When Modern Family started in 2009, it was progressive. It is about the Pritchett family, consisting of an old man with a young immigrant wife and her overly intelligent son trying to make their way through the daggers shot by the community.
It also features their kin, the Dunphy family, which is a family of five consisting of a heterosexual couple with two elder daughters and one younger son trying to make their way through the complications that the modern generation of children and teenagers present. There’s also the Tucker-Pritchett family, which consists of a gay couple with an adopted Vietnamese baby, trying to lead a happy life as they overcome the obstacles that the homosexual community faces.
Together, the three families make a perfect blend that describes a “modern family.” During its first few seasons, the show managed to capture the audience with its very relatable characters and issues. It definitely was progressive—until a few seasons later, when it wasn’t.
It was episode 5 of season 6. “Grab that little hoe,” says Claire Dunphy, the wife of Phil Dunphy, to Luke, the youngest Dunphy child. Luke grabs his eldest sister, Haley (a teenager who through the seasons has been the typical popular girl with many boyfriends). Claire meant for Luke to grab a gardening tool, but Luke grabbed his sister instead. After the incident, Haley says, “I don’t think that’s what she meant.” Then, she turns to her mother and asks, “Was it?” Subsequently, her mother hesitates and looks at the camera.
Now, you may say the scene is funny, but considering that the show is titled Modern Family, don’t you think they should’ve avoided reinforcing an offensive sexist stereotype that would not have worked if Haley was a boy? And, to top it off, her mom wasn’t even concerned about her son thinking of his sister as a “hoe.”
As a member of the “modern family,” it wasn’t right for the mother to dismiss an offensive joke about her daughter. This is something that could go over the minds of the audience as a completely harmless joke, but there exists a chauvinistic system of patriarchy behind that one line of dialogue and the act that followed it.
Modern Family concentrates too much on being funny and contradicts its own purpose of creating a modern environment. For instance, consider Season 3, Episode 17, where all three Dunphy women (Claire, Alex and Haley) were on their periods. Undoubtedly, there are so many myths and misconceptions surrounding menstruation in reality. One of them is that women become too emotional and incapable of keeping things together. In this episode, this stereotype is not reinforced by just one of the women, but all three.
Of course, the three women confronted Phil Dunphy (Claire’s husband) to ask why he was treating them like monsters and to let him know that it was offensive. But the episode ended with Phil staying scared of women on periods. With the show reinforcing the menstruation stereotypes by making the Dunphy women play a “hammer hit” game at a carnival so aggressively that they find satisfaction in it.
None of the women I’ve seen in my life act that way during their menstruation. There might be women who act a little emotional, but because it isn’t common, the show shouldn’t have portrayed all three women that way. Instead, the episode could’ve represented how each woman acts differently and could’ve made Phil’s character a little more understanding of the situation by the end of the episode.
Once again, the humor in the episode cannot be used as an excuse for comedy.
Why represent an issue when the show clearly isn’t focused on eliminating the stereotypes? Just when the audiences try to understand the offensive nature of the stereotype, the show reinforces it for comedy. The audiences laugh and say, “Well, it is what it is,” instead of changing their stereotypical perception.
Another instance of the show’s contradiction of its own purpose is the character of Gloria Pritchett. Gloria is a young Latina single mother, who married an old, rich man named Jay Pritchett. She is a trophy wife. This is said and justified by Jay and Gloria themselves in Episode 21 of Season 3. Trophy wife is an informal term for a young and attractive wife who is regarded as a status symbol for a husband, who is often older or unattractive but usually wealthy. That said, the term is often used in a derogatory or disparaging way.
In this episode, Jay tries too hard to get Gloria and Manny (her son) to go to a reunion with his high school friends. When Gloria gets suspicious and confronts Jay, he tells her that this was an effort to surprise his high school friends on how he ended up with a young woman like Gloria. She asks, “So, this is all about you parading me around like a trophy?” Jay agrees, to which Gloria proudly says, “I can be a trophy!”
Similarly, the first season of the show tried to address the stereotype that women in Gloria’s situation are “gold diggers.” But the show contradicted itself and continued to portray Gloria as a ‘gold digger.’ This happened despite her pregnancy and other efforts to prove it all wrong.
One of the plotlines of the show is that Gloria tricked her sister, who Jay was initially planning on starting a relationship with. Gloria stole her sister’s future and confined her to live with their mother, doing chores and self-loathing. This plotline just proves that Gloria pursued Jay for getting out of the pathetic conditions she was living in. Why did the show use a plotline like that when it was trying to eliminate the perception that Gloria was a gold digger?
The show, in this way, contradicted itself, all for having plotlines to get a laugh.
Another problem is that Modern Family reinforces stereotypes that not only speak for themselves but for an entire community. In fact, during my research on the portrayal of gay characters in this series, I found that there are some people who act exactly the way Cam and Mitch do, which is being interested in sophisticated things, acting flamboyant, and hanging out with gay friends at sophisticated parties and high-end bars.
But there were a lot of people who found the portrayal of these men inaccurate, which is important to consider because the characters of Mitch and Cam speak for the entire gay community. Their dialogues consist of terms like “we” or “gay people,” which address the entire gay community and not just themselves.
Whenever Cam and Mitchell appear on the screen, they don’t leave without telling the audience how the entire gay community actually is. They don’t talk about diversity in each individual character. Although it is true that there are some people like that in real life, Mitch and Cam keep implying that it’s the norm for how every gay person is or should be.
Similarly, Gloria’s character keeps insisting on how “we Colombians” do things. Her character reinforces the stereotype that claims Colombians are dangerous people who are violent and commit crimes. Dialogues like “I’m a Colombian. I know a fake crime scene when I see one,” or the many times she talks about how she is well acquainted with violence and can handle a gun or get away with a crime, that not only talk about her as a character but the entire Colombian community as such.
The show should care about how it represents people of a certain community because it is being watched by millions who will take in these perceptions and portrayals as the reality. The dialogues could’ve talked about herself and her family. Instead, the dialogues talk on behalf of the entire Colombian community in a way that isn’t entirely true.
It isn’t wrong that her character acts and talks a certain way. What is wrong is that the show tries to represent an entire community through that character’s dialogues and actions, which become stereotypes.
Unfortunately, Modern Family gives way for double standards. According to Jay, his daughter being confident and good at sports is something to be proud of, but his son being gay or wearing a thin-strapped watch is something that lowers his dignity. According to the series, when a woman shows what the society calls “masculine” qualities, it is empowering, but when a man shows “feminine” qualities, it is demeaning. That just makes being a woman something lesser than a man. Manny also faces similar issues when Jay appreciates his football skills rather than his baking skills.
Similarly, Haley constantly keeps dumping all the boys, and Alex, as she starts going to college, seems to treat all men disrespectfully. In Episode 1 of Season 9, Alex leaves her boyfriend alone on an island because there wasn’t enough space on a raft. Reverse the gender of these roles, and it still isn’t acceptable or funny.
This is similar to the episode where Luke is chased by his elder sisters who strip him and dress him up like a girl. Reverse the roles, and imagine a girl in the place of Luke and her elder brothers doing the same to her. It isn’t funny; it is traumatic.
Although Modern Family looks like it is working on eliminating issues and encouraging an inclusive world, it actually isn’t. For example, the stereotype that one partner in a gay relationship has to play the woman and the other has to play the man is reinforced throughout Episode 21 of Season 2. In this episode, Cam is treated like a mother by not just the entire neighborhood, but also by his own husband.
In this episode, Mitch says “Warm, supportive, nurturing…Maybe this is what we (the world and Mitch himself) are seeing [when we call you a mother]. I don’t see why that’s such a bad thing,” to Cam to justify why calling him a mother doesn’t make Cam any less of a man. Well, let me tell you why that’s not the right solution.
When you call a man a mother and say it is because he is caring, supportive, and nurturing, it automatically implies that fathers don’t possess these qualities.
Cam and Mitchell are fathers who need to be celebrated on Father’s Day. And fathers can be warm, supportive and nurturing. You can’t justify celebrating a father on Mother’s Day, just like you cannot justify celebrating a woman on Father’s Day because she works outside to put food on the table for the family. She would still be a woman, and she would be celebrated on Mother’s Day.
Thus, Cam, who is a caring father, should be celebrated on Father’s Day. It isn’t that it makes Cam any less of a man; it is offensive to fathers and mothers when you say that one cannot be empathetic and the other cannot be strong. The issue could’ve been tackled this way instead of justifying the wrong perception that the world has about gay relationships. Due to the justification, the audiences fail to change their perceptions on this stereotype.
There are various other instances where the show could’ve been progressive and changed some perceptions, but it didn’t. For instance, in Episode 23 of Season 2, Alex Dunphy is graduating high-school and has to give a valedictorian speech. She prepares a speech that aimed at teaching a lesson to the “popular” kids who kept bullying her. However, Haley (who is popular herself) warns Alex that she might lose all her friends.
Moreover, Haley defends the popular kids by saying that it gets difficult for them to get into college because they flunk out of subjects while the other kids move on. Alex changes her speech in the last minute and acts nice to everyone. Was this right, though? Her classmates basically caused her depression, and that cannot be justified no matter what.
Notably, the so-called popular kids were finding it difficult to get into college because they went around partying and bullying the kids who worked hard and studied. Besides, these “nerds” never stepped in the way of the popular ones to cause any kind of harm to them. Therefore, Alex should’ve given her speech the way she initially intended to. It would’ve been relatable to so many other non-bullies who worked hard and studied. It would’ve taught the popular kids a lesson and maybe prevented future bullying.
The show shouldn’t have justified that mean behavior, nor should it have shown sympathy for the popular ones who clearly showed none, which Haley proves in the following seasons when she and her friends act no good in the future either.
This justification gives the audience the impression that such things are just a rite of passage for students and makes them accept the division of popular kids and nerds, which clearly isn’t healthy.
Similarly, Phil Dunphy is constantly mocked by Jay for not being “man” enough. Jokes that put down Phil by attacking his “masculinity” are consistent throughout the series. Manny is also a victim of such mockery just for being sensitive. The show hasn’t done anything about the way men are treated poorly if they act anything less of some military general.
It’s not bad that these characters act the way they do. What is bad is that they speak on behalf of an entire community. All the characters in the show speak generally for every other person of the same community.
The series also concentrates so much on comedy that it fails to see that it is reinforcing the very stereotypes that it is trying to eliminate. It gets the audience to the point where it feels like the stereotype or the issue is solved but lets them down by making a joke out of it again. It could be justified if the show was satirical, but it isn’t.
In situations like that, it becomes difficult to consider ‘Modern family’ as being modern. You cannot deny the fact that it is a stepping stone for making families more accepting of certain things and people that the society currently doesn’t. But, as the seasons progress, the show became another sitcom with an overly stereotyped bunch of characters who are used for getting laughs. Ultimately, ’Modern family’ lost its initial progressive nature and settled for good old jokes.