Ah, Modern Family. Hot off its Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series, the show's second season continues its signature mix of fairly solid writing, humor for all ages, and heartwarming lessons on life and love, all wrapped together in a neat bow by each episode's end. When the show made its debut, I was intrigued at the prospect of a mainstream TV series that showed blended families, a same-sex coupling, and a loving and lasting relationship between people of different cultures. It's not often that one gets to see happy Latino families on TV (you can have The George Lopez Show—I'll take Que Pasa USA. Plus Maria and Luis from Sesame Street), and it was a relief that U.S. audiences would get to know the pure, unadulterated delight that is Colombian actress Sofia Vergara. But, as happens every time I build my hopes up over the casting of a Latina character (Salma Hayek in Fools Rush In, The Seven Hundred Actresses Who Played Marta in Arrested Development), much of the humor surrounding Sofia's character, Gloria, is done at her expense and at the expense of her background.
While I appreciate the difference between a racist (or xenophobic) joke and a joke about racism, I feel as if Modern Family's writers don't always understand that distinction. Sometimes, I just feel like throwing my hands up in the air, cueing the dramatic telenovela music, and asking, "Really? We're still making 'sneaky immigrant' jokes in 2010?" I mean, come on. Take this zinger from the show's first season: "I thought one of the advantages of marrying an older guy was that I was going to be able to relax. But all of this swimming and running and rowing, it's just like how some of my relatives got into this country!" Womp womp. Because so many Colombians, you know. Swim to the U.S. This is to say: I enter into this particular post with a bias, and with an agenda. You've been warned.
In this week's episode, "The Kiss," Gloria dreams that her dead grandmother wants her to connect to her roots by preparing traditional foods, despite the fact that, just last episode, we saw Gloria cooking up a shit ton of empanadas. No matter, we need a plot device! And food is a logical choice. Being a spicy and lusty people in touch with all that is carnal and sensual (ask any casting director), we Latinas are big into food. It makes us all steamy like, say, water for chocolate. Of course, the pairing of women of color and food is a common one throughout literature and movies popular with, or meant specifically for, an audience that may not share this experience. Place a Latina character in a boardroom and she can be anyone. Put her in the kitchen, and the audience can better connect; it's an obvious physical demonstration of what are seen as inherent qualities. Heat, spice, fire—all describe both popular conceptions of Latinas and food. We are hot tamales, after all.
That observation (/suspicion) aside, sure, yes, food is also a natural and appropriate means of connecting to one's past and culture, regardless of where one hails from. In any case, Gloria's interpretation of her dreams, and her insistence that her abuela is "still with us," is met with what is quick becoming characteristic derision from her husband, Jay. As a viewer, I find myself wondering what these two characters saw in one another that prompted them to want to get married in the first place, as well as questioning how well they know one another, since it seems that every time Gloria or her friggin' adorable son, Manny, say something related to being Latino, Jay is either perplexed or dismissive. Does Jay not have an interest in learning about Gloria Colombian roots? He'll probably want to work on that, considering her background is referenced in nearly every episode. Their interactions, while offering a platform for pat life lessons on love and tolerance and all that mushy good stuff families should have, seem not quite modern. Should I be looking to postmodern families for inspiration instead?