Is the Family Authority on the Decline in Western Society?

In July this year, the demise of a 17-year-old adolescent of immigrant lineage incited a nationwide racial upheaval in France. Following the quelling of the upheaval, President Macron delivered an address, affirming his commitment to “reinstate the sovereignty of all institutions throughout the nation, commencing with the family.”

From a certain vantage point, the act of “reinstating family sovereignty” might signify a shift towards conservatism.

It is facile to articulate, yet the veracity remains that the influence of paternalistic parents in contemporary households has waned within Western society. In numerous nations, the concept of “family” has transcended the traditional paradigm of “a monogamous couple and children,” as posited by American anthropologist Rupert Murdoch in 1940. Relationships between spouses and between children and parents have also grown increasingly diverse. The connection between parents and their offspring is sustained not solely by “authority,” but rather by emotional bonds.

Indeed, many European films and television series have delved into the role and boundaries of familial affection. The 2021 French cinematic work, “Real Family,” has engendered fervent discourse since its release. The film chronicles the story of an adopted child who becomes as close to their adoptive family as their biological family. The child even addresses the head of the household as “mother.” However, in accordance with pertinent French legislation, this arrangement is merely a transient intermediary phase, and eventually, the children must return to their biological family when circumstances permit. During the initial months after a child’s reunion with their biological family, the adoptive family experiences profound emotional upheaval. The mistress of the household, accustomed to hearing children call her “mom,” finds herself enduring unbearable anguish when witnessing the children being taken away by their biological father. The male head of the adoptive family appears to possess a more “sober” comprehension, repeatedly cautioning his wife against bestowing “unconditional” love, as the child will eventually depart.

The paternalistic authority of contemporary families has undergone erosion within Western society.

The primary focus of the film revolves around whether love, in the context of familial affection, can be “logically” apportioned significance and readily discounted. This one-year-old child enters their biological family and assimilates into the existence of their biological siblings. From the time they were swaddled and resided under the same roof to their attainment of school age, the mistress showered them with maternal love akin to that bestowed upon her own child. Severing this emotional bond becomes an agonizing ordeal. When the child reached primary school age, the biological father petitioned the court to regain custody of the child.

Before the mistress and the children lie the realms of law and ethics. The civil magistrate encountered the family and admonished the mistress on numerous occasions, cautioning her against meddling in the child’s life and that of their biological family. The child’s biological father even implored the adoptive family’s mistress to desist from allowing the child to address her as “mom,” deeming it a grave act of disrespect. The child’s inner world is perpetually rent asunder by the conflicts between their biological and adoptive families. After navigating a series of convolutions, the mistress eventually acquiesces to the reality and severs all contact with the children and their biological family. At the denouement of the film, the adoptive family coincidentally encounters the child and their biological father in a shopping mall. The former, apart from observing with a smile from a distance, evinces no intention of disturbing the child. It becomes apparent that this adoptive family has finally relinquished their hold and comprehended that loving the child does not equate to possessing them.

As the most rudimentary unit of social structure, the family has endured for centuries, yet its structure and form have undergone a complete metamorphosis under the catalyst of modernization. Rather than accentuating the “authority” of the family, it is more apt to scrutinize the evolving countenance of the family through a more tender lens.

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