Daddy Issues: Modern Family's Old-Fashioned Values

Diane Shipley, a white woman with short, black hair, takes a selfie
Diane Shipley
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Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom who writes about pop culture for publications on both sides of the pond. Her bylines include the Guardian, Lit Hub, and the Washington Post. She loves podcasts and photos of miniature dachshunds. She tweets @dianeshipley.

Cam holds toddler Lily, both look nonplussed. Mitchell stands next to them, punching his fist with a satisfied expression. They appear to be standing outside or in a doorway.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.

Previously: The Incomparable Influence of Non-Dad “Dads”; The Pursuit of Happyness and the Trouble with the American Dream.

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24 Comments Have Been Posted

What about Manny?

I actually think Manny might do the most to subvert the idea of what "real men" are allowed to do. But it's very possible that's because he's still a boy...

Yes, I think you're right on

Yes, I think you're right on both counts! I do love that he has these non-typical interests, but it still feels to me like that's a source of humo(u)r in itself, which is tiresome.

What about Manny?

While I agree with Andi that Manny is often there to subvert masculine 'norms' and to challenge the elderly Jay in his constant 'outside the comfort zone' character development... I also have a big problem with a lot of Manny scenes about his burgeoning sexuality. His interest in girls is played for laughs, the joke being that he acts more like an adult than a child, and yet so many of his romantic interactions are - well, uncomfortably close to stalking.

Manny acting like an adult in the 'ways of romance' and his interpretation of being a romantic Latin man often involves stalking, patronising and trying to trap women into being alone with him. While I think it's an important point that young teenage men can end up being predatory because they are copying what pop culture tells them is sexy or manly... I'm not ENTIRELY sure that it's a topic that a show like this can pull off.

To balance this out I think the show has done surprisingly well with the character of Hayley, the boymad older daughter of Phil and Claire. (worth noting there's at least one episode in which Manny, her younger 'uncle' attempts to trap her into being romantic with him). While the show starts out with the usual paranoia over a teenage girl wearing short skirts, being sexy too soon and having a disreputable boyfriend, this is seen as a learning curve for the parents in how to let go.

Claire's stress about Hayley's wild ways is connected closely to her own wild teen years and always connects to that so we can sympathise with her over protectiveness and see that she's not an ignorant woman trying to control her daughter - she is actively trying to stop her making the same mistakes. Phil, meanwhile, is so wrapped up in being the Cool Modern Parent that his identity is actively under attack when he has to deal with, for instance, learning by accident that his daughter is no longer a virgin. He finds the 'traditional' male patriarchal panic surging out of him and, to his credit, backs up and accepts that his feelings are more about him than his daughter, and is able to swallow his pride to give her the calm and accepting feedback she needs.

At times the Hayley conversations verge on slut shaming but I do appreciate that later seasons of the show recognise the hypocrisy in this and work hard on showing that it's okay for a teenage girl to not only make mistakes, but also to be sexual and express her adulthood WITHOUT it being a mistake - and that parents have options other than panic or over-controlling her.

Gag... I'm a person of color

Gag... I'm a person of color from a very ethnic family and raised by my gay uncles. My uncles do not display affection the way in which you must have stereotyped all gay men to do. I stopped reading the article because of it's typical fashion in which white "progressives" run to judge every miniscule word or actions of another because you assume progressive means you have to walk a straight and narrow line and mimic exactly certain acts or you toss them out or worse yet, jump on the wagon to prosecute. Can't progressive just mean accepting? Not judging? Not reading something into nothing? Good heavens, woman- get over yourself. And who said you were the one with the higher moral authority or wisdom to judge all? I don't need your two cents. This is a non-issue but do, please, feel free to make all liberals look like we're merely judgmental whiners.

I haven't stereotyped gay

I haven't stereotyped gay people in any particular way, I'm just suggesting that the fact that Mitch and Cam aren't as affectionate as the show's straight couples is about squeamishness and pandering to conservatives more than creating realistic characters. But hey, I could be wrong.

However, if you don't enjoy reading and respectfully discussing pop cultural critiques from an intersectional feminist perspective, you may be in the wrong place.

Holy crap this is defensive.

Holy crap this is defensive.

In that I defend myself

In that I defend myself against name-calling and try to explain my position, which I didn't feel the comment reflected? Sure.

Um. There are no slurs/names

Um. There are no slurs/names being called up there. And that last little sentence was totally patronizing and out of line. A little hypocritical too, considering you were responding pretty rudely to someone who is queer.


I ruined the show for my bf when I pointed out that all of the "Modern" families depicted had a stay at home Mom. (Cam is obviously the woman, emotional, loud, irrational, everything a lady should be.) Cuz nothing says Modern like wives/mom not having jobs outside the home.

Yes, it's as if the fact that

Yes, it's as if the fact that some characters are gay or people of color or have been divorced is supposed to distract us from the fact that they're all in these super-traditional old-fashioned set-ups. Gay people: they're just as retrograde as you! I'm discovering throughout this series of blogs that even when we do see "modern" male characters, the women are as stereotyped as ever. Sigh.

single income

I only recently noticed that all three nuclear families on this show seem to live off single incomes. All have one parent holding down the fort full-time at home: Claire and Cam look after their children and manage their homes during the day (although Cam has recently started working outside his home again now that Lily in school all day), and Gloria seems to do the same as Clair and Cam, although I've never seen it explicitly stated. Fairly traditional, and frankly, not entirely financially believable. I could maybe believe that Jay and Gloria can make it work on a single income - the large, fancy home, Jay is older and runs his own (established) business, etc - but a real estate agent and an environmental lawyer? Do these two professions consistently make enough to support families? I don't know enough about the average income of these two careers to answer these questions, but anecdotally, everywhere I look, I see two income families - more often by necessity but sometimes by choice, as well. In this context, at least, I don't see Modern Family "reflecting society's changing attitudes".

Yes, that's a good point. I

Yes, that's a good point. I know real estate agents can bring in the big bucks, but in this economy and with three kids it seems questionable. It is noticeable just how upper middle class a lot of TV's "non traditional" families are, and how which parent will stay home isn't even an issue for many people IRL.

"Everyone wants a boy."

Speaking of old-fashioned values, I'm surprised no one else has commented on my own reason for kind of despising this pretentiously "progressive" show. Admittedly, I used to like this show, shitcom though it be, but was turned off completely, or at least became hep to its conservatism a few episodes ago when Jay turns to the pregnant Gloria (I think it was?) and asked her what gender she was hoping for, adding, "Everyone wants a boy." Fuck you, Jay and Modern Family writers alike! I'm pregnant with a baby girl, and my husband and I couldn't be more thrilled. What the hell was that comment supposed to mean? The show and our society might have come a long way, but we still have a looooooong way to go .

I did intend to cover this,

I did intend to cover this, but found so much stereotyping and gender essentialism and racism that I ran out of room! It irked me, too — the idea that boys are somehow "easier" and more gratifying is clearly problematic, and Jay framing boys as superior starts the sexism early. It's a shame, as sitcoms have done the whole "men only really want boys"plot so many times, it would be nice if they'd do something different with it.

I don't recall anyone

I don't recall anyone advertising the show as "FOR ALL THE PEOPLES AGENDAS!".

Nor do I recall any other show thats mainstreamed gay marriage AND adoption more... two things that before it came along, was just not done in primetime family TV.

I love that the show opens up opportunities to talk about alternative families more (we are one, single mom, and no I don't care that none of them are representing me). I don't want sex from any of the families to be explored, because its a family show and not appropriate.

I really wish people could accept entertainment for what it is, instead of trying to force it to be a catch-all for all your issues you don't think are being given enough play. It is awesome for what it is, and I'm glad its getting more conservative people exposure to the understanding that love is love, and good people make good parents no matter what gender you are, or you are with, and its really funny! Modern Family is paving the way for further exploration, a necessary step, not the endgame of representing non-traditional families.

We're on the same page.

I don't expect it to represent everyone, or to forward an agenda, and I'm not sure where I suggested I did...

I agree with you that Modern Family is a step forward, and I say that in my piece. I just want more, both on TV and in real life.

Where one couple kisses openly (and is straight) and one pecks secretly in the corner (and is gay), however, there is an inequality that yes, can be explained by different characters' personalities, but is likely to be much more about network squeamishness and fear of alienating a wide audience, and that shows how far we still need to go.

I was dissapointed you didn't

I was dissapointed you didn't cover the daughters roles in the show- these fit stereotypes too-i.e the sexpot and the geek.

Well, this is a series about

Well, this is a series about single and stay-at-home dads, so parents are the focus (and I only have around 800 words to play with per post, so can't cover everything), but I agree the characterization of the Dunphy girls is disappointingly lacking in nuance, and the way "smart" and "pretty" are pitted against each other is grating. (There's probably material for several more posts about the problems with the show!)

I noticed the same!

Thank you for pointing this out.
I have noticed the same discrepancy in affection between the gay couples in Modern Family and The New Normal.

Yes, me too! It's notable how

Yes, me too! It's notable how much more naturally affectionate the couple in The New Normal is. Although I have problems with that show, too (!) and will be elucidating those very soon...

The problem with Gloria

I'm a regular Modern Family watcher and although I do love the show, I find Gloria's portrayal as the sexy, loud, and sometimes, just plain stupid Latina trophy wife the most unnerving stereotype of all characters. I mean, I am myself Latina and while I do talk loudly, I sometimes dress provocatively, and I have my stupid moments, Gloria's character is so one-toned that it feels like there's really nothing there beyond this caricature of a personality. Her references to native Colombia are always about drugs, violence, superstitions, reinforcing the stereotype that South America (and arguably, the whole Global South) is populated by people who live to snort coke, are inherently violent and are moved by irrational beliefs and fears. To me, this is way more problematic than any of the other women's characterization in the show, but I guess it's just whatever hits closest to home.

I totally agree with you, and

I totally agree with you, and would like to see more analysis of Gloria's characterization (and that of other Latina characters on TV), but I focused more on the treatment of gay people and gender politics in this post because the series is about fathers. There's clearly much more to say about race, including the way Cam and Mitch relate to their daughter, which some Facebook commenters have called out as egregious, too.

I noticed that Cam and

I noticed that Cam and Mitchell practically never kiss on screen, but I also noticed that Jay and Gloria don't either. Actually, I think we see them kiss once, or maybe twice. When I noticed that, I remember wondering if we never see them kissing because of the age difference between the two of them. Is this show frisky about showing any non-stereotypical couple kiss?

Yes, I was wondering about

Yes, I was wondering about that, too. I haven't watched every season, so wasn't sure if I'd missed something, and of course, we know she's pregnant with his baby, so their sexuality is strongly hinted at, but it does seem like the all-white, all-straight, "traditional" couple is the only one that's openly affectionate, which is weird.

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