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(Not so) Modern Family

19 Jul

Heading into its 5th season this fall, Modern Family has been celebrated for its unconventional family dynamic between the Dunphys, Pritchetts, and Tucker-Pritchetts.

But in terms of representation, Modern Family is not so modern, and often relies on stereotypes that the humor can’t rise above.

Here are the Dunphys.

the dunphys

Your typical, white picket fence, white-faced Mom, Dad, and three kids.

Phil is our goofy, unbuttoned Dad who always gives the audience a good laugh, whether we’re laughing at or with him. Either way, it’s all good fun.

His wife, Claire, is the yin to his yang. She often  stirs up trouble of her own with her Type A personality.

I will admit that I love Claire and Phil. They’re equally ridiculous and one wouldn’t quite be whole without the other. So it bothers me that Modern Family allows greater characterization for one over the other. Outside of the house, Phil is a real estate agent. His clients make appearances in the show, his job is often referred to, and he even wins a Real Estate award.

But who is Claire, other than Phil’s wife, and the mother of his children?


Before marriage, she was a bit of a wild child. As a teenager, she snuck out of the house with guys, got in trouble with the cops, and presumably experimented with alcohol and drugs. Before becoming a mother, she was on the management track at a successful hotel chain.

She chose to leave her career to be a Stay-at-home Mom. Over a decade later, she’s still a Stay-at-home Mom, and her characterization revolves wholly around her immediate and extended family. We see that Phil has friends (and a nemesis), but the women we see Claire interact with are certainly not friend-material, not even  Gloria, the only other adult woman in the cast.

So why can’t Claire have friends?

She’s high strung and a control freak, sure, but so are many women who have plenty of friends (myself included). I chalk it up to Modern Family’s Mom-Syndrome.

Only two women make up the female demographic of the adult cast. Both are mothers. Both are wives. Both stay at home.

We find friends in school, at work, and through hobbies. Claire is no longer in school, she doesn’t work, and her hobbies include solo running and competing for a spot on the town council (and she certainly doesn’t make any friends there).

The only former friend that comes back into her life for a day is a woman who continued her career instead of marrying and having kids. Claire’s bit in the episode is about competing with this “friend” and showing her up. It’s a classic girl vs. girl. Mother vs. Working Woman.

In this episode, and through it’s Mom-Syndrome, Modern Family perpetuates that women can’t have a career and a family. Women must always choose.

Even when Phil reveals that they aren’t doing well financially (duh, he works in the housing market), Claire doesn’t go back to work. I truly thought the show was opening a space in its line-up for Claire to be a working mom, but the idea isn’t ever taken seriously, even though Claire’s restlessness (shown in Slow Down Your Neighbors) and drive (her run for town council) indicates to me that she would enjoy being a working mom.

In 2012, 68% of married mothers were working or looking for work. Modern Family needs to step out of the 1950s and into our age, where most mothers with older children are working or seeking employment. Staying at home is a valid choice, but the idea that it is the only choice for Claire wears a bit thin.

But this is Modern Family, where women are either moms or too young to be moms.

And it’s always Girl vs. Girl.

haley and alex

Media loves pitting girls against each other and creating dichotomies, and Modern Family willingly falls into this trap. Sisters Haley and Alex rarely get along, throw insults at each other, and seemingly revel in each others’ unhappiness.

These insults are not harmless, and I was deeply disappointed when Alex made an anorexia insult at Haley’s expense (and many viewers’ who have actually struggled with eating disorders).

Those of us with sisters, or siblings in general, know what it’s like to fight. My sister and I were different growing up, and I will admit that I was jealous of her at times, as Alex is of Haley, and Haley is of Alex. Despite that, we not only got along well, but were very close even when we were both teenagers.

It is deeply troubling that our comedies paint sisterhood as a mostly negative experience. The moments when Haley and Alex come together in friendship is moving, and would still be touching without the Pretty Girl/Smart Girl dichotomy.

Alex can’t understand Haley because she’s a Pretty Girl. Haley can’t understand Alex because she’s a Smart Girl. It isn’t until seasons in that they realize they aren’t only defined by one characteristic. Alex can be smart and pretty! Haley can be pretty and smart! Hallelujah!

Girls are people too, did you know? They are complex. It’s too bad Modern Family didn’t give these sisters the benefit of that doubt from the beginning. Haley and Alex’s rivalry could have been replaced with a stable, close relationship all along.

Sisterhood and female friendships are lacking in media representation. We can hope that Modern Family takes Haley and Alex’s relationship to a positive level in season 5, where they can continue to help each other grow and understand themselves.

Here are the Pritchetts.

the pritchetts

Jay is our older patriarch married to Colombian beauty Gloria, whose son from a previous marriage gets added into the mix.

Casting a woman of color in the ensemble of Modern Family was, indeed, modern. Casting her and her son, Manny, as light-skinned? Not as much. This could have been a chance for a darker-skinned woman to break into an acclaimed comedy, something difficult to do when most scripts write about only white characters.

And with a little digging, the problems get deeper. Women of color are often hyper sexualized, something that has real life consequences, such as higher instances of sexual violence, and dehumanization.

So it’s more than a little problematic that Gloria’s defining characteristics are that she’s Colombian and considered seriously sexy. Gloria’s laughs stem from these characteristics, feeding into the sexualized latina stereotype.

I like Gloria. I her passion, her devotion to family, and her sometimes goofy nature. I like how she can find a way to relate to everyone in the ensemble, from Phil to little Lily.

I don’t like laughing at her.

She can’t pronounce certain words! Ah-ha. Things weren’t like this back in Colombia! Ah-ha. Gloria was poor once! Ah-ha.

Another Colombia joke! Ah-ha.

In the finale of season 4, Cam and Mitchell discuss whether or not Gloria looked like a woman who could have run a brothel once. As answer, the camera zooms in on Gloria reaching over into a car, her heels splayed, and butt in the air. Ah-ha, she’s so sexualized, ah-ha, I can’t stop laughing, ah-ha.

Gloria is rarely taken seriously by her husband and family members because of her accent, background, and attractiveness. The show uses her passion and tough (“Colombian”) nature to often make her the fool. A large part of her relationship with Jay involves pulling pranks on each other and besting the other.

Because the show often makes Colombian culture the butt of the joke, we can never be sure what is real, what is fake, and what is stereotype. In one episode, Gloria gets back at Jay by making up “Colombian” superstitions that he must do, such as wearing shoes around his neck and slapping meat while chanting. So when Gloria wins, her culture and characterization loses.

Before marrying Jay, Gloria provided for herself and Manny (and possibly ran a brothel out of her apartment). Now that she has money, there’s no need for her to work, right? Certainly not. Once women marry, we don’t need our own income, fulfillment, or place to go outside of the house!

Somewhere along the way in season 3, the writers decided that Gloria needed a new spin in her storyline. This was a chance to have one of their two women pursue a job or career. Gloria job hunting, or developing said career, would have been an interesting turn of events.

She’s affluent in fashion and design, so she could have decided to open her own business, a venture that would have offered a chance for creativity and growth. Gloria’s certainly passionate enough to pull it off.

Instead, Modern Family decided that her uterus was more interesting.


So we see the same side of her that we’ve seen since season 1: Gloria as a mother. Now that Gloria has a newborn, and her husband is an older, working male, I’ll hold off my hopes of Gloria’s Glamour shop.

Unfortunately, as the diversity continues, so do the stereotypes.

Here are the Tucker-Pritchetts.


Your average, red-blooded males who happen to be gay. Mitchell is a tightly wound lawyer who often differs in opinion with Cam, his fantastical, dramatic partner. Lily is their adopted daughter from Vietnam (who, like Gloria, is a POC subjected to stereotypes).

The relationship between Cam and Mitchell is what partly put Modern Family on the map — more and more people are opening up about their need and/or support for LGBTQ rights and representation.

So I wish that the show took that task a little more seriously.

What do you mean? It’s a gay couple on tv! And gay men are funny —

That’s where I’m going to stop you. Gay men have typically been side characters to be laughed at. Look how effeminate! Look, he’s cross-dressing now! Look, he’s joking about how many sexual partners gay men stereotypically have!

Modern Family may not sideline Mitchell and Cam, but their characterizations involve a lot of humor that rely on stereotypes about gay men. How girly Cam is. How girly Mitchell is. Who is “the wife”? The “mother”?

And a lot of that reflects poorly on women, as being girly or being the wife or mother figure is inherently laughable.

But the biggest problem with Modern Family’s representation of LGBTQ characters is their lack of and insensitive treatment of characters that don’t represent the “G”.

Representation tends to isolate gay men as the only faces of the LGBTQ community. There are no lesbian characters in Modern Family’s ensemble, and none of the characters have recurring lesbian friends. Jokes are made on their behalf, and the only lesbian couple on screen was there to up-stage Cam and Mitchell for their child’s spot in a prestigious school.

What can beat a gay couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter in terms of diversity? Interracial lesbians, one of whom is disabled, with a black son. Naturally, Cam puts on an extremely racist caricature of a Native American to try to win over their interviewer. It’s supposed to be ridiculous. It’s supposed to be funny.

Because Native American stereotypes are just as funny as the other stereotypes rampant on the show, right? It would be wrong to exclude them.

The lesbians are throw-ins for a good laugh at our resident gay couple. (Not to mention that one of the women is the only disabled character that I can distinctly remember being on the show. And we don’t even know her name.)

Besides these core problems, there are moments of slut-shaming, chauvinism, and a poorly handled episode when the three Dunphy females get their periods at the same time. Because women become emotional monsters on their (hush-hush) periods who must be tricked and/or avoided, instead of, I don’t know, treated like human beings in discomfort and pain.

leap day

What Modern Family has going for it is the love and differing relationships between the members of each family unit, and the importance of accepting different kinds of families.  The characters are all somewhat fleshed out, which is good for an ensemble, especially one with diverse characters. I just wish that these diverse characters were given more to work with than stereotypes that often go un-debunked.

modern family

Modern Family is a step in the right direction, but one that zigzags away from its intended message. It’s an award-winning, critically acclaimed show supposedly about a modern-day family — one that seriously lacks understanding of what would be truly modern.

We need a show that counters this one. A show with an interracial ensemble, a wider range of women and their relationships, better representation of the LGBTQ community, and less walking stereotypes.

We deserve a show that delivers on its promise.