2.4.1. Representations: Not a ‘Typical Family’ and the ‘Normal Family with No Fathers’
These representations originated in comments by two individuals. In the first, shortly after the statue’s unveiling in November 2014, New Fathers 4 Justice (a UK-based direct action father’s rights group campaigning for the rights of fathers to see their children) activist Bobby Smith covered the statue with a white sheet and pictures of his two daughters in protest at no father being included in the statue. Smith commented, ’They’ve depicted the normal
family with no fathers. There’s nothing wrong with single mothers but this statue is saying one person can do both jobs, and I believe kids are always better off with both parents in their lives’ (emphasis added). Coat-tailing on to his protest, the national The Telegraph
) and Daily Mail
(Osborne and Dolan 2014
) published feature articles supporting Smith’s protest (The Guardian
and SubScribe, the website for journalists, strongly championed the sculpture). In addition, Birmingham Yardley MP John Hemming commented: ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with single-parent families but I always find it sad when fathers are not involved in the lives of their children’.
Secondly, the right-wing journalist Amanda Platell, the press secretary during 1999–2001 to William Hague, then leader of the British Conservative Party, made the clumsy and overstated criticism: ‘To claim that they represent a typical family is crass, misleading and deeply cynical’ (emphasis added). Such ill-considered comments do not stand alone in Platell’s public repertoire: in 2020 the Daily Mail paid damages of £25,000 to the Cambridge academic Professor Priyamvada Gopal and agreed to pay her legal costs after Platell libellously claimed, citing fake tweets, that she was ‘attempting to incite an aggressive and potentially violent race war’.
The language of these two commentators is significant. They refer, respectively, to ‘the normal family’ and ‘a typical family’. Clearly, this is a misrepresentation of the meaning of the statue, as the adjacent plaque quoting Gillian Wearing suggests: ‘A nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed’. Neither Wearing nor the Ikon Gallery made any claim that the statue represents either a normal or typical family. The terms ‘norm’ and ‘normal’ are frequently used in a statistical context to refer to what is typical or common. However, in the context of the family, it is questionable whether such conceptualisations are easily defined in the early 21st century or are anything more than an abstraction impervious to measurement. These terms, in turn, invoke the contested concept of ‘normality’ itself.
(1990, p. 169
) has written that the abstract concept of ‘normal’, albeit somewhat distanced from what it is describing, has nevertheless created a powerful framework for everyday life, including the individual, the family, and social life in general: ‘the normal
stands indifferently for what is typical
, the unenthusiastic objective average, but it also stands for what has been … and for what shall be, our chosen destiny. This is why the benign and sterile-sounding word ‘normal’ has become one of the most powerful ideological tools of the twentieth century’ (emphasis added). Thus, the concept of the normal was deployed as a mechanism of social control and social regulation, serving the needs of the bureaucratic state by prescriptively connoting the culturally desirable and appropriate.
Hacking’s scholarly contributions are part of a wider literature on the concept of normality. Jenkins
) describes how collective public discourses, including some public moral campaigns, lead to the identification of deviant social categories which, in turn, ‘dramatise and normalise identities and institutions such as the family’ (Jenkins 1996, p. 166
). He adds: ‘…more routine collective public discourses—for example, the signification of conventional gender roles—dramatise and promote ‘normal’, positively valorised identities. These are likely to be more ubiquitous themes in advertising, cinema, literature, and so on’. Amongst the facets of the concept of the ‘normal’ in Hacking’s argument, Jenkins highlights the exponential growth of statistics leading to ‘a hard image of predictability, legitimated by science and suitable to the needs of bureaucracy’ and ‘unforgivingly firm models of statistical “normality”’. This included the compilation of statistical distributions in which the mean of the distribution was used to define normality. Theodore Porter
) covers some of this same ground in his The Rise of Statistical Thinking
. Hand in hand with these developments went the elaboration and invention of modern social categories that invoke ‘normality’.
Other scholars have also elaborated upon the relatively recent statistical concept of ‘normality’. Canguilhem
) has written of the concept of the norm: ‘we think that the concepts of norm and average must be considered as two different concepts: it seems vain to try to reduce them to one by wiping out the originality of the first. It seems to us that physiology has better to do than to search for an objective definition of the normal, and that is to recognize the original normative character of life’. He argues that medical conceptions of normality cannot be derived statistically, as qualitative expressions of the pathological or normal involve value judgements.
The idea of a ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ family becomes illusory when one looks at the complexity of family types. Families can comprise a multiplicity of members, legal statuses, and different living arrangements. Derivative forms of family type are therefore multiple and complex. The ONS classification of partnership statuses alone, as used on census forms, includes a diversity of types: never married/registered a same-sex civil partnership; married/in a registered same-sex civil partnership; separated, but still legally married/in a same-sex civil partnership; divorced/legally dissolved same-sex civil partnership; and widowed/surviving partner from a same-sex civil partnership. In these different partnerships, there may be biological son/s and/or daughter/s, step-son/s and step-daughter/s, and adopted child/ren. The presence of sons/daughters will create brother or sister relationships, step-brother or step-sister relationships, mother or father relationships, and step-mother or step-father relationships. These partnerships may also include grandchild/ren, grandparent/s, parent/s-in-law, son/s-in-law or daughter/s-in-law, other relations, and unrelated individuals (including foster child/ren).
There may be other axes of differentiation, such as living arrangements and, as already mentioned, the ethnic composition of the family. While most families, especially those with dependent children, are likely to be living in the same physical space (that is, a household), this is not always the case. The ONS identified ‘living apart together’ families: in 2011 640,000 of the married population were not living together as a married couple, though they said that they were married or civil partnered, not separated, but not living in a couple (Office for National Statistics 2014a
). As noted, families that comprise inter-ethnic unions are becoming more common. Nearly 1 in 10 people (9% or 2.3 million) who were living as part of a couple were in an inter-ethnic relationship in England and Wales in 2011. This may undercount or exclude other family types, such as ‘blended’ ‘mixed’ families and ‘mixed’ one-parent families with child(ren). Some 7% of dependent children lived in a household with an inter-ethnic relationship (Office for National Statistics 2014b
Sociologists and anthropologists have attempted to derive from these complex patterns of membership and living arrangements distinct ‘family forms’ or forms of family diversity. Some of these typologies or family classifications are inordinately long and lack utility. Nevertheless, some usefully identify readily recognizable discrete family categories, such as the ‘nuclear family’ (now probably of diminished utility), the ‘extended family’, the ‘joint family’, and the ‘blended family’. Joint families are composed of sets of siblings and their dependent children, with or without their spouses, a family form that fits the Joneses and their statue, though the sisters live separately. Other types that have been distinguished include ‘matrifocal lone parent families’ and ‘patrifocal lone parent families’, and, as noted in the UK, ‘living apart together’ families. Some families may belong to more than one form or category.
For much of the last century, the ‘nuclear family’ was regarded as the norm. This family form was used to refer to a unit consisting of opposite-sex spouses and their dependent child/ren. However, Scott and Marshall
(2005, p. 212
) observe: ‘What is clear is that, with rising divorce rates and the ageing of the population, the nuclear family is no longer the norm in either Britain or America’. There is little data on the current prevalence of these family forms so it is difficult to establish their representativeness. However, it is clear that there is now a plurality of family types with no one type dominating or meriting the title of ‘normal’. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) provides a typology of families by family type on an annual basis, but this excludes such categories as extended family, joint family, and blended family. Table 1
shows that of the total of 46,285,000 people in families, the largest in these terms was ‘married couple family with dependent children’ (36.8%) (a standard definition of the nuclear family (Oxford Languages: https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/
, accessed 1 May 2021)), followed by ‘married couple family with no children’ (22.3%), and lone parent family (13.5%).
‘Normality’, as exemplified here by the ‘nuclear family’, is clearly a statistical construction of modern government. Writing in the late 1990s, Collins
) said of this family form: ‘Defined as a natural or biological arrangement based on heterosexual attraction, this monolithic family type articulates with governmental structures. It is organized not around a biological core, but a state-sanctioned, heterosexual marriage that confers legitimacy not only on the family structure itself but on children born into it’. There is, however, another way of understanding normality outside the constraints of this artefact. Hacking
) writes of ‘the imprecise everyday probability of chance and experience’. In a similar vein Jenkins
(2008, p. 9
) inveighs against the attempts ‘to impose theoretical order on a human world in which indeterminacy, ambiguity and paradox are part of the normal
pattern of everyday life’ (emphasis added). Such imprecision and indeterminacy characterises the way members of the wider society come together in unions and other forms of connectedness and this has been the case in the past. For example, government surveillance of families in provincial cities in the 1960s found marital and cohabiting unions, lone-parent families, and diversity in ethnic/racial terms (Caballero and Aspinall 2018
). This normal pattern of everyday life frames the social representation of a real Birmingham family developed here.
2.4.2. Social Representations of a Real Birmingham Family: Wearing’s Destabilization of the Meaning of the Family
It is evident from the Ikon Gallery and Gillian Wearing’s comments that the meaning of the sculpture is nuanced and located in the complex terrain of diverse family forms. The statue is of a ‘joint family’ comprising two ‘matrifocal lone parents’ and their children. Gillian Wearing emphasises the importance of closeness, support, connectedness, and the strength of the bond within families. She argues that how the family is defined should not be fixed as there are many possible realities, the nuclear family being but one. The sculpture embodies and celebrates these qualities of connectedness and fluidity of forms that the family can take. Similarly, Stuart Tulloch, curator at Ikon, claimed that the variety of nominations for the statue demonstrated that the traditional, nuclear family may no longer be the norm and emphasised the importance of strength of ties within the family.
Wearing opens up the idea of the family in new ways rather than simply providing pointers to what the family can comprise with respect to less well-known forms. She transforms the meaning of the family and destabilizes it in several significant ways. By focusing on the ‘real family’, she is objectifying the family in terms of what happens in the real world, as opposed to the common visual stereotypes of the media and other commentators. The importance of closeness, support, and connectedness raises the possibility of new configurations of the family brought into existence by the particularities of a group of socially connected persons who so nominate themselves. The power to define the family thereby shifts from demographers and sociologists to those in relationships who collectively identify in this way.
Thus, the family is defined empirically, experientially, and first-hand. Arguing that the definition should not be fixed, Wearing invites us to conceptualise the family in novel ways. Indeed, the press release for ‘a real Birmingham family’ stated: ‘Thousands of families are expected to nominate themselves, but rather than choosing the statistically average family, there will be a comparison of value judgments about authenticity, locality and what it is that essentially constitutes a family. Issues arising out of sexual politics (e.g., gay parenting), fostering, cultural diversity (embracing notions of the extended family), surrogacy and countless variations on the theme of marriage will be taken into consideration’. The nominations in the selection process included groups of friends, extended families, and people living alone. The family does not have to be a group of related people, as dictionary definitions suggest. Nor does it need to be a co-resident unit: the Jones’ sisters and their children did not live in the same household.
Families empirically defined are likely to be diverse in multiple ways, including their ethnic/racial composition. The Birmingham family comprises mixed-race sisters and the partners in the selected Italian and Danish families are of different national origins. This is clearly a pattern that has come about with increased transnational migration, border crossing, and population mixing. While the ‘nuclear family’ is referenced and may be said to be represented in two of the three statues, this seems to take a secondary place when the context of transnational patterns of mobility and family formation are considered. The idea of place-based identities is also challenged in these statues: links to the city were important in the case of the Birmingham family, though the importance of local belonging is set against the mobility trajectories of the Italian and Danish families.
This representation clearly situates the interpretation of the statue in the postmodern twenty-first century, usually defined in terms of differences without hierarchy and invoking the complexity and diversity of meanings, subjectivism, an emphasis on pluralism, and a general distrust of theories. With a focus on the dynamic and fragmented nature of individual identities, the stable notion of the norm does not have a clear place. In harmony with postmodernism, it exposes the hegemonic narrative of normality and the nuclear family, which has masked or submerged the diversity in forms of the family that has always existed in the past (illustrated in this paper by mixed-race and lone-parent families). The artwork opens the way for that diversity to exist in the twentieth-first century: representing just one of many possible family types, it provocatively reveals a mixed-race family of single parents, so long vilified in Britain’s past. Further, by transforming the meaning of the family by locating its definition in ‘real families’, the idea of what constitutes a family is democratised and liberated from traditional definitions and hierarchical typologies.
The rationale for the A Real Birmingham Family
statue was different from that for Gillian Wearing’s bronze statue representing ‘A Typical Trentino Family
’ in 2007–08 (Figure 2
), although the concept for the Birmingham statue appears to have developed out of her Italian project. In A Typical Trentino Family
, curated by Fabio Cavallucci and Cristina Natalicchio, a local family-the Giulianis-was selected by a panel to be immortalised in a bronze sculpture. During the process the artist worked with statisticians led by Ivano Bison, Professor of Methodology and Statistics at the Faculty of Sociology of Trento, who gave her the breakdown of what the typical family in Trento consisted of, taking into account the type of family, number of family members, age, job, lifestyle, and assets. Their definitions of a family were surprisingly wide-ranging and included one person living alone. Thus, while the Trentino family conforms with the nuclear family, an opposite-sex couple with two dependent children, it was the range of family types identified in establishing the ‘norm’ that impressed itself upon Wearing, who found this diversity an inclusive way of regarding family and applied it to the search in Birmingham. Moreover, in the statue of the nuclear family of the Giulianis, the union comprised a Greek wife and Italian husband, challenging—as did the Birmingham statue—the stereotype of ethnic/national homogeneity in the family.
The selection process for Gillian Wearing’s statue of ‘A Real Danish Family’ was somewhat different from the process for the Trento statue and has substantial commonality with the Birmingham project. Wearing set out to find a real Danish family to be depicted as a life-sized bronze sculpture located in central Copenhagen, supported by the Bikuben Foundation, the City of Copenhagen, and the Danish Arts Foundation. The project was launched in autumn 2016 through a campaign inviting all families in Denmark to take part in the competition. 492 families representing a range of family types from 14 different cities across the country participated (a third more than for the Birmingham statue but in the context of national capture). The Danish broadcasting corporation, DR, followed the entire selection process, from interviews with these participating families to the panel’s deliberations and the final choice of family, as documented in its three TV programmes about the project in October 2017. The nationwide project was a collaboration between Gillian Wearing, Kunsthal Aarhus, DR and the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), celebrating the many different types of family found in Denmark. The chosen family and the sculpture were revealed on 13 October 2017 at SMK, at the time of the opening of the exhibition ‘Gillian Wearing—Family Stories’.
A Real Danish Family
shows Michael Lysholm Thorsen, a 29-year-old man with Danish parentage but born in Italy, Yenny-Louise, a 28-year-old woman born in Colombia but raised in Denmark with adoptive parents, and their baby daughter (Figure 3
). As with the Birmingham statue, the Danish statue depicts a ‘mixed’ family. While the family may be said to be ‘nuclear’ in form, this appears to be subsidiary to the complex histories of the partners. The focus is on the uniqueness of the family and its symbolic representation of contemporary Denmark, questioning whether family forms located outside traditional norms are equally regarded.
Wearing’s exhibition at the SMK, ‘Family Stories’, was a collaboration between the artist, the museum’s designers, and RBS Studio: ‘It takes visitors from a darkly-lit space, displaying Wearing’s most famous works from 1992 to the present day, to a noticeably smaller, white-washed room explaining the making of A Real Danish Family
. This shift not only serves as a literal representation of important topics that were previously left in the dark and are now being brought to light, but also encourages an open and honest discussion’ (Hametner 2017
Wearing does not claim that the A Real Danish Family statue represents a normal, typical, or ideal family form for these times but, as in the case of the Birmingham statue, emphasises the diversity of family types, their strengths, endurance as social units, and their realness and uniqueness.