Not-So-Modern Family | Kevin Pabst

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.

Sarah+Hyland+Modern+Family+Season+3+Episode+64C_04_t8ERl.jpg
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?

–Kevin Pabst

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7 Responses to Not-So-Modern Family | Kevin Pabst

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I agree. I feel that a lot of the sitcoms today that are hailed as being “progressive” in terms of network television have the tendency to be retrogressive. It is like network television, especially sitcoms, are given the chance to be progressive but to an extent. This limitation could also be perceived as tokenism. A show such a Modern Family features all types of different backgrounds, but it is important to explore real situations that different cultures face rather than constant stereotypes for laughs. The LGBTQ community has contributed a lot to society; however, this is not exactly displayed on Modern Family. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy watching the show, but I have not seen a groundbreaking change from the incessant stereotyping.

    -Shelby Halliman

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I really enjoyed this post Kevin, and I completely agree with you. The show truly doesn’t demolish the barriers it so claims, only somewhat cracks them. I wonder if this is because it is aired on one of the big networks? Can you have a mainstream show breaking down barriers? -Katie Nelson

  3. Love this. Representation matters, and not just any old kind of representation. Just because a marginalized identity is represented on TV/movies/culture, doesn’t mean the representation is actually *progressing* us or the conversation anywhere.

    With regards to Phil, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of Modern Family, but he often irritates the hell out of me. He’s so often the goof, the misguided-but-lovable guy who gets to make mistakes that his, as you pointed out, uptight wife has to swoop in and save the day. Supermom to the rescue. Reminds me of the evolution of family sitcoms to the mom-as-boss trope, which we all know just relegates women more securely to the public/domestic sphere (and frees dad of family responsibility).

    (Leah Haynes)

  4. mediaphiles says:

    Modern Family suffers in a way most traditional sitcoms do: The characters aren’t allowed to change. Episodic television really means that characters are largely stuck where they were at the beginning, with some growth, but not enough to alienate the casual viewer. Phil has been the same since the beginning, as has Claire, and Gloria, and Jay, and the rest. After six (or is it seven?) seasons, you would think they would have run out of “Jay is weirded out by his son being gay” plot lines, but that was where Jay started and any progress made in one episode has to be reset in case viewers didn’t catch that one. That’s why there’s no real punishment for Phil. It wouldn’t work on network television. I really enjoyed Modern Family in its first two seasons. I never finished the third. I still laugh when I see it, because it is a funny show, but I agree with your criticisms (surprise surprise). I think it took viewers a while to notice it, but it was in the show’s DNA from the start. – Max Dosser

  5. mediaphiles says:

    I had never thought about this before- especially the part about the show making us like Phil so much that we wouldn’t want to see anything he says as sexist or ignorant. Likability is very influential in television. -Kelsey Sierra

  6. mediaphiles says:

    Now that you mention it, it is pretty interesting to examine this. I myself have even dubbed modern family as being socially progressive in the past but now that I am thinking about it I do not know if I could say that is the case anymore. If you think about it, a lot of the things that they include in the show to try and seem more socially progressive- like a gay couple as main characters, often end up being the butt of jokes making the show seem more conservative in that aspect. For some examples, Mitchell and Cam are often made fun of for the simple fact that they are gay and many different jokes are made about what they like and what they were like growing up that are actually perpetuating stereotypes and demeaning people of the LGBTQ community. While they try to be light hearted about all of their content, it is indeed true that many of the things that they joke about are things that we would be disgusted to hear as jokes in our society in real life. I wonder what it is about the way that they do this that has allowed it to go on for so long without being recognized as the same type of show as say Amos n Andy that makes jokes that perpetuate stereotypes and include prejudicial undertones.

    -Max Lissette

  7. mediaphiles says:

    Your post made me think about when I try to share a show I like with someone and making them watch an episode and it doesn’t always go well. If you show them a random episode and they don’t know the characters they don’t normally enjoy it, but if you show them the pilot they mostly do. It’s crazy to see how pilots are made to introduce characters and how effective they are. – Jon Baquero

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