The following essay was written for “Introduction to Rhetorical Criticism” during my senior year.
Parenthood: A Rhetorical Analysis of The Hit Television Show
By Marlee Middlebrooks
An older television show that first aired in 2010, Parenthood, has resurfaced in popularity for some viewers on Netflix where they can binge watch all 103 episodes throughout its six seasons in any time frame they should choose. Created by Jason Katims, the show follows a family with multiple layers; Zeek and Camille Braverman serve as the head of the family, as they have been married for 46 years, and together, they have four adult children: Adam, Sarah, Crosby, and Julia, each with their own families (IMDb). This drama is incredibly dense tackling topics that many television shows opt not to address: affairs, divorce, abortion, disabilities, sexuality, racism, adoption, and much, much more. This rhetoric could be analyzed one hundred times over from one hundred different perspectives, but in order to keep a narrow focus for the purposes of this analysis, I have chosen to review one single episode in the middle of the series: Season 3, Episode 16, titled “Tough Love.” Each individual episode of this television series is full of rhetoric that is important to consider, but in choosing to analyze this artifact, I applied the relevant principle of choice because I believe the themes in this episode are relevant to the larger theme of gender and rhetorical criticism. In this essay, I argue that the story lines of Sarah Braverman and her boyfriend as well as Amber Braverman and her boss are situated among two key feminist struggles—between feminism and femininity and the individual and the collective.
Overall, I believe the rhetor, the creator of the show, sets out to show that he can confront challenging and often uncomfortable topics on screen and still manage to keep audiences engaged. In this episode, he addresses a situation where a parent dates someone significantly younger and the consequences that come of an atypical relationship such as this one. Secondly, he does not shy from exposing sexual relations in a political workplace. I believe the implied audience for this series is a younger generation of people in their 20’s to mid 30’s who are on the cusp of having families similar to those depicted in the Braverman clan. Therefore, because the show aired in the 2000s with a younger implied audience, I believe this context is important to keep in mind when analyzing the rhetoric. The audience will likely be open to observing and considering the very real struggles these female characters are bound to face. Even though most people watching will not be watching with a strong understanding of rhetoric, they will not be remiss to the sites of feminist struggle present. In the following analysis, I will first describe the situation that surrounds Sarah Braverman and her boyfriend and how this struggle is an example of femininity being preferred over feminism. Secondly, I will detail the story of Amber Braverman, Sarah’s daughter, and how there is a present struggle between individualism and collectivism.
Sarah Braverman is Zeek and Camille’s second child but first daughter in the show. To provide some brief background information, it is important to note that the premise of the entire television series began with her moving home to live with her parents with her two high school age children. She is a single mother divorced from her alcoholic ex-husband. Throughout the show, she fluctuates with a few different dating relationships, but during this season and this episode, she is in a serious, committed relationship with Mark Cyr, a high school teacher at her son, Drew’s, school. Mark is much younger than Sarah. During the episode, Drew finds an ovulation test in Sarah’s bathroom, and she explains to him that her and Mark are trying to have a baby. “Why are you trying to get pregnant? That doesn’t make sense,” Drew says to his mom, to which she responds. “Well, it’s somebody I love, and we’re serious. It’s the next natural step.” Here is where we begin to see feminism take over. In a 2010 world, Sarah is making the next natural choice as a woman. She does not have to explain herself under any other means besides the fact that she is with someone she loves, and they want to have a baby. This is her choice. This line in the script is subtle, yet crucial, and it is important to see how feminism is obvious in her initial response to Drew’s questioning.
Later in the episode, Mark takes Drew out to eat, so they can better get to know one another. Instead, he presses him, and Drew eventually breaks down. “I don’t understand why everyone pretends like it’s not a big deal when it is. It’s a huge deal. It feels like she’s just gonna go off and start some new family with you. It hurts,” he says through tears before walking out of the restaurant. When he gets home, he rehashes the conversation with his mom, but brings a new element into the picture—his father. “Have you even told dad about this?”, he asks. “Why dad?”, she responds. “I thought that maybe when dad got better you guys would get together or something. I know it’s stupid.” “It’s not stupid,” Sarah whimpers. This two word phrase, although short, is a huge line in the rhetoric. I believe this is where the true feminism and femininity struggle for Sarah is ignited. According to Stillion Southard, “Femininity is a traditional and accessible means of assessing a woman’s worth as defined by men and is often associated with domesticity.” The line, “It’s not stupid,” is critical because it plants a small seed of doubt and guilt into Sarah’s mind. Was her confidence just minutes ago in the beginning of the episode justified, or should she consider her son’s point of view? What is her role as a mother to two older kids? What is right by them? Though she does not ask these questions aloud, the viewer can tell by her body language, her soft-spoken voice, and the fact that she tears up that she is heavily considering the impact of her earlier feminist stance. By the end of the episode, Sarah calls Seth, her ex-husband. The “beginning of the episode Sarah” would not have done this. In fact, we know she did not do this. However, by the conclusion of the episode, she tells Seth, “Things with Mark are getting serious, and uh…so… we’re trying to have a baby.” “Wow. That’s great,” he says. “Yeah?”, she questions. According to Stillion Southard, “Women cannot successfully represent both concepts [feminism and femininity] without eclipsing one or the other.” Overall, she found that prime-time television prefers femininity over feminism, and this is reflected in this episode of Parenthood (Stillion-Southard). Although it seems from the start of the episode that Sarah is embracing her role as a single mom by committing to her young boyfriend and to the idea of wanting a baby, by the end of the episode, though she has not changed her mind, it is obvious that she is questioning the effects of her decision, and she is considering her role moving forward.
A separate plot line within this episode that advances a different area of feminist struggle is that of Amber Braverman, Sarah’s daughter. She is 19 years old, and she recently began working on the campaign of Bob Little, the man running for city council. I believe that throughout the episode there are areas where Amber is conflicted between the individual and the collective regarding her decision making. “A defining characteristic of the postfeminist era is its sense of fierce individualism. The conflict between woman as a person and woman as one of her sex takes root in the rise of feminism and has had clear ramifications in the mediated spotlight (Stillion Southard). The beginning of the episode opens with a scene where Amber comes into work, and Bob informs her that he has been invited to speak in Sacramento on Saturday. He then proceeds to tell her that he needs her to clear her schedule so that she can assist him. “Would this be strictly business?”, she asks, with a sly smirk. “We will do the business first, and if there is any time left over, we will play it by ear,” he responds, leaving the events that could unfold open ended. Amber prompted the question with Bob. She made an individual decision, a choice to ask a flirtatious question and let her boss, a political candidate know that she is interested relationally.
Nonetheless, just a few scenes later, Amber’s actions make her appear to be a different character. She is packing for her trip with the help of her cousin Haddie. Haddie is Adam and Kristina’s daughter. To make the situation more complicated, Kristina also works for Bob Little and is part of the reason Amber got the job with him in the first place. The following conversation takes place between Haddie and Amber while packing. Haddie picks up a pair of high heels from Amber’s bag, “Suuuppper work appropriate.” A: “It’s really not that big of a deal. I just want to look nice.” H: “You really can’t avoid being super sexy.” A: “I don’t even know if I’m going to wear these yet. I’m just bringing a bunch of stuff.” H: “Who are you dressing for…a bunch of sexy interns?” A: “No sexy interns this time—just me and Bob. I’m his assistant, so I have to assist him.” H: “Do you want to like…hook up with him?” A: “Haddie, he’s my boss, so please don’t go making those jokes to your mom and stuff.” The immediate switch in Amber’s conversation between herself and Bob and herself and Haddie is obvious and a major turning point in the rhetoric. The conflict between individualism and collectivism is beginning to play out. As an individual, Amber wants to make her own calls confident and without ramifications, but when she is with a female counterpart, especially a cousin her age who is her confidant, her demeanor is totally different. She must consider the values that Haddie is implying when questioning her. Is it a good idea to make sexual advances toward her boss who also happens to be a political candidate? The plot thickens as Amber does accompany Bob in Sacramento and Haddie informs Kristina of the situation. Bob and Amber find themselves on a bed in the hotel room when they hear a knock at the door, and it happens to be Kristina. “We’re two adults here,” Bob says. “Shut up Bob. She’s 19. You’re 28,” Kristina says. “It’s not a big deal Aunt Kristina. I’m an adult,” Amber says. “Amber, I’m extremely disappointed right now,” Kristina says. This is where the struggle ultimately collides. On the one hand, Amber has made her individual decision. Her flirtatiousness with Bob at the bar lead her to the hotel room where she once again chose her path and relied on her desires. However, her family stepped in an interrupted these choices. From there, she did not stand up as an individual, but she succumbed to the collective nature of the values held by the women in her family. She did not stay with Bob. She left with Kristina. These actions are important. Although she told her aunt she was an adult, she still left with her as if she was a child. The battle between the individual and the collective was present in this story line and especially in the culmination of this moment.
Overall, I believe the rhetor does in this episode what he does in almost every episode of this television series which is why people are drawn into the plot. He confronts real, dense topics head on such as gender and feminist struggle in his rhetoric. A rhetorical critic very quickly notices the themes throughout this episode and the struggles that the characters Sarah and Amber experience, but the average viewer is just as aware too. The rhetoric asks viewers to critically consider how dating relationships affect children and further how the thought of having more children affects children. On the other hand, the rhetoric asks viewers to consider how decision making might alter when faced with individualism versus collectivism as well as the implication of sexual relations with workers. I believe the rhetoric, taken as a whole, is effective and rationally sound when identifying areas of feminist struggle. Sarah was caught between feminism and femininity, and femininity took precedence by the end of the show. Additionally, Amber struggled with the individual and the collective throughout. Todd VanDerWeff wrote a review solely critiquing this episode on AV/TV Club. His opinions are interesting in relation to the analysis I have conducted. “The heart of the episode had to do with Sarah and Mark’s plans to have a kid…That the episode ended with Sarah calling Seth was something that was very satisfying to me,” (VanDerWerff). This male blogger admits that the ending was satisfying to him. He likely did not understand the rhetorical significance of this confession, but by Sarah talking to her ex-husband, femininity being the dominant factor and audiences admitting that they are drawn to this, this reinforces the larger patterns at work in this rhetoric. In conclusion, Parenthood, is a television show with many rhetorical themes present. Feminist struggle is one of many, but it is certainly one that allows the viewer, especially the female viewer, to relate.
IMDb. IMDb.com, Inc., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1416765/.
Stillion Southard, Belinda A. “Beyond the Backlash: Sex and the City and Three Feminist Struggles.” Communication Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 2, May 2008, pp. 149-167. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/01463370802026943
VanDerWerff, Todd. “Parenthood: “Tough Love”” AV/TV Club, Onion, Inc. https://tv.avclub.com/parenthood-tough-love-1798171560 29 Nov. 2017.
Feature photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash.