Modern Family’s Indictment of Modern Families
Esteban del Rio and Kasey Mitchell / University of San Diego
In a challenging time for networks and scripted programs, Modern Family burst on the 2009 television season as a potential ratings winner. Using faux-documentary style to tell the interweaving stories of three families, the half-hour comedy lampoons conventions of both the family sitcom and contemporary family life in the United States, garnering critical acclaim in the process. Brian Lowery writes in Variety, “Flitting among three storylines, it’s smart, nimble and best of all, funny, while actually making a point about the evolving nature of what constitutes “family”.”1 The show offers a critique of the traditional family constructed over the last 60 years in comedic television by depicting flawed and stereotypical characters in three situations: a traditional heterosexual family with three children, a gay couple who just adopted a baby daughter, and an older white man recently married to a Latina woman who brings a young son to the family from a previous marriage.
While the evolution of family sitcoms began with the urban, working-class programs such as The Honeymooners, by the late 1950s, scripts had followed their audiences into the suburbs. The traditional discourses about family were solidified in programs such as The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. As representational diversity expanded in the 1970s, and complex issues and dysfunction became part of television family life in the 1980s and 90s2 the role of the father and mother transformed to incorporate changes in gender, race, class, and sexuality. The father, in particular, morphed over the decades from the all-knowing arbiter of authority and righteousness3 to a man-child buffoon who must be rebel against and ultimately be governed by the common sense authority of the mother.4 In 1987, Skill, Robinson, and Wallace argued, “a heavy emphasis of non-conventional families portrayed in the comedy form may be related to a still present uneasiness among viewers with regard to openly accepting non-standard family situations.” 5 Social changes in the 60s, 70s, and 80s produced anxieties that family sitcoms explored, contested, and confirmed.
Modern Family represents something different. Rather than deriving humor from touching on cultural anxieties about a changing society, the show employs satire and stereotypes to critique the discourses about traditional families that we might expect from television and to comment on the contradictions of contemporary family life. The series pilot introduces Phil and Claire Dunphy, who have three children. Phil tries in vain to appear cool to the children and awkwardly makes attempts at being their friend while Claire exhibits a mix of embarrassment and frustration with his approach. Phil brags about texting and being current with the youth slang in a fictional interview, only to stumble while knowingly decrypting acronyms: “OMG: Oh my God. WTF: Why the face?” In some ways, Phil resembles the buffoons of The World According to Jim or King of Queens who act with immaturity in the face of loosing ground to women. But rather than diving deep into boyishness, Phil is the well-meaning, earnest parent whose flaws speak not only to the impossibility of living up to the clarion calls of self-improvement gurus and modern living coaches, but the silliness of middlebrow parenting discourses themselves.
Modern Family employs disarming stereotypes to further satirize notions of the traditional family. Cameron and Mitchell are partners who have just adopted a baby from Vietnam. Mitchell is the son of an adjusting homophobic father, Jay Pritchett, and Claire Dunphy’s brother. Situating their family within the confines of a larger family introduces one of the many comedic twists in the interplay of family structures in the show. Cameron and Mitchell appear to take on the two dominant representations of gay identity: Cameron is the ‘flamboyant-gay,’ and Mitchell is the ‘straight-gay.’ Cameron wants images of him and Mitchell as “floating fairies” over Lily’s crib. Mitchell tries his best to not achieve a sense of fatherly normalcy, not only to his family but also to Cameron. Immediately, Cameron is classified as the ‘mother,’ because of his more feminine behavior. Mitchell tries to present his adopted daughter to his family in a professional way, while Cameron dresses in a robe, dims the lights, and enters the room to “Lion King” music, holding Lily up in a ‘Simba’ position. As the series continues, however, qualities of both characters are introduced to challenge these stereotypical representations. The audience finds out that Cameron used to play college football, and continues to be a huge football fan. Mitchell, on the other hand, loves the opera. By exaggerating stereotypes and then defying them, Cameron and Mitchell make a sly argument against homophobia in familial contexts. Love, after all, makes a family – and Cameron and Mitchell’s love and tension provides an especially poignant reminder at a time when gay marriage is contested nationally.
Similarly effective stereotypes abound in the show. Sofía Vergara, who plays Gloria Delgado Pritchett, a sexualized Latina who fits firmly within the regime of representation known as tropicalization. 6 Gloria is a voluptuous, emotive, thick-accented, outspoken, and dominating young woman married to a wealthy, older man played by Ed O’Neill. The stereotype would stand bare and possibly provoke boycotts from Latina/o groups outside Modern Family’s satirical context. Instead, it earned Vergara an Emmy nomination. Gloria offers a sweet confidence, and often serves as the moral anchor in her marriage, pushing her grumpy husband back to his familial responsibilities. The satirical effect of faux-documentary style allows the use of what might usually be regarded as negative stereotypes to critique mainstream assumptions about individuals and families. In Gloria’s case, the character lampoons both the negative regimes of representation that constitute the moral panic about Latina/os in at this conjuncture, as well as the liberal multiculturalism that itself has become a dominant ideology in U.S. institutional and popular culture. As we view the handheld camera and the fake interviews, the stories are not so much a window into the fortunes and fiascoes of the Pretchetts and Dunphys, but a window into the lives of modern families everywhere – perhaps even those watching the show.
*Kasey Mitchell graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of San Diego in December 2009, and will begin law school at the University of California, Los Angeles this fall.
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- Lowery, B. (2009). Modern Family. Available at: http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117941145.html?categoryid=32&cs=1 [↩]
- Spigel, L. (2008). Family on Television. Retrieved December 9, 2009, from The Museum of Broadcast Communications: http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=familyontel [↩]
- Butsch, R. (1992). Class and Gender in Four Decades of Television Situation Comedy. Critical Studies in Mass Communication , 387-399. [↩]
- Scharrer, E. (2001). From Wise to Foolish: The Portrayal of Sitcom Father, 1950s-1990s. . Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media , 23-40. [↩]
- Skill, T., Robinson, J. D., & Wallace, S. P. (1987). Portrayal of Families on Prime-Time TV Structure, Type and Frequency. Journalism Quarterly , 360-398. [↩]
- Aparicio, F. R., & Chávez-Silverman, S. (1997). Tropicalizations: Transcultural representations of Latinidad. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. [↩]
What is meant by “faux documentary style”? Without expounding on the term it appears the author might mean “documentary style” with “faux documentary” being something of a tautology. However, in the use of the term “faux documentary style” the author is actually accurate.
Steve Levitan, the co-creator of Modern Family said that it is a documentary-like style. There is some flexibility in the showing of the documentary style – sometimes the characters are aware of the cameras, other times they are not. On other occasions, the documentary “crew” even find themselves in situations they clearly would not be privy too – sharing moments with Claire and Phil alone in their bedroom for example (which is justified by Levitan with a shrug of the shoulders and saying that they’re not a documentary, they’re a comedy, so get over it).
However, the factors in Levitan and co-creator Chris Lloyd deciding on the documentary format/ faux format are largely to do with exigencies of writing and production. Today, a half hour network sitcom today can often run barely twenty minutes. Writers do not have the time (and indeed audiences do not have the patience) to sit through clunky exposition or self-justifying, aftermath scenes. With a large, ensemble cast, Modern Family cannot afford such scenes for each of the characters and each of the episode’s three storylines. The faux documentary style enables quick scenes of talking heads to reveal character thoughts, reactions and motivations – and the opportunity to apply appropriately funny disjunctures, interpretations etc.
The other issue is both a creative and a practical one. Modern Family shoots quickly – with a single camera – the idea being that the performance flows and the funny is captured in the more naturalistic performances of action and reaction – not lost in endless takes, retakes and coverage. Happily, for all concerned, it is also cheaper and in the early stages of a show’s development, such concerns cannot be overlooked.
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Part of the charm of the Cameron/ Mitchell dynamic is the way in which they “exaggerate stereotypes and then defy them.” Cameron is flamboyant and stereotypically gay, while Mitchell is more introverted and controlling in a way that connotes more masculinity. Cameron often presents anecdotes about his childhood and adolescence; his Midwestern upbringing seems to have all the elements of a typical conservative farm town, which stands in stark contrast to his current character. Both Cameron and Mitchell have extremely masculine fathers who struggle to accept their sons’ homosexuality, and both are influenced by their fathers in different ways; former football star Cam loves his father and expands upon his big personality, while Mitchell possesses some of his father’s cynicism and straight-edgedness. In a recent episode, the fathers confided to each other that they took comfort in thinking of their son’s partner as the female in the relationship. Both Mitchell and Cam demonstrate stereotypically male or female characteristics that essentially balance each other out, and this balance is the key to navigating a tricky and progressive on-screen relationship.
It is interesting to compare this show to early shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Contrasting these shows allows viewers today to see the acceptability of many types of families. If any of the families which make up “Modern Family” would have been portrayed in a show during the 50s it would have been outrageous. Even for Phil and Claire Dunphy, just because of the fact that Claire is the dominant one in the family and Phil almost portrays the “foolish housewife” stereotype seen in the shows during the 50s.
Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows best were seen as guides of what the perfect family of that time was supposed to look like and act like. But with shows such as Modern Family it shows that in todays world it is acceptable to be different. When the show first came out, I was sure that the fact that Mitch and Cam were adopting a child would create some sort of controversy on gay couples parenting, however if there did happen to be controversies they must have been small because I did not hear of them. This is great to see because it is an obvious statement of how far our country has come with accepting people for who they are. I feel the show also helps people who were once uncomfortable with these families to start to feel more at ease. This is mainly because of Jay’s character who seems to portray the majority of people his age who are unwilling to accept change.
Overall I feel that Modern Family has done great things for the American public and how people view others. I think Mitchell is one of the first gay men portrayed in a sitcom who is not flamboyant, and the show does not rely on flamboyance for comedy.
Esteban del Rio and Kasey Mitchell’s article “Modern Family’s Indictment of Modern Families” explains how Modern Family (ABC, 2009-present) exaggerates and defies stereotypes by informing the reader what constitutes as a family today. Modern Family explores the lives of three very different modern-day families; the traditional family of two parents and three children, a divorced and remarried biracial couple, and a homosexual couple with an adopted child. In addition to the different representations in the households, stereotypical roles are represented and challenged in specific ways during each series.
Modern Family is an American comedy that focuses on the lives of three very different families in modern-day California. The Dunphy family can fall under the “typical family” stereotype, comprised of two married parents, Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen), and their three children, Haley (Sarah Hyland), Luke (Nolan Gould), and Alex (Ariel Winter). This family is the only one that some what resembles the Leave It to Beaver family template. The Pritchett-Delgado family is comprised of a divorced and re-married couple, Jay (Ed O’Neill) and his much younger Latin-lover Gloria (Sofia Vergara), and her child from her first marriage, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Lastly, the Tucker-Pritchett family is a homosexual couple, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), and their adopted child, Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons). The complexity of each family on Modern Family affirms how the cookie-cutter mold has transformed over the years, and insinuates that families today come in all shapes and sizes… there is no longer a contingent norm. Modern Family exaggerates particular character representations while also defying them, proving that we live in a complex and changing world.
Examining Cameron and Mitchell’s characters in particular, it seems that the show challenges stereotypes in a very specific way. “Cameron and Mitchell appear to take on the two dominant representations of gay identity: Cameron is the ‘flamboyant-gay,’ and Mitchell is the ‘straight-gay.’” The representations of these characters fit societies constructions of gays and lesbians in America. As the article suggests, although the show exaggerates particular gay roles, it also defies them. Cameron has a passion for football, and Mitchell has a passion for opera. The faux-documentary style allows the characters to open up in a different setting, and allows the audience a deeper look into who they actually are as human beings rather than their stereotypical-created roles. This is used to a certain effect to challenge our stereotypes and address the anxieties of today. Furthermore, the characters in this show are all diverse, and it is important to recognize that within a world of diverse people, we all work in specific ways to co-exist with one another. Each character embodies different viewpoints, yet they learn to work together.
Modern Family, in my opinion, is successful at changing America’s viewpoints of minorities, especially through Cameron and Mitchell’s characters. Modern Family is a great example of a television show that explores the change and transformation of the stereotypical family and roles on TV in the past 60+ years, and sheds light to the direction television is moving in the future.
Comparing ‘Modern Family’ to the sitcoms of the 1950’s is a great way to show how representations of the American family have drastically changed over the past 60 years. Shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘the Donna Reed Show’ centered on the nuclear W.A.S.P. family, portraying each family member portraying a specific role and belonging to a specific sphere within the family, and the larger society, with the father atop the hierarchy. The family sitcoms of the 1950’s and early-1960’s often focused on portraying a mythical suburban nirvana, due to the context of the post-war era and families beginning to settle down in the suburbs. This family loved and supported each other, always turning to the father for answers. There were little representations of minorities in American society, and almost all were stereotypical. Since the 1960’s sitcoms have introduced, although slowly, a wider scope of American society, however many minorities have remained marginalized through stereotypical representations perpetuated on such sitcoms.
Although ‘Modern Family’ does provide many new representations of the American family, such as portraying a homosexual couple and couple years apart in age all within the context of their larger family, there are many lingering representations that seem to have perpetuated themselves through the evolution of the TV American family. The show’s main family is still the nuclear white family, complete with a two-parent household, two daughters and a son. The overtly stereotypical representation of Cameron’s homosexuality and it directly clashing with Mitchell’s less brash attitude, creates humorous conflict between the two, but it also portrays them as less stable than the Dunaphy family unit. And although Mitchell is portrayed as less flamboyant, the conflict between him trying to keep up with Cameron’s exaggerated flamboyant actions is used as a major comedic driving force and not presented as a thoughtful breakaway from established norms. The representation of Gloria as the fiery Latina also aligns with the long perpetuated stereotypes of Latinas as loud and agressive. It is true that by widening the focus of the show outside of the white nuclear family, ‘Modern Family’ has brought minorities into the discourse of a narrative that had initially completely ignored them. However, many characters in the show exhibit stereotypical characteristics of the minorities crafted through a white patriarchal homogenous lens.
I absolutely am a huge fan of Modern Family. I think that the show does a great job of breaking through many social barriers as well as family struggles. Struggles in the family is a topic that almost everyone can relate with. As discussed in the article, Modern Family specifically reenacts family dynamics between blood related siblings, parents, step parents, step children, parents and homosexuality. I am so impressed with the way in which the writers and directors were able to take such a small cast and cover almost every single different type of family life. I think that it has become such a hit because society can relate with it directly, but it also is a comedy. They take real family struggles and make light of them while still incorporating a thread of good morals and lessons that can be learned by watching. Apart from the various leaps the show has made in breaking barriers with homosexuality, divorce, etc., it has also made leaps in the television industry in general. Back in the 50’s, families were always portrayed as perfect, the father “Knew Best” and the mothers were the best bakers in town. The children were well behaved and very obedient. Although this portrayal of family has already changed immensely in the TV world, Modern Family just took it a step further with incorporating hard hitting controversial modern day topics.
On the other hand, I also believe that Modern Family still abides by many stereotypes put on by society. For example, the homosexual couple has a feminine partner and a “straight” gay partner. The step wife (Gloria) is a young, loud, outspoken Latina which is a common stereotype of a Latina woman. Then there’s the Dunphy’s. Between their three children, they have an intelligent, nerd daughter, a “not-so-bright” young son and a selfish, rebel older daughter. These are just some of the characters that are very stereotypical. Although the characters are stereotypical, the stories and family relationships are not.
Modern Family overall brings a new light to many redundant family issues and puts a positive spin on family problems. Although at times stereotypical, they also break through a lot of social barriers within the show.
I could not have put words to a break down of this show any better. This show changing faux-documentary has brought the AED to the scripted sitcom on network television. The perfectly crafted commentary and situations on American families and stereotypes rides the boundaries of what may be deemed network appropriate. However it is done with such a balance that one can’t help but laugh and relate to these people. I can appreciate your acknowledgement of Sofia Vergara’s Emmy nomination; it really goes to show that what may have been the most offensive stereotype, is represented with more sophistication then what one may assume, to give the character more depth and personality.
The evolution of the television dad I found most interesting and accurate as well. I think looking at Ed O’neil and his past roll as a sitcom dad in Married With Children draws parallels, but also demonstrates tremendous growth. On the one it he is still the “buffon” having issues relating and communicating with his children, and having to answer to his wife in the house. But the character Jay has grown as an individual and not forced but pushed to accept his gay son and his odd son in law, along with all of the other new frontiers that this show addresses of the modern American culture.
While the satire is present in Modern Family with many of the stereotypes represented in the show, I wouldn’t call the show flawless. The show. while I agree breaks social barriers, isn’t so meta or deep that they don’t rely on basic two dimensional character models. Julie Bowen’s Claire character for example is terrible with technology as shown in episode “15 Percent” ,there is the ditzy popular girl daughter in Haley, the brainiac geek in Alex, and the boy who loves gross things and adventure with Luke. It is so easy to get distracted by what the show does well with the gay characters and the Jay and Gloria characters that I think people forget that the Dunphy family is pretty basic.
Ultimately I think this is because of the audience that Modern Family is trying to appeal to. They are on ABC which is owned by Disney so it is not surprising to see a show dealing with controversial issues to not completely revolutionize television. Older people who are used to the older shows that the author mentioned, will be able to enjoy aspects of Modern Family with characters like Jay and share in his uncomfortableness during storylines with Mitch and Cam. But I don’t believe that people are ultimately offended by the gay couple because they remain caricatures. I think these stereotypes need to be present in order to stay in flow with the mainstream.
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I agree that Modern Family isn’t really a satirical look at real-life modern families as much as it is a satirical take on the standard sitcom family. The casting of Ed O’Neill as Jay, the aging patriarch with an unrealistically attractive young wife, was clearly an intentional nod to his character on Married with Children, which was in itself a satirical take on the nuclear family sitcom. Sofia Vergara’s character being Latina and having a son from a previous marriage is perhaps a modern upgrade on this old trope of “hot sitcom wife”. This isn’t a show meant to replicate reality; it’s meant to be a modernization of what American sitcoms have been trying to convince us is “reality” with some humorous exaggeration.
While I think Cameron and Mitchell are a very engaging comic duo and were much needed as a positive representation of gay men in the mainstream sitcom, I’m not sure if I would go so far as to call their representation of stereotypes completely countercultural and progressive. The intentions are good, but I think we have to bear in mind that making a gay married couple major characters on a sitcom intended for the mainstream was (is) considered a risky move, and Cam and Mitchell’s stereotypical behavior could also just be a way of easing a more apprehensive audience into the idea of seeing them onscreen. I remember a source of controversy for the show being that it took a while for Cam and Mitchell to kiss each other onscreen, so there was definitely some underlying fear of alienating the more conservative sector of their audience.
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