I Got All My Sisters With MeHow TV is Diversifying Family Structures

Discussing diversity on television is such well-worn territory that it’s practically cliché, but one thing networks get right is their depictions of extended families. On shows ranging from the cancelled-too-soon Cristela to the critical hit Black-ish, grandparents, especially grandmothers, are integral to the family dynamic. For many families of color, it’s common for grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws to live under the same roof or in close proximity.

Many of these extended families exist by choice or for purely practical reasons. On the CW’s Jane the Virgin, Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) moves back in with her mother and grandmother after her husband dies and she needs more support taking care of her son, Mateo (Madison Rojas). On Netflix’s One Day At a Time, Lydia (Rita Moreno) moves in with her daughter, Penelope (Justina Machado), to help with childcare. On ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, Louis Huang’s (Randall Park) mother, Jenny Huang (Lucille Soong), lives with his family because she has mobility issues and needs ongoing care.

These extended families are their own miniature communities where members can find financial, emotional, and educational support. By distributing the caretaking responsibilities between more people, everyone has a richer, fuller familial existence. By showing these extended families, TV is expanding our understanding of what families can look like.

These five television shows give us a blueprint for how extended families can be depicted in a meaningful and positive way.

1. One Day At a Time

Justina Machado, Isabella Gomez, Rita Moreno, Marcel Ruiz in One Day At a TimeJustina Machado as Penelope, Isabella Gomez as Elena , Rita Moreno as Lydia, and Marcel Ruiz as Alex in One Day At a Time (Photo credit: Adam Rose/Netflix)

Financial stability is one of the primary reasons families of color maintain such close ties. Having more people in a household means there’s more mouths to feed, but it also leads to more income. On One Day At A Time, Lydia moves in with her daughter, Penelope, and her two teenager children after Penelope’s marriage ends. While it doesn’t appear that Lydia earns a salary, she is integral to maintaining the household. She cooks meals for the family, does housework, purchases groceries, and keeps an eye on her grandchildren.

While none of these things directly bring income into the household, they directly benefit her family. Not only does Lydia’s presence eliminate Penelope’s childcare expenses, but she is also assured that her children are well-fed and cared for. The arrangement calls to mind Judy Brady’s groundbreaking feminist essay, “I Want A Wife,” in which the feminist activist and scholar imagines all that she could accomplish if she had a wife to take on all the household labor women are expected to do.

2. Jane the Virgin

Jaime Camil as Rogelio, Ivonne Coll as Alba, Andrea Navedo as Xiomara, and Gina Rodriguez as Jane in Jane the VirginFrom left to right: Jaime Camil as Rogelio, Ivonne Coll as Alba, Andrea Navedo as Xiomara, and Gina Rodriguez as Jane in Jane the Virgin (Photo credit: The CW)

Jane Villanueva is constantly concerned with providing safe and adequate childcare for her son since she has limited resources. While her grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), works outside the home and her mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), has moved out of their home, both women look after Mateo whenever Jane needs them to. Since Jane’s a young single mother and widow who is striving for financial independence, her family’s assistance allows her the wiggle room she needs to balance all of her ambitions.

As Jane’s writing career progresses, the show is exploring her need to relinquish absolute control, trust her instincts, and rely more on her familial village, which includes Mateo’s father, Raphael (Justin Baldoni); her own father, Rogelio (Jaime Camil); and occasionally, Petra (Yael Grobglas), Raphael’s ex-wife and mother of Mateo’s sisters. Over time, she also comes to understand and appreciate Raphael’s attachment to his wealth because it provides a cushion for their son and his daughters. Altogether, the support she receives allows her to take care of her son while working full-time as a waitress and pursuing her dream of being an author. Her extended family helps her thrive.

3. Dr. Ken

Krista Marie Yu as Molly and Dana Lee as D.K. in Dr. KenKrista Marie Yu as Molly and Dana Lee as D.K. in Dr. Ken (Photo credit: ABC/Ron Tom)

Members of extended families often have greater access to emotional support as well. Since there are more than two adults in the home, children have more people who they can trust and confide in. On NBC’s canceled sitcom, Dr. Ken, grandfather D.K. Park (Dana Lee) cultivates a special relationship with his two grandchildren, Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and Dave (Albert Tsai). He introduces Molly to Jae (the grandson of one of his friends who later becomes her boyfriend) and supports her through their relationship issues when teenaged affections lead to miscommunications.

D.K. Park also practices Korean with Dave since his father is not fluent, and correctly suggests that Dave should move up a grade in school because he isn’t being challenged enough. Though he’s portrayed as a gruff and traditional Korean patriarch, Park also demonstrates a caring side that shows how deeply invested he is in his family’s well-being. It’s an interesting dynamic that adds nuance to the “tiger mom” trope that’s projected onto so many Asian families.

4. Fresh Off the Boat

Lucille Soong as Grandma Huang in Fresh Off the BoatLucille Soong as Grandma Huang in Fresh Off the Boat (Photo credit: ABC/John Fleenor)

Grandma Jenny Huang is an intelligent woman who’s largely left to her own devices and always know what’s going on with her family. For instance, she agrees to keep her grandsons’ mischief under wraps in exchange for favors, including not telling their parents they’ve broken a vase in exchange for buying her Gatorade. Grandma Huang also explains aspects of Chinese culture to her grandsons, including Emery’s (Forrest Wheeler) “bad luck year” and recent propensity for clumsiness and mistakes. She also invests in her daughter-in-law Jessica’s (Constance Wu) house-flipping business and later reveals her desire for them to have a closer relationship. While a lot of Huang’s life is shrouded in mystery, including her age, she is slowly revealed to be a fiercely independent woman who’s living a full life and contributing to her family.

5. Greenleaf

Merle Dandridge as Grace Greenleaf and Lynn Whitfield as Lady Mae Greenleaf on GreenleafMerle Dandridge as Grace Greenleaf and Lynn Whitfield as Lady Mae Greenleaf on Greenleaf (Photo credit: Courtesy of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network)

In the pilot episode of OWN’s Greenleaf, protagonist Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) makes the pilgrimage back to her family’s palatial Memphis, Tennessee estate. Her teenage daughter, Sophia (Desiree Ross), marvels at its size, but the mansion has to be large enough to accommodate their entire family. Grace’s parents Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield); brother Jacob Greenleaf (Lamman Rucker); sister-in-law Kerissa Greenleaf (Kim Hawthorne); sister Charity Greenleaf-Satterlee (Deborah Joy Winans); brother-in-law Kevin Satterlee (Tye White); and their children all live together in the mansion.

For Grace, returning to the Greenleaf estate feels like walking into the lion’s den. For Sophia, however, moving in with her relatives gives her access to a support system she’s never had before. Suddenly, she has grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts who she can turn to instead of relying solely on her mother. Newly surrounded by a deeply religious family, Sophia embraces religion herself, and becomes involved in the Greenleaf church by being baptized and teaching Sunday school. Though her mother is worried about her newfound fervor, Sophia has found a community that supports and uplifts her the way she needs.

Television has started familiarizing audiences with the idea that not all families look the same, and that often, extended family units offer significant benefits, whether it’s subsidized childcare, an extra household income, or simply a kind ear. Fresh Off the Boat, Jane the Virgin, Dr. Ken, Black-ish, and other shows with extended families chip away at the perception that extended families are necessarily poor or criminal, and instead reflect the reality that so many of us are already intimately familiar with: The extended family structure provides support in a difficult world, dismantling the myth of rugged individuality and showing that there are many ways for the family to be the cornerstone of society.

by Cate Young
View profile »

Cate Young is a Trinibagonian writer, and creator of BattyMamzelle; a feminist pop culture blog focused on film, television, music and critical commentary on media representation. Her writing has focused particularly on the intersection of race, gender and sexuality, specifically with introducing an intersectional analysis to discussions of pop culture and media representation and  has appeared in Persephone Magazine, Bitch Flicks and The Powder Room and been recognized by Mic.com, The LA Times and The AFP. Cate has a BA in Photojournalism from Boston University and a Master's in Mass Communications with the University of Leicester. Cate is the 2016 Bitch Media Fellow for Pop Culture Criticism.

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader: