So let’s talk about that identity politics thing. According to Wikipedia, “identity politics refers to political arguments that focus upon the self interest and perspectives of social minorities, or self-identified social interest groups.” Woof. What an ugly bear of a sentence that is. But then identity politics does tend to inspire that kind of writing, as does wikipedia. All considered, this could be a lot worse. Let’s simplify it just a bit and say that identity politics is the struggle against the patriarchy.
(Well technically actions supporting the patriarchy should also be identity politics of some sort, but the people who use the term “identity politics” without sneering can be pretty well counted on to be arrayed against the patriarchy, as can the people who use the term “patriarchy.” The thing about language, see, is that it defines — but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
Identity politics can involve overt political acts — protests, letter-writing campaigns, parades and the like. More typically, and especially when we’re talking about pop culture, it’s more about the subtler struggle for the hearts and minds of the populace. Accordingly, the patriarchy sort of takes two forms. For people who prioritize political action, the problem with the patriarchy is that there are laws and policies on the books that prevent disenfranchised groups from doing… various things. Voting obviously used to be a big one, what with that being the technical meaning of disenfranchisement and all. To the hearts and minds camp, the patriarchy is less about laws and more about attitudes: if you can convince everyone that (minority group x) deserves full legal protection, the policy will eventually work itself out. According to this school of thought, the patriarchy is essentially a world-view according to which the majority group is both a) antithetical and b) superior, to all other groups. So you end up with a series of binary oppositions: Men (or Europeans, or Christians, or Protestants, or Heterosexuals, or whatever majority group is being propped up) are rational, while women (“Orientals”/Jews/Catholics/Homosexuals, etc.) are irrational. Men are strong, women are weak. Man’s place is in the public sphere, woman’s place is in the home. And so on. Another concept we should define here is “privilege,” which again kind of has hard and soft varieties. I am obviously, materially privileged as a white dude in that no one is going to stop me on the street and ask to see my proof of legal residence. I also enjoy the “soft” privilege of having random strangers assume that I’m more competent than a given member of a minority group.
At first blush, Modern Family seems tailor made to woo the people’s hearts and minds away from the patriarchy. We see a gay couple raising a kid, and an interracial marriage, and all the people involved are really sweet and good-natured. No one has a crazy agenda, they just want to live their lives. (And they’re all wealthy. Not just sitcom-rich, like on Friends where you’re just not supposed to question how they can possibly afford that apartment, and not asshole-rich, like on Arrested Development, but solidly upper-upper-middle-class. This has some interesting implications that I won’t go into here, but maybe we can talk it out in the comment thread.) So this show is a salvo in the culture wars, right? Liberal Hollywood elites cramming their agenda down middle America’s throat?
Well maybe not. Because there are two different ways of finding fault with the patriarchy. One is to complain that the old white men are hogging all the good toys – or, more precisely, that the divisions between the in-group and the out-groups are artificial. That in fact women are just as rational as men, just as strong, just as public, and so on. This is the version that we are typically taught as children, assuming we are raised in an environment where identity politics is part of our upbringing. This is where Simone de Beauvoir is coming from when she writes that “Man is defined as human being and women is defined as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” I’m pretty sure this is where Mlawski is coming from when she begs Hollywood to start producing strong characters that just happen to be female. And this is typically the version that shows up in campaigns for social change. The basic idea is to extend the benefits of privilege to those who are unprivileged.
The nice thing about this line of thought is that it doesn’t ask us to do anything all that radical. It suggests that our current values system is almost perfect, with the one exception of its backwards treatment of minorities. So bravery, charity, rationality, strength, faith, etc. are all still virtues, while whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and Christianity are not. The problem with this, though, is that the patriarchy still ends up framing the terms of the debate.
This gives rise to the second, slightly newer way of finding fault with the patriarchy: the claim that, regardless of whether there is anything inherently male about strength and rationality, the very terms “strength” and “rationality” are inherently corrupted by their patriarchal context… or rather that our sense of these things as a kind of goodness is actually just our patriarchal programming shining through.
So an old-school complaint about size zero fashion models would be to say that the fashion industry is programming women to starve themselves, and we need to encourage more realistic and multicultural standards of beauty. The new-school complaint would say that the notion of “beauty” is toxic in and of itself, because it enforces a system of male active looking and female passive being-looked-at. By this standard, the fashion industry probably could not be fixed at all, and would be better scrapped. I dunno, maybe you could change the focus to making clothes that are just obscenely comfortable to wear, and all the magazine covers are just fabric samples that you can rub against your skin? It would be tricky.
An old-school complaint about economic disparities between men and women is that men earn more money for the same work, and we need to create social legislation that will disallow this. The new-school complaint would say that the real enemy here is capitalism: that “earn” “more” and “money” (and even “for,” although not “work,” oddly enough) are all fundamentally flawed concepts. Rather than lobbying for equal pay, women would be better off dropping out of capitalist society altogether, and forming some kind of agrarian-femino-syndicalist collective, with shared ownership of property, communal living, and free pot brownies in every fridge.
And then there’s gay marriage, which is where Modern Family comes back into it. The old-school complaint is a simple one: gays aren’t allowed to marry, and therefore, aren’t allowed to share in all the manifest benefits that (modern) marriage (in the developed world) offers to the married. The new-school complaint would say that marriage is a crappy proposition all around, and that homosexuals would be better off… doing something else. Possibly setting up some kind of bonobo-inspired sex-positive free love arrangement, although it wouldn’t necessarily be a hedonistic solution. Regardless, communal living and shared ownership of property would probably figure into it somehow. These are basically the bacon of utopian social programs: they go well with almost everything, and even if there’s something where they don’t work with at all, someone is bound to try it anyway. I can almost guarantee you that someone is out there right now on talk radio shouting about how we need to build a twenty foot high security fence on the Mexican border… and then nationalize the textile industry.
If you’ve seen Modern Family, you know where I’m going with this, right? The old-school and new-school approaches to identity politics need not be completely mutually exclusive, but Modern Family throws itself behind the old-school approach with everything it’s got. Mitchell and Cam are not by any means the first gay couple to show up on a TV sitcom, but they are still one of the most prominently featured and most interesting ones, especially if we limit ourselves to shows that are currently on the air. So that’s great! But their relationship is utterly, utterly conventional, in every conceivable way. There’s obviously a “husband” (Mitchell, the relatively straight-acting breadwinner) and a “wife” (Cam, the faaaabulous stay-at-home dad). Back when Cam did work, he was a music teacher, music and education both being acceptable “girl professions.” They have a young adopted child, and presumably they’ll end up adopting another 1.4.
So much for demographics. They’re also conventional in their onscreen dynamics. They get standard sitcom couple plots. Actually, one of Modern Family’s favorite devices is to split a single argument up across multiple couples, so that Phil will say something to Claire in location A, which is answered by Gloria saying something to Jay in location B. Cam and Mitchell figure into these just as often as anyone else. The only difference between their relationship and the conventionally hetero couples is that we occasionally get a glimpse into Claire and Phil’s sex life.
Mitchell and Cam’s romantic relationship has as of yet been limited to the occasional touching moment and a single chaste kiss on the lips. The kiss was prompted by the fanbase’s griping about the fact that they hadn’t kissed onscreen, which was eventually lampshaded in an episode where a major plotline was devoted to Cam complaining about Mitchell’s unwilingness to kiss in public. Now, I think it’s great that they kissed – but the lack of passion in their relationship is not exactly rare in sitcom couples, which is why back in the bad old days of the laugh track it used to inspire a hearty “Wooooooo!” whenever anything mildly salacious happened. Even Claire and Phil – who are, by older sitcom standards, practically nymphomaniacs – are still utterly sexless roughly ninety percent of the time. (Just like most real married couples. Zing! Although actually, if you think about it, being sexless ninety percent of the time still means having sex for 2.4 hours a day, which just sounds exhausting.)
And lest it be forgot: the humor surrounding their homosexuality is pretty damn conventional as well. We get gay panic jokes, first of all, typically centered around Cam’s interactions with Jay (Mitchell’s father), which is, like, the most lazily conventional joke about homosexuality that it is possible to make. We get jokes about Mitchell’s interest in musical theater, and his childhood pets, a bird and a snake named “Fly-za Minelli” and “Zsa Zsa Ga-Boa.” We get… well, not jokes about Cam’s demeanor, but rather a performance which is in itself a giant joke about campy gay men. Interestingly enough, Mitchell’s demeanor would probably trigger most people’s gaydar, but it is almost never treated as comedy. As TV Tropes points out, the couple splits the typical gay stereotypes right down the middle. (Also interesting is that the actor who plays Mitchell is actually openly gay, while Cameron is straight.) Now here’s what we don’t get: jokes about gay sex, jokes where Mitchell and Cam criticize heterosexuality, or jokes that you would need to be part of/informed about a specific gay subculture to get. And we never get homophobic jokes that are really spiteful, at least to my mind. Which probably just means that the show runners’ need to present a defanged nonthreatening homosexuality extended to a need to present a defanged version of homophobia.
Thus, the paradoxical position of homosexuality in the universe of Modern Family. It’s okay to be gay – as long as you don’t get too demonstrative about it, and as long as in you’re utterly bourgeois in every other respect. The same is true for other marginalized groups. You can be as Colombian as you want to be, as long as you’re willing to give up all aspects of your culture other than an accent and an occasional pot of offal stew. Second marriages are just as valid as first ones (although that lesson has been pretty well internalized by American culture since the Brady Bunch). It says it right there in the title: Modern, yes, but that’s just the adjective. What this show is about is family, specifically speaking the kind of family that has been current in American television since roughly the invention of the medium.