December 24, 2013 / News

Surprising Sexism in ABC’s Modern Family


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The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

I can’t believe it took this recent article from Alternet for me to see the sexism in ABC’s Modern Family. Perhaps gender stereotypes are so engrained in network television that I’ve come to passively accept them. Or, perhaps at the end of a long day I’d rather sit and absorb my sitcoms rather than critical analyze them. But, after some frantic re-watching of favorite episodes I realized Modern Family does rely on antiquated gender stereotypes for many of its jokes, particularly in the characters of Claire Dunphy & Gloria Delgado-Pritchett. Both occupy long held character tropes on network TV.

As Claire, the matriarch of the more traditional Dunphy family “tries to rein in her clownish husband Phil and keep the kids in check, their defiance and outlandish errors are met with viewer laughs. Meanwhile, Claire is characterized as a nag for trying to maintain normalcy” (Alternet). Claire could be any number of mothers featured on network TV throughout the years–the stable rock anchoring her family’s whims. Yet – she is never respected; her family teases her constantly. “After a poll in the local paper pronounced her ‘angry and unlikeable,’ her family forced her to practice her debating skills in front of them so they could mercilessly point out her every angry and unlikeable tic.”

It is painful to watch Claire for me, because I am reminded of how I treated my mother growing up. My hardworking and dedicated mother’s efforts to keep our family together where only meet with scorn from me—gosh, my mom was so uncool. Or, worse, my mom was so unfun. I never saw, until many years later, how society pushes women into fulfilling the role of nurturer and practical parent and then ridicules them for “nagging” while attempting to execute this role. Modern Family, rather than explore a fresh dynamic in a traditional family, gets its laughs at the expense of women who spend their lives being mocked while cleaning up after their family’s adventures.

Gloria, on the other hand, is tokenized in a very different way. Alternet explores one reason: “Viewers are supposed to laugh at her inability to assimilate into American culture as she consistently mispronounces words (‘ultimatum” is “old tomato’) and attempts to retain aspects of her culture.” Haha, Gloria can’t grasp our far superior ways of doing things, so funny.  Using cultural oppression to get a laugh is pretty low for any TV show.  But, with Gloria we get a bonus dose of sexism as Gloria is a hottie and we can never forget it. Comments about her looks – including those by Claire’s husband frequent and inappropriate obsession with her beauty are frequent fodder in the show. One episode revolves entirely around her being too vain to wear reading glasses. And while everyone around her encourages her to wear them to the point she agrees, Gloria is never seen wearing them in subsequent episodes. Body acceptance is only ok if it lasts for five minutes and doesn’t interfere with your role as the MILF of the show. Can I please have a female character with slightly more depth than her curves and mispronunciations?

In addition, Gloria’s looks create competition between the women on the show. Claire and her daughter at separate times voice dissatisfaction over their bodies in comparison to Gloria’s. Claire also endures her husband’s obsession with Gloria’s body – reinforcing the perception that women are in constant competition for the limited commodity of male affirmation. Another reminder that women must have our looks validated by men in order to be fulfilled.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of Modern Family’s underlying sexism is that I, and probably many, don’t even see it. I’ve watched the show YEARS and enjoyed every minute. What lessons are we unknowingly absorbing every week about marital relations, body images or cultural appreciation? But it’s FUNNY, other viewers may argue.  It’s what drives our ratings, the networks may say. It’s true. Modern Family is incredibly popular—it draws over 10 million viewers per episode and has been nominated for numerous Golden Globes (meaning its casual sexism is permeating across the country at an alarming rate). But, as we enter an age where network comedies can thrive featuring same sex couples, stay at home dads and female executives, dynamics and characters that would have meant show suicide decades ago, don’t you think it’s time we explored female characters beyond underappreciated housewife and sexpot? I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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  • I loved this show when it first came out. And then the sexist nature of it became more and more obvious. There have been episodes that included rape jokes, and one episode included a thinly veiled joke about child sex abuse. I bailed long ago.

    I agree – people think this sort of garbage is funny. Because it’s funny to make jokes about stereotypes, and it’s okay to do it as long as the stereotyped person is in on the joke, right? But all it does is perpetuate the stereotype itself. I look forward to the day when people look at this stuff and wonder why anyone would ever laugh.

  • Kimble

    Have they given Claire a job yet? Not trying sound anti-SAHM; I was one for years and still work just part-time. But come on–older kids, college tuitions, spouse in real estate which can be a roller coaster income-wise. High cost of living in SoCal. It’s just so unrealistic seeming and you’d think they’d want to mine the workplace for more comedy.

  • Morgan Pool

    I have never thought about this either. It is one of my favorite shows. But when you begin to talk about the interactions of the characters, and explain what is really going on and why we laugh, its astounding. In any case, I’m ashamed as a woman to say I’ve mocked Claire’s over bearing personality many times in the past. Am I setting myself up to think the same thing about me when I have to become one half of responsible parent team? Will I think it necessary to excuse my partner when he continuously drops the ball, because Ive watched it happen so many times on tv?

  • mazzie

    Wait until you really think about the big bang theory. Quite sexist.

  • Marlowe

    I’ve never liked Modern Family because I can’t stand Claire and Phil Dunphy at all. I can get past the sexism to which Gloria is treated because she is often the smartest person in the room. I like Cam and his husband and their obnoxious child but I don’t watch the show because of Claire and Phil.

    As to The Big Bang Theory, Bernadette is attractive and has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, Amy is not attractive but neither are any of the male stars. Penny’s attractive and not well-educated but she has the best people skills of anyone in the show. What is sexist about that?