Since debuting in September 2009, ABC’s Modern Family has become nothing short of a phenomenon. Chronicling the hilarious exploits of an extended family living in Los Angeles, it is now the most watched sitcom on American television and has won a slew of high-profile awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2009 and 2010. Yet aside from enjoying critical and commercial success, the series has also gained a reputation for pushing the boundaries of the domestic sitcom. Indeed, even its very title promotes the assumption that Modern Family paintsan original, more authentic portrait of 21st century home life. That said, while this progressive status is largely warranted by storylines involving gay adoption, interracial marriage and step-parenting, I maintain that the series is still a decidedly conventional example of its genre. In particular, I think it is interesting to consider just how squarely the series’ three main households conform to traditional notions of gender and class.
Back in the early days of television, domestic sitcoms were almost exclusively populated by white, nuclear families living in middle-class neighbourhoods. As Mary Beth Haralovich has observed, “sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s centred on the family ensemble and its home life: breadwinner father, homemaker mother, and growing children placed within the domestic space of the suburban home.” Consequently, little room was made for depictions of working-class or minority characters, and women were routinely portrayed as submissive housewives. During the 1980s, of course, the emergence of more socially aware series like The Cosby Show and Roseanne meant that such misrepresentations began to be challenged; the eponymous Roseanne Connor appears to have left an especially lasting impression, her “unruly” behaviour having opened the door for increasingly assertive female characters. Nevertheless, from Married with Kids to The Simpsons, the middle-class nuclear family has continued to remain a staple of the American domestic sitcom.
It may seem odd to argue that the three households in Modern Family so obviously conform to this traditional setup – especially since one includes two gay men – but it does not take much effort to realise they are all riffs on the same basic pattern. Lets consider the Dunphy family first, who most clearly demonstrate my point. Comprised of working dad Phil, stay-at-home mum Claire and their three kids, Haley, Alex and Luke, they are essentially a carbon copy of the classic situation outlined by Haralovich. Certainly, although Claire is by no means a passive homemaker and likes to remind viewers that she once had a promising business career, she is still left to look after the house while Phil goes out to earn a living. They also enjoy an affluent middle-class lifestyle, residing in a spacious and tastefully decorated suburban home filled with various high-tech gadgets. Combined with their comic bickering, then, the Dunphies can easily be regarded as the heir to iconic sitcom families like the Goldbergs and the Bundies.
Yet while Phil and Claire are as conventional as it is possible to be, things become more problematic when considering the Pritchetts. Indeed, far from being the perfect nuclear family, both Jay and his trophy wife Gloria have been married before and she has also moved in with her 10-year-old son, Manny. To make things even more unconventional, Gloria is a recent Colombian immigrant, which raises the somewhat taboo issue of interracial marriage – apart from the short-lived True Colors, I can think of no other primetime sitcom to have featured such a coupling. Still, looking past this superficial dysfunction, the Pritchetts actually conform to the traditional family setup more than it might initially be thought. For instance, despite being much older than his wife, Jay has not yet retired from running his own business and Gloria seems content to lead a life of leisure. Additionally, after harbouring some initial feelings of resentment, Jay soon begins to care for Manny like his own son, proudly cheering him on at sports days and passing on fatherly advice.
Of course, of all Modern Family’s households the most outwardly non-conformist has to be the Tucker-Pritchetts; as two gay men who have adopted a Vietnamese baby, Mitchell and Cameron are a far cry from Ward and June Cleaver. Nevertheless, their undeniably progressive domestic situation aside, Mitchell and Cam clearly have their own roles that mimic the traditional husband and wide dynamic. Mitchell, for example, is clearly the more dominant and masculine of the pair, as indicated by his job as successful lawyer and his overall appearance (see above). This is sharply contrasted by the extremely loud and flamboyant Cameron, who has instead chosen to be a stay-at-home dad and take care domestic duties. That said, Cameron’s portrayal as the “wife” in this manner appears to be a self conscious decision made by the writers; it is Cameron, after all, who puts on “baby weight” in the lead up to their adopted and who gets showered with gifts on Mother’s Day. As suc, in their own unique way, this seemingly progressive family also conforms to Haralovich’s model of working father, homemaker mother and growing child.
It can therefore be seen that each of Modern Family’s three main households conform to traditional notions of gender and class that have governed the domestic sitcom for the past seventy years. Like so many beloved series before it, Modern Family set in a middle-class suburbia where the men go out to work, the women look after the home and everyone lives as one big happy family. This not to say that the series has not broken new ground or deserve its place in TV history; certainly, to have gotten away with storylines involving gay adoption in a primetime family show is no mean feat. What it does mean, however, is that beyond its progressive facade and suggestive title, Modern Family remains a fundamentally traditional example of its genre. For the moment, at least, one can only wonder when the American domestic sitcom will finally shake its conservative past and give us an authentic and truly modern family.