A Really Modern Family?

I will admit, up until last night I was under the impression that ABC’s sitcom Modern Family was the depiction of exactly that – a modern family. The show about three families, all related, one the traditional two parent/three children structure, another the marriage of an older man and a younger woman, and lastly the partnership between two men raising an adopted daughter. (Watch the preview here.)

The relationship between Sofia Vergara’s sexy, passionate Latina character and Ed O’Neill’s stoic American male provides a lot of laughs, while satirizing the stereotypes of each personality. The gay couple raises their daughter with love, perhaps overzealously so at times, and the representation of the “drama queen” gay man à la Will and Grace style is equally amusing. Check out the Lion King introduction ceremony below:

All this is fine, well and good, ABC has created another parody of family life in America while seemingly pressuring it’s viewers to accept non-traditional family structures. Some may feel Modern Family is pushing too hard to this end, posting videos on Youtube titled Modern Family: ABC’s homosexual propaganda show.
However, in a presentation for another class at The New School, a student pointed out that despite showing alternative lifestyle families in primetime, ABC has presented us with little more than a renovated version of Full House. The students explained that of the three families, only the traditional middle aged couple are shown in any sexual situations (the kids walk in on them).  The other two couples are rarely seen even kissing. Also, it is the case that in all three families one parent stays home to raise the children while the other is the breadwinner.

I had come to the realization that Modern Family is only modern on the surface.

But I then asked myself, in America where the surface is often all we see, where the “widely held” perceptions are the means by which we understand reality, is this show modern enough?

I think the answer is yes. The stereotypes remain the source for much of the comedy, thus allowing us to be more aware of them, while the familial structures sneak by garnering more acceptance over time.  There is a lot the creators of Modern Family could do to become a better representation of America’s more modern families, and hopefully in time they can do that, but until then perhaps another awkward Dad will have to do.

How to be a Loser

High schoolers singing show tunes and renditions of Fleetwood Mac, a white guy rapping “Bust a Move,” teenage dramas about love lost and lead solos… Who would watch this premise? Pretty much everyone it seems. Glee’s post Super Bowl episode drew 26.8 million viewers and its weekly average hovers around 9 to 10 million viewers.

So what’s so special about this group of high schoolers living in Lima, Ohio? To use Sue Sylvestor’s — world-reknown cheerleading coach of Cheerios squad — roll call, “Santana. Wheels. Gay kid. Asian. Other Asian. Aretha. Shaft.”

Has Ohio always had this many minorities in one school? In the small group of 12 or so students participating in show choir two are Jewish, two are Asian, two are black (in the first season), two are gay (in the second season, only one openly so), one Latina and one is paralyzed from the waist down.

The brilliance of the of Glee is in its use of stereotypes, where it layers not only adult perceptions — both Asian’s are on the academic decathlon team — with traditional high school labels like nerd, jock, goth, and diva. Can you have a goth Asian girl? A Jewish jock who sings Neil Diamond songs? The gay kid wins the football game for the team?

The expected stereotypes are all still there, of course. While Mercedes (curvy black diva) is hanging out with Kurt (gay) and Blaine (somewhat less obviously gay) she hallucinates literal femininity coming from the two men:

Created by Ryan Murphy, the same guy who also brought us Nip/Tuck, Glee undoubtedly pushes boundaries; now in its second season, we’ve seen two boys making out, teen pregnancy, and witnessed the repercussions of underage drinking all while bopping along to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”

One would guess Glee’s audience would be primarily tweens who’ve never heard many of the original songs remixed on Fox’s dramedy, but as New York Magazine’s culture blog Vulture pointed out in March, the average age of a Glee viewer comes in around 38.

The result we find in this mesh of hormones, adult problems and endearing performances (see: John Lennon’s “Imagine” duet with students from nearby school for the deaf ) is audiences welcoming these characters into their homes, and like any good television show, Glee challenges our “widely held” perceptions without us even realizing it and reiterates to the younger audiences that high school labels only exist in high school. Murphy skillfully balances the serious to ridiculousness, parody to reality, in such a way that the impact of both become magnified, and we realize it’s ok to be a loser.

How Dare You Perpetuate the Stereotype…

When Will and Grace debuted in 1998 it was the first primetime sitcom to give us the gay man-straight woman combo as the leading characters, and was largely the instigator of the pop cultural wave that brought homosexuality into the average American household.  This clip, from the 6th season episode titled “A-Story, Bee-Story,” is the perfect example of the ability of parody and satire to evoke stereotypes while making fun of the audience for believing them in the first place.

In this clip, Jack (Sean Hayes) is expressing his anger at Karen (Megan Mullally), who tried to help him cheat in the gay spelling bee,  first by offering to write the words on her breasts, then by shouting out the letters during the contest.  In the secondary story line, Grace (Debra Messing) has decided to leave the country for a while with her husband Leo (Harry Connick Jr.), leaving Will (Eric McCormack) without her an indefinite time period.  The whole clip is pretty fantastic, but you’ll want to hit it 7:35 through about 8:30.