Why 'Modern Family' Is One of the Most Old-Fashioned Shows on Television
On last week’s season finale of Modern Family, Cam and Mitchell, the show’s central gay couple, finally were legally wed. As the first gay wedding of a main character on a sitcom, it was a major moment in television history for equality. (Yes, there were same-sex nuptials on Friends, but it wasn’t between any of the six titular chums, so it didn’t carry the same weight.) Coming on the heels of marriage equality court victories in Oregon and Pennsylvania it felt more important than your average television plot point. Well, as important as anything can feel when sandwiched in between jokes about “a swarm of Lucases” and a pregnant officiant’s water breaking.
From its first episode, in which the longtime couple announced the arrival of their adopted daughter from Vietnam, Modern Family has shown its gay characters lots of respect. Cam and Mitchell are good at their jobs (clown–music teacher–football coach and environmental lawyer, respectively) and are constantly trying to be good parents, good neighbors, and good family members. Cam, especially, eschews stereotypes with his past as an outdoorsy Missouri farm boy and former starting center for the University of Illinois football team. Their appeal on a sitcom as broadly appealing as Modern Family is what gives the show its title.
But the women on the show are still throwbacks to another era. What kind of modern family doesn’t feature any working women? When the Department of Labor Statistics says that last year 69.9 percent of all mothers with kids under 18 are either working or looking for work, it seems odd that a show that purports to portray the dynamics of families today wouldn’t want to show the viewers female working parents who look like them.
It’s not as if there aren’t innumerable plots to be wrung from women trying to find a work-life balance, or that there isn’t comedy to be mined from needing to be in two places at once. But until this, the show’s fifth season, neither Claire nor Gloria had a job or any interests outside their families. Back in Season 1, it was revealed that Claire had been a standout at her job in hospitality before getting pregnant and marrying Phil, but when an old coworker’s success makes her jealous, she decides that “she’s pretty happy with her own career as a wife and mom.”
No disrespect to stay-at-home moms—they have a difficult job and have made a worthwhile life choice—but it is not one that most modern American women with families can afford to make, even if they want to. It would be nice to see such struggles represented by the women on a show that thinks of itself as a mirror of modern family life. So it was good to see Claire go to work for her father’s closet construction company this season, even if most of the time we saw her at work she was worrying about being liked, or fretting about asking her father for help, and not just excelling or working hard.
That is one of the problems with Claire. Compared with her fun-loving (and sometimes incompetent) husband, Phil, she is a worrywart, a spoilsport, and just generally no fun. She is such a perfectionist that in the final episode of Season 1 Phil says, “When everybody else sees something beautiful, all she sees is the teeny-tiny flaw.” But it is her neuroticism that keeps her family running. In the episode “Hit and Run” Phil took over and gave one child the wrong allergy medicine and accidentally hit another while trying to apply a bandage. Claire Dunphy is competent but a nag, and really how many more shrew wives do we need on TV?
It’s not just Claire. Modern Family’s woman problem infects all of its female characters. Dunphy daughters Haley and Alex are sitcom tropes come to life in which a girl can either be a beautiful bubblehead or a studious smarty-pants but not both. Gloria Pritchett, Claire’s bodacious Colombian stepmother, is asked to do little but play up her physical assets and her foreignness.
Whole story lines have been built around her fiery Latin temper, and almost all of the comedy actor Sofia Vergara is asked to play is built around her “funny” accent or her English malapropisms (she has famously mistaken “old tomato” for “ultimatum”). Gloria is a token on this very white show. She is portrayed as little more than a stereotypical spitfire bombshell who is terrible at driving and knows how to smuggle contraband. When 16.9 percent of the American population is Latino or Hispanic, we need more and better representation on TV. But sometimes Gloria feels like a setback and not a step forward.
The real problem with Modern Family is that it is so popular and, at its best, so eminently watchable, that its underlying sexism or racism is ignored or, worse, unseen. We are so busy laughing at these characters that we don’t think about why we are laughing or what we are laughing at. There are obviously many family foibles from which to draw humor, but it’s time that they stopped being the same tired clichés that have elicited easy laughs since the dawn of television. So here’s hoping that this summer the show’s writers start brainstorming truly modern plot points for their beloved characters. Otherwise we’ll find something else to watch this fall.