ModernFamily, one of the highest rated comedy series on television,currently in its 8th year of production, follows the daily lives of afather, his two children, and their respective families. The show has receivednumerous awards and accolades from critics for its incorporation of comedy,parenthood, and current day issues, all in one show. The sitcom is set in LosAngeles, an ethnically diverse city known for its liberal and progressiveviews. Jay Pritchett depicts a rigid, middle-aged successful business executive,who after a much unhappy marriage to an apparently crazy woman, Dee Dee, is nowmarried to his trophy wife, Gloria. They together have a young child, Joe. Gloriais from Colombia and has a young son, Manny, from her previous marriage. Jay’s daughter,Claire (doting control freak mom) and her husband Phil (ever-supporting andloving husband) have three children Haley, Alex, and Luke, who are poles apartin personality, ranging from clueless, brainy, and naïve.
Jay’s son Mitchell (aconservative attorney) is married to Cameron “Cam” (a flamboyant and colorful “bumpkin”from Missouri) and they have an adopted Vietnamese child named Lily. This paperwill attempt to demonstrate how the writers and producers of Modern Family, through telling relatablestories, encourage acceptance of an emerging family structure, and address anumber of social values and issues. Through blending the trials andtribulations of heterosexual, interracial, and gay families, and adding issuesfaced by baby boomers and adolescents, the writers portray socially conflictingissues as normal family behavior. Using textual and narrative analysis, thispaper will deconstruct the overall plot and analyze the roles of the characters,to reveal the underlying message of this comedy sitcom and the reasons for its commercialsuccess but relative failure as a mechanism to promote cultural change. Communication criticism and analysisallow for better understanding of the numerous messages we are exposed to inour daily lives. According to Sillars and Gronbeck, “Studies of how humanbeings use and manipulate languages – verbal, visual, acoustic, performative –to affect the beliefs, attitude, values, and behaviors of other people takes usto the heart of communication criticism.” (Sillars & Gronbeck, 2001). Thispaper will utilize textual and narrative analysis to evaluate the messaging in ModernFamily.
Textual analysis involves a systematic analysis,interpretation, and evaluation/ judgement of text and message contents to allowdevelopment of interpretative conclusions (Sillars & Gronbeck, 2001). Itcan be used to gain an understanding of human behavior. According to McKee(2002):Textualanalysis is a way for researchers to gather information about how other humanbeings make sense of the world. It is a methodology – a data-gathering process- for those researchers who want to understand the ways in which members ofvarious cultures and subcultures make sense of who they are, and of how theyfit into the world in which they live. (p.
1)Textualanalysis involves in-depth structured research across multiple areas of whatinfluences human behavior. Sillars &Gronbeck identify three main interpretative approaches used by critics: First, rhetoricaltradition, which is concerned with relationship between discourses and theirability to influence identity, belief, attitudes and values; Second is socialtradition, which deals with how our understanding of the world is constructedby language and social relationships; and lastly, cultural tradition, whichrelates to the influence of value systems in decision making (Sillars &Gronbeck, 2001). Narrative criticism deals with theanalysis of stories to reveal cultural messages. White (1980) connects stories tosocial values, “Narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably infictional storytelling, is intimately related to, if not a function of, theimpulse to moralize reality.” Narratives are an important element of understandingculture. According to Sillars &Gronbeck, there are some assumptions that are used for cultural story analysis;Humans use stories to understand their world; Narrative is a widely used formof discourse; and social reality is created through symbolic action in stories(Sillars & Gronbeck, 2001). Stories have been used in every possible formin human existence to share religious, cultural, social, and familyvalues. Used effectively stories helppeople see their place in the world and can influence and even sway their viewsand beliefs.
Feldman, Sko¨ldberg, Brown & Horner (2004) study found thefollowing: Narrativesare useful data because individuals often make sense of the world and theirplace in it through narrative form. Through telling their stories, peopledistill and reflect a particular understanding of social and politicalrelations. Stories are a common, habitual method people use to communicatetheir ideas. (p. 148)Television plays an important role inproviding entertainment, education, and news to viewers. It has evolved overthe years to incorporate programming that reflects our society and has becomean important medium for influencing thought and behavior.
This closerelationship between television and culture has given producers the ability “toinfluence viewers, either consciously through slanted political commentary, orsubtly, by portraying controversial relationships (such as single parenthood,same-sex marriages, or interracial couplings) as socially acceptable (Lule, 2012). The co-creators of ModernFamily, Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, state that the characters intheir sitcom are loosely based on themselves and are heavily influenced bycoworkers, friends and their families (Egner, 2012). Telling relatable storiesbuilds credibility that allows viewers to connect with the narrative, and evenquestion their own social values and beliefs. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definesthe word “modern” as “of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or theimmediate past” (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, 2017). The word “family”is defined as, “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of twoparents rearing their children” (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, 2017).
Thetitle of the sitcom thus immediately conveys conflict within the stereotypicalfamily structure and sends the first message of challenging society norms. Thetraditional and most common family structure in the 1960s, in America was the “marriedcouple family with children.” Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver, populartelevision shows in those days consisted of children living with married biologicalparents. This type of structure was known as the “nuclear family (US CensusBureau, 2003). This structure however, is no longer a predominant model inAmerica or for that matter in the developed world.
This is due to the rise in divorce,remarriage, single parenting and cohabiting. Family size is also shrinking due to economicreasons, lower fertility and the growth of single parent households. The Pew ResearchCenter estimates 40% of new births “occur to women who are single or livingwith a non-marital partner” ( Pew Research Center, 2015). A new familystructure, that of the “blended family” has also arisen due to remarriages. ThePew Research Center cites studies by the US Census Bureau, which defines blendedfamilies “as a household with a step-parent, step-sibling/half-sibling”, and estimatesthat “16% of children are living in blended families” (Pew Research Center,2015). The rise of immigration to the US and change in laws has resulted in anincrease in interracial marriages.
In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled thatinterracial marriages were legal. Among all married couples in the US 10%, arenow intermarried with Asian, Hispanics leading, and the most common paringbeing Hispanic and white (Pew Research Center, 2017). Finally yet importantly, the changing attitudestowards same-sex marriages and favorable ruling by the Supreme Court haveensured there is no dominant family structure in the US anymore.
In the traditional family structure, therole of a woman was that of a wife and a mother taking care of the children andensuring the emotional needs of her family were met. The mother was typicallyidentified as” being fully dependent” on her spouse for major decisions. Thefather’s role was that of a provider. Typically, identified as a strong,unemotional, dominant individual who laid down the rules of behavior for thefamily. These gender norms evolved from social, religious, and cultural beliefsand evolved over centuries. Gender roles are however beginning to change withsocietal acceptance of gender equality. More women are now entering the workforce giving rise to a dual income family model. Parents are beginning to takejoint responsibility for raising children.
Couples whether married or not wishto spend less time parenting and desire more leisure time with a higher qualityof life.Modern family revolves around the livesof three families that our related through the family patriarch, Jay Pritchett.Jay represents the average America dad whose strict values of right and wrongrepresents the traditional strong father figure. He is sarcastic,short-tempered, and hates to be wrong. He has difficulty expressing hisemotions, loves sports and is highly competitive, is not technology savvy, butan acceptable handy man. He is the family’s anchor and “goto” person when theyneed guidance.
Jay has difficulty accepting his sons’ gay marriage, but makes an effort. Jay’s brother Donnie and ex-wife, Dee Dee,make appearances frequently. Both have conflicting relationships with Jay withmoments of reconciliation and affection.
Jay is married to a beautiful and sensualColombian woman, Gloria, who is half his age. Gloria is fiery tempered, and proudof her Colombian heritage. She portrays the suburban homemaker who is obsessedwith the well-being of her children. As much as she loves living in America,she is seem struggling to speak English and coping with the cultural norms ofthe American way of life. On occasion Gloria’s mother, Pilar and sister, Soniamake an appearance to further raise complicated interracial family issues.
Both,are portrayed as stereotypical, strong willed South American women. Theinclusion of Gloria and her family reflects the increase in the Hispanicdemographic in the U.S. It is interesting to reflect if any other ethnicculture could have been written into the script instead, and achieved the sameeffect.
Gloria’s son Manny, from her previousmarriage is portrayed as a kind, emotional, sensitive young man who is extremelymature for his age. He has refined tastes in food and clothing and prefersfencing to playing regular contact sports. Jay would prefer to see Manny play hard-hittingsports and would love to get an opportunity to be involved, something that hecould not engage in with Mitchell. Manny adores his biological, butirresponsible father, Javier, but is respectful of Jay, as his stepfather. Joedislikes Javier, intensely, which is not, an uncommon emotion for ex-husbands.Essentially, the Pritchett family fallsin the category of an interracial and blended family.
The role assigned to Joeand Gloria is, functional and complimentary. Jays’ character is easy toidentify with by baby boomers and relatable to their own fathers by millennials.His role fits classically into the traditional family structure of that of a providerand protector. Gloria’s role is also verymuch of the traditional homemaker.
A number of episodes deal with the issue ofculture clash. In one episode, the difference in cultural expectations overChristmas celebrations is played out. Jay wishing to celebrate with a tree andpresents and Gloria, and Manny with firecrackers and practical jokes. Thewriters resolve the issue through humor and compromise, but in general shy awayfrom developing any complex situations that would reflect some of the difficultissues associated with parenting an adopted child or addressing spousal agedifferences, or social acceptance and integration issues for immigrants.
The Dunphy family is the most traditionalfamily of the three. Claire is Jay’s daughter with a tendency to be extremelycontrolling. She is a responsible and dedicated mother and wife with a fiercelycompetitive spirit and struggles with her desire to have a career. Growing up,Claire was Jay’s favorite child, and seems much closer to her father thanMitchell seems.
She is also the most like Jay in personality. Her relationship with Gloria was difficult at first butover a few episodes, the air was cleared, and both now accept each otherpositions in the family hierarchy. She personifies the average Americanmom; wife, daughter and sister who loves to celebrate family andreligious/cultural events. Claire is married to Phil. Phil is a realtor, andwould be magician, given the slightest chance.
Phil is the supportive, lovinghusband and dedicated father. He would like to have a closer personal relationshipwith Jay and be more accepted by him. Phil tries to act like a cool dad infront of his children but in reality is usually in screw-up and fix mode. Theonly maturity he exhibits throughout the show is his love for his professionand to provide for his family. He is seems at time bumbling through real estatedeals, trying to outsmart his competition or promoting his business byinadvertently placing somewhat salacious pictures of his wife and daughter onthe family van. Claire and Phil have three children. Haley is their eldestchild a rebellious teenager, who is pre-occupied with fashion, her social lifeand boys. She is shown as not the most intelligent of the three children and isin constant argument with her parents about her rights as a young woman.
Furthermore,Haley interestingly shares a lot of her mother’s personality when she herselfwas a teen. Claire worries that Haley will make the same mistakes she did. Alexis the middle-child. She is well read and very intelligent even more than herlawyer uncle, Mitchell.
She gets her competitive streak from her mother. Philand Claire see her as self-sufficient and do not pay her as much attention asthe rest of their children. Being smart,she enjoys mocking her siblings but most of the time no one understands herjokes. Being an over-achiever, she does not have many friends at school. Thereis some rivalry between her and Haley who derides her lack of fashion sense andunderstanding of boys.
Luke is theyoungest of the three children and shown as an immature teenager. He is easilydistracted and not as intelligent as Alex. He has a friendly and close relationship with Phil and they appear tohave similar likes and dislikes. The roles assigned are conventional and simplydepict a very chaotic but loving average American family. Overall, from my analysis, there is nothingmodern about the “Dunphy” family except perhaps that Phil is not thetraditional decision making “strongman”, since Claire wears the pants inthat structure.
Then again, that is not entirely a new female gender role.The Pritchett-Tucker family on the otherhand, a gay married couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter, is perhaps themost modern of the three and distinct from the traditional family. It consistsof Mitchel, a lawyer who is portrayed as a high-strung, type A, but timidperson. Mitchell grew up in the shadows of his sister Claire, and is closer tohis mother, Dee-Dee. He is generallynon-confrontational and tries to maintain a professional demeanor.
He like hissister is obsessive-compulsive about raising his daughter. Cam is the exactopposite of Mitchell. He is outgoing and flamboyant with a penchant fortheatricals. Loves to be the center of attention, but has a big heart andalways offers to help everyone. He gets insulted easily and is very sensitiveabout his weight. The roles assigned to Mitchell and Cam are fairly conformist,that of provider and home maker respectively. In that respect there is nodifference to the normal family structure. It is interesting tonote that the show conforms to the traditional family structure in that the twofemale characters; Gloria and Claire are cast as homemakers.
Cam who is cast asfeminine also plays the same role. Claire apparently had a career before she gotmarried, but chose to give it up for family life. She now struggles to find ajob, after a long hiatus and ends up eventually working for her father’scompany. Gloria is cast as the traditional homemaker who relies on her husbandfor all decisions despite the fact that she he is smart. In one episode, sheintentionally loses to Jay in a game of chess, just so he would not get upset. Neithersituation is reflective of current day norms of gender equality and women inthe workforce.
Modern family on itsinitial release appeared to address societal acceptance issues relating to anemerging family structure. There seemed to be a conscious and honest effort to reflectthe new family norms. The creators through a diverse range of characters androles create and resolve conflict within and in between a blended, interracial,heterosexual, and gay extended family. Despite its apparent bold attempt, Modern Family remains firmly entrenchedwithin the confines of traditional family roles.
Claire, Gloria and Cam in afeminine role, play the traditionalhomemakers , while the men Jay, Phil and Mitchel are the providers. Thechildren similarly fit into the norms ofa typical American family adolescents and teenagers with a slight twist in theroles of Manny and Lilly facing interracial, adoption or stepchild issues. In this respect, the show is not asprogressive as it names makes it sound.
While it is definitely not the firstshow to portray gay people orinterracial couples, Modern Family does however, touch a few sensitivenerves in our current culture. Gay and interracial marriage and blended family issues are dealt with delicately without goinginto excessive complexity or detail. By addressing these issues, some criticshave claimed Modern Family to be a ground-breakingsitcom, which has helped some people change their view and values.
Kornhaber (2015)cites a Hollywood poll conducted in 2012 that found27 percent of those polled believed depicting gay people on television has madethem more pro-gay marriage. They credit their new found sympathy toward gaypeople to this show. Although this pollcannot be considered a wide and conclusive study, it does reflect the abilityof television to influence culture. ModernFamily is more of a commercial success primarily due to its excellentwriting, humor and relatable emotions. Some of this success can be attributedto the fact that it caters to a wide audience, and to retain and grow thatviewership it does not delve deep into complex issues relating to the LGBTcommunity, gay marriage or integration issues.
It is perhaps not the responsibility of television producers to addressemerging social issues in society, while also making the show a huge commercialsuccess. However, since the premise of the whole show is dealing with emergingfamily structure issues, it should deal with those issues with a high degree ofresponsibility. Now that viewers aremore accepting of the “new norm” it should take on issues that are more complex without being overly concerned aboutthe ratings.In conclusion, it canbe said that Modern Family is notreally that “modern”. It mostly depicts family relationships within the normal structureof a traditional family and associated gender roles.
It confirms familycohesion through narratives that bind families through managing and resolvingconflict together. It can be credited for perhaps raising awareness of some emergingfamily structure trends and issues but perhaps more so as a commercial by-productthan actual intention.