Modern
Family, one of the highest rated comedy series on television,
currently in its 8th year of production, follows the daily lives of a
father, his two children, and their respective families. The show has received
numerous awards and accolades from critics for its incorporation of comedy,
parenthood, and current day issues, all in one show. The sitcom is set in Los
Angeles, an ethnically diverse city known for its liberal and progressive
views. Jay Pritchett depicts a rigid, middle-aged successful business executive,
who after a much unhappy marriage to an apparently crazy woman, Dee Dee, is now
married to his trophy wife, Gloria. They together have a young child, Joe. Gloria
is 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 and
loving husband) have three children Haley, Alex, and Luke, who are poles apart
in personality, ranging from clueless, brainy, and naïve. Jay’s son Mitchell (a
conservative attorney) is married to Cameron “Cam” (a flamboyant and colorful “bumpkin”
from Missouri) and they have an adopted Vietnamese child named Lily. This paper
will attempt to demonstrate how the writers and producers of Modern Family, through telling relatable
stories, encourage acceptance of an emerging family structure, and address a
number of social values and issues. Through blending the trials and
tribulations of heterosexual, interracial, and gay families, and adding issues
faced by baby boomers and adolescents, the writers portray socially conflicting
issues as normal family behavior. Using textual and narrative analysis, this
paper 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 commercial
success but relative failure as a mechanism to promote cultural change.

Communication criticism and analysis
allow for better understanding of the numerous messages we are exposed to in
our daily lives. According to Sillars and Gronbeck, “Studies of how human
beings use and manipulate languages – verbal, visual, acoustic, performative –
to affect the beliefs, attitude, values, and behaviors of other people takes us
to the heart of communication criticism.” (Sillars & Gronbeck, 2001). This
paper will utilize textual and narrative analysis to evaluate the messaging in Modern
Family.

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Textual analysis involves a systematic analysis,
interpretation, and evaluation/ judgement of text and message contents to allow
development of interpretative conclusions (Sillars & Gronbeck, 2001). It
can be used to gain an understanding of human behavior. According to McKee
(2002):

Textual
analysis is a way for researchers to gather information about how other human
beings 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 of
various cultures and subcultures make sense of who they are, and of how they
fit into the world in which they live. (p. 1)

Textual
analysis involves in-depth structured research across multiple areas of what
influences human behavior.  Sillars &
Gronbeck identify three main interpretative approaches used by critics: First, rhetorical
tradition, which is concerned with relationship between discourses and their
ability to influence identity, belief, attitudes and values; Second is social
tradition, which deals with how our understanding of the world is constructed
by language and social relationships; and lastly, cultural tradition, which
relates to the influence of value systems in decision making (Sillars &
Gronbeck, 2001). 

Narrative criticism deals with the
analysis of stories to reveal cultural messages. White (1980) connects stories to
social values, “Narrativity, certainly in factual storytelling and probably in
fictional storytelling, is intimately related to, if not a function of, the
impulse to moralize reality.” Narratives are an important element of understanding
culture.  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 form
of discourse; and social reality is created through symbolic action in stories
(Sillars & Gronbeck, 2001). Stories have been used in every possible form
in human existence to share religious, cultural, social, and family
values.  Used effectively stories help
people see their place in the world and can influence and even sway their views
and beliefs. Feldman, Sko¨ldberg, Brown & Horner (2004) study found the
following:

Narratives
are useful data because individuals often make sense of the world and their
place in it through narrative form. Through telling their stories, people
distill and reflect a particular understanding of social and political
relations. Stories are a common, habitual method people use to communicate
their ideas. (p. 148)

Television plays an important role in
providing entertainment, education, and news to viewers. It has evolved over
the years to incorporate programming that reflects our society and has become
an important medium for influencing thought and behavior. This close
relationship between television and culture has given producers the ability “to
influence viewers, either consciously through slanted political commentary, or
subtly, by portraying controversial relationships (such as single parenthood,
same-sex marriages, or interracial couplings) as socially acceptable  (Lule, 2012). The co-creators of Modern
Family, Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, state that the characters in
their sitcom are loosely based on themselves and are heavily influenced by
coworkers, friends and their families (Egner, 2012). Telling relatable stories
builds credibility that allows viewers to connect with the narrative, and even
question their own social values and beliefs.  

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines
the word “modern” as “of, relating to, or characteristic of the present or the
immediate past” (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, 2017). The word “family”
is defined as, “the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two
parents rearing their children” (Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, 2017). The
title of the sitcom thus immediately conveys conflict within the stereotypical
family structure and sends the first message of challenging society norms. The
traditional and most common family structure in the 1960s, in America was the “married
couple family with children.” Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver, popular
television shows in those days consisted of children living with married biological
parents. This type of structure was known as the “nuclear family (US Census
Bureau, 2003). This structure however, is no longer a predominant model in
America 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 economic
reasons, lower fertility and the growth of single parent households. The Pew Research
Center estimates 40% of new births “occur to women who are single or living
with a non-marital partner” ( Pew Research Center, 2015). A new family
structure, that of the “blended family” has also arisen due to remarriages. The
Pew Research Center cites studies by the US Census Bureau, which defines blended
families “as a household with a step-parent, step-sibling/half-sibling”, and estimates
that “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 an
increase in interracial marriages. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled that
interracial marriages were legal. Among all married couples in the US 10%, are
now intermarried with Asian, Hispanics leading, and the most common paring
being Hispanic and white (Pew Research Center, 2017).  Finally yet importantly, the changing attitudes
towards same-sex marriages and favorable ruling by the Supreme Court have
ensured there is no dominant family structure in the US anymore.  

In the traditional family structure, the
role of a woman was that of a wife and a mother taking care of the children and
ensuring the emotional needs of her family were met. The mother was typically
identified as” being fully dependent” on her spouse for major decisions. The
father’s role was that of a provider. Typically, identified as a strong,
unemotional, dominant individual who laid down the rules of behavior for the
family. These gender norms evolved from social, religious, and cultural beliefs
and evolved over centuries. Gender roles are however beginning to change with
societal acceptance of gender equality. More women are now entering the work
force giving rise to a dual income family model. Parents are beginning to take
joint responsibility for raising children. Couples whether married or not wish
to spend less time parenting and desire more leisure time with a higher quality
of life.

Modern family revolves around the lives
of three families that our related through the family patriarch, Jay Pritchett.
Jay represents the average America dad whose strict values of right and wrong
represents the traditional strong father figure. He is sarcastic,
short-tempered, and hates to be wrong. He has difficulty expressing his
emotions, loves sports and is highly competitive, is not technology savvy, but
an acceptable handy man. He is the family’s anchor and “goto” person when they
need 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 with
moments of reconciliation and affection.

Jay is married to a beautiful and sensual
Colombian woman, Gloria, who is half his age. Gloria is fiery tempered, and proud
of her Colombian heritage. She portrays the suburban homemaker who is obsessed
with 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 of
the American way of life. On occasion Gloria’s mother, Pilar and sister, Sonia
make an appearance to further raise complicated interracial family issues. Both,
are portrayed as stereotypical, strong willed South American women. The
inclusion of Gloria and her family reflects the increase in the Hispanic
demographic in the U.S. It is interesting to reflect if any other ethnic
culture could have been written into the script instead, and achieved the same
effect.  

Gloria’s son Manny, from her previous
marriage is portrayed as a kind, emotional, sensitive young man who is extremely
mature for his age. He has refined tastes in food and clothing and prefers
fencing to playing regular contact sports. Jay would prefer to see Manny play hard-hitting
sports and would love to get an opportunity to be involved, something that he
could not engage in with Mitchell. Manny adores his biological, but
irresponsible father, Javier, but is respectful of Jay, as his stepfather. Joe
dislikes Javier, intensely, which is not, an uncommon emotion for ex-husbands.

Essentially, the Pritchett family falls
in the category of an interracial and blended family. The role assigned to Joe
and Gloria is, functional and complimentary. Jays’ character is easy to
identify 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 provider
and protector.  Gloria’s role is also very
much of the traditional homemaker. A number of episodes deal with the issue of
culture clash. In one episode, the difference in cultural expectations over
Christmas celebrations is played out. Jay wishing to celebrate with a tree and
presents and Gloria, and Manny with firecrackers and practical jokes. The
writers resolve the issue through humor and compromise, but in general shy away
from developing any complex situations that would reflect some of the difficult
issues associated with parenting an adopted child or addressing spousal age
differences, or social acceptance and integration issues for immigrants.

The Dunphy family is the most traditional
family of the three. Claire is Jay’s daughter with a tendency to be extremely
controlling. She is a responsible and dedicated mother and wife with a fiercely
competitive 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 than
Mitchell seems. She is also the most like Jay in personality. Her relationship with Gloria was difficult at first but
over a few episodes, the air was cleared, and both now accept each other
positions in the family hierarchy. She personifies the average American
mom; wife, daughter and sister who loves to celebrate family and
religious/cultural events. Claire is married to Phil. Phil is a realtor, and
would be magician, given the slightest chance. Phil is the supportive, loving
husband and dedicated father. He would like to have a closer personal relationship
with Jay and be more accepted by him. Phil tries to act like a cool dad in
front of his children but in reality is usually in screw-up and fix mode. The
only maturity he exhibits throughout the show is his love for his profession
and to provide for his family. He is seems at time bumbling through real estate
deals, trying to outsmart his competition or promoting his business by
inadvertently placing somewhat salacious pictures of his wife and daughter on
the family van. Claire and Phil have three children. Haley is their eldest
child a rebellious teenager, who is pre-occupied with fashion, her social life
and boys. She is shown as not the most intelligent of the three children and is
in 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 herself
was a teen. Claire worries that Haley will make the same mistakes she did. Alex
is the middle-child. She is well read and very intelligent even more than her
lawyer uncle, Mitchell. She gets her competitive streak from her mother. Phil
and Claire see her as self-sufficient and do not pay her as much attention as
the rest of their children.  Being smart,
she enjoys mocking her siblings but most of the time no one understands her
jokes. Being an over-achiever, she does not have many friends at school. There
is some rivalry between her and Haley who derides her lack of fashion sense and
understanding of boys.  Luke is the
youngest of the three children and shown as an immature teenager. He is easily
distracted and not as intelligent as Alex. 
He has a friendly and close relationship with Phil and they appear to
have similar likes and dislikes. The roles assigned are conventional and simply
depict a very chaotic but loving average American family.  Overall, from my analysis, there is nothing
modern about the “Dunphy” family except perhaps that Phil is not the
traditional  decision making “strong
man”, since Claire wears the pants  in
that structure. Then again, that is not entirely a new female gender role.

The Pritchett-Tucker family on the other
hand, a gay married couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter, is perhaps the
most modern of the three and distinct from the traditional family. It consists
of Mitchel, a lawyer who is portrayed as a high-strung, type A, but timid
person. Mitchell grew up in the shadows of his sister Claire, and is closer to
his mother, Dee-Dee.  He is generally
non-confrontational and tries to maintain a professional demeanor. He like his
sister is obsessive-compulsive about raising his daughter. Cam is the exact
opposite of Mitchell. He is outgoing and flamboyant with a penchant for
theatricals. Loves to be the center of attention, but has a big heart and
always offers to help everyone. He gets insulted easily and is very sensitive
about his weight. The roles assigned to Mitchell and Cam are fairly conformist,
that of provider and home maker respectively. In that respect there is no
difference to the normal family structure. 

It is interesting to
note that the show conforms to the traditional family structure in that the two
female characters; Gloria and Claire are cast as homemakers. Cam who is cast as
feminine also plays the same role. Claire apparently had a career before she got
married, but chose to give it up for family life. She now struggles to find a
job, after a long hiatus and ends up eventually working for her father’s
company. Gloria is cast as the traditional homemaker who relies on her husband
for all decisions despite the fact that she he is smart. In one episode, she
intentionally loses to Jay in a game of chess, just so he would not get upset. Neither
situation is reflective of current day norms of gender equality and women in
the workforce.

Modern family on its
initial release appeared to address societal acceptance issues relating to an
emerging family structure. There seemed to be a conscious and honest effort to reflect
the new family norms. The creators through a diverse range of characters and
roles 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 entrenched
within the confines of traditional family roles. Claire, Gloria and Cam in a
feminine role,  play the traditional
homemakers , while the men Jay, Phil and Mitchel are the providers. The
children  similarly fit into the norms of
a typical American family adolescents and teenagers with a slight twist in the
roles of Manny and Lilly facing interracial, adoption or stepchild  issues. In this respect, the show is not as
progressive as it names makes it sound. While it is definitely not the first
show to portray gay people  or
interracial couples,  Modern Family does however, touch a few sensitive
nerves in our current culture. Gay and interracial marriage and blended family  issues are dealt with delicately without going
into excessive complexity or detail. By addressing these issues, some critics
have claimed Modern Family to be a ground-breaking
sitcom, which has helped some people change their view and values. Kornhaber (2015)
cites a Hollywood poll conducted in 2012 that found
27 percent of those polled believed depicting gay people on television has made
them more pro-gay marriage. They credit their new found sympathy toward gay
people to this show.  Although this poll
cannot be considered a wide and conclusive study, it does reflect the ability
of television to influence culture. Modern
Family is more of a commercial success primarily due to its excellent
writing, humor and relatable emotions. Some of this success can be attributed
to the fact that it caters to a wide audience, and to retain and grow that
viewership it does not delve deep into complex issues relating to the LGBT
community, gay marriage or integration issues. 
It is perhaps not the responsibility of television producers to address
emerging social issues in society, while also making the show a huge commercial
success. However, since the premise of the whole show is dealing with emerging
family structure issues, it should deal with those issues with a high degree of
responsibility.  Now that viewers are
more accepting of the “new norm” it should 
take on issues that are more complex without being overly concerned about
the ratings.

In conclusion, it can
be said that Modern Family is not
really that “modern”. It mostly depicts family relationships within the normal structure
of a traditional family and associated gender roles. It confirms family
cohesion through narratives that bind families through managing and resolving
conflict together. It can be credited for perhaps raising awareness of some emerging
family structure trends and issues but perhaps more so as a commercial by-product
than actual intention.

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