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December 12th, 2011 by

How the media portrays "average" families


You don't have to be a fan of "Keeping up with the Kardashians" or "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" to realize that television and movies are saturated with images of families living completely atypical lifestyles. If you grew up in North America, you were likely raised being entertained and awed by scenes of wealth and comfort that were nothing like how your family lived - nor how your own family lives today. The gap between what we see on the screen and how we live in reality is enough to cause affluenza - that uneasy, envious feeling that makes you feel like you need more stuff - a bigger house, a cooler car, fancier clothes - to be happy and successful.

Let's look at some of the classic and current depictions of 'average' family lifestyles and just how unrealistic they really are...

Unrealistic living #1: Home Alone

The suburban Chicago house where Home Alone was filmed was listed for sale earlier this year for $2.4 million. As the movie opens, the McCallister family of two parents and five kids plus their cousins (another family of seven) is preparing to fly to France for the holidays. If the opulence of the three-storey mansion didn't tip you off, surely the thought of airfare from Chicago to Paris for 14 people indicates that crafty little Kevin wasn't part of an average American family.

Unrealistic living #2: Party of Five

Clearly the tragically deceased parents of Party of Five had an excellent estate plan and handsome life insurance policies. The five kids in this television drama continued to live in their family's San Francisco home (on a street where property taxes run between $200,000-$350,000 a year) while owning half of a local restaurant. The show was filmed in a 19th Century seven-bedroom house that sold for $6.5 million in 2010. This is rich even among the home's posh Pacific Heights neighbourhood, where the median price of a single family home is $1.2 million.

Unrealistic living #3: Father of the Bride

The 1991 remake of a 1950 classic gave us Steve Martin and Martin Short at their finest and funniest, but also set the bar for backyard weddings and over-the-top wedding planners. A home with a garden large enough to host a lavish outdoor reception, an interior decorating overhaul and live swans all added to the giggle factor, but in real life this is a wedding that would reach into the six-figures. While fictional dad George Banks has the decorum to stress about the costs, in the end the expense is swept under the (hand-woven silk Persian) carpet and spoiled girl Elizabeth Banks never realizes how good she's got it.

Unrealistic living #4: Rachel Getting Married

Anne Hathaway stars in this film of another wedding - this one a little darker and more intense than Father of the Bride, but once again featuring a gorgeous, grand parental home. Few (any?) of us could call 'home' a sprawling country estate in Connecticut - unless your name is Martha Stewart or 50 Cent. Yet Rachel's fictional family did, hosting a beautiful wedding and all the guests - a multi-culti group of artists and musicians that looked quite cozy partying among the linden tree-lined garden.

Unrealistic living #5: Friends

When the 10-year television series began, Monica was working as a sous chef and Rachel as a waitress in a coffee house. In theory, these two would respectively earn about $50,000 and $25,000 in gross salary. Yet they managed to afford a massive two-bedroom apartment on Bedford Street in Manhattan's West Village with floor to ceiling windows and a balcony. In real life, rent for such a spacious place would be at least $4,500 per month and more likely to be inhabited by Jennifer Aniston than Rachel Green.

.Unrealistic living #6: Sex and the City

Speaking of Manhattan, how could we not mention Carrie Bradshaw? A column writer that wears Manolo Blahniks, Jimmy Choos and Jean Paul Gaultier? On one episode, it was suggested that Carrie had spent $40,000 on shoes (100 pairs x $400 each). The television series did suggest that Carrie tended to max out her credit cards, shop at sample sales and have fears that she might become an old woman who "literally, lived in her shoe". However, that did not stop her from somehow also affording to live on her own in a sweet West Village apartment with an unheard of walk-in closet.

Unrealistic living #7: Love & Other Drugs

Another movie starring Anne Hathaway (she gets all the good real estate!), this time with cutie-boy Jake Gyllenhaal. Anne plays Maggie, who appears to be a part-time painter/photographer in Pittsburgh, suffering from early onset of Parkinson's Disease. She chaperones bus tours to Canada to buy prescription drugs, which perhaps helps to explain how she affords her meds. However, it is not clear how she earns enough to support living alone in her ultra-funky, super stylish downtown loft. In Canada, the average after-tax income of a single woman is $30,400.

Unrealistic living #8: Barney's Version

In this film version of a Mordecai Richler novel, a twice-divorced television producer from Montreal marries for the third time and takes an apartment in New York. And what an apartment! While we are to understand that Barney becomes wealthy throughout his career, this is the kind of Upper East Side New York apartment filled with antiques, sumptuous drapery and parquet flooring that in reality would require many millions of dollars. Of course, we want to believe that all Canadians who move to New York live like this!

Unrealistic living #9: Modern Family

The zany antics and dynamics of the three interrelated families on Modern Family may seem far-fetched, but they are perhaps more realistic than the posh lifestyles all three families seem able to afford. While the patriarch of the family, Jay Pritchett, is comfortably retired and seemingly the wealthiest of the group, his son and daughter are each married with kids while operating on single incomes. In Canada, the average after-tax income for two-parent families with kids and one wage-earner is $60,900.

Unrealistic living #10: Friends with Benefits

Yet another story of young, single, urban professionals with impossibly beautiful living environments. Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake star in this film that seeks to perpetuate two myths: (1) that men and women can have an intimate relationship combined with friendship and no emotional hangups; and (2) that huge, sexy, designer-furnished Manhattan apartments are affordable by people with regular jobs (see also: Sex and the City, Barney's Version and Friends).

Living in reality

Depictions of the lifestyles of 'typical families' and 'everyday people' that would require millions to achieve in reality set us up for feelings of inadequacy. So how do you counter the affluenza that hits when you find yourself lusting after the homes you see on the screen? Remind yourself - and your kids - about the difference between fiction and reality. Take the time to look up the costs of what those places would actually cost and talk openly with your family about income levels and affordability. Be a critical viewer and teach your kids to do the same - it's never too soon to learn about living happily within your means!

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