Portrayal of Siblings in Television and Film

Having brothers or sisters is a trait that many can relate with. It is an identity that most people are a part of, and as such it is also something that is portrayed commonly in cinema and television. But how this trait is portrayed is important, and it is interesting to see the patterns that are present among several sources. However, when these images are viewed by a younger audience, several problems may arise. Children are much more impressionable than other audience members, and viewing these characters can cause serious issues. In fact, the characterization of siblings, in particular the comparison between older and younger siblings, has many recurring traits between different media, and can be especially problematic as it can make a bad impressions on developing children and teenagers.

The main difference used by the media to distinguish one sibling from another is intelligence. Not only is this a way to fuel stories for episodes, but it is also used to define who the character is. For example, Lisa and Bart Simpson from the 20th Century Fox show, The Simpsons. Lisa being intelligent is one of her few defining characteristics, as well as Bart’s remarkable dimwittedness. Lisa, Bart’s younger sister, is a gifted musician and student, who excels academically and is even a member of Mensa (Groening, “They Saved Lisa’s Brain). Bart, however, is the notorious ‘bad kid,’ who is always getting into trouble, over bad grades or other mischief. Many episodes of the show are centered on this difference of intelligence: whether they are solving some Hardy Boys’ style mystery or trying to write an episode of their favorite cartoon, Itchy & Scratchy (Groening, “The Day the Violence Died”). This is distinction is glaringly clear in the episode “Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade”. In this episode, their elementary school gives an ‘achievement test’ that determines how well they are doing; Lisa spends all week studying, and Bart watches TV. Lisa does so well that she gets promoted to the third grade, while Bart does so poorly that he is demoted to the third grade. They are soon forced to cope with their differences and survive being in the same class (Groening, “Bart vs. Lisa vs. The Third Grade”). While Lisa studies harder and harder for each test, Bart finds ways to cheat on them. Where Lisa excels in intelligence, Bart is more deceiving and clever. This is only one example of many featured in the series. This difference of intelligence between siblings is arguably the most defining qualities of the children on The Simpsons. It is certainly a plot device for many episodes, and has remained consistent throughout the seasons. And it is not isolated to this show either. Intelligence is also a defining factor in Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle.

Arguably the most defining characteristics of the main children on Malcolm in the Middle is their intelligence. It is a theme that is brought up several times, and is the center of many episodes. The family consists of several characters: Dewey, the youngest son; Malcolm, the next youngest son; Reese, the second eldest; and Francis, the eldest son; as well as their parents Hal and Lois. Malcolm is the center of the show, and is often portrayed as the smartest, however Dewey is also considered to be rather intelligent. These characteristics are clearly demonstrated in the episode “Dewey’s Special Class.” After seeing Malcolm struggle in the ‘Krelboyne’ class for the smart children, Dewey intentionally throws an intelligence test and is placed in the remedial class. There, he soon becomes the unofficial leader when the other children recognize his intelligence (Boomer, “Dewey’s Special Class”). This class later becomes an outlet for Dewey to express his knowledge and creativity when he is not at home, and is a clear demonstration of his talents. This is contrasted by episodes that star their brother Reese, such as “Reese’s Party.” In this is episode, Reese throws a party while their parents are out of town. However, the situation quickly escalates when some guests turns it into a meth cooking operation. Reese eventually turns to Dewey to solve the problem, which he does by calling the guests’ parents (Boomer, “Reese’s Party”). This is just another example of these characters fitting their roles. Dewey is once again portrayed as the smart child, and Reese as the dimwitted older brother who needs help. Although the family structure is different, they dynamics bare a resemblance to that of The Simpsons. In both shows, the younger child is the most intelligent, and the elder is not. Where Lisa and Dewey both exceed, Bart and Reese fail. It is clearly a reoccurring role that extends further than just these series’ own episodes, but is found in other series as well. In fact, using intelligence to define a sibling is not just a tool used by television series, but is also found in cinema.

This type of characterization is also found in the 1990 comedy film, Home Alone. The film follows Kevin McCallister, a boy who is mistakenly left home alone while the rest of the family leaves on vacation. Kevin has a few siblings, but the most prominent character is his elder brother, Buzz. In the beginning, Buzz is quickly portrayed as a dimwitted jock. It is made clear by the sports posters adorning his room, as well as his ‘bully’ attitude towards Kevin (Home Alone). His intelligence is further demonstrated later in the film. When asked whether he is worried about Kevin being left at home, he responds, “No, for three reasons: A, I’m not that lucky. Two, we use smoke detectors and D, we live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen” (Home Alone). Clearly, anyone who uses the characters A, 2, and D as to number a list of three items is not too bright. Kevin’s defining characteristic, on the other hand, is his incredible cleverness. The entire plot of the film is centered on Kevin outsmarting the criminals that are out to rob his house. He uses clever traps and distractions, such heating up doorknobs to burn them, and throwing marbles on the ground to make the burglars slip and fall (Home Alone). It is Kevin’s ingenuity alone that defends the house, and is what defines Kevin’s character. Once again, this role assignment of intelligence is placed on these characters: the youngest Kevin, is the extremely intelligent, and the older brother, Buzz, is not. Buzz is used as tool to further demonstrate how smart Kevin is, and by the end of the film, even he is impressed with Kevin’s accomplishments. It is a very similar, if not the same character pattern that is found in both The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle.

But why is this pattern important? The most glaring problem is that all these example are from media that is commonly viewed by younger audiences, a group that is extremely impressionable. Children are influenced by many outside sources as they develop, and exposure to television programs is one of the major contributors. According to the University of Michigan Health System, television plays a large part in a child’s development, especially their social interactions. They explain that children who watch TV often accept stereotypes that are commonly portrayed, and sometimes adopt them (Boyse). This means that children who see characters similar to themselves on television, such as Bart Simpson or Kevin McCallister, might adopt this idea of sibling characterization. As they develop, they might feel forced into the role of the dimwitted sibling, especially if they believe that they have a brother or sister that they feel is more intelligent than they are. Because they witness these sibling stereotypes on the television, they could potentially feel obligated to fill a similar role. This important to understand, as children who see characters similar to themselves on television are much more likely to identify with them and model their behavior after them (Evra, 243). By modeling behavior after these television shows, children might suffer these developmental problems, and limit themselves in order to fit these stereotypical roles. Luckily, this problem can be avoided entirely. By restricting what a child watches, until well after their impressionable stages, this would no longer be a problem.

Having a sibling is a common trait that many people share. Because of this, sibling interactions and stereotypes are portrayed frequently in modern media. After analyzing several examples of this identity, a clear pattern has emerged. No matter the age gap or gender differences, siblings are often divided by difference of intelligence. Although this can provide material for episodes and other content, it can have serious consequences. Clearly dividing the siblings can effect younger audiences who view them, and have a negative impact on their development. It can force children into these stereotyped roles, and inhibit them later in life. Although it is not difficult to solve this problem, it is necessary that steps must be taken; the lives of developing children could be at stake.

Works Cited

Boomer, Linwood. “Dewey’s Special Class.” Malcolm in the Middle. Dir. David D’Ovidio. 20th Century Fox. 2 May 2004. Television.

Boomer, Linwood. “Reese’s Party.” Malcolm in the Middle. Dir. Levie Isaacks. 20th Century Fox. 27 Apr. 2003. Television.

Boyse, Kyla. “University of Michigan Health System.” Television (TV) and Children: Your Child:. University of Michigan Health System, Aug. 2010. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.

Evra, Judith Van. Television and Child Development. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2004. Print.

Groening, Matt. “Bart vs. Lisa vs. the Third Grade.” The Simpsons. Dir. Steven D. Moore. 20th Century Fox. 17 Nov. 2002. Television.

Groening, Matt. “The Day the Violence Died.” The Simpsons. Dir. Wesley Archer. 20th Century Fox. 17 Mar. 1996. Television.

Groening, Matt. “They Saved Lisa’s Brain.” The Simpsons. Dir. Pete Michels. 20th Century Fox. 9 May 1990. Television.

Home Alone. Dir. Chris Columbus. By John Hughes. Perf. Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1990. Film.


7 thoughts on “Portrayal of Siblings in Television and Film

  1. Joe,
    I enjoyed reading your essay. I like the pattern that you saw in your analysis, about how intelligence separates siblings. Being the oldest of four I immediately thought which one of us was considered the smarter one (it wasn’t me). I’ve never really thought about that aspect before though and now having read your essay I remember growing up how we would always associate my sister being the smart one. I found it interesting that you point out about kids being socialized from TV at a young age as in my paper I wrote about the effects of stereotypes in Disney movies. In my research I found similar findings including that kids can associate the opposite gender at age three and different ethnicities at age 6.

  2. Hey Joe,
    Your paper was both interesting for me to read but also funny because I was thinking of my sisters the entire time. I am the youngest of 3 girls. My oldest sister is going to be 25 and has already received her masters degree. You could say she has most of the brains. She always got straight A’s, honor roll student, and was on the Dean’s list in college. Big shoes to fill. My middle sister and I are intelligent but got were the athletes of the family. We always got A’s and B’s but never really compared to our older sister. We are all very close so we strived to be like her. Every time I did something good in school I would want to tell her even before I told my mom. I would say this was a good thing for us to have. It was never really a competition between us we always wanted to make each other better. She is a teacher now so it is really good getting her input now that I am in college. Thank you for your paper and bringing back some memories:)

  3. Hi Joe,
    I highly enjoyed your essay. I only became an older sibling after I was twelve years old so I never thought of myself as the dumb older sibling, but I can see how my mother could be influenced by the media around him. Your evidence was great and everything connected together very well. Good job!

  4. Hi,
    It was funny that in the media second children are portrayed as the smart one. I was not aware of that! As you mentioned the study about kids being affected by television and I feel like I’m that one who watch television all the time and get the stereotype from it. I do believe media take a huge role in our society and we can’t take media away from our life. I can’t say stereotypes should be disappear, but at least stereotypes should be vary to show there are many different types of people.

  5. Hey Joe, I thought this was a really insightful paper. I have an older brother but I never really caught onto the fact that TV shows portray many older brothers to be less intelligent. I think younger siblings are often felt compelled to excel so that they can strive to be as smart as the older siblings so by the age difference they are then thought to be smarter. I know I always tried outsmarting my older brother at every turn (and still do), just because it was something else to do. Perhaps that is where the stereotype came from, and then was continued on by the media’s representation. Nevertheless I found your paper insightful and I’ll never look at Malcolm in the Middle or the Simpsons in the same light. Well done.

  6. This was great, Joe. Funny, I have a brother named Joe. Also, I have 8 siblings so this essay is really something I can relate to.

    I grew up watching The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle and they still hold up as some of my favorite shows depicting the most dysfunctional families ever.

    Oddly enough, I always thought of Malcolm and the Middle as a pretty close representation of my own family between my brothers. I’m in a family of 5 boys and 4 girls (9 kids total). I mean, my family isn’t nearly as extreme, but there are some characteristics for each boy that I feel like my family relates to. I’m most like Dewey, I have a little brother (later on in the show as Jamie), Malcolm, Reese and Francis all remind me of my older brothers. Again, they don’t cause nearly as much trouble, but they have similar personalities so I always connected with that show in a way.

    You hit the nail on the head about how siblings in the media are portrayed. It’s really weird how many similarities there are.

  7. i really enjoyed reading your essay you had really good point in there and the best part about your essay is i think everyone can relate to it somehow ,i personally believe portrayal of sibling in social media is not realistic at all and is far from what really is at least i can say that compering it to my own culture and also my own family

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