Flow Favorites: Modern Family, Glee, and the Limits of Television Liberalism
Alexander Doty / Indiana University
Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!
Special Features Editor Jessalynn Keller:
While the hype surrounding supposedly groundbreaking shows Glee and Modern Family have certainly not gone unnoticed amongst media studies scholars, Doty calls attention to the ways in which these seemingly progressive texts rely on a middle-of-the-road liberalism that, perhaps ironically, serve to protect status quo representations. In an era where neoliberalism has comfortably adopted notions of multiculturalism, diversity, and choice, Doty’s critique is an important reminder of how complicated the debate over “progressive” representations actually is. This will no doubt be an important and ongoing conversation within media studies for years to come.
The 2009-2010 Emmy Awards ceremony made it official: Arrivederci, Mad Men! Sayonara, 30 Rock! The new King and Queen of the American television hill are Glee and Modern Family—and not because they are two of the five shows with the most Emmy wins this year. If winning the most Emmys mattered at all, we’d all be wetting our pants about The Pacific. This Emmy show crowned Glee and Modern Family by devoting its two most elaborate set pieces to them. Jimmy Fallon may have been the host, but the casts of these series were the honored guest stars. They really didn’t need to win Emmys, because the industry canonized their shows that night.
The opening number made it clear that, as far as the industry is concerned, Mad Men and 30 Rock are not the hot young things anymore. Satire and moral ambiguity would need to make way for a less biting liberalism. Rushing into the show, Fallon meets four of the younger cast members of Glee (Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer, and Amber Riley) outside the Kodak Theatre. They don’t have enough money for tickets to the Emmys. A flyer announcing a regional glee club competition with a cash prize inspires the group to look for potential club members backstage. Among those picked up along the way to a “Born to Run” onstage performance are—wait for it—Tina Fey (30 Rock) and John Hamm (Mad Men), who finally blend in as backup singers with the Glee cast (now including Jane Lynch) and folks from once-hot shows like Lost and never-hot shows like Community. Glee, it seems, has the power to pull everything and everyone else on television into its orbit—even this year’s Emmy broadcast, whose title graphics were an imitation of Glee’s.
Later in the ceremony, we are treated to a filmed segment in which Modern Family’s co-creator and co-executive producer Steven Levitan meets with the cast about ways to improve the show. Picking up where the tribute to Glee leaves off, Levitan’s first idea is something he calls “inter-network cross-pollen synergism,” which is represented by a scene in which gay couple Mitchell and Cameron announce they have adopted another child—Stewie from the animated series Family Guy. The cast rejects this idea, implying that their new hit “family” series doesn’t need the dubious help of the older “family” show. If anything, an appearance on Modern Family can boost shows and careers. The series has enough “It” clout for someone like George Clooney to appear as the possible new love interest for Claire, Gloria, and, finally, Mitchell and Cameron. Sitting in bed (in his suit) between the couple, Clooney has a punch line that ends Emmy’s Modern Family tribute with a lame joke: “I gotta get a film.” One suggestion here being, I guess, that for someone to play the lover in a homosexual ménage-a-trois on television would be to sink about as low as you could go, career-wise. And I thought Clooney was a liberal. Oh, maybe that’s just the problem.
In the liberal world of shows like Modern Family—and, I might as well add here, Glee—a non-homonormative, open relationship between gay men like Mitchell and Cameron would be nothing to laugh about, actually. Part of what is meant to be so humorously preposterous about Clooney’s ménage with Cameron and Mitchell is that on the show these characters are “good” gays who keep their “place at the table” by striving to be just like their straight middle class counterparts, living in a monogamous relationship and building up a (mildly dysfunctional) family with children, a stay-at-home “mom,” and a working “dad.” It is in negotiating the roles of husband/dad and wife/mom for Cameron and Mitchell that Modern Family reveals its most interesting ideological tensions, because both men are represented through a mixed bag of traditional gender codes. Cameron is both an ex-football player and a trained clown; he is also the more emotional and expressive of the two men. Red-haired Mitchell is shorter and has a much-slighter build, but he is also the more practical and serious partner, though he is also prone to worried over-protectiveness. What’s a liberal narrative like Modern Family to do with gay characters like this? For a while, the solution was to have Cameron and Mitchell take turns being the husband/dad and the wife/mom, which promised a challenging alternative to the depressingly old-school heterosexual couples. By the end of the first season, however, the show had put the normative back into their homo(s), with Mitchell admitting his lack of interest in domestic work and Cameron confessing that he wants Mitchell to “get a job so I can go back to being a stay-at-home dad and trophy wife”—in other words, the gay counterpart to Claire and Gloria.
Well, the “gay counterpart” to these straight wives and mothers in every way except for showing physical affection and desire for his partner (oh, and except for being married). I guess “same as everyone else” homonormative liberalism does have its limits. One of the few times I have been thankful for Facebook was when a campaign was started to insist that Cameron and Mitchell kiss. Levitan responded by saying that season two would deal with Mitchell’s aversion to public displays of affection. Darn clever using the show’s mockumentary format to get out of having two men kiss. But why aren’t the straight men uncomfortable about a PDA in front of the camera? To add insult to injury, Levitan blamed the protesters, saying it was “unfortunate” that the controversy had happened because he was planning to have Mitchell and Cameron kiss “as part of the natural development of the show.” Wait. I’m getting a sense of déjà vu. Didn’t we go through this with Will and Grace?
I don’t know if the show’s producers and writers realize this, but Cameron and Mitchell’s namesake is John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), someone who doesn’t know the meaning of “one of us” liberalism or homonormativity. And speaking of naming characters and the limits of television liberalism, how about that Glee? Here’s a quiz that even those of you who have never watched the show should be able to ace. Match the Glee character with their description:
|a. white, blonde cheerleader
|b. paraplegic male in a wheelchair with glasses
|c. ample black diva
|d. slight, stylish gay diva
|e. intense, dark-haired, white young woman
|f. shy Asian American young woman
To make matters more predictable, black diva Mercedes (last name Jones) teams up with gay diva Kurt (last name Hummel, like those cute, kitschy Sound of Music-esque figurines), while offering wise advice, sympathy, and a place to stay to knocked-up blonde cheerleader Quinn. Why she’s Jennifer Holliday and Hattie McDaniel all rolled into one!
Before I get hate mail from Gleeks, I should say that the show is getting better. I found it difficult to watch the first season because it trafficked in the worst kind of United Colors of Benetton liberalism. Kurt, Mercedes, and Artie were consistently used to create a colorfully diverse narrative and musical background for the straight, white, able-bodied characters. Sure, they occasionally got a “big scene” or a solo, but these stood out because of their scarcity. Then, in a brilliant meta-narrative move, the second season gave these three “othered” characters—as well as Tina—more musical and narrative space once Kurt and Mercedes joined the cheerleading squad because of the glee club’s (and Glee’s) lack of appreciation for their talents.
While Glee’s easy liberalism is not a thing of the past, the series’ second season coup has kept me a regular viewer, if not made me a Gleek. As for Modern Family, I will check in on Cameron and Mitchell every so often, as well as on Gloria to see if she becomes more, or less, like Charo. But I am haunted by something creator-producer Levitan said to the actors who play Cameron and Mitchell during the Modern Family Emmy segment: “Most viewers like ‘gay,’ but nobody doesn’t like ‘not gay.’” Having seen the series’ first season, and considering his response to those “let them kiss” Facebook critics, Levitan’s remark seems less like a joke and more like a preview of things to come.
Thank you so much for this text. I almost started to believe nobody noticed this so called “liberalism” …
September 24th, 2010 at 6:18 am
Uh nope said:
What a news flash: Primetime US television isn’t as progressive as avant garde queer indie flicks. Story at 11! GLEE is a train-wreck in terms of its poor writing (except for a few Jane Lynch zingers) and sure, the characters are pretty stock and even cliched but that is all part and parcel of the musical genre. (Come to think of it, my actual high school experience included lots of stock and even cliched characters…cliques and everything! go figure…) Whatever its formula, it certainly seems to be resonating with America. And whatever its flaws, it still ain’t the 700 club. As a popular modernist text I think it’s still pretty progressive, and that’s not a bad thing. As a gay guy I love the gay family on MODERN FAMILY. But you know what? I actually prefer that those two dudes not slober over each other onscreen. Maybe if they looked like Ricky Martin and Jamiee Foxx or something it would be okay. I certainly didn’t mind Keith and David making out on Six Feet Under. Nor did America, it would seem. Does that make me shallow? Probably. Does it make America? Oh yes. But all the same, other than a peck on the cheek or quick peck on the lips or something I’d really rather not interrupt my eating by seeing these pleasant but relatively-unattractive-looking characters make out. I can get that at bear night at the bar, I don’t need it on my TV. (I’m also not insinuating that anyone wants to watch me make out. Like, mirrors are not my friend either…) So I can’t blame the network suits for that one, either. So perhaps we want more attractive gay characters and more perfectly-complex “model minorities,” instead of the actual femmy fat ones who actually exist and generally avoid PDAs for all of our benefit? But that would be feeding into other stereotypes. What’s a tv writer or network to do? They may not be bastions of liberalism, and I personally think Glee is awful, but all the same I’m glad these two programs exist and are popular. With marriage equality and don’t ask don’t tell recently being defeated now is not the time to be splitting hairs. As academics we have more important work to do.
September 24th, 2010 at 5:39 pm
Craig Martin said:
Its almost thirty years ago, but I still vividly recall sitting in a high school English class when the school bell sounded. Students spontaneously erupted into cacophonic stereo as they leaped from their chairs. “What do you think you’re doing?” Miss McLean bawled at the exiting pupils. “This is not Fame, you know!” And she was right to identify Fame as a major influence on our teenage behaviours. In the era of Footloose and Flashdance and Thriller, Fame the series was a high rating TV bonanza, and why wouldn’t anyone not want to emulate the behaviour of a group of all-singing, all-dancing NYC students on the fast track to showbiz success. Meanwhile in gym class, when it came time for hockey, us boys would swing our sticks about like quarter staffs and quote lines from Monkey, mimicking the series’ dubbed mock-asian accents. With so many hockey sticks flying about, someone was usually getting hurt. The point is, collectively growing up in front of the television, it wasn’t hard to spot its effects on the behaviours of young viewers. Mimicry is a significant element of fandom, and we were, most of us, fans of the likes of Fame and Monkey, CHiPs and “V”. I’m a fan of Glee, but there are behaviours modelled in the show that frankly trouble me. The worst of it, for me, is the bullying that goes entirely undeterred by the series’ elders. Almost every week the social outcasts of the Glee universe must endure Slushees thrown in their faces. Its a running gag, and one that is emulated in the Emmy’s Gleeful opening number as Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey get “slushed” while the Kodak theatre erupts into laughter. Yet every time I see it happen on the series, I’m angered and appalled. If this is the new Fame, are real students getting soaked by real slushes and hurled into real dumpsters? And is it as funny as when it happens on TV? When Kurt’s blue-collar father storms into the school to protect his son’s equal rights as a gay teen, that never includes the profound bullying he must endure at the hands of his peers. Not to mention the bullying endured by the rest of the Gleesters. Do their parents not notice the large food dye stains in their children’s laundry, or the ripe smell of dumpster as they walk in the door? Mr Schuester seems aware of the bullying, but never seems to lift a finger unless it involves Sue Sylvester. Last time I checked, silence was consent. Bullying in the Glee universe is either condoned or invisible to the series’ inept, impotent adults, and the biggest lesson students need to learn is that they’re on their own. It’s a vicious world, but hey, its okay! Music is the panacea. Am I missing something?
September 25th, 2010 at 2:13 pm
Kelli Marshall said:
So enjoyed your column as I’m a faithful watcher of both programs (even if GLEE sometimes drives me insane!). I’m a bit confused by one thing though: at the end of the piece, you refer to the shift (re: the “othered” characters) that occurred in GLEE’s second season. Are you meaning the end of its first season? Season 2 just began this week, didn’t it?
September 25th, 2010 at 2:56 pm
Alexander Doty said:
Glad to get the engaged pro and con responses to the column–and to the shows it covered. I suppose I can’t reasonably expect American network television to be radical (especially not in this day and age when even so-called liberal Democrats are pretty conservative), but it certainly can be liberal in more complicated, less cut-and-dried ways than it is. From where I sit, it is particularly galling to have the issue of same sex couples kissing or showing any kind of physical intimacy on American prime time network television keep coming back as a “problem.” In many, many ways, network television has actually slipped back from where it was when it had post-coming out “Ellen” and “Will and Grace” (and I had quite a few class and race/ethinicty problems with the latter). And, yes, (to respond to another message)part of the problem with American (network) TV liberalism is that it pretty much stays at the level of decontextualized individual relationships and doesn’t consider many things within broader socio-cultural contexts–which Craig exemplified by “Glee’s” playing bullying-the-”other” for laughs, which allows viewers not to think about the broader cultural and institutional aspects of bullying. OK, “Glee” is a musical comedy-drama, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be smarter and more challenging than it has been about the many hot button issues it has seen fit to include as part of its characters or storylines. In answer to Kelli, I DID mean the end of the first season–I guess that first season went on for so long (or was stretched out for so long) it seemed like two seasons!!
September 26th, 2010 at 9:00 pm
Matt B. said:
The advances in liberal television today have less been due to the radical situations, and more due to the meshing of these characters into “center-right” America. Would Mitchell and Cameron be nearly as funny if they didn’t try to mesh into a suburban household? Like last weeks episode where they decide to build a castle for Lilly (their adopted daughter), Mitchell’s father came over to help them out with the building of the castle because Cameron doesn’t trust Mitchell with power tools. The funniest joke of that segment was the father’s remark that building a bookcase with Mitchell was his Vietnam and he was in Vietnam. It was the simple tasks never portrayed on television some have never seen gays do, that made that same suburban culture realize that the only thing different from homosexuals and heterosexuals is who they sleep in the same bed with. It is the characters confused identity that helps audiences identify with the characters and who are constantly going through the same thing. To put homosexuals into a stereotype would be doing everyone a disservice, just like putting a woman into a stereotypical roll. Every individual is unique and modern family is doing America a service by not stereotyping any character, and developing each one with his/her separate quirks and maybe an unnatural fear of pigeons (Mitchell).
September 27th, 2010 at 2:23 pm
Chelsea Bullock said:
I appreciate the analysis and critique that you do in this article. The difference between Modern Family’s claims of cultural representation and its actuality seem to go unmentioned far more than is warranted. In thinking about Glee though, I wonder if some of your criticisms overly simplify the situation. At the end of the first season and now the beginning of the second, the ethnic, racial, sexual, and otherwise socio-political identities seem to be more complicated. Kristen Warner recently wrote a piece on Mad Men that I think could easily be applied to what’s happening in Glee (http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/…..-mad-men/). I am not suggesting that Glee’s rather ironic self-reflexive criticisms of marginalization should be considered satisfactory for viewers, but that maybe there is something deeper and calculated at work beneath the liberal shellac. We’ll see. Sue’s character is not only the most enjoyable for me to watch, but also, I think, has the most political (productivity) potential.The odds of the show developing beyond stereotypes and mundane multiculturalism are pretty low, but I’ll keep watching for at least this season even if just to see Sue.
September 30th, 2010 at 12:28 am
William Moner said:
Just as an addendum to this discussion (and perhaps an added wrinkle), the Modern Family “kiss” episode airing last week included a very sly treatment of the controversial homosexual male kiss. In the episode, a very large deal is made out of a father/son kiss between Mitchell and his father (played by Ed O’Neill). The two awkwardly kiss — in a father/son heteronormative fashion — and return to their respective spouses. At that point, the foreground action shows a conversation between two characters while, in the background and in soft focus, Cam and Mitchell share a very loving kiss. I appreciate the critiques of Glee, as I do agree that the show leaves a lot to be desired insofar as reducing stereotypes. However, Modern Family is doing more than most shows to bring homosexual relationships into focus as natural, caring and, dare I say, normal. By not making a big deal about the actual kiss between Cam and Mitchell, the show deftly satirizes the “shock” of seeing two men kiss (father/son) in favor of blending a homosexual kiss into the show’s mise-en-scene. For that move, they should be applauded.
October 5th, 2010 at 5:42 pm
Sirak Berhe said:
I argue that the show is getting better. however, I found it difficult to watch the first season because it trafficked in the worst kind of United Colors of Benetton liberalism. Kurt, Mercedes, and Artie were consistently used to create a colorfully diverse narrative and musical background for the straight, white, able-bodied characters. Sure, they occasionally got a “big scene” or a solo, but these stood out because of their scarcity. Then, in a brilliant meta-narrative move, the second season gave these three “othered” characters as well as Tina more musical and narrative space once Kurt and Mercedes joined the cheer leading squad because of the glee club’s (and Glee’s) lack of appreciation for their talents.
October 21st, 2010 at 9:21 am
Betsy W said:
Alexander, I’m curious to know your thoughts on Glee’s most recent episode that included an on screen kiss between gay Kurt and his football-playing bully. This was a gasp! moment for me as I watched and thought to myself – did they just go there? But they did. Is this proof of the show getting better as mentioned above? Perhaps. But I wonder – was this on screen kiss developed merely to beat out Modern Family and really give viewers what they’ve been asking for? Or are the writers of Glee more intentional than I give them cr for?
November 12th, 2010 at 1:19 am
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