The mainstream media is awash with subtle messaging that promotes family values. In principle it is no bad thing to encourage responsibility, patience, understanding and sacrifice. But in reality, the buzz-phrase is less about moral duties and more about the family unit as commodity.
The idea of the Post War nuclear family (signified by wholesome images of mono-race mother, father, son, daughter) has now given way to an acceptance of far more diversity when it comes to the make-up of the modern family. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the supermarket Christmas ads.
As a media teacher, I have always found these 3-minute festive blockbusters to be a rich source of material for analysis. There was a definite watershed year, 2016, when the stereotypical depiction of white, middle-class families gave way to multi-racial portraits that are much truer to the reality of modern Britain. Take a look back at Mogg’s Christmas Calamity (2015). Despite a cameo appearance by Judith Kerr and the wonderful animation techniques used to bring her beloved cat to life, this advert demonstrated how woefully out of touch Sainsbury’s were when it came to representing People Of Colour. The Thomas family could have stepped off the pages of a 1950’s Good Housekeeping magazine. The end of the ad brings together the entire street, who all pull together in fine British fashion after Mogg accidentally starts a house fire. The cast is so large, they are dispersed around the large, traditional detached house, filling up the entire downstairs, with some eating lunch off their laps on the stairs. But when the camera comes to rest upon the centerpiece - the table scene - there isn’t a non-white face in shot.
Fast forward to 2016 and what an improvement! Sainsbury’s chose to stick with the animated format, and the message was on point for the time of year, telling us that Christmas is all about spending time with loved ones. But the bespectacled toy maker, voiced by James Cordon’s jaunty lyric, “the greatest I can give is me”, belongs to a multi-racial household. The Buster the Boxer animal extravaganza (John Lewis’s offering for 2016) may have captured our hearts with the trampolining woodland creatures, but the supporting cast was a Black family. The 2016 Boots advert featured women working on Christmas day which included the faces and voices of a Black nurse and Brown skinned firefighter. Tesco were a little late to the Christmas party, but they finally caught on the following year. Their 2017 advert, Everyone’s Welcome, was so keen to tick the diversity boxes that they ended up in hot-water for being a little too inclusive – in one shot a Muslim family (clearly signified by females wearing head-coverings) greet each other with bags full of gifts.
In subsequent years the trend has continued – it seems the supermarkets, department stores and online marketplaces all recognise the need to make all of their customers feel valued. Well, almost all.
What about if you’re a family of one? Unless it’s a charity advert, you will struggle to find representations of people spending Christmas alone. Remember Bridget Jones, draining her wine glass and lip syncing to All By Myself in her empty flat? The 2019 Sky Christmas ad gave us a dose of 80’s nostalgia with ET torn between spending Christmas with his new human family and going home to be with his own kind. Every year we are treated to Christmas Specials of First Dates, all the singletons want for Christmas is to find ‘the one’. A plus one is what everyone needs, especially over the festive period; one on its own is unthinkable.
Just try shopping for one, and you’ll see what I mean. The individually packaged ‘TV dinner’ has become synonymous with the sad, the lonely, the unattached. While the winners are treated to a romantic meal for two, the unsuccessful competitors on Dinner Date get a microwave meal delivered to their door. Cross cutting is used to hammer home the stark contrast between the happy couple, surrounded by other diners, and the rejected losers, who have only their TV for company.
Assuming you can bear the shame of browsing the selection of meals-for-one, you will then be forced to pay Anti-Social Tax. This is the food industry’s punishment for people who refuse to fulfil their reproductive duties. Couples with children, on the other hand, are rewarded with BOGOFs galore. Family sized meal options are far better value for money. In Tesco’s Aldi Price Match range, spaghetti bolognaise for four costs just £3.72; an Aldi Inspired Cuisine dish for one costs £2.19. Of course, you can argue that the price match deals are cooked from scratch and of course, buying raw ingredients is always cheaper than ready made options. But ready-made meals were originally introduced in America to take some of the pressures out of modern living. If you live alone, you are already under more time pressures than those in relationships: you’ll be working extra long hours to pay all the bills out of one wage and on top of that, you also have to make time for all the domestic chores. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to be batch cooking a week’s worth of dinners. And no matter how much you enjoy chicken curry, vegetable stew, or shepherd’s pie, no one wants to eat the same meal for days at a time. If you did have the dedication to spend an entire day out of your weekend cooking numerous dishes, where would you put them all? This system is designed to work for someone with a chest freezer. I live alone; I don’t have a freezer, I have an ice-box.
Supermarkets have one function and that is to convince us to buy more than we need. The more we buy, the better value it seems. That is until half the goods end up in landfill. If you are single and eco-conscious, you are the least attractive consumer. Time to put on your sackcloth, start ringing your bell and head straight to the yellow sticker items – the supermarket equivalent of a Medieval squint-box.
And don’t even get me started on breakfast. Some days, by the time I get around to thinking about the evening meal, I’m too tired to even wait for the microwave and I’ll reach for the cereal. I tend to go for the 460g boxes because I can fit one in my rucksack. Currently this size box of Shreddies costs £2.35; while the 910g BIG PACK is £3.15. I reckon this would last me about 6 months. Assuming I got myself a trailer for my push bike and managed to haul this monstrosity home, it would take up half my cupboard space, only for the damn things to turn to polystyrene after a few weeks. The shoppers who are ideally placed to exploit the great food shopping swindle are families with a car. In fact, thinking about it, the majority of supermarket adverts often begin or end in the carpark. The family car is another commodity sold with the promise of convenience and freedom.
Of course, this doesn’t mean freedom from family. The media messaging is all about togetherness. A classic illustration of this is OXO’s Goodbye Quiet Night In advert. Dad can be seen preparing a meal for his quiet night in as Mum gets ready for a girl’s night out at the cinema and the kids are off to judo. When the judo teacher gets sick and Mum’s friend calls to cancel, this brings the whole family together to enjoy Dad’s pasta dish. So many brands employ this technique: putting their product at the centre of family life to suggest they are an essential part of the fabric of domestic cohesion. According to Cancer Research, 35% of people in deprived areas of the UK were obese (as of 2019), a figure set to rise to 46% by 2040 if the trend continues. When we are constantly bombarded with images of comfort food and sold the idea that this is our only source of comfort, this is hardly surprising.
If you have the means to even think about packing everyone in the car and heading off on holiday (what with the cost-of-living crisis and travel industry crisis) you will again benefit from family status. There is often little difference between the cost of a family room or one person using a double or twin room. There’s no such thing as a single room. Being single is the modern-day equivalent of the ‘love that dare not speak its name’. It’s one thing to live alone in the privacy of your own home, but the thought of doing so in public places? While on holiday, families can enjoy special passes to days out and attractions. The Sun newspaper, once infamous for titillating the nation with topless models, now offers £9.50 Hols aimed at busy, coupon-clipping Mums. Even destinations that used to be reserved for the wild abandon of 30-something hedonists are getting savvy to the marketing power of family appeal. Festivals have gone all family friendly: go to the Camp Bestival website and you’d think it was promoting the latest CBeebies show; Glastonbury now has a Kidzfield zone, a Green Kids area and circus acts aimed at kids; and the unimaginatively named Teddy Rocks Festival is billed as “fighting kids cancer with rock!” I’d never heard of Blandford until I looked up this event, but they really could not have picked a more perfect location.
Now I sound all bitter and twisted, don’t I?
I’m not trying to say that there shouldn’t be financial support for struggling families. I believe all kids should get free school meals, I believe that childcare should be free up to school age, I believe that this country needs to invest in social housing for families that are currently being exploited by ruthless private landlords. I am willing to contribute towards this through my taxes. What I do object to is the idea that my tax contributions are not sufficient.
Recently The Times published an article entitled: Should We Tax The Childless? In which demographer, Paul Morland, suggested that people who cannot or will not have children should be subjected to a “negative child benefit”. The concern is that with an aging population and decreasing birth rates we are heading for an employment crisis: there won’t be enough of us to fill positions and care for the old. The idea that we should engineer population growth when the planet cannot sustain the current numbers is absurd. Globally, it is predicted that the population will reach 8 Billion by the end of 2022. But growth is actually slowing in certain areas (for affluent countries like the UK this raises concerns for the economy). Morland approaches this issue from the ‘little islander’ perspective: asserting that we need to ‘grow our own’ skilled workforce.
Here’s an alternative. The parts of the world where population growth does outweigh deaths (such as Africa and India) are also unfairly suffering the effects of climate change, which is exacerbating existing instabilities. 60% of Africans are under 25 and in India the figure is more than half the population. Instead of selfishly seeking to preserve our own gene pool, how about allowing those who wish to immigrate the freedom to do so? The UK’s stance on immigration has become increasingly hostile over the past couple of decades. The inhumane Nationality and Borders Act illustrates all too clearly the lengths to which the Tory government is willing to go to prove that Brexit was justified. But never mind the human rights point of view, the legislation flies in the face of common sense. One country with an aging workforce: fit young workers overseas, desperate for the chance of a better life; it’s not exactly rocket science, is it? America’s answer to the problem is to take away the rights of its own citizens: the recent reversal of Roe verses Wade reflecting the irrational right-wing fear of ‘white extinction’.
I knew I would never have children well before I had the biological capacity to conceive and I have never wavered on this position. As an enby, I just don’t have any maternal instincts whatsoever. As a teacher, I have a duty to develop a sense of social responsibility in the young people I support. I have always tried to encourage compassion and a global outlook. Shouldn’t true family values (an integral part of All American and Great British culture) extend beyond our own backyards?