Sex and “Parenthood”
This past fall, we offered a recommendation of the NBC show “Parenthood” because it speaks truthfully to the experience of finding balance in family life.
Well, an interesting theme has developed in the past three or four episodes: sex. And it has cropped up in several different ways.
The single, but engaged, youngest brother cheats on his fiancée by sleeping with the tutor of his autistic nephew. Parents of two teens realize they are expecting a new baby. And their teenaged daughter decides to have sex with her date on her prom night.
The first two instances are pretty clear-cut presentations of sexual relations. The affair ruins the aspirations of family life for the youngest brother as his life is turned upside down. It also has caused the tutor to stop working with the autistic boy, throwing that family into difficulty. And just when the fiancée was starting to be accepted as part of the family, she has to navigate awkwardness with other family members because she broke off the relationship. This is to say nothing of their son, which is another story.
The unexpected pregnancy has yet to play out, but comes at an inopportune time—precisely when Adam, the father, is laid off from work.
In both cases, the public reality of sex is allowed to play out in the lives of characters who are touched by it. Lives are brought together or thrown into chaos by this powerful gift. All too often, our culture promotes sex as a private matter, as if to say that what one does in bed with another person has nothing to do with who they are outside of the bedroom. These two developments are great examples of how this just is not true. The actions of the characters in bed have profound consequences for who they are outside of the bedroom.
The third development in this series—the teenager who decides to have sex on her prom night—fails to acknowledge this public dimension to sexual behavior.
The family is not religious, and it is fascinating to see how the parents react to the news that their 16 year-old daughter is sexually active. They clearly have a strong gut reaction against this behavior, and have an overwhelming desire and preference for her to not be sexually active. Despite this natural reaction, they have no values with which to guide her. They have no tools they can use to counter a cultural acceptance of pre-marital sex. They are infuriated and disappointed, but have no way to offer her any boundaries.
The best they can do is to provide for her safety. The father is enraged, but can only think to encourage her and her boyfriend to use a condom. The only thing the mother can do is make an appointment with a gynecologist so that her daughter can start taking the pill.
The daughter, meanwhile, struggles with this new world. When asked directly by her parents if she is having sex, she lies. She breaks the ground rules the parents set for her by going to her older boyfriend’s apartment. Her sexual behavior is driving a wedge between her and her parents, and it can be read on their faces.
This conforms to what we believe about chastity as Catholics: chastity is, at bottom, about single-heartedness. No matter one’s state in life—single, celibate, married—chastity is about faithfulness and singleheartedness. In the daughter’s failure to be chaste, we can see the family ‘s harmony split, and we can see the division of her heart. She is drawn to this powerful experience with her boyfriend, yet is saddened by the disappointment she causes her family. There is no rest in this family, and even meals, where they once experienced unity, become contentious.
The show resolves this situation by placing a band-aid over the problem. The father and mother, realizing they are estranged from the daughter by their disappointment over her behavior, decide to engage her and offer her whatever support that they can. As long as she is being “safe” they decide that they can only stand by her side.
What an impoverishment: when their daughter is facing a momentous crisis of identity and relationship, the best they can do is make sure her body is not damaged. They ask about emotional health, too, by asking if there is any coercion or pressure, but this amounts to the same thing. In essence, they are telling her: We can’t stop you from driving recklessly as long as you wear your seatbelt and it is okay with your passengers.
Our children are not yet teenagers, but we’re already laying the foundation for a morality rooted in self-mastery and authentic relationship and friendship. When the time comes and our children are navigating these waters, I am resolved to have many more tools at hand to offer guidance and boundaries.
I also find this to be a monumental failure in the show, and a departure from its truthful depiction of parenthood. The writers are not allowing the public reality of sexual behavior run its course in the lives of daughter and her parents as it does in other ways. It has become a frustrating experience to watch the show because it no longer rings true to reality.