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.