Our Modern Family

On Sunday, the sit-com Modern Family won a well-deserved five Emmy awards, including one for best comedy series.  I’m a fan of the show, but can’t help thinking that it is a double-edged sword. 

The show depicts three inter-connected families who reflect a rich, 21st century American reality: a gay couple with an adopted Asian-American daughter, a spring/autumn marriage between a Colombian immigrant with a son and her much older Anglo husband, and a white heterosexual couple with three very different kids.  Part of the brilliance of the situation, of course, is that they are really just one family; the older husband is the grandfather of the Asian-American daughter, the step-father of the Latino son, and so on. 


 And the beauty of the show, beyond its smart writing and inspired acting, is that it largely portrays the family’s diversity as unremarkable.  They are mutually flawed and hilariously dysfunctional, but their problems and misadventures are mostly universal ones.  Mostly.

When he accepted his award, the show’s producer, Steve Levitan, told of being approached by a real-life gay couple who wanted to say thanks.  “You’re not just making people laugh,” they said, “you’re making them more tolerant.”
This is profoundly true.  Television has the power to bring new people into our homes and lives, to make us know and even love characters and situations that may have seemed foreign or frightening.  It has the power to make the “other” part of “us.” 

Over the past decade or so, Hollywood has begun to do so with LGBT characters and situations in ways that are creative, heartwarming, and important.  And there is little doubt that the dramatic rise in public support for LGBT human rights, and particularly marriage equality, is attributable in part to these depictions.

This change was the result of struggle.  In particular, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has worked tirelessly to hold Hollywood accountable for bigoted, stereotypical depictions, while applauding it for positive ones.  Insiders note, also, that the progress of LGBT writers, producers, and actors in Hollywood has meant a presence and an authentic voice for characters who might have been written as offensive caricatures in past decades.

Which brings me to the other side of Modern Family.  Gloria, the Colombian immigrant wife on the show, played by Sofía Vergara, did increasingly become a caricature last season, and sometimes offensively so.  There is the increasing ridiculing of her accent and misinterpretation of English idioms that I thought went out with Ricky Ricardo.  But more troubling are the repeated implications that, as a Colombian, she devalues life, is accustomed to mayhem, and may be dangerous herself.  These are not so much perceptions that other characters have about her, but stereotypes that her character reaffirms through word and deed.

Modern Family has sometimes satirized racism as expertly as All in the Family ever did.  But when the writers repeatedly put in Gloria’s mouth lines about knowing how to use a knife or how to kill because she’s Colombian, they are feeding stereotypes, not roasting them.  And when Gloria responds to an ethnic slight from her husband by saying “Ah, here we go…Because, in Colombia, we trip over goats and we kill people in the street. Do you know how offensive that is? Like we're Peruvians!” they are saying, perhaps unintentionally, that stereotyping is OK because, hey, even the immigrants do it.  It’s a stark contrast to the show’s smarter moments, when it mocks bigotry instead of riding on its back.

On balance, Modern Family is likely doing more to advance inter-ethnic understanding than to undermine it, particularly in its clever portrayal of Gloria’s son, Manny, played by Rico Rodriguez.  Nor should we expect any sit-com to make audience enlightenment its prime objective, Norman Lear notwithstanding.  But if Steve Levitan and his colleagues are going to take credit for “making people more tolerant,” they must also take responsibility for the stereotypes and intolerance they may be sewing, particularly at a time when America is debating the future of millions of immigrants in our modern American family.



Fox News' awkward reaction to SNL's "Fox and Friends" spoof

From the Restore Fairness blog-

“Fox News: Coffee, smiles, fear and terror!”

On April 9, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) actors Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer and Bobby Moynihan played the presenters of Fox News’ morning talk show ‘Fox & Friends’ Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson and Brian Kilmeade, respectively. The cast discussed several current issues starting with the federal budget showdown last week to Mexican immigration and the issue of anchor babies. They barreled through the topics with humorous irony, proving that these issues are very much pertinent. As recent events around the country regarding anti-immigrant laws and challenges to birthright citizenship indicate, the opinions they spoofed do in fact exist in our country.

In one of the many digs at Fox News and their conservative alignment, Moynihan as Kilmeade talks about how close the U.S. government came to a shutdown last week, with: “We almost had the first government shutdown in the history of this country!” When his co-host Carlson asks if that’s true, Kilmeade gleefully responds, “Oh I just assumed.” At another point Carlson, expressing her strong objections to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, asserts that “When American kids get too skinny, chubby Mexicans will take American acting jobs. Just look at the kid on ‘Modern Family’!” With this skit, the SNL team joins a growing number of mainstream media that are explicitly addressing the issue of immigration, with another recent example being ABC’s ‘The Good Wife’ that broke stereotypes when representing an immigrant Latina nanny. The SNL team takes this further by spoofing the attitude of Fox News towards this issue, with a particularly spirited appearance by Helen Mirren as a “border war expert” who shares her fears about “undercover Mexicans in America, you know, known as A-merx-icans.”

The following Monday, April 11, the real ‘Fox & Friends’ reacted to the SNL spoof by very carefully steering clear of any of the issues that NBC’s cast had addressed. The hosts discussed the impersonations done by the SNL cast but avoided any mention of how the spoof challenged Fox News’ stance on many pertinent issues. Gretchen Carlson (the real one), then concluded their discussion on the spoof by saying-

“Thank you, SNL, for saying that we mean something in this business. After being number one all this time, why not do a skit on us?”

While SNL’s spoof is timely and a much needed take on the issues in the mainstream pop culture space, it’s also an indication that immigration debates (as well as other socio-cultural topics that were raised) are intensifying. The perspectives that the SNL team mocked do exist, which makes it all the more important that we keep pushing to raise awareness around the issues at hand. The SNL spoof also plays along the lines ofGood Day Every Day, the news/curriculum element of Breakthrough’s groundbreaking new human rights Facebook game, America 2049 (”Like” the Facebook page here to learn more). Watch the host of the future – Fox Williams – discuss a range of issues including immigration, sex trafficking, religious intolerance and racial profiling, and discover how the discussions tie into the mission of the game.

We look forward to the next major mainstream take on these issues. Until then, play America 2049 and watchSNL’s take on “Fox & Friends” (our readers in the US can watch it in its original version on the NBC site). 

Learn. Share. Act. Go to restorefairness.org





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