The Construction of Race in Modern Family’s Second Season
November 10th, 2010
ABC’s Modern Family has always been concerned with questions of race: that Gloria and Manny are Colombian, and that Lily is Vietnamese, were prominent factors in the series’ pilot, so questions of race (and racism) have been evident throughout the series.
And yet, something seems different in the second season. While nothing has been fundamentally changed in terms of questions of race, the show is going to racial humor more often and in a few instances from a different perspective. I would never go so far as to say that the series is racist, but in its desire to increase the amount of racial humor it seems to have forced the issue without allowing it to flow naturally from its characters or even its storylines.
While it is not enough to condemn the series, I would argue that the way race has been presented so far this season shifts ownership of these dynamics to the people behind the scenes as opposed to the characters within the series, creating problematic questions of authorship that threaten both the series’ realism and its complexity.
In “Unplugged,” where Jay and Manny suspect that Gloria has murdered their neighbor’s dog, the opening scene makes fun of Gloria as we’ve come to expect: when the neighbor complains about an annoying parrot in the Pritchard residence, we get a montage of scenes in which Gloria’s screaming of “Jay” sounds particularly bird-like. I laughed at the scene, I’ll readily admit that, but I then started to realize how this joke was constructed.
There are two moments before that scene which explicitly speak to questions of race: Jay insists that Gloria should be able to sleep through the dog thanks to what she slept through in Colombia, while Mitchell (in the terror over Lily missing out on day care) says to “leave it to the gays to raise the only underachieving Asian in America!” However, in both cases the characters are clearly aware of the stereotypes. We see Jay smile when he makes the poke against Gloria’s past, and Mitchell is panicked when he makes the comment and is purposefully placing himself within that racial dynamic. Even later in the episode, where Cameron pretends to be part-Native American to get Lily into the high-class daycare, it is a purposeful engagement with questions of race on the part of the character – the interracial lesbian couple makes Cameron self-conscious about his family’s chances, and apparently he had a terrible impression of a Native American in his pocket for just a circumstance. The important thing is that it is his impression, and his panic – for better or for worse, the character consciously perpetuates racial stereotypes through his own actions. It may be offensive, but we have context for his actions and can find the humor in his terrible solution to the situation.
However, what bothers me about the parrot scene is that any sort of racial commentary is perpetuated solely in the editing room and by the behind-the-scenes figures in the series. Now, arguably, the scene is not explicitly racial: it speaks more to the shrillness of Gloria’s voice than necessary her accent. That being said, we can’t deny that her accent contributes to the neighbor’s confusion, and her voice as a whole has been racialized by a wide variety of storylines (including recently in “Halloween) and in the majority of jokes surrounding her ethnicity. What struck me, however, was that the comment was not intended in a racial manner: the neighbor truly believed that Gloria and Jay owned a parrot, unaware of what precisely he was insinuating. The joke only makes sense when the editors cut to various moments where Gloria has screeched Jay’s name in the past, which locates the intention of the joke solely to the process of writing the joke and then cutting the series together.
There are a lot of television comedies explicitly dealing with questions of race right now, with 30 Rock in particular proving fairly fearless about creating debates regarding race within the fictional TGS workplace. And on occasion, including in “Halloween,” Modern Family is similarly interested in finding racism within its family setting: Columbian and American holiday traditions are merged in “Undeck the Halls,” and questions of how Manny negotiates his ethnicity has a strong storyline in “Run For Your Wife.” However, a few storylines this season have constructed race and racism outside of the Pritchard/Dunphy family; instead of finding these questions within the characters we know, they are provided either to an omniscient (and imaginary) narrator or a collection of non-characters who are given neither motivation nor logic. It creates the sense that racism is being constructed as opposed to occurring naturally, that it becomes part of tired sitcom scenarios as opposed to something that would naturally take place in Los Angeles, which is something I do not remember from last season.
Now, one could argue that this is still in line with the series’ trajectory: looking back to the pilot, the show has never been particularly naturalistic. The “cream puffs” gag was very carefully constructed, and the entire pilot is driven by the construction of the families’ connection which comes at episode’s end. In fact, despite its use of the mockumentary structure which is generally associated with “realism,” I generally consider Modern Family’s plots to be decidedly unrealistic in their organization. It is, after all, a mockumentary structure which has been deemed imaginary: because the writers don’t believe this family would allow them cameras into their homes, it becomes an artificial construct which allows the writers to tell stories in a certain way. While the thin construct of The Office is largely absent and still somewhat unbelievable, at least there exists some sort of logic which would explain the existence of talking heads. On Modern Family, the lack of any logic whatsoever means that authorship is – for me – moved entirely to the writers as opposed to the characters; these talking heads exist not because they came out of an interview (as you might see on reality shows like The Amazing Race or mockumentaries like The Office) but because the writers wanted to say something more during this particular scene.
I am aware, of course, that the entirety of any episode of a television show is a writer’s creation, and that the talking heads on The Office are just as constructed as those you see on Modern Family. However, because there is not even a semblance of a purpose to these scenes outside of their role in the narrative, their artificiality is much more apparent, and for me more problematic. The Gloria cutaway is concerning not because it has a racial component, but because its racial component is constructed entirely independent of the scene taking place. It doesn’t leave the viewer to figure out the joke, nor does it bring the joke back later in the episode to locate the realization within character action. It chooses to have the imaginary, non-existent editors of the imaginary, non-existent documentary introduce a flashback which introduces the joke’s larger (and somewhat problematic) context.
This concerns me because racial representation becomes more problematic when associated with the writers than it does with the characters. If Cameron does something racist, or if Mitchell or Jay say something which related to questions of race, we can locate that racism to specific situations; when it comes from the writers we lack any sort of context, which leads to an uncomfortable feeling (at least for me personally). This became explicitly clear in last week’s episode, “Chirp,” where Cameron’s efforts to turn Lily into a star are turned upside down by a children’s furniture commercial turning out to be filled with Asian stereotypes (and the conflation of race, with Vietnamese Lily cast despite the commercial’s clear focus on relating to Japanese culture).
To be clear, this storyline is not an inherently terrible idea: I got a good laugh out of “Savezilla,” and Cameron picking up the wrong baby was predictable yet also as funny as they intended. There were, however, two fundamental problems which gave me pause.
First, I have some issues believing that a commercial like this (not just in concept but in execution) would exist in twenty-first century Los Angeles: the presumption was that this was for a local children’s furniture store, as no sense of regionalism was ever provided, and so I think its racial politics were particularly bizarre. Without any sense of what market this is meant for, the commercial seems like a relic of a previous era considering Los Angeles’ diversity, so to see it pop up here seems inherently unnatural (and a bit contrived, a justification for this storyline to exist).
My larger problem, however, is the behavior of the people involved in the commercial. The director is portrayed as pretentious (also known as “foreign,” considering the accent), with satire positioned as a blanket excuse as opposed to a legitimate argument (which it could be), while the choice to have white actors performing the voiceover live is problematic both in the complex racial representation (which goes back to the early days of radio and Amos ‘N Andy) and in the fact that there would be absolutely no circumstance wherein the voice actors would be live on set to record their parts in a commercial like this one. You could perhaps make the argument that they were temping in voices, but then why put on the accents like they were? It all adds up to make you realize that this isn’t an actual commercial set: it’s a giant sitcom setpiece purposefully constructed to make these jokes and nothing more.
When viewed in this context, the racial dynamics become concerning: they were white voice actors because the writers thought that would be funnier, and the director doesn’t bother to explain the intent behind the commercial because it’s funnier if we discover it for ourselves. It may be in character for Cameron to agree to the commercial without fully dissecting its details, but the show’s desire to keep the viewer in the dark makes the stark racial stereotypes that much more alarming. Without a clear sense of attribution, my focus turned to the ways in which the writers exaggerated the racism of the commercial for comic effect; yes, Cameron eventually unleashes a diatribe against the director, and the undercutting of that speech with the picking up of the wrong baby is legitimately funny, but that the commercial would exist at all struck me as perhaps the most unrealistic thing the show has ever done (especially in comparison to previous concerns regarding race or sexuality, which have seemed more natural).
Admittedly, I’m more critical of Modern Family than many, perhaps because people often associate the series with realism and subversion that the show doesn’t actually seem to be interested in. We can call it progressive in its depiction of a homosexual couple raising a Vietnamese baby, but the desexualization of Cameron and Mitchell’s relationship still creates a clear hierarchy in terms of these marital couplings. We can say that the mockumentary style is meant to imply realism or edginess, but in reality the show is the most traditional sitcom out of the current batch of single-camera comedies. The series’ appeal for many is that it gives the appearance of edge with the comfort of the family sitcom: Glee didn’t lose to Modern Family at the Emmys because it’s uneven, but rather because Modern Family is more familiar, and thus easier to swallow, for the Emmys’ voting body.
All of this is to say that the show’s representations of race are sort of trapped in this dichotomy between how Modern Family actually operates and how it is perceived. Based on popular opinion, one might expect that the show would be interested in breaking down social hierarchies relating to something like race; last season, even, the show did stories like Manny’s attempts to hold onto his Colombian culture which offered a funny yet honest take on the limits to the congruity between the two cultures. Something seems to have changed this season, however: I don’t know if the show has bought into its own hype, overemphasizing Gloria’s accent or wanting to take on broader storylines like this commercial, but it is creating an atmosphere where the show, and not its characters or characters within its world, are being associated with authorship of problematically racial storylines without the unpacking or context necessary to fully comprehend their meaning.
And while this change has not forever damaged the series’ reputation, and we’ll need a third example before we can call it a trend, I do think it’s a step down from its first season discourse and a concerning trajectory for the young series.
- While these episodes did not particularly suffer from this problem, my usual concerns relating to the sappy endings scare me in regards to race: any sort of “moral” conclusion risks essentializing the storylines, and I’d be curious to go back and see whether these endings are in place in episodes which explicitly deal with the subject.
- If you want to read even more about race and sitcoms, I’ll have a piece at Antenna tomorrow which relates to the subject. Can you tell I’m in a course covering race and television? Humorously, none of this is actual research for the course, but c’est la vie!