The Oddly Conservative "Modern Family"

The Oddly Conservative “Modern Family”

(Straight Couple) Minus (Sex) Equals (Gay Couple)

[Editorial Note: I hate prefacing my work with an apology or gloss more than anything. I’ve always believed writing should stand on its own merits. But I have to lay out before hand that I’m writing about a tricky subject from a great remove. Gay rights and gay culture are still a controversial subject in America. As a straight male, no matter how passionately I feel about these subjects, I’m still approaching them as an academic. These controversies don’t affect me personally, except insofar as they affect several of my very good friends. So if the analysis of homosexual culture and the gay lib movement that follows is incomplete or overly broad, that’s on me. I won’t apologize for it. But I’ll reiterate that it’s just one man’s opinion.]

Here’s what the Parents Television Council had to say about Glee after the episode “Showmance”:

Parents, please be aware: Glee is not High School Musical: the T.V. Series. Don’t let the singing and dancing and high school setting fool you. This is an edgy, sexually-charged adult series that is inappropriate for teenagers. Unfortunately, Fox has marketed the show heavily at tween audiences. What did those pre-adolescents tune into when the show finally premiered in its regular timeslot on September 9th? A veiled reference to fellatio, a speech denouncing abstinence, simulated sex during a musical dance number, and premature ejaculation. For containing explicit sexual content in a show aimed at kids, yet lacking the “S” warning descriptor in the rating, Glee has been named Worst TV Show of the Week.

Here’s their take on Gossip Girl


The CW’s new teen drama Gossip Girl, which airs on Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET, takes all the foul content from The O.C. while stripping away any of that program’s redeeming features. This far-fetched soap opera about filthy rich teens deals with every vice from drug use to promiscuous sex to violent rape. In the November 7th episode, we see a father with a drug addiction who gets caught and blames it on his teenage son; a teen who watches internet porn to learn sex tips for an evening with his girlfriend; and a high school slacker who convinces his father to purchase a burlesque club.

And here’s the uneasy response to MTV’s adaptation of the UK series “Skins”:

MTV’s rocky road with its racy new television series, “Skins,” continues.

L’Oréal SA and sandwich-chain Subway on Monday brought to seven the number of marketers publicly pulling their advertisements from the program, which has prompted a barrage of criticism because of its depictions of minors engaging in sexual activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

Several other high-profile companies—from Taco Bell to General Motors Co.—have distanced themselves from the series on the Viacom Inc.-owned network, which the Parents Television Council dubbed “the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen.”

The Parents Television Council seems to be the common denominator here. So what did they say about Modern Family?


Hmm … yellow light. That means “the show contains adult-oriented themes and dialogue that may be inappropriate for youngsters.” Well, true as far as it goes. The PTC’s rubric has always been sex / drugs / violence more than Old Testament values. What did the 700 Club have to say when Modern Family debuted?

The start of fall also marks the beginning of a new season for several TV shows, but this year some viewers are noticing more homosexual characters and story lines.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) recently released a report saying about 44 gay and bisexual characters are making regular appearances in this season’s show line-up.

“Americans now see gay and lesbian couples marrying, raising families and contributing to their communities,” GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios said.

“[Those characters help American’s] come to accept and better understand their homosexual family members and neighbors,” he added.

“The Modern Family” on ABC is one new show in question. One of the main plots includes a gay couple who adopts a baby.

Another ABC show with a similar plot is “Brothers and Sisters,” which has two male characters who are married.

Other shows with gay and lesbian characters include NBC’s police drama “southland” and the popular prime-time medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy.”

… and that’s it. (Notes on the page indicate that CBN may have devoted some TV time to talking about it, but no further record exists online)

How about Focus on the Family? I’ll bet they have some nasty things to say about Modern Family, right? Right?

It’s interesting to note how natural the show’s gay couple appears to be: While Cameron can be a caricature of stereotypical effeminacy, he and Mitchell are presented as normal people living an acceptable lifestyle. They merely want to be great parents to their adopted girl, and they try to support each other as best they can through life’s trials and tribulations.

Those small facts speak to how much television has changed in your lifetime.


“As the networks gradually add characters from all backgrounds and all walks of life to prime-time programming, more and more Americans are seeing their LGBT friends and neighbors reflected on the small screen,” GLAAD president Neil Giuliano told USA Today in 2008.

Mitchell and Cameron, then, are now “just” part of the landscape. And that says a lot about how TV has changed and how it—by presenting shows like Modern Family—has helped normalize something society once shunned.

… that’s it? Really? I can almost hear the wistful tone – “oh, remember those good ol’ days when gays were shunned” – but that’s the worst they’re gonna throw at it?

Why isn’t anyone up in arms over Cameron and Mitchell?

If you haven’t been following Modern Family, Cameron and Mitchell are a married gay couple, one of the three families featured in the ABC sitcom. They have an adopted baby named Lilly. Mitchell is a successful lawyer: uptight, concerned about appearances, a touch on the neurotic side. Cameron is a former college football player and theater buff who’s now a stay-at-home dad.

They’re gay. They’re unmistakeably gay. And yet none of the usual suspects seem that concerned.

23 Comments on “The Oddly Conservative “Modern Family””

  1. sprugman #

    It’s “What does a lesbian bring to a second date?” and it always has to be told with it’s companion joke: What does a gay man bring to a second date? What second date?


      • mlawski OTI Staff #

        My favorite version of the joke is: “What does a lesbian bring to the second date?” “A moving van and two cats.” But maybe that’s just because of my love of kitties :)


  2. EJ #

    “In fact, how many sitcoms can you name that ran longer than three years that didn’t end with male and female leads marrying off?”

    I wanted to use M*A*S*H as an example of a very long running sitcom that didn’t end with the leads walking down the aisle. And while it may still be true, strictly speaking, I forgot that Klinger does get married. Bummer.

    It is my great hope that Community (if it lasts more than 3 years) will not fall into this trap or, if it does, will mock it relentlessly.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      I realized this morning that, while Cheers had several of its cast married by the time it finished, they weren’t all married to each other. Which is refreshing.


      • Will #

        This reminds me of something mostly unrelated that I mentioned to my wife the other day about The Office (US version). In that show, they have systematically dismantled every relationship among the regular cast that pre-existed the first episode. Think about it: Stanley & Teri, Pam & Roy, Kevin & Stacy, Oscar & Gil, even Jan and Mr. Gould (David and Mrs. Wallace are probably lucky that he got fired, or their marriage was doomed).

        I’m not sure what it means, but it’s kind of disappointing to me for some reason. Pam’s character arc since she got with Jim is also disappointing to me on a lot of levels, and could have been the example for a very similar essay to this one about the conservatism of even innovative American sitcoms.


      • George #

        How I Met Your Mother originally intrigued me because it seemed to be actively examining our expectations of a sitcom relationship. Because the story is told in flashback, Ted and Robin’s “will-they-won’t-they” is a foregone conclusion; they won’t, at least not permanently. Also, Marshall and Lilly’s engagement happened at the beginning of the first episode, as opposed to a “big reveal” later in the show.

        I’ve since been disappointed with several of the directions they’ve decided to take the show. The sitcom conventionality of Barney and Robin’s courtship, in particular, hugely diminished their characters’ effectiveness for me. This has dimmed my hopes for a non-standard ending; obviously Ted was going to end up married, but I had hoped that other characters’ plot lines would end in more interesting ways. Ah, well.


        • EJ #

          HIMYM is frustrating. Although it has, largely, removed the “Sam and Diane” sitcom trope (or at least approaches it differently) it still seems too close to Friends for comfort. It continually strikes me as Friends dressed up for the mid-2000s. I suspect that the show’s disappointing conventionality correlates with its success.


          • Howard #

            I think that’s largely what they’re trying to do. Yeah, there’s the overarching romantic story to HIMYM, but the core is “a group of friends have wacky adventures in NYC”. It’s an attempt to recapture Friends’ success.

  3. Outis #

    NewsRadio ran for 5 seasons, and Lisa was the only member of the main cast to get married. They had to fight the executives on that though. The series finale also avoids the message about the overriding need for “family.”


  4. Hannah #

    That 70s Show. Granted most of the cast were Highschoolers and Red, Kitty, Bob, and Midge started as married couples, but in the end not one of them were actually married during the course of its 8 seasons(although Eric and Donna came close).


    • Pleadwhatever #

      What about Hyde and his stripper wife? Or did she leave him? Or Fez and Lory? I suppose neither of those are particulary relevant since the show didn’t end on either of those. The thing about the end of that show that I never liked though, was that it sets it up as though you’re about to see the characters on the brink of new lives, but no no no, they’re still just doing the same old thing. There is one gay student in that show though, and I recall him being met with medium resistance to the idea.


      • Hannah #

        There are actually multiple gay characters (and IMO Fez is gay as well). We even saw a gay couple in the pilot episode (at the Rundgren concert), and Fenton a repeat character in the later seasons is very effeminate and well gay. I don’t count FezxLaurie or HydexSam because one was for a green card and the other was never technically a marriage because Sam was still married to another man.


  5. sarah #

    the assistant has a crush on mitchell? things are looking up!


    • sarah #

      oooh what a twist! :-p (that’s what i get for posting at the beginning of the episode.)


      • Christopher #

        But again with the chaste gay intimacy dodge! Perich is really on to something here. In an episode in which Claire and Phil’s storyline is _entirely_ devoted to their sex life (screw the kids! forget the law! it’s sexy time! underpanties!), Mitchell and Cam have a jealous spat, an emotional reconciliation, aaaaand a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it peck (on the cheek? it was hard to tell, the cameraman seemed to be terrified).

        Sigh. It also seems like they’re really going down the fa-LA-ming route with minor gay characters, as if to make it clear they’re gay they have to be really, really limp-wristedly blatant about it. The only counter-example I can think of on the show is James Marsden’s character, but I’m not entirely sure he was actually gay (though he was an absolutely insane trespasser/squatter, soooo… better?).

        I feel like this last episode was perfectly timed to coincide with this article, since it seems like it spent its entirely trying its damnedest to prove every single one of Perich’s points.

        Hm, in rereading this comment it comes off as overly negative, but to be fair I actually really enjoyed the episode. I just couldn’t help thinking of this article throughout, and how true everything herein is.


        • vee #

          That is so true! I thought the little montage of everyone enjoying their Valentine’s Day illustrated this article perfectly, and maybe even went a little further in setting up a triple standard.

          So we have the most “unconventional” couple, Cam and Mitch: chaste cuddle and peck.

          Then the midway couple (ie, interracial, age-divide, but still heterosexual couple) Jay and Gloria: Full body touch, slightly more suggestive as both straddle the motorcyle.

          Then the Gold Standard conventional couple (white, young, heterosexual, hetero-normative, breadwinner male homekeeper female): full on hot and heavy reclining make-out.


  6. ThisSpaceLeftBlank #

    I had a thought about your “The lessons of sitcoms, as agreeable as they are, present a staid, unchallenging view of life.” paragraph. It seems like this is inherent in the form right? Sitcoms are not about Enrons or meth heads. If they were they would cease to be sitcoms and instead be dramas. Part of sitcom-ness seems to be the notion of normalcy. This is in part why people seem to like them so much. They are relatable. Not many people have to face tough moral dilemmas at work or meth addiction but most plots in sitcoms are highly relatable.

    Think about Californication, it has many of the troupes of a sitcom. It is a half hour long, it is fueled by its comedy, situations the characters find themselves in seem to be contrived merely for comic effect, the ideals of the family and true love are held up and the characters seem destined to end up together. But is it a sitcom? Almost certainly not. Why? I am not sure. It might be that Hank is flawed and dramatically so. Hank, drinks and parties but it clearly creates dramatic problems (he almost dies, he has sex with minor, people around him die) that are outside the bounds of normalcy.

    Oddly Seinfield which you call out as an exception to sitcom model in part works because it so grounded in the normal and the mundane. In fact both Seinfield and David’s comedy rely on the familiar and social conventions (and perceived or real violations of them). Without culture expectations of normalcy their comedy wouldn’t work.


  7. marie #

    I think that the portrayal of readicals as driven by “rage” is unfair though. I can sort of understand the perspective, but you’ll have to know that there’s another one too. The thing is, all of this article is talking aobout gay characters for straight audiences and gay activism for stright audiences. But the LGBTBI people are part of society too! It’s the basically the same problem as has developed in relation to feminism recently. The idea behind any depiction of such a character or such a debate is by the general public seen as hainv the only purpose of winning them over. But the fact of the matter is, that neither gay people nor activism exist for that purpose.

    The fact of the matter is that gay people watch tv too, even though they are mostly ignored as an audience. That a few gay characters pop up and cause the climate to soften a bit doesn’t really change that. That Mitch and Cam are inoffensive is part of the problem, because they are there to help the slow process from acknowledging that gay people are people too to acknowlednignt hat maybe something needs to change instead of actually bringing the kind of relief and the kind of progress that the LGBTQI community needs right now.

    There is a reason why the “respectable” gay rights movment had to give way to the “angry” queer one, and that reason was that they simply sacrificed too much of their own member for a plan that brought as good as no progress for those who really needed it. In the end, it all comes down to purpose: are we doing this for ourselves or are we doing it for someone else? And sadly, when you really are working to make progress for your own sake, people tend to find it uncomfortable. But then one has to ask wether it’s the majority’s need for ajustment or the minority’s need for actual rights that is the most acute.


  8. Jon Eric #

    This was a really good article, and though I enjoy watching Modern Family, you’ve pinned down something that’s been bugging me about it.

    Cameron and Mitchell, as a cultural phenomenon, do have value – they’re two of the best-drawn gay characters on TV. But their consistent lack of affection (explained in-show by Mitchell just not being a very touchy-feely type of person) does seem kind of weird in many contexts.

    At least they have chemistry.


  9. Tanvi Solanki #

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the show ‘Modern Family’ it is very witty.
    the 3 families are so diff yet at the end of it all they come together as one & move on from the lil hickups that life & social situations throw at them.
    the 1st season came on tv and followed it from 1st episode to the last without fail… cant wait for the next season to start, if they are going to show it in India that is, & i hope & wish that they do.


  10. Hermann #

    “The divergence between peaceful conservatives and angry radicals has cropped up in every minority rights movement in the Twentieth Century. Consider Gandhi and Jinna[.]”

    So Indians are a minority in India?


Add a Comment