“Modern Family should know better than anyone that things change, and to stay relevant we need to change with the times.”
Title: Modern Family
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-8
Creators: Steven Levitan 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Christopher Lloyd 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Steven Levitan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (188 eps), Christopher Lloyd 👨🏼🇺🇸 (188 eps), Ryan Walls 👨🏼🇺🇸 (43 eps), Paul Corrigan 👨🏼🇺🇸 (28 eps), Brad Walsh 👨🏼🇺🇸 (28 eps), Danny Zuker 👨🏼🇺🇸 (23 eps), Jeffrey Richman 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈 (23 eps), and various (14 ♂ and 13 ♀ including 2 POC)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
What a shame to see a long-running series go from a 5/5 at the start, only to dwindle, dwindle, and dwindle away to a sad mimicry of itself due to timidity.
Back in 2009, the show felt like a fun remix of traditional sitcoms, featuring an older man with a young trophy wife who has a mind (and son) of her own; a nuclear family wherein each member is a bit kooky; and most progressively, a gay couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter.
Fast-forward to 2017 and you’ll find the same gags. The same personality tics. The same everything. And boy, is this series showing its wear. Suddenly, the fiery Colombian hottie, Gloria (played by Sofía Vergara) looks like an embarrassing caricature of a Latina with her thick accent and overt sexualization. The gay couple feels neutered, seldom sharing any romantic scenes but bickering all the time like two old biddies. And character development for the kids (save for Lily, played by Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) is nearly nonexistent.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Points for including a robust number of female actors. But their characterizations are actively offensive and have been criticized by reviewers across the years. Though disappointing, I don’t find this particularly surprising. Just look at the top-billed writers of the series—every single writer with over 20 episodes to his name is a white man.
It follows then, that the women of Modern Family are reduced to stereotypes whose lives revolve around men.
Haley Dunphy (Sarah Hyland) makes my heart hurt. The vast majority of her punchlines rest on the premise that she is either pretty or stupid. And look, I have no problems with fun, silly, pretty girls. But there’s more to them than that, and Modern Family shows tantalizing glimpses of understanding that, but frustratingly always reverts back to low-hanging fruit.
Alex Dunphy (Ariel Winter) is a fun character; the kind of nerd girl I would have loved watching on TV as a kid. But over time you realize how toxic her support system is. For example, in this scene she is told by her father that dumb girls (like Haley) get all the boys while smart girls (like Alex) die alone.
Then there’s the way the show continually objectifies Gloria. (Male gaze, much?)
And finally, I have to mention the atrocious episode featuring the Womens March in Season 8. The writers take a fraught political event that meant something to millions of Americans, then trivializes it with an ending that simultaneously mocks feminism and measures the worth of a young, liberal woman by her sexual availability. Slow clap, Modern Family. (A.V. Club does a great write-up of the episode here.)
Modern Family is primarily white despite being set in ultra-diverse Los Angeles County. Depending on the specific neighborhood, demographics can vary wildly; however, considering that Hispanics make up almost half the population in LA County,* we should probably be seeing more representation than just Gloria and her son Manny (Rico Rodriguez), plus two other recurring Latinos (who each see just 6 of 188 episodes apiece).
A quick look at Hispanic representation in Modern Family and its setting of Los Angeles County:
In addition, the population of LA County was 14.1% Asian and 8.3% black in 2015, yet we see Lily as the sole, non-Hispanic POC among any character who appears in at least 5 episodes.
Content-wise, much of Gloria’s comedic role is predicated on the joke that Colombia is a dangerous, backwards shithole. This kind of messaging is irresponsible at a time when the American president is painting all brown people in our country as criminals. Is it worth the ba-dum-tsss! to influence millions of viewers into associating Latinxs with crime and sex trafficking? I venture a No, especially when Gloria is otherwise such a badass character. But this fixation with shaming a Latin country is so damaging, especially in a post-Trump era.
Other wince-inducing examples: Joan, a parking attendant, falls into the Magical Negro trope who comes in to save the day complete with big gold hoop earrings, long acrylic nails, and a thick “ghetto” accent. When Alex is stressed out during finals, she gripes about “all the nerds crying in Chinese.” Across 8 seasons, we see over and over again that the writers have no idea how to treat POC as more than their skin color.
Tell you what, though—Lily’s character is great and she brings up this score significantly. She’s the Vietnamese adopted daughter of Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Lily is a multi-faceted character who is snarky, smart, and lazy. None of those attributes play into any archetype or stereotype. Manny, too, bucks stereotypes by being an eloquent, mature, and metrosexual Latino.
I’ll give Modern Family credit where credit is due: it is the first successful, widespread network sitcom to include a gay couple as main characters. Unfortunately, they’ve done so on the shoulders of stereotypes. Cam and Mitchell are never actually humanized; instead, their gayness itself is often the joke.
Further adding to their sense of caricature is the fact that they are so asexual. Phil and Claire and constantly boinking. But the show struggles to depict Cam and Mitchell as anything but de-sexualized fairies. It took an actual petition by viewers, “Let Cam and Mitchell Kiss!”, to force their hand. What we get is a whole lot of fanfare with an episode titled “The Kiss,” wherein the two share a blurry, chaste smooch in the background of one scene.
Similarly, Season 8 built up buzz around a trans character but in the episode itself, he comes and goes in a blink-and-you-miss-it fashion. As Spencer Kornhaber explains on The Atlantic, “this progressive-minded move happened in a supremely gentle and unthreatening manner.”
In both cases, Modern Family exhibits baby steps in progress for queer representation. Although they serve a sanitized rendition of gay stereotypes in the most “palatable” package of white men, I'd like to think it makes room for other shows to push the envelope.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.63/5
Modern Family embodies dumbed-down programming—long associated with network television—but with the added baggage of being dragged out five years past its prime (and counting).
Adam Hubbard Johnson puts it well when he describes the show's overarching problem:
“The writer's intent is not racist [or sexist] per se, but this doesn't matter. Media imagery is a serious thing with serious consequences. Passively pandering to racist [or sexist] assumptions to score some laughs is ethically indistinguishable from actively doing so.”
* Data comes from the 2015 American Community Survey.