message.

The Hunger Games series is about children aged 11-17 forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the aristocracy and the subjugation of the poor. The books topped the best seller lists for years and the films place in the top 35 of all time domestic box office gross — the first two films are ranked 17th (The Hunger Games) and 12th (Catching Fire) 24. The final book and the last two films relate the revolution and its consequences rather than the Games, they ask the audience to think about violence and do not include arena fights to the death, and they are the least popular. With the last adaptation now in theaters, the studio is considering prequels that will take the story back to the Games 25. The audience of The Hunger Games, like the Capitol audience of the Hunger Games, finds gladiator duels to the death more entertaining and less upsetting than visions of poverty, injustice, and war, and the studio is excited to monetize that desire.

The Hunger Games brand encourages the audience to relate to the Capitol in more explicit ways as well. Cover Girl marketed a line of cosmetics based on the Districts, however in the story canon it is the citizens of the Capitol who wear outlandish make-up. The people of the Districts do so only when they are tributes in the Games. Many found the ads disturbing, but they did not dig too deeply into why their suggestion is uncomfortable.

One billion children worldwide are living in poverty 26. In the United States 21.1% of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty 27. Hunger is the number one cause of death in the world 28. There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world, 80% of them under the age of 15. The youngest reported child soldier was 5 years old 29. Many child soldiers volunteer, or are volunteered by their family 30. The dystopia of the Hunger Games series already exists in these forms but like the Capitol, the audience would prefer not to think about it.

However, teen fans of these series are also inspired to action. A group of young fans who grew up with Harry Potter formed a non profit organization in his name 31. Since 2005 The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) has used both the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series to engage fans in organized campaigns to combat inequality, poverty, and illiteracy. The HPA is a small organization with modest achievements but it was founded by adolescents who believed they could use the values they found in books to change their world for the better and over the past ten years they have proven it to be true. Adolescent “coming of age” translates to realizing how unfair the world is. It’s scary and infuriating, and it spurs many teens to action even if it is just arguing with authority or taking a selfie as part of a campaign against photoshopping celebrities.


In 2014 Thailand’s military took over the government and imposed martial law. Political meetings of more than five people were banned by the new regime but university students gathered to protest, using the Hunger Games three fingered salute to rally. The film and the salute was subsequently banned in Thailand but the images of Thai protesters reenacting Katniss and Panem’s defiance became international news 32. American teens cannot easily relate to the military takeover of the government of Thailand, but they can relate to The Hunger Games and recognize that the Thai students use of District Twelve’s salute indicates a real world injustice.

These stories connect teenagers to each other and the world around them, they provide analogies and vocabulary for teenage expression, and they encourage teen readers to define their own passions and struggles. Dystopian young adult fiction gives adolescence and adolescents a voice.


  1. Blakemore and Mills, 2014
  2. Dumontheil et al., 2012
  3. Van der Bos et. al, 2011
  4. Blakemore, 2014
  5. Blakemore, 2014
  6. Blakemore, 2014
  7. Pottermore
  8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p. 333
  9. Scholes and Ostenson, 2014
  10. It’s Complicated, Chapter 6
  11. National Center for Education Statistics
  12. Guyland, p. 45
  13. Catching Fire, p. 115
  14. “Defining Girl World and the Rules Therein”
  15. photograph copyright Rosea Lake,
  16. The Hunger Games, p. 116
  17. The Hunger Games, p. 126
  18. The Hunger Games, p. 126
  19. “What It Feels Like for a Girl”, Madonna
  20. Catching Fire, p. 347
  21. Catching Fire, p. 348
  22. Queen Bees & Wannabes, p. 30-31
  23. Queen Bees & Wannabes, p. 30


Collins, Suzanne, The Hunger Games (2008)
Collins, Suzanne, Catching Fire (2009)
Collins, Suzanne, Mockingjay (2011)
Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999)

boyd, danah, It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens (2014)
Jetha, Michelle and Segalowitz, Sidney; Adolescent Brain Development (2012)
Kimmel, Michael S., Guyland: The Perilous Place Where Boys Become Men (2008)
Wiseman, Rosalind, Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World (2002)

Blakemore, S-J, Mills, KL. “Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing?” 2014. Annu. Rev. Psycho. 65:187–207
Dumontheil I, Hillebrandt H, Apperly IA, Blakemore S-J. 2012. “Developmental
differences in the control of action selection by social information.” J. Cogn. Neurosci. 24:2080–95
Scholes, Justin and Ostenson, Jon; “Understanding the Appeal of Dystopian Young Adult Fiction” 2013. The Alan Review. Vol. 40 No. 2
van den Bos W, Van Dijk E, Westenberg M, Rombouts SA, Crone EA. 2011. “Changing brains, changing perspectives: the neurocognitive development of reciprocity.” Psychol. Sci. 22:60–70

“All Time Box Office Domestic Gross”, Box Office Mojo
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“What We Do”, Harry Potter Alliance
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“Defining Girl World and the Rules Therein”, kidsinthehouse,, (visited October, 2015)
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“Child Soldier”,
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Anika Dane
SOCS 686 Adolescent Brain Development
Fall 2015

Destroy the Myth of the Traditional Family

The myth of the Traditional American Nuclear Family, at its simplest a couple and their dependent children, has played out on the small screen since the 1950s. The Cleavers of Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963) exemplify the original idealized American family and the “family values” allegedly inherent to this nostalgic notion (Coontz,1992): they live in suburbia, behind a white picket fence. Ward is a veteran of World War II who married his high school sweetheart and works an unspecified white collar job; June is a housewife who spends most of her screen-time in her immaculate kitchen. They have two sons, Wally and Theodore, better known by his nickname “Beaver”.  Nothing bad ever happens. Fifty plus years later the series represents a “simpler time” when family took precedence over outside distractions or ambitions. In those same fifty plus years, the televised concept of the Traditional American Nuclear Family has expanded to include combinations of people beyond white middle class suburbanites — for example, blended families (The Brady Bunch), blacks (The Cosby Show), the working class (Roseanne),  gays (Modern Family), and immigrants (Fresh Off the Boat) —  but its core has remained fundamentally the same: two parents and their children who live together, embodying family and home, which provide stability, security, and satisfaction.

Expanding the myth to be more inclusive is progress, but not necessarily progressive. The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), introduced a blended family but the parents are both widowed, not divorced. Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996) presented Philadelphia as an inner city that had to be fled. The incredibly successful series The Cosby Show (1984-1992) and Modern Family (2009- ) brought previously marginalized populations into America’s living rooms but in both cases the parents are upper middle class professionals far better off than the majority of their audience. New hits Blackish (2014- ) and Fresh Off the Boat (2015- ) celebrate diversity but do nothing to shake up the status quo. Home and happiness are achieved via family and family is defined via biology or legal contract.

The reality of many American families is not reflected in these popular sitcom families. Marriage is the majority but not the default. A 2014 census report ( shows that almost half of adults do not live with a spouse. While the divorce rate continues to hover around 50%, half of all the children living with only a mother are being raised by women who never married. 10% of all children live with a grandparent. Moreover census data fails to adequately measure family situations that don’t follow bloodlines or legal contracts, there are few check boxes for voluntary, or chosen, kin. Idealizing the Traditional American Nuclear Family, on or off screen, not only marginalizes and/or ignores anyone who does not fit into its narrowly defined borders, it delegitimizes their alternative family groupings. And unlike the Cleavers, the Bradys, the Huxtables, and the Pritchett-Delgados, their audience’s families exist outside a television studio.

The idea of the Traditional American Nuclear Family, and the values it represents, was not just introduced to television in the 1950s, it was invented in the 1950s (Coontz, 1992). While families had to rely on extended family networks during the Great Depression and World Wars, in the more prosperous fifties it was considered old fashioned to live with or near older generations. Simultaneous with this physical movement away from home sharing and extended family was an emphasis on the single family unit that reflected the trend toward isolationism that took over the nation as a whole. The family became the main or only source of emotional intimacy and stability. (D’emilio, 1993) “The emphasis on producing a whole world of satisfaction, amusement, and inventiveness within the nuclear family had no precedents.”  (Coontz, 1992) This elevation of the nuclear family was made at the expense of women, queers, the elderly, racial minorities, immigrants, and the poor to promote capitalist society and post-war nationalism (Coontz, 1992; D’Emilio, 1993)

“It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

The above quote is from a campaign speech given May 19, 1992 on the topic of the racially charged “Rodney King Riots” in Los Angeles, by then Vice-President Dan Quayle to support his thesis that “In a nutshell, I believe the lawless social anarchy that we saw is directly related to the breakdown of the family structure”. (Quayle, 1992). The comment drew national attention as part of an ongoing social and political discussion of “family values”. The television series addressed the controversy, and Quayle, on screen when it returned the following Fall, after which the uproar died down, and the situation was filed away as an interesting pop culture moment (Cohen, 2008).

Murphy chose to bear her child, a son she named Avery after her late mother, alone, but she was not without family. She had a close knit group of friends and a live in house painter who also acted as a housekeeper and eventual nanny, all of whom provided emotional support. They shared holidays, called each other by pet names, and supported Murphy through her battle with breast cancer. They were a family not by blood or law but by choice. Quayle called out Murphy Brown because she depicted an alternative to the Traditional American Nuclear Family that was otherwise prevalent at the time on series such as Home Improvement, Roseanne, and Family Matters

Voluntary kin relationships take different forms (Braithwaite, 2010). In Full House (1987-1995) Danny Tanner asks his best friend and his brother-in-law to move in with him to help raise his three daughters following the death of his wife. In this example, the voluntary kin overlap with the blood kin, an occurrence Carol Stack considers standard in the poor Black neighborhoods she studied for her book All Our Kin (1974). In the Flats, kinship is determined by the active acceptance of responsibility for a child.

“The chain of sponsored parent-child connections determines the personal kindreds of children. Participants in active units of domestic cooperation are drawn from personal kinship networks. How a particular individual say a mother, works to create the active networks which she depends on for the needs of her children, depends largely on sponsorship or parental links. Commonly, the mother’s personal domestic network includes the personal networks of her children, who are half siblings with different fathers. Each child will grow up into a slightly different personal network from his brothers and sisters.” (Stack, 1974)

These personal kindred networks are complex and can be difficult to navigate — indeed, Stack wrote they “constitute the main activity of daily life for these women” (Stack, 1974)— but they exist in the interests of the child. In one example Stack describes how one mother’s boyfriend became “play daddy” to her children, and remained so even after the couple broke up (Stack, 1974). Children establish close, even ‘parental’ relationships with aunts and uncles, grandparents, step-parents and significant others, including platonic friends, of their parents and the relationships are maintained as kin by consensus. As kin networks expand and contract the child’s needs are better met by focusing on the big picture rather than the specificity of blood lines or legal ties. It’s difficult to explain how Danny Tanner’s college roommate is ‘related’ to the twin sons of Danny’s late wife’s brother and his wife, Danny’s longtime co-worker — unless the word ‘family’ is allowed to suffice.

In the Disney Channel series Jessie (2011- ) the titular character is a live in nanny to four children. The seldom seen parents have one biological daughter and three adopted children; Jessie is their main caregiver, along with the butler who cooks, cleans, and acts as a kind of eccentric uncle to both the kids and Jessie. This is an example of voluntary kin relationships that substitute for absent kin, in this case parents. In 2012, about 1.3 million people held child care jobs in the United States and 29% of those were self-employed, working either out of their own home or the family’s home ( That’s approximately 377,000 “substitute” mothers the likes of Dan Quayle and June Cleaver would shake their head at. But what if it’s not a zero sum situation — what if instead of the nanny replacing the mother (or father) relationship, she is supplementing it, like the personal kindred relationships in the Flats?

Neither the impoverished Welfare populations in Stack’s book nor the wealthy professionals represented in Jessie should be punished for putting their children’s care in the hands of people ready, willing, and able to take on the responsibility. The better argument is for publicly funded daycare and a system for the division of labor based on who wants to perform it rather than which gender has “traditionally” done so.

Another insidious aspect of the Traditional American Nuclear Family as introduced in the 1950s and idealized through the present is their residence in a picture perfect single-family home in the suburbs. The Cleavers’ white picket fence existence was not universal in its day: “A full 25 percent of Americans, forty to fifty million people, were poor in the mid-1950s” (Coontz, 1992). And poverty continues to be a significant issue; in 2014, an estimated 16 million children, or about one in five, received food stamp assistance in the United States. As for the home itself, while more than two thirds of White households own a home, less than half of Black or Hispanic households do ( This translates to poorer families relying more on domestic networks than bio-legal relationships and picket fences. “Much more important for the creation and recruitment to personal networks are the practical requirements that kin and friends live near one another.” (Stack, 1974)

Three series typify voluntary kin networks created by location and circumstance. Seventeen years before Murphy Brown annoyed the vice president One Day at a Time (1975-1984) featured a divorced mother raising two daughters by herself — but, like Murphy, not entirely alone. In addition to the sometimes seen ex-husband/father, there’s the super of the building they live in who takes on many masculine or paternal coded duties and a progression of semi-long term boyfriends, one that involves a son moving in with the family. In the end the mother and both daughters are married, the younger generation sharing a house, and the building attendant moves away to raise his sister’s children. In this way the series moves to the “happy ending” of a Traditional American Nuclear Family cluster but it’s created by engaging in a combination of voluntary and bio-legal kin relationships.

A divorced mother is also the apex of the voluntary kin network in Disney’s The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (2005-2008). Carey is a lounge singer who moves her twin boys into the Boston hotel where she works. As with One Day at a Time and Jessie, nearby employees, in this case the concierge of the hotel and a teenage girl who works at the lobby candy-counter, become voluntary kin to the twins and their mother as well as the daughter of the hotel owner who also lives in a (much larger) suite. They resemble, even reenact, a Traditional American Nuclear Family with two parents (Carey and Moseby, the concierge), two girls (Maddie the candy girl and London the owner’s daughter), and two boys (twins Zack and Cody) — but it is made up of voluntary kin related more by proximity than biology.

And in Jane the Virgin (2014- ), unmarried and pregnant Jane is supported by a kin network made up of her mother and grandmother, the father of the baby and his family who own the hotel she works at, and a handful of people who come and go such as her friends and co-workers, her own father who she has only just met and his family, her former fiancé, and her baby-daddy’s former wife. The wide cast of characters are loosely related by blood, law, proximity, and situation, but most of all by Jane and her baby.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single parent families in 2014, more than 80% were headed by single mothers and 51% of them were divorced, separated or widowed ( These limited statistics do not adequately capture the number of single mothers cohabiting with the child’s father or another partner, or with extended family or voluntary kin. But they make clear this is a large, diverse, and vibrant population of families who are marginalized by the idealized sanctity of the Traditional American Nuclear Family. And that stigma leads to direct economic consequences: the median income for families led by a single mother in 2013 was $26,000 compared to a median income of $84,000 for married families ( Single parents can’t work as long hours as married parents, can’t afford flexible child care, and must live and work in a society that is biased against them. When surveyed, single-mothers overwhelmingly agree that “Government should set a goal of helping society adapt to the reality of single-parent families and use its resources to help children and mothers succeed regardless of their family status.” (Halpin, 2014) Adapt to the reality that family takes many forms instead of clinging to a “tradition” that never really existed in the first place.

Friends (1994-2004) was neither conceived nor marketed as a series about family, however it is an excellent example of a voluntary kin network in media. The series revolves around six friends: Ross and Monica are brother and sister, Chandler is Ross’s best friend and Rachel is Monica’s, Joey is Chandler’s roommate and Phoebe was absorbed into the group at some point prior to the pilot. During the series Rachel dates both Ross and Joey, and Monica and Chandler marry. Rachel and Ross have a baby but not while they are together, Phoebe is surrogate mother to her brother’s triplets, and Monica and Chandler adopt twins in the final season. Ross has an older child with his ex-wife, now in a lesbian relationship, and Phoebe eventually marries outside the group. Again, the series ends with most of the cast enacting Traditional American Nuclear Family but their foundation is an interconnected borderline polyamorous supplemental voluntary kin network.

Polyamorous families range from triads or vees that consist of three people in an ongoing and concurrent emotional and/or sexual relationship with each other in some combination, but otherwise exclusive, to intimate networks that may include twenty people interdating who may or may not live together (Sheff, 2014). Many poly families include children — both natural born to members or from previous relationships and adopted or fostered by one or more members of the group. There is no sitcom equivalent to a poly family; the closest in specificity is HBO drama Big Love (2006-2011) about Bill Henrickson, a polygamist, his three wives, and their nine children. Big Love was controversial, Emmy-nominated, and the subject of studies published in various journals of Law.  But it is not representative of the entirety or even the majority of polyamorous individuals or families.

Benefits to and disadvantages of a polyamorous family are similar to those of the personal kindred networks described by Stack. In both instances the children grow up with more attention, more generosity of affection, more honesty and open discussion, and more options for role models. But they also grow up with less space, less privacy, possibly less stability, and most damaging, their norm is stigmatized by the society they live in (Barker, 2010).

June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same sex couples have a fundamental and constitutional right to marry. This was a long awaited victory for many LGBTQ political activists and organizations and their allies. It was also a victory for marriage as an institution and for the government’s right to define which relationships have guaranteed rights. Kath Weston wrote in 1991 “If legal representation is achieved for some aspects of gay families at the expense of others, it could have the effect of privileging certain forms of family while delegitimizing others by contrast.” (Weston, 1991) This decision does not guarantee anything for Murphy Brown, Phoebe Buffay, Bill Henrickson or any of the real American citizens who choose to live within voluntary kin networks.

Many polyamorists, like many gay activists before them (Weston, 1991; D’emilio, 1993), are not advocating to gain mainstream and legal recognition because they consider their anti-establishment counterculture as part of their identity (Aviram, 2010). Nor would extending marriage to include polygamy and polyandry or just general ‘group marriage’ affect voluntary kin networks that do not include or revolve around sexual encounters and romantic engagements. Unfortunately, it is easier to validate certain relationships that mirror tradition — such as same-sex marriage — than to ask why the rules about who is having sex with whom and when matters at all (Weston, 1991).

It’s easier to prop up the Traditional American Nuclear Family and “perpetuate the family as a nodal point through which individuals are ‘attached’ to disciplinary structures on the basis of a range of moral and legal codes surrounding families that mandate for families to actively enforce social norms” (Riggs, 2010) Alternative family models threaten the assumption that the nuclear family is an inherent, rather than a constructed, seat of power. The ‘traditional’ white heterosexual middle-class suburban biological nuclear married American family was never the norm, so why was it elevated to mythic levels and why is it perpetuated? To sell the American Dream, and quite a few kitchen appliances (Coontz, 1992; D’emilio, 1993). The myth of the Traditional American Nuclear Family is not only inaccurate and limiting, it is harmful to anyone in a nontraditional family, particularly children. The answer is not to broaden the definition of ‘traditional family’ until all ‘strangers’ are assimilated or exiled; rather abandon the myth and reconfigure the law to protect and promote personal autonomy, which would allow opportunities to create family units howsoever the individuals involved wish to do it.

Anika Dane
SOC 601 Anthropology of Sexuality
August 13, 2015


The following one question survey was asked on three social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr) August 10, 2015.

Question: Tell me your favorite television series about family (however you want to define it)


  • The Americans*
  • Angel
  • Arrested Development
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003)*
  • Beverly Hills: 90210
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Big Love
  • Boy Meets World
  • Breaking Bad*
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer*
  • Charmed
  • Cheers
  • The Cosby Show*
  • Daria
  • Doctor Who*
  • Dr. Katz
  • The Fosters*
  • Fresh Off the Boat
  • Friends
  • Fringe*
  • Gilmore Girls*
  • Girl Meets World
  • Glee
  • The Honeymooners
  • JEM
  • King of the Hill
  • Lab Rats
  • Leverage
  • Madam Secretary
  • Mama’s Family
  • Married with Children*
  • M.A.S.H.
  • Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
  • Once and Again
  • Orphan Black*
  • Parenthood
  • Penny Dreadful*
  • Roseanne
  • The Simpsons*
  • Sisters
  • Six Feet Under
  • Soap
  • The Sopranos*
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  • Star Trek: Enterprise
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Star Trek: Voyager
  • Steven Universe*
  • The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
  • Supernatural
  • Veronica Mars*
  • The West Wing
  • Xena: Warrior Princess

*indicates answers given by more than one respondent


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D’Emilio, J. (1993). Capitalism and Gay Identity. In Abelove, H. (Ed.) The Lesbian and gay studies reader. New York: Routledge.

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Riggs, D.W. (2010) Developing a ‘Responsible’ Foster Care Praxis: Poly as a Framework for Examining Power and Propriety in Family Contexts. In Barker, M. (Ed.) Understanding non- monogamies. New York: Routledge.

Sheff, E. (2014). The polyamorists next door: Inside multiple-partner relationships and families. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

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Stack, C. (1974). All our kin: Strategies for survival in a Black community. New York: Harper & Row.

Weston, K. (1991). Families we choose lesbians, gays, kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.


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