Why in (nearly) every sitcom nominally about some kind of "nuclear" family do the children consist of an younger brother and older sister?
February 6, 2009 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Why in (nearly) every sitcom nominally about some kind of "nuclear" family do the children consist of an younger brother and older sister?

They're too numerous to list.

Certainly there's sometimes a variation, but more often than not, it's an additional younger or older sister, an alien, ghost, android or Bigfoot.

Interestingly, often when one or other of the parents is missing through divorce or death, the pattern is reversed or it's an only child (Blossom, My Two Dads).

(I'd be happy for this to be disproved by the way. It's just when you've suffered through the likes of My Family, these things begin to look the same).
posted by feelinglistless to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think The Simpsons is a prominent counterpoint, if you're looking to be disproved. Maybe not a sitcom by your definition, but I don't see any reason why being animated should disqualify it.

Even if you're right, though, I can imagine a few reasons. Girls mature faster than boys, and need to be written as such if they're going to be realistic. If you're writing them as more mature anyway, might as well make them older. Moreover, writers may not like the power dynamic of older brother/younger sister, either in its dominant or protective forms.

Mostly though, I'd say it's a coincidence, sometimes the result of focus testing without a care given as to the "why," sometimes the result of simply casting a younger actor for the male part than for the female part, and sometimes just because that's the way the synapses randomly fired when the creator first put pen to paper.
posted by Riki tiki at 1:29 PM on February 6, 2009

Confirmation bias.

I think there's more variation than you think, and you identify this specific situation because, for whatever reason, it's what you look for.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:30 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I understand, but here goes: you're saying that, in sitcoms which feature a nuclear family (two parents and their biological children? is that too strict, or not strict enough?), there are almost always (say, 90% of the time?) two children: a younger brother and an older sister.

People love posting answers that consist only of the words 'confirmation bias,' and moderators love deleting them. Nevertheless, I think that might be the right answer in this case.
posted by box at 1:31 PM on February 6, 2009

Girls on television need to appear sexually available, even if they're not.

In most of the notable exceptions the older brother is in his late teens so the younger sister is still old enough to fulfill her purpose on the show.
posted by tkolar at 1:32 PM on February 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have no idea. The three "nuclear family" sitcoms I watched growing up did not have this scenario.

Family Ties - Alex P. Keaton was the oldest, with 2 younger sisters.
Cosby Show - Theo Huxtable was the 2nd oldest with 2 younger sisters.
Growing Pains - Mike Seaver was the oldest with 1 younger sibling of each sex.
posted by meerkatty at 1:38 PM on February 6, 2009

Looking at the nuclear sitcoms it seems like there are a lot of examples that disprove this.

Family Ties--Alex was the oldest, and had younger sisters. Plus an even younger sister, and then later a baby brother.

Growing Pains -- Kirk Cameron was the oldest, had a younger sister, then an even younger
brother and later a baby sister.

Family matters -- Oldest is Michael Winslow, a boy. There are quite a few others.

Leave it to Beaver -- two brothers.

Brady Bunch -- Oldest is Greg, a boy.

Happy Days -- oldest is Richie (if you don't count even older brother who disappeared after season 1), then younger sister Joanie.

Family Guy -- Oldest is Chris, a boy.

Beverly Hillbillies -- Oldest is a boy, sister is younger.

Malcolm in the Middle -- all boys.

Mr. Belvedere, oldest was a boy.

I'm actually having problems coming up that match what you say, older sister with younger brother. Only Alf comes to mind...and perhaps Charles in Charge
posted by arniec at 1:39 PM on February 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I forgot about Lisa Bonet. Theo was smack in the middle of 5.
posted by meerkatty at 1:39 PM on February 6, 2009

Some family sitcoms I can think of with both parents present that break this rule:
All in the Family- daughter Gloria is only child
The Jeffersons- son Lionel is the only child (as far as I can remember)
Family Matters- son Eddie is the oldest
Home Improvement- three sons
I Love Lucy- son Little Ricky is only child (and Lucy and Ricky's oldest was a girl in real life)
The Dick Van Dyke Show- son Ritchie is oldest (or I guess only child)
Leave it to Beaver- 2 sons
Good Times- son J.J. is the oldest

This probably doesn't count under the kind of show you're talking about, but on Arrested Development, son GOB is the oldest.
posted by fructose at 1:40 PM on February 6, 2009

Boy Meats World is another counterexample.
as is Home Improvement
Malcolm in the Middle

I think Riki tiki's got it, though. You need conflict between the kids, and that's best as older sister or just brothers. The conflict between kids & parents is usually:

1) Girl growing up, fights over boys / curfew / etc - they need to be old-ish.
2) Boy getting into trouble - mischief, bad grades, bad friends, drugs - can be younger.
posted by Lemurrhea at 1:40 PM on February 6, 2009

Malcolm in the Middle is all boys.
posted by electroboy at 1:41 PM on February 6, 2009

On preview, all my exceptions were mentioned except: All In the Family, the Jeffersons, Home Improvement.

On Family Guy, Meg is the eldest child according to Wiki.

Diff'rent Strokes was premised on dead parents, but did not change the stated pattern (Kimberley was the eldest of the 3).
posted by K.P. at 1:43 PM on February 6, 2009

Let's see.

That 70's Show: Confirmation.
Family Matters: 3 kids, older brother and two younger sisters.
The Cosby Show: 5 kids, oldest is female, but the only boy is in the middle of 4 girls.
Fresh Prince: 3 kids (not counting Will), older sister then middle brother then younger sister. Half-confirmation?
Boy Meets World: 3 kids, oldest 2 male.
Charles in Charge: 3 kids, oldest female, middle male, youngest male.
Roseanne: 3 kids, two older famale, youngest male
Married with Children: Confirmation
Home Improvement: 3 boys

I could go on, but even if there's a slight bias in favor of, say, oldest children being female, there are oodles of counter-examples. The ones I cited above - just ones that occurred to me offhand - have only two cases that match your theory; that's of course skipping all sitcoms portraying non-"nuclear" families (eg, no Full House or whatever that show was where the adopted twins bring their adoptive parents together).
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:46 PM on February 6, 2009

The only two sitcom families that I can think of that actually follow the older sister/younger brother example are Married with Children and Family Guy, and in both those shows the brother and sister are close enough in age that it's not exactly noticeable who's older. At least in my observation.

also in my observation Family Guy is terrible
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:46 PM on February 6, 2009

Family Guy, like The Simpsons, also has a baby.
posted by box at 1:47 PM on February 6, 2009

I don't think it's confirmation bias. The 'teenage daughter, pre-teen son' or 'older teen daughter, pubescent son' sets up familiar comic dynamics: 'father-daughter-boyfriend', 'sibling rivalry with annoying immature brother', etc. In short, nuclear-family sitcoms are usually quite conventional, and those situations are part of the convention.
posted by holgate at 1:52 PM on February 6, 2009

I very pleased that this is just looking like, as you say, confirmation bias. Though most of the shows I've been thinking of tend to be British.
posted by feelinglistless at 1:55 PM on February 6, 2009

The Cosby Show: 5 kids, oldest is female, but the only boy is in the middle of 4 girls.

The kids on The Cosby Show follow the same pattern as Cosby's real kids. His only son, Ennis, was third of five.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:59 PM on February 6, 2009

Girls on television need to appear sexually available, even if they're not.

I think tkolar nailed it. Pretty girls/young women (not children) sell the show to a desired demographic (namely teenage or older males) that might not normally watch a "family" show. Obviously there are exceptions, but darn near every "family" show (animated or satirical shows notwithstanding) has to have a hottie. It's built into the design of the show simply because it raises ratings.
posted by elendil71 at 2:00 PM on February 6, 2009

Even though this has kind of been disproven, I'll submit my theory about why --

...greater comedic potential. With a teenage girl, you have the wacky hilarity that would ensue from having a boy-crazy teenage daughter, and could write all kinds of hijinks about that; and with a grade-school-age boy, you have the comedic potential of mischevious little Timmy getting into all sorts of mayhem. Flip that around -- teenage boy and gradeschool-age-girl -- and you may have the hijinks of the boy having girl trouble, but you lose out on the little-kid-mischief angle.

*shrug* That is just a guess, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:15 PM on February 6, 2009

The oldest kid on My Three Sons was a male.
posted by Killick at 3:06 PM on February 6, 2009

It doesn't matter that your theory wasn't exactly dead-on, because you've still stumbled right onto the fact that there must be a hot sister of available lusting age -- whether the sister is older or younger, whether or not there are other unavailable sisters.
posted by Coatlicue at 3:12 PM on February 6, 2009

Even if the sister is not quite "lust target" age or development, the actress playing her has to be old enough to wear makeup and fashionable clothes. A big part of marketing for these family shows is getting the girl characters on the cover of Seventeen, YM, whatever tweens are reading these days (just like Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Connolly were in my misbegotten youth, when YM was still called Young Miss and came in the same size as Readers Digest).

Part of the reason Dakota Fanning's been able to develop an interesting resume, even though she won't be 14 until next month, is that she's only just begun to mature physically. She had a very "little girl" appearance until she started doing promo for The Secret Life of Bees. I expect that to change now that she's dressing/making up more maturely on red carpets, and she'll probably start getting fashion covers and endorsements for tween-targeted cosmetics and skin care.
posted by catlet at 3:28 PM on February 6, 2009

Well, wait a second. Sitcoms have been around since I Love Lucy. People 'want' to see televison that reflects themselves (and confirmation bias helps this.)

But realistically, the american family has 2.x kids. So, if you were going to do a sitcom around the home, there are only 3 variations: two boys, two girls, and one of both.

To defeat your confirmation bias, I'll point out the "biggest" sitcoms, rather than the small ones.
All in the Family: One daughter
Happy Days: One son (well, two, but chuck walked upstairs and was never seen again)
Taxi/Cheers: Large multi-casts.
Cosby Show: Numerous kids.
Seinfeld/Fraiser: not about families (well, fraiser sorta was...)

Get the idea?
posted by filmgeek at 5:59 PM on February 6, 2009

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