ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family has worked since its debut in 2009 to capture a new normal of American life in primetime television. The series deals with conflicts found within the traditional American family sitcom, such as moral dilemmas, sibling feuds, and parenting strifes, but stands out for also exploring the difficulties faced by families who do not fit the hegemonic structure of white, heterosexual, and middle class. In exploring these differences, Modern Family provides fertile territory to explore gender and sexuality within the series.
In the second episode of the series, ”Bicycle Thief,” gender stereotypes and a fear of lost masculinity arise within the very first scene. Being the youngest child with two older sisters, Luke uses his sisters’ old bike that is decorated with pink details and streamers. Phil is clearly embarrassed that his son is riding “a girl’s bike” and defies Claire’s wishes to wait to purchase him a new bike because he is so uncomfortable with the idea of it. While perpetuating a gender stereotype and gender roles through this fear of his son riding “a girl’s bike,” the writers seemingly make a mockery out of Phil’s pursuit to make his son “cool” and masculine with his humorous mishap of unintentionally stealing another boy’s bike. Rather than simply conveying a story that conforms to gender stereotypes, Modern Family provides a commentary on a familiar “American family” problem of striving for masculinity. Though, as this commentary is made of the pursuit of masculinity, Phil’s actions and situation more clearly conform to a masculine trope of men lacking intelligence and wit and focusing on gender conforming appearances. Thus, there is a taste of the old and a taste of the new, a segue into modern social commentary that has some gravitas yet, for primetime audience’s sake, maintains some grounding in accepted gender stereotypes.
One of the most discussed and beloved families on the series is the gay couple, Mitchell and Cameron, with their adopted Asian daughter, Lilly. Their family’s situation provides a novel, refreshing perspective on the issues faced by the American family. In Bicycle Thief, Mitchell demonstrates neuroticism for their first “mommy and me” play class with Lilly. Mitchell, the more reserved of the two, implores Cameron to wear clothing that looks more “manly” and not to act too flamboyant around the other mothers, because he did not want to stand out and make a scene. Cameron represents the minority voice, the proud, secure, and vocal sexual minority who does not worry of the criticism of their untraditional family. The tension that grows between them throughout the episode within the play class mocks both Cameron and Mitchell, but certainly tends toward Cameron as being the character with whom the audience should sympathize. Mitchell seems tense, unnatural, and trying so desperately to fit into the hegemonic mold of the traditional family. His ultimate relent to allow Cameron to dance at the end of the class when the mothers positively react to the entrance of another gay couple shows a moment of understanding that lays a foundation for the character development of Mitchell throughout the rest of the series; that he is growing into their new family and learning to tolerate themselves. However, the message is not fully progressive and tolerant, as Cameron is mocked as the stereotypical gay lover of Meryl Streep, a moment where he demonstrates an over-display of emotions and focused on as a comic relief to the plot. This pivot toward using the gay character as a game piece for laughs is consistent with the dominant portrayal of the gay man in television. The character is forgotten as an individual and as a developing person and, instead, is seen as a decoration to the story, as Cameron is seen to be multiple times throughout the episode. Hence, Modern Family seemingly works to promote tolerance, diversity, and the changing structure of the American family, yet promotes more of the same use of the stereotypes of gender and sexuality.