I started watching Modern Family when it first started airing at ten years old. It was my family’s Friday night treat: the one night per week where we would eat in front of the TV and watch a sitcom together. Not only was it my favorite night of the week, but Modern Family was my favorite TV show. I didn’t have the patience for TV for most of my life, but I became so attached to the characters that I was always willing to watch another episode.
When I went off to college in 2017, I stopped watching the show, and television all together. It wasn’t until early this month that I returned to the show as something to play in the background so that I never had to exist in silence. While I still found comfort in the characters, I was struck by a number of things that never even occurred to me the first time around.
I was appalled by the amount of racism, particularly against Latinx and Asian people, that not only existed in the show but was perfectly accepted by all members of the family. Nobody gets a “pass” from being racist simply because they have family members of the race they are making fun of. In fact, it makes it worse. The Pritchetts are ostracizing the nonwhite members of their family at every turn, and it’s rare that they’re in on the joke.
The number of Asian jokes, especially in the earlier seasons, was truly disgusting. Lilly— Cam and Mitch’s Vietnamese adopted daughter— was too young to even speak, let alone defend herself from the jokes. There are ways to make entertaining jokes based on racial stereotypes. For example, when Lilly had a party with her friends from her Vietnamese dance class and all of them worked in an assembly line to get Gloria’s sauce ready on time, a Vietnamese mother came in and assumed the worst about the way the white family was treating the girls. This joke, while based on stereotypes, made a misunderstanding the butt of the joke rather than the individuals from the marginalized community.
Most of the show, however, took every opportunity to make puns at the expense of the Asian and Latinx communities, jokes which were not funny in the slightest. It wasn’t until I went to college and met more people that I started realizing the impact that these jokes truly have on the people who they are about. Particularly for Manny and Lilly, these jokes can leave them feeling alienated from their community. In fact, this is something that is talked about at length in What White Parents Should Know About Trans Racial Adoption, by Melissa Guida-Richards.
Although this show was groundbreaking in its portrayal of a same-sex couple raising a daughter in the early 2010s, it was also filled with SO much homophobia. I broke this down into a few categories because there was so much to talk about.
Claire’s Relationship with Mitchell
Although Claire and Mitchell are portrayed as extremely close, Claire is not the world’s best ally. She frequently calls Mitchell “sissy”, a derogatory term for feminine gay people, and makes fun of him when he does anything remotely flamboyant or girly. She mocks Mitchell for his personality, his ability to play sports, and his general gay characteristics with “sissy”, “queen”, and other words aimed against the queer male community. Once again: just because you love and support a person does not mean you have a right to tease them in a way that’s traditionally been used to cause harm!
While Claire and Phil are all over each other— kissing, role playing, and generally showing affection— from start to finish, it’s rare to see Cam and Mitchell showing each other the same degree of physical intimacy. They occasionally give each other a peck, but other than that they rarely kiss or even hug unless it’s done with humor.
Jay is constantly talking about how hot he finds Gloria, but you won’t hear either gay man saying something similar about his partner. The gay couple, while mostly treated equally, is desexualized completely in a way that none of the other couples are.
The Lesbian Treatment
The only time we see lesbians during the entire series is during the few episodes where a lesbian couple has a son in Lilly’s class. The episode is a rather hilarious play on stereotypes, with both couples making grotesque assumptions that turn out to be true. This overall was funny, but because we don’t see any other lesbians, nor is this couple developed in the way which Mitch and Cam are, the general public ends up with a very one dimensional view of lesbians.
One show can’t do everything, and I give a general pass to Modern Family here. However, the lesbian mom comes back later and proceeds to objectify (a very willing) Claire. This falls directly into the predatory lesbian stereotype that can be so harmful.
Plus, Alex was characterized as a lesbian in so many ways and the show was afraid to do it. Justice for lesbians!
Competition Between Women
Gloria and Claire are constantly at each others throats from day one. They pit themselves against each other, root for the other to gain weight, and generally try to be hotter than the other. Women do not need to be in competition with each other. Claire is still hot if Gloria is in the room, and vice versa. The message that this sends is extraordinarily toxic and needs to be evaluated.
Jay’s Fear of Feminization
I debated putting this in the “homophobia” section, but at the end of the day it actually belongs here. While Jay is accepting of his son being gay, he isn’t okay if that means his son is feminine. He is unable to even look at Mitchell when he wears lipstick, he mocks Manny for taking bubble baths, and he pressures Joe to be “tough” and “masculine”. While on the surface these things seem like homophobia when directed against the gay characters, they’re actually rooted in misogyny. I understand that Jay had an acceptance arc, and as I note below I enjoyed that. However, I don’t think he ever managed to address his feelings towards women.
Phil’s Objectification of Gloria
Honestly, this was the biggest shock for me upon watching the seasons back. While I expect some degree of homophobia, racism, and misogyny in all old shows, the level to which Phil hit on Gloria was just creepy. He would grab and touch her at every opportunity, ogling her like she was an object.
It doesn’t matter to me that Phil and Gloria are both married; what matters is the fact that his behavior is inappropriate. This precedent, especially from a “nice guy” character, teaches men that they’re allowed to behave however they wish around women.
Other Notable Notes
Before I end the article, I want to round out with some things that I don’t have enough to say about to warrant a full section, but are notable nonetheless.
- The existence of transgender people was acknowledged (and accepted) by the family starting around the 2015 episodes. Oh, to go back to Obama-era optimism where human rights were not controversial!
- Jay’s character actually did a great job of illuminating a lot of the fears older white people might have had while watching this, from appearing racist by unintentionally installing security cameras the day Black neighbors move in to taking time to fully accept your gay child.
- Alex / Ariel Winter (the actress who plays Alex) is hot! Why did the whole family act like she was the ugliest person to ever exist. As someone who grew up the “nerdy child”, and arguably still am, this most definitely affected my sense of self
- The level of functional alcoholism was actually shocking to see. Claire is constantly drinking to the point where people make fun of her for being unable to exist without it; she spends entire days laying on the trampoline and drinking. Jay is rarely seen outside of his in-home bar with a scotch in his hand. The normalization of daily binge drinking most definitely played a role in how I determine acceptable behavior.