America Needs a Hug

Lessons from Family Feud

Growing up, Family Feud was most definitely a family favorite; over the years, my own kids have come to expect a certain and not insignificant dose of the show when my parents come to visit. So it has come to pass that, with a deeper feeling of connection and continuity than one might expect, the long-running game show — with its high energy, catchy tune, and satisfying bells and buzzers — has also become an occasional guest in our pre-dinner quarantine routine, and thus solidified its place in the hearts of another generation.

While Family Feud has evolved, since the Richard Dawson years, into a decidedly more raunchy version of itself — the cringey kissing has been replaced by often-grotesque translations of survey responses (think “baloney pony,” and “bro globes”) — it can also be unexpectedly heartwarming, infectious, and fun. For whatever reason, you just fall in love with certain families (Rodriguez and McFadden come to mind) and can’t stand others, enjoy predicting Steve Harvey’s verbal and non-verbal reactions, and take considerable pleasure in analyzing peoples’ choice of clothing, their strange and revealing answers, and the dynamic among family members. The show is also, of course, a window into the hive mind of “one hundred Americans surveyed”, and that window is, shall we say, illuminating.

Every episode raises at least a few eyebrows along the lines of, “Yeah, this is America”: like when the number one answer to “What a woman should do if she catches her husband cheating” is—to put it politely, which the show energetically avoids—“castration,” or when the “most difficult thing to eat if you don’t have any teeth” isn’t, as my family guessed, popcorn, corn on the cob, or potato chips, but rather “beef.” (I mean, sure, that would be difficult, but isn’t that just somehow a weird but telling choice?) Until yesterday, such unexpected, off-beat answers have basically fueled and reinforced my sense of an appetite-driven segment of the American psyche and culture, calling to mind the general tenor of a long line at a rest-stop on I-95 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving (a very specific demographic with which I happen to be exceedingly familiar.)

Last night, though, caught us all a bit by surprise.

It was the final speed-round, and the last question was, “On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you need a hug?” The first woman chose “eight”; it was a solid answer, and garnered about sixteen points. Then it was her sister’s turn. Her face a tight bundle of nerves, she made it through the first four questions with focused, tense determination. But on that final question — “How badly do you need a hug?” — she sighed. In a sweet tone of voice that seemed to spill from her heart, she answered, “ten.”

It was an unusually human moment for the show, and even though we expected it to be a low-scoring answer, my family loved her for the honest delivery.

Steve Harvey turned her around for the tally. She did pretty well on the first four questions, and it came down to her final answer about the hug. “Not a chance,” we all agreed. “Her answer was cute, but there’s just no way.” Harvey repeated the question: “One hundred Americans were surveyed. On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you need a hug? “Ten,” unbelievably, was the number one answer. With that sincere and personal response, she’d tapped into the American zeitgeist and won the game.

This episode made me think, for the first time, that Family Feud might offer more than just a vacuous half-hour of good-natured entertainment sponsored by eight torturous minutes of commercials predominantly of a pharmaceutical nature (my father and daughter actually have a running list of advertised drugs and their daunting array of side effects.) It seems that there might be a few broader takeaways from the long-running show, although they are most certainly unintentional:

Family Feud Lesson #1: America, it turns out, really needs a hug.

Maybe the people were just tired, at the end of a long day, when Family Feud called to ask about the hug. But I tend to think the answers reflect a very clear set of circumstances that, taken together, would explain many of the underlying conditions that have rendered so many ordinary Americans so deeply in need of comfort and reassurance, even if they weren’t consciously thinking of these things when they answered the phone: declining opportunity, job loss, unprecedented levels of inequality, lack of access to quality medical care, fear of change, mounting financial pressures and debt, mental and physical exhaustion, and a lack of consistent social contact and support (to name a few.) Presumably, the one hundred people were randomly surveyed, and thus fell on both sides of the ideological divide, but their responses reflected a universality of feeling.

Family Feud Lesson #2: Trying to think not as “yourself” but as “one hundred random people” is an interesting exercise in empathic stretching.

The show is defined by that extra layer of projection: to win the game, you must imagine how most people would answer a certain question. Even as a physical experience in my own head, playing along involves engaging mental muscles I don’t often rely on. I’m usually very busy thinking about things as me. Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea for all of us to start exercising that muscle, to play a few rounds of Family Feud to get the juices flowing on the easier topics (“Name something a man might pick up on his way home from work,” say, or “Name something that grows faster than you want it to,” or even absurdities like “Name a sign that your girlfriend might be turning into a cat”) as preparation for the heavy lifting we are undeniably confronting as a society.

Family Feud Lesson #3: Certain elements make “groups” feel like “teams.”

In general, each family on the show:

  • Looks, acts, feels, and often even dresses like a team;
  • Has a shared goal;
  • Has a leader;
  • Splits the winnings (I have no clue how five people who don’t live together split a car, but that’s another matter entirely);
  • Is on their best behavior;
  • Has a sense of humor;
  • Applauds each others’ efforts, even when absurdly sub-par; and
  • Displays an attitude of mature sportsmanship.

For the moment, at least, America feels more like an endless competition between two dysfunctional families than a unified nation engaging with complex global issues. We no longer seem to have a shared goal, and we have deep assumptions of nefarious intent for those on the opposite side of an increasingly insurmountable wall. There’s nothing fun, or funny, about being an American right now.

As a Democrat suffering through the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve heard many people express a yearning to be part of a team as clear and effective in its message, as strategic in its approach, and as united in its presentation and affect as the Republicans have been. By all measures, for better or (more to the point) for worse, the new Republican party under MAGA has captivated a percentage of minds and hearts with its simple message and superficial “team energy,” and, in doing so, it has wrought unfathomable damage to the fundamental agreements necessary for a democracy. But it is crucial to note that this Republican strategy embodies several, but not all, of the above qualities of team membership.

In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt discusses the distinction between group-mindedness as a productive evolutionary adaptation that allows organizations to cooperate, cohere, and thrive, and group-mindedness that leans towards fascism: “[Fascist rallies] were spectacles, not festivals. They used awe to strengthen hierarchy and to bond people to the godlike figure of the leader. People at fascist rallies didn’t dance, and they surely didn’t mock their leaders. They stood around passively for hours, applauding when groups of soldiers marched by, or cheering wildly when the dear leader arrived and spoke to them.”

Democrats, he argues, have largely tended to look less like a team and more like a complex network of people with loose affiliations who share certain fundamental beliefs and values about how society should function. We make abstract moral and intellectual appeals to virtue and equality, and assume that the essential truth and goodness of our position should be self-explanatory and obvious to any compassionate, thinking individual.

If I was Biden’s campaign manager, I’d find a way to enlist every Democrat in the project not only of overcoming the logistical barriers to winning that are being erected and exploited by the party in power and of presenting a powerful and forward-thinking platform, but also of connecting, at the level of gut and instinct, with the millions of Americans desperately in need of a hug and—even more than that—in need of a team in its best and fullest expression. Ultimately, Americans will need to find some way of healing, of reconciling, and moving beyond the ever-swinging binary pendulum of winning and losing: to put it in Family Feud terms, we’ll need to work out the details, once and for all, of sharing that shiny red Jeep. That’s a project for next year, though; for now, Democrats just need to win it.

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Allison Gustavson

> teacher > mom > writer > activist organizer > candidate for state rep in coastal Massachusetts > TBD in Colorado foothills >