Friday, 1 November 2013

Modern Family's values : they suck. (Ok, stop shooting now, I'm only on Series 1)

Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband and I are greedy gobblers of US tv box sets and have recently had our first taste of Netflix. Having devoured the last few episodes of Breaking Bad (isn't it amazing when Walt wakes up at the end and it's all been a dream?*), and waiting for the new House of Cards, Game of Thrones or  Boardwalk Empire to come out (why is it taking you so long TV-making people?!), we decided to settle in for a few hours a night of Modern Family. 

This sitcom was sold to us as funny (it is) and daring, in American terms, for representing unconventional family units as equally loving and worthwhile. So rotating around the central traditional family made up of mum, dad and three kids we have a gay couple who have just adopted a Vietnamese** baby and a May-December interracial second marriage, with a step-kid thrown in. 

As I said the script is funny, or at least funnier than the standard family themed fare but the values are straight from1950, minus homophobia and racism. Let me put this another way: when you cannot be nasty to queers and brown people anymore, the unapologetic and often default sexism really, really stands out.

In Modern Family no adult woman holds a paid job, aside from invisible but often referred to maids and cleaners, and predatory, career-obsessed, childless ex girlfriends. 

Adult women protagonist are- basically - stay at home moms who can't operate remote controls or anything 'too technical', or gold-digging and hysterical ladies who lunch. Teen-aged daughters are all but labelled by their own parents as the 'pretty/stupid one' and the 'homely/clever' one, and it is repeatedly advertised that unpopular-boffin daughter is headed for college whilst popular-bimbo daughter is not. In one episode we are told by her loving parents that realising her full potential will consist in "marrying someone destined for great things".

For avoidance of doubt, let me clarify that we are talking upped middle class families here, living in huge houses, replete with the latest creature comforts, driving multiple, huge cars. I guess in this economic stratum you'd have to be the actual family dog to NOT go to college, even in the sexist real world.  But the on-screen world is actually worse. 

While sons are encouraged to be different, to ignore bullies, to not be dictated to by the pubic perception of them and to be themselves, daughters are constantly kept in line with the warning that their reputation will suffer or that - this is my favourite on the creepy scale - this or that behaviour, aspiration or personal style is "how girls end up dead".

Boys are told to love who they are and to live without fear. Girls are told to police and change who they are and to live in fear - for their own good, of course.

Boys (and male friends and boyfriends) are never told not to harass, harm or molest their female counterparts. Girls are constantly given hints to 'not get raped'.

Like a picture hanged askew or the base thump from someone else's personal stereo, once you notice the sexism, (and it takes a while because - remember?- all the other values are so inclusive and liberal and because male protagonists do send themselves up and are made fun of all the time), it is impossible to ignore it and not to be annoyed by it. 

MMIH disagrees ("You are crazy"), which tells me that the sexism is indeed nicely calibrated to be undetectable by the average nice guy, distracted by the shiny baubles of racial and sexual tolerance. Heck, the writers themselves are probably unaware of it - or they might argue if pushed that they are describing the world as it is. Pretty girls are popular, slutty girls get raped. 

Except, you see, they are patently not describing the world as it is. A comically mismatched homosexual couple raising a child still raises more than eyebrows. Latina trophy brides don't generally have such an easy a ride, I'd argue, among the monied whites. 

But even in a fictional landscape where those things are possible, transcending sexism - the expectation that women should be policed and controlled, stick thin and beauty obsessed, confined to raising children and spending money, never earning it, the saintly yet saucy helpmates of their bumbling but well-meaning menfolk - well, that's a leap of the imagination too far.

Have these considerations stopped me from watching several more episodes of Modern Family? Hell, no. Will I watch more? It's winter, people. I'm broke. 'War and Peace' isn't grabbing me. So yes, of course I will.

Would I have it banned, burnt, or whatever other form of medieval barbarism is ascribed to us feminazis this week? Of course I wouldn't.

But I can't help noticing, that's all, and what saddens me is that any teenage girls who might be watching will probably not notice. They will assume that you can be an irrational, self-centred, loud gay man and be completely acceptable, a fat, weirdly precocious boy and still fit in, a childish, irresponsible dad and still be lovable, whereas straying from size 0, falling out with the popular crowd at school or being seen kissing a boy "is like girls end up dead". 

* No, that's not what happens. Anyway: gotcha!   
** My original post mistakenly stated this character is Cambodian. I have been alerted to my mistake by one of the comments and have amended accordingly.


  1. Yawn. A whole blog post about the values of a sitcom? Man alive.

    Two things:

    Claire (main female character) does have a job
    Haley ("pretty" daughter) does go to college but gets thrown out

    You seriously think that from watching this series teenage girls will go away thinking they have to be a size 0? I think you might be getting a tiny bit carried away.

    1. I'm on series one, and it might be too early to judge but none of the things you mentioned have happened yet. All of the things I mention have.

    2. If it's too early to judge, why have you written this dreaful (and completely false and unfair) review of it?

      Perhaps you'd do better to allow the characters to develop (which they do, all of them) before spouting such clap trap about them.

      Also, Lily is Vietnamese.

  2. Yep. Agree with above. You need to get out more. And chill a bit. Its a sitcom, thats all, not a Social Manifesto fgs.

  3. The situations the girls in the show find themselves in are real. Things real teenagers worry about (I've only just exited my teen years, all be it with a baby and fiancé in tow). There is nothing within this show that 'promotes' what you are suggesting it does. It explores real life problems and situations. At what point is geeky daughter Alex told she should change who she is? Claire doesn't have a job at the start of the show because she 'gave up' her career for her children... How many women in America/UK do you think are in similar situations? As for Gloria's beauty, the whole point of this is that she looks like a trophy wife, but they're relationship is so very strong that isn't what she is at all! And the reason she Molly coddles Manny ad tells him to be himself? She raised him alone and they have an extremely close bond.
    I'm not sure what kind of family unit you come from but coming from a not so normal one myself I can completely relate to the show and wouldn't agree with you at all.

  4. The show is pretty courageous in showing various unconventional ways of living one's life but depressingly conventional when it comes to gender roles - in my opinion. Male characters are not boxed in by 'normal', female characters are. That said, I'm only on series one and shall keep an open mind.

  5. You are misrepresenting the characters to make your point:
    Claire goes from being a SAHM to full time work as her kids grow up
    Cameron is a SAHD until later on when he takes a part time job
    Luke is portrayed as the stupid one and is a boy

  6. I'm sorry but you lost me at "queers and brown people"

    1. I used those terms ironically, of course. Not to be disparaging to those groups/categories but to ape the lingo of those who are not. I hoped that was obvious - I apologise if it wasn't.

    2. I love this sit com it is really funny and I know real people who are like all of those characters - I guess that might be why it is so funny.
      I think your observations are true but we can't expect a sit com to address all the social isues of te day.
      As for the message it sends to teenage girls? I can't image teenage girls watching it.

    3. You know, you are probably right about teenage girls not watching. Ironically I shall keep watching as I'm now very curious to see how the characters will develop and whether my first impressions were too unfair, as it's been suggested.

  7. Thanks for the spoiler.

  8. I absolutely LOVE this sitcom. I have no problem with the female characters, because I don't assume the show should be setting out to teach me anything about women's role in society, or to be representative of how society is, or how society should be. I want it to be entertaining. And it is. I absolutely LOVE Gloria. It's blissful to watch a stunningly glamorous women being funny - she's a great comic actress.

    1. Hi Wshinds, I share your love for Gloria: she might be a stereotype but she is feisty and strong and has the most fun....

  9. my teenage girls watch it (I don't - perhaps I will now though)!

  10. Excellent post. The writers have no idea what to do with the female characters. Luke went from bumbling boy to clever preteen with an effortless life, while his sisters fight over the cute pizza guy and insult each other. Claire tries to give a presentation at her son's school about being a stay at home mom, but gets humiliated, as Claire often does, for showing up. She gets interrupted and disrespected for raising her kids. Lily is a snarky, spoiled child, whose attitude is questioned only when she starts saying, "should we call the waaaambulance?" Cameron and Mitchell discover she got that from Claire, so the show seemed to say that it's Claire who is to blame for Lily's brattiness. Gloria. Eye candy. That's about it. She gives birth, loses the weight literally in seconds. The writers are guys. Most writers' rooms are mostly male, writing their point of view. Some gender tokenism takes place in Hollywood, but those sole women are told to write from the same perspective. One show that isn't made by guys is 'Up All Night,' and in that show the women and men are portrayed as bumbling and flawed but equal partners in life. But that show is no more. And its creator is now working on the Modern Family writing staff. Not sure she's having much of an influence.

  11. Had to comment because there were so many people disagreeing with you! For the record I totally agree. It's like you said... Once you've seen it, it can't really be unseen. I still love the show because I don't think there's anything wrong with admitting that something you love is significantly problematic. Personally, while I think the treatment of female characters is appalling all over the shop, Gloria bothers me the most. The fact that there are SO MANY pointless shots of her cleavage, the fact she's always in like five-inch heels around her house, the fact that I don't think we ever see her do something career-driven. SPOILER: there is one episode where she gets involved in Jay's business, but purely because they use her boobs make a sale. Stuff like this bothers me, especially because Gloria as a personality is funny and awesome and clever and strong. She's worked in the past and yet all we ever ever ever seem to see her do is to go to the mall, or watch soaps, or go to the club for massages. She feels like such a wasted opportunity.

    Fun fact: earlier in a discussion with my housemates this bothered me so much I went on IMDB to have a look at the writing credits. 110 episodes have credits for each of the two male creators. The next bloke has a writer's credit on 17 episodes. You have to scroll down like ten names until you find the first woman with a writer's credit, and she's only been credited on ten episodes. The next woman has only been credited on four. Between them, women writers have roughly 28 writing credits. So at least three quarters of episodes do not have any women writers on them. Bear in mind some of these credits could be for the same episodes, so the number of episodes actually featuring a female writer might be less. This feels like it may have something to do with the problem to me.

    1. Very interesting to hear that! And I bet you anything that the male writers are all nice blokes who consider themselves liberal etc. The trouble with sexism is that the culture is so soaked in it even nice blokes buy into it without realising it.

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