Modern Family is my personal favorite comedy program on air, and apparently it’s the world’s favorite comedy series too. It wins pretty much all the awards it gets nominated for, performs ridiculously well in the Nielson ratings and apparently both of the men running for President this year cite it as one of their favorite programs on TV.
I came to this TV series fairly late in its run, and only started watching obsessively last year. Before I got into the show I didn’t understand what the appeal was at all, and it was only after accidentally watching a couple of episodes because I couldn’t be bothered to find the remote and turn over the channel that I came to see the shows genius. Honestly, if you have yet to catch on to this wonderfully funny show, it really has some of the best one liners and comedy writing television has ever been witness to, and the show, in my opinion at least, has far more laughs a minute than 30 Rock or The Office. Modern Family also has some of the best comedy acting in history, and the actors fully deserve to walk away with Emmy awards every year.
But recently I’ve started to question my enjoyment of the show, and why I find it so funny. More accurately, I’ve began to start to internally analyze who on the show I am laughing at and why I am laughing at them. Worryingly, I do not like the conclusions I have found…
Other shows on TV, like the once mammoth “Glee “that used to be Modern Family’s main award show competitor, beating it out of two Golden Globe awards in both shows initial two years, get a lot of criticism from journalists and audiences for too often relying on stereotyping; but more often than not, Modern Family is critically adored and forgiven. But it has only recently struck me that the reasons I am laughing at this show, and in particular the characters I am laughing at are stereotypes which the writers use and exploit for comedic effect. I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to say the stereotypes Modern Family uses are offensive (it depends on who you ask) but they are certainly close to that line. Lets look at the evidence…
In my opinion, and I am sure I wouldn’t be alone in this, the three funniest adult characters on the show, certainly the characters we are laughing at instead of with are Gloria, Phil and Cam; whereas the characters that play it more straight and less stereotypically are Claire, Mitchell and Jay- characters we usually laugh with instead of at. If you really begin to pick apart why we are laughing at the first three and why we laugh with the later three it paints a pretty grim picture of the society we live it.
The three characters we laugh with, Claire, Mitchell and Jay are of the same family- two siblings and a father. They are white, fairly well-to-do middle-class with fairly simple and arguably “inoffensive” personalities and jobs. One of Jay’s children is a housewife looking after her very average three kid household, whereas his son is a lawyer. These three characters pretty much represent the staple characters of most American film and television for the last century. The only character of these three which is a little less conventional, and may make the conservative American family somewhat uncomfortable is Mitchell, a gay man, but he is hardly all that camp, and considering he is apparently comfortable with his sexuality, the show shows very little moments of intimacy between Mitchell and Cam like it does between Claire and Phil for example. We are unlikely to see many role playing sexual Valentine episodes between the gay couple on the show like we do between the straight couple for instance.
The characters we laugh at however paint a completely different picture. Gloria, the foreign, highly attractive Colombian born woman who struggles to speak English is a very common stereotypical representation of a woman from somewhere outside of the United States in sitcoms. Even though she does have great lines to say- like I said this show is for the most part brilliantly written- most of her humor comes from either her accent or her apparently somewhat violent and stereotypical Colombian past. Should we feel comfortable laughing at a character that is struggling to fit into American society and often struggles to pronounce words? Is this acceptable in this day and social climate?
Cam is a gay man who is pretty much as camp as they come. As a gay man myself I have no problem with his characterization on the show, and despite the fact that I am personally an entirely different person than Cam is, I understand that there are many gay people in the world who are similar and to relate to Cam so shouldn’t be excluded despite the fact that Cam’s portrayal of a homosexual man is the most common stereotypical portrayal in the media- especially in past sitcoms. The problem I do have with Cam however is that most of the time we are not laughing because he has made a joke and deserves the praise; most of the time we are laughing because of the way he acts and reacts to things. The main reason we laugh at Cam over Mitchell for example is because Cam is the more effeminate gay. We laugh at Cam because he screams “like a girl” when he is scared, he has “hissy fits” when he doesn’t get his own way, and he cries when something mildly upsets him. It also helps the humor that the audience knows that the character who plays Cam is a heterosexual man, which will likely for a lot of the audience make this representation of “gay” more easy to swallow- knowing it is entirely performed and not like Mitchell who is in fact played by a gay man. I bet for this very simple fact and casting, Cam is the more popular character with the audience. Is it still OK for the media to use effeminate gay men as people to laugh at? Is this something that should be laughed at?
Many people would argue that comedy lives and breathes on stereotypes, and that there is always a place for stereotypes in comedy as long as the intent behind them isn’t cruel and is coming from a loving place. I understand that the ethics and values of the show are good- the actors and writers are all clearly supportive and loving of all types of people, whether they are not born in the USA or whether they are gay- and I am personally a big fan of the cast and the writers on this show. Even though the comedy may not be coming from a cruel place, the message this show gives out, whether or not people pick up on this fact or not, is that it is OK for us to laugh at Gloria, the Colombian; Cam, the effeminate homosexual and Phil, the dumb grown man with ADHD… whereas we should for the most part be laughing with the white, USA born, more familiar and old fashioned American family in Claire, Mitchell and Jay.
Even if we look at the younger cast members, the same kind of arguably offensive stereotyping is present. The only child we laugh really laugh with, the character who happens to be the least comical is Alex: a well behaved, very normal and very intelligent perfect child. Her brother and sister however who are both very dumb teenagers we are encouraged to laugh at. Manny, the Colombian born child is presented as hugely camp and abnormal… and for these reasons we find him hilarious. Lily, the adopted Vietnamese child is perhaps too young for us to be laughing with her, but in the past the writers have really played up the fact that she is Asian to create a lot of laughs from its audience.
This show very clearly sets up an old fashioned and ironically not at all “modern” reinforcement of this idea of “us” and “them”. “Us”- the majority of Americans which can more or less be represented by Claire, Mitchell and Jay should in a sense look down and laugh at “them”- more or less represented by Phil, Cam and Gloria. When you look at the show in this way, isn’t it a little worrying that the two potential future presidents in the race love this show so much, when it doesn’t exactly promote the best values for the future of the world?
OK, so maybe I am being a little dramatic, and I still intend to watch this show through to the end, and I can also see the benefits this show does have on society. My main problem however, and I can only speak personally here- feel free to speak from you own perspective in the comments section below- is that, as a gay man I have been told that “Modern Family” is making Americans feel more comfortable around the issue of homosexuality. Because it is one of American families most watched TV shows, having gay characters this visible on TV is apparently allowing Americans who might not know many gay people all that well (or care to know them better) the opportunity to get an insight into their lives. On the one hand I am very happy that this is having somewhat of a positive effect, but is it just me, or isn’t there a huge negative effect this show could bring?
If Americans, and many people around the world are getting most of their information about gay people from this program, and are at the same time being encouraged to laugh at (instead of with) effeminate gay men like Cam, then wont this surely, even though clearly not the writers intent, encourage people in society to laugh at homosexuality. Wont this surely have an adverse effect on many homosexual American lives? As much as many people argue “Modern Family” is helping “conventional” families evolve to be more excepting of the “modern” family isn’t this show just giving these same conventional American families reason to feel above the “others” in society. It may be making these types of people somewhat more used to minorities and more tolerant, but is it making these people more loving and embracing of differences, or is it encouraging these people to laugh at minorities. I cant speak for Colombians because I am not one, but wont this show encourage people to find any foreign person with a “funny accent” humorous too? Is this the best values to really be presenting to the world?
Perhaps this is why shows like this one are so successful with many different types of Americans, both liberal and conservative, red state and blue. Despite the fact that the show gives off an impression of being very enlightened, very tolerant, and very embracing, in reality (accept for the occasional episode) the show just encourages these stereotypes and for the most part doesn’t even try to attempt something new and challenging. This show in reality, although trying to promote this idea of the modern family couldn’t be less challenging, which is probably why people like Mitt Romney who hold very conservative and in my opinion backward thinking beliefs aren’t put off of this show. Find me just one episode on the show that doesn’t poke fun at Gloria for being foreign or poke fun at Cam for being effeminate, and then maybe I will change my mind.
Like I mentioned previously, shows like “Glee” get a very hard time for its use of stereotyping (I have even accused Glee of this many times on this site) but the difference is Glee doesn’t encourage its audience to laugh at the minority characters on the show. Unlike Modern Family, Glee may use stereotypes, but it also encourages its audiences to feel sorry for and root for the minorities. For example, we very rarely are encouraged to laugh at Kurt for his effeminate qualities, even though he is too arguably a very stereotypical representation of the gay man in the media.
In an enlightened world, where everyone has equal rights and people are brought up to be embracing and loving of everyones differences using stereotypes like portrayed on this show, and even making us laugh at them, this wouldn’t be that much of a deal. The main problem is that this is not the world we live in, so at the moment this is still somewhat of an issue. Imagine if “Modern Family” introduced an African American character who was laughed at for his or her differences? This wouldn’t be OK at all would it? So why is it OK for us to freely and unashamedly I might add, laugh at the foreigners, the intellectually challenged and the effeminate homosexuals?
My opinion isn’t set in stone, and I appreciate that the writers and the cast all seem to be forward thinking and embracing people and I have a lot of respect for them. I also don’t like to criticize shows that try to be as inclusive as possible, and for this reason I would still prefer to watch this show over a show with almost exclusively white, straight, stereotypically attractive cast members. I can also appreciate that though for the most part we are encouraged to laugh at minorities on this show, often the show does present to the audience ideas of acceptance, tolerance and love that I am supportive of. The shows comedy also doesn’t come exclusively from “laughing at minorities” and like I previously mentioned, although the writing might fall back on arguably too many offensive stereotypes too often to be comfortable, the show still has truly wonderful one liners that are like no other. At this point in time I also have grown to love the characters, so even if I can find many flaws within this show, and perhaps even reasons I possibly shouldn’t watch, I love this show too much at this point to give up on it just yet.
I will continue to watch this show and I still find it at time hilarious… I just wish I could feel more comfortable laughing at half the jokes on the show that seem to stem from negative and arguably offensive stereotypes that in this day and age should really be avoided. But, having said this, I am open and willing to listen to any other opinions you may have on the points I have raised to convince me that perhaps I am being too harsh on this popular television show…
This article was first posted on November 1, 2012