Ross Douthat On Family And Culture
Religion & Liberty Online

Ross Douthat On Family And Culture

New York Times columnist and Acton University 2014 plenary speaker Ross Douthat is featured in an interview with the Institute for Family Studies. Douthat addresses issues surrounding marriage and family life, pop culture influences and the media.

Douthat says that he had thought that the idea of a mom and dad, living with their biological kids, was a “given” in our culture as the best model for a healthy society. Now, he says, our world has thrown a lot of variables into the mix. Particularly, backers of same-sex marriage (SSM) have successfully created a cultural model of “it doesn’t matter:”

A lot of supporters of SSM have become invested (for understandable reasons) in the idea that married same-sex parenting will produce the same outcomes as married biological parenting—or maybe better outcomes! If they’re right, then the “biological” part of the equation you describe no longer obtains, and the story cultural conservatives have been telling, which seemed close to becoming a consensus just a little while ago, will have to be revised. And if SSM supporters are wrong, and same-sex parenting is associated with somewhat worse outcomes for children—well, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of data to prove it, and there will be tremendous elite cultural resistance even then. So wherever the evidence ultimately takes us, same-sex marriage has probably made consensus on a familial ideal somewhat harder to achieve, and created ripple effects that will be spreading out for years.

When asked about a liberal/conservative divide in pop culture (especially television), Douthat notes that while liberals clearly have a stronghold, it’s not a monopoly.

Liberals have a pretty strong monopoly on the more explicit forms of agitprop, yes. (Though not a complete one: Go re-watch “Forrest Gump.”) But the entertainment industry includes lots of talented people whose first loyalty is to an artistic vision rather than to an ideology. And because reality has a well-known conservative bias, any serious artist who sets out to capture the world in full is going to end up illustrating or illuminating aspects of what I would consider a more traditional vision of human nature and human affairs.

He admits that Hollywood does portray marriage in a favorable light most of the time, but more often, it glamorizes adultery and what he calls “cheerful homewrecking.” He also says that show like MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” have gone to great lengths to show teens that teenage pregnancy is not a positive experience. Douthat notes that there is a lot of ground between teenage pregnancy and the “Father Knows Best” lifestyle that the entertainment industry does a terrible job with:

In the zone in between being sixteen and being a married sitcom dad with kids, pop culture’s vision of the good life is extremely libertine, in the sense that premarital sex is consistently treated as a kind of low-consequence playground—whether in the hot tubs of “Jersey Shore” and “The Real World,” or the haute-bourgeoise sexual carousels on shows like “Friends” and “Sex in the City,” or in the tabloids or the pop music charts or wherever—in which there’s no good reason to put a limit on how often and how casually you couple.

And because of this vision, I think popular culture both exerts a powerful pro-promiscuity pull—because it holds up as normal or aspirational wildly exaggerated visions of how much sex a typical collegian or twentysomething “should” be having—and also contributes to what I sometimes call the “scriptlessness” of contemporary romantic life: The absence of any clear cultural narrative, whether practical or moral or both, to help guide the many, many people who mostly just want to get from “casually dating” to “happily married” successfully, without sleeping with as many people as, say, a Ted Mosby did on “How I Met Your Mother” along the way, and without suffering the negative consequences that often follow from that kind of promiscuity in real life.

Douthat clearly states he doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to marriage, family and cultural issues. He does acknowledge that given the huge changes our culture has seen in the past 100-150 years, there are things we do know for sure:

In the past, I’ve made an analogy between the sexual and industrial revolutions, with the point being that it’s possible to mitigate the worst effects of a sweeping period of social change while preserving the good things that came in with it. In the end, for instance, the Gradgrinds and Social Darwinists were wrong: The Western world did not need children working long shifts in factories in order to sustain the benefits of industrialization. And in the same way I don’t think our world needs millions of abortions and out-of-wedlock births and broken homes in order to sustain the very real advancements—in female opportunity and professional and political dignity, especially—that we’ve seen since the 1970s. But proving that point is the work of generations, and a better synthesis, if one exists, still lies well ahead of us.

Read Ross Douthat on Family Structure, Pop Culture, and More at Family Studies.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.