It’s not that I don’t enjoy Modern Family, exactly. It’s a slick sitcom that showcases some great acting and witty writing. But despite including characters who are gay and people of color, at heart it’s a deeply conventional show, more interested in peddling stereotypes than subverting them.
Most often, Modern Family’s white heterosexual family with a stay-at-home mom is presented as the default, including in the show’s promotional images, most of which literally position them at the centre of the show: the “normal” people those wacky minorities orbit around. The first season poster even made this overt, describing the family units we could expect to see as: “straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional” — that last word providing reassurance to conservatively-minded potential viewers that storylines wouldn’t get too progressive.
The show’s gay fathers Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are frequently the best thing about it, yet they’re also stereotypes straight from central casting and their dynamic is oddly sexless. We often see Modern Family’s straight couples kiss and express affection but most of the time Cam and Mitchell could pass as co-parenting pals. It was over a season before they shared a kiss, and that was a quick peck in the background. I understand the argument that not treating it as a big deal could be seen as normalizing gay relationships, but it also served the very convenient purpose of not alienating the type of homophobe who doesn’t mind gay people on TV, as long as they’re not “too gay”.
Although misunderstandings about sexuality are a tired trope, I mostly liked the “Mistery Date” episode, where Phil (Ty Burrell) invited his new friend Dave (Matthew Broderick!) over to watch the game, but Dave thought it was a date. The two men shared a homoerotic shirts-off hug then Dave kissed Phil on the lips before leaving. When Phil finally realized he’d misread the situation, he was blasé about it, not shuddering, wiping his lips, or calling Dave to tell him he’s not actually gay, as would have happened on other sitcoms not so long ago. His acceptance shouldn’t be notable, of course, but it was a small, subtly progressive moment of the type I’d love to see more of; a reflection of society’s changing attitudes and TV’s willingness to reflect them. It was diappointing however that we only saw the kiss from behind, another example of the show’s coyness about same-sex smooching (it’s never so squeamish about Phil’s hetero kisses).
Also, while it’s great to see affection between men become a little less stigmatized, it does perhaps still matter which men are OK with being kissed: old school patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill) isn’t likely to be “caught out” by a male friend in this way. It’s Phil, the doofus, the guy not necessarily considered to embody masculine traits, who gets confused for gay. In fact, the show is obsessed with stereotypical ideals. Jay is old-fashioned in that way people who deify “traditional family values” find endearing, being not entirely comfortable with either his son’s homosexuality or his stepson Manny’s Frasier-ish interests (tea, poetry readings…).
While the episode called “The Kiss” was assumed to be about Mitchell and Cam’s at-long-last lip lock, that was figuratively and literally pushed into the background of a storyline about Jay’s struggle to show affection to his children. In “Snip”, the episode where Phil decides against having a vasectomy, Jay reassures him that he’d be no less a man for going under the knife. But then he snaps a photo of Phil sitting on a bench featuring his own real estate ad, where his body hides enough of the words so that it reads “Not a real man”. It’s great that the show sometimes plays with society’s ideas about what “real men” are allowed to do, like having Phil be scared, or Jay see a shrink. But scenes like this (correctly?) assume that the audience will think that calling someone out for not conforming to stereotypical gender norms is a hilarious insult.
Ultimately, then, the show reflects the experiences and insecurities of its creators and assumed audience: middle-class, middle-aged straight white men. It reassures them that being tolerant is as good as being inclusive and that heterosexual white families with shrill stay-at-home wives are the norm. Its exploration of the pressures of feminine ideals is considerably less sympathetic: SAHM Claire is arguably the least likeable character, and storylines have included three women getting their period at the same time and going “crazy”, and fiery Latina (gah) Gloria (Sofia Vergara) needing to be chaperoned because her pregnancy brain makes her too forgetful to function.
But while the show is undoubtedly flawed, it’s still one of very few to feature main characters who are gay (one of whom is played by an out actor) and people of color, and it shows Cam and Mitch to be caring, capable parents. Of course, this shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it still challenges an all-too pervasive worldview, and the fact that Modern Family presents this unit in such a non-threatening way may be the key to its acceptance.
When we finally see a successful network sitcom that treats same-sex kissing as casually as its hetero counterpart, challenges gender essentialism, and portrays a diverse range of characters without marketing materials calling attention to that fact, then we’ll really have something to smile about.