Recently for a class I watched an episode from season 4 of Modern Family called “The Future Dunphys.” In class we were focusing on portrayals of motherhood in drama over the years and were using the show as a contemporary example. I was intrigued by this sitcom that I just never got around to watching and decided to dive in from the beginning.
What I found was a show that was ostensibly “modern” and “progressive” in that it featured a gay adoptive couple and a May-December relationship that included divorce. But the central family, the Dunphys, featuring an infantile real-estate agent father, a blonde stay-at-home mother, a beautiful and idiotic teenage daughter, a brilliant and bespectacled tween, and a mischievous and clueless young son, seemed to be the epitome of the status quo of the not-too-distant past. Which would be fine, if the roles and plots of the show’s female characters didn’t subtly preach to it’s millions of viewers every Wednesday sexism when it comes to the value of women.
I suppose I should begin with the disclaimer that I’m only about three-quarters of the way through season 2, but I should also admit that I am having a lot of trouble continuing to watch. I just can’t stand what this show, which so far has had very little in the way of forward motion or character development, does to its women.
Take Alex, for example. Alex is the middle child of the Dunphys, smart and driven to the point where receiving a B in class deeply troubles her. She also very proud of herself, especially given that her two siblings hardly break the intellectual bank. This could potentially give her the status, as Gawker put it in an article on sexism and Modern Family, as the “Daria of this generation” but instead, the show takes pains to constantly lampoon her two main characteristics. She’s too smart. She looks down on her parents for attending bad blockbuster movies and not being more intellectual in their lives and careers. They’re plain-folksy and she’s a snob. She is constantly berated by her siblings for having “no friends” or her inability to catch a boy (which Modern Family seems to think is the most important goal of a woman, how modern indeed).
She’s also too driven, her worried parents attempting to stop her from studying to the point where they lower her grades. They are trying to protect her happiness but end up causing her grief when she doesn’t get what she wants and could have had (the A). The writers seem hell-bent on reminding impressionable 13-year-old girls that striving for academic excellence will cause you to be ridiculed by your siblings, your parents, and the world. You’d be much better off leaving all those silly books behind and curling your hair.
Of course Modern Family‘s original sin is Claire Dunphy, the homemaker and central figure of the show. She gave up her career to raise her family, something that is in no way wrong or problematic for any woman to do. However, on a show so popular in this day and age, that touts itself as a new vision for how families work, how hard would it be to show a successful home with two working parents?
The world the way it is and the economy the way it is, there are a lot more working parents these days then there used to be. I grew up with two working parents, which some childhood friends thought was weird and others saw as normal. Either way, I am sensitive to these portrayals and would love to see one where both parents work and the kids are alright (even in that movie Julianne Moore’s character couldn’t keep a job).
I set out to try to find any examples of families on television with two working parents, or even with a working mother at all. It was quite the fool’s errand. Breaking Bad comes to mind, except who could possibly think of that household as successful? How I Met Your Mother just introduced a baby to Marshall and Lily’s marriage and furthered Lily’s career, while at the same time possibly relegating Marshall to stay-at-home Italian dad after his law firm essentially went bust (a very problematic storyline as Vulture noted). On Parenthood Julia recently left her career for the home. Bones and Grey’s Anatomy featured working couples later in their runs that met in the workplace, and Blue Bloods recently sent a wife back to work, but the examples are few and far between (I am probably missing some, and please correct me if I’m wrong).
I won’t even get into Modern Family‘s treatment of Gloria or Cameron, as this post would be obscenely long. Alex and Claire are only the tip of the sexist iceberg on the show. Although I do know that later in her storyline, Claire decides to run for city council, which is a start. Again I have no problem with stay-at-home moms or dads. I only know that there are more options than that in the truly modern family. I can only wish that as pilots begin to role in this May, we can get some more nuanced treatments of mothers and daughters.