A couple years ago I was flipping through the channels with my then-girlfriend and we came upon a show I quite enjoyed but she had never seen: Modern Family. I expressed my love of the series and how much I thought she would enjoy it too, so we decided to watch the episode.
That was a bad idea.
As the opening minutes played out, Phil slowly realized one by one that his wife and two daughters were all on their menstrual cycles at the same time, a day which he dubbed “Satan’s trifecta.” He became horrified, scared that they might ruin his day, and conspired with his son to try and leave them out of the fun family activities they had planned. My girlfriend sighed in disgust and I squirmed in discomfort. Why Phil?! You were my favorite character, why had you forsaken me!? Right after bragging about the show’s progressiveness and playing up its forward-thinking ideals, I was caught with my foot in my mouth, which was terrible because I have weird feet.
Still from Modern Family, “Leap Day,” (Season 3, Episode 17, 2012).
By the end of the episode, Phil had been scolded for his misogynistic behavior, but it didn’t feel like enough. Not to me, and not to my girlfriend, whose relationship with the show did not last much longer beyond that night, just like her relationship with me. I told myself that it was just this one episode, that Modern Family is really a good progressive show that just hit a bump in the road in season three. But the more I watched it from that point on, the more I realized its progressivism was sort of watered down and safe, and at times even retrogressive.
I was reminded of this while reading about the Norman Lear sitcoms, shows that were intended to herald forward-thinking ideals but were problematic and regressive in their own ways. Similar to these shows of the 70s, much praise has been piled on Modern Family by fans and critics alike, and for valid reasons. It’s one of the first to feature a gay couple with a child as central characters. It gives Latin actors lead roles and a place to shine. And the titular family is not the standard nuclear family of sitcoms past, but one dealing in divorce, step-relatives, inter-racial marriage, and adoption.
However, making notable steps forward does not excuse the show from justified criticism. For example, much of the humor surrounding Mitch and Cam is based on stereotypes, such as Cam’s flamboyance, or their interactions with lesbian couples. Furthermore, they are rarely pictured being intimate, which can’t be blamed on strict regulations from the network not to depict any sort of sensual activity, as Phil and Claire’s sexcapades are often the central story on a number of episodes. Latina stereotypes riddle Gloria’s characterization as well. In fact, most of the female characters are stereotypes. Gloria is the overbearing mother. Haley is the dumb but pretty girl. Alex is the smart, angst-ridden nerd. Claire is the tightly-wound super-mom.
Many of the episode plots engage with stereotypes and problematic portrayals of the LGBTQ+ community, Latin culture, and women. They are often presented as problems to be corrected or derided, such as the aforementioned episode where Claire scolds Phil for his childish and offensive behavior regarding her period. And yet, they rarely seem like they are sufficiently chastised. After all, most of the episode mines its humor from Phil’s sexist antics. And like Archie Bunker, the audience by this point loves Phil. We don’t see him as behaving misogynistically, because we are made to sympathize with him.
It would seem that four decades later, we have advanced little from the Norman Lear brand of relevancy sitcoms. The show hailed as one of the most progressive on television, that insists upon its modernity in its very title, is in fact rather traditionalist and at times somewhat regressive in its treatment of race, sexuality, and gender. But, as Kevin Fallon writes for the Daily Beast, “the idea of Modern Family quickly became more important than the show itself.” The show enjoys a reputation of being forward-thinking, even if it doesn’t always live up to that standard, and due to its popular status as modern and hip, people similarly associate that hipness and modernity with the progressive ideals it claims to tout. It’s cool to be tolerant now, at least partially thanks to Modern Family. So….that’s good I guess?