Each year, popular television appears to break new cultural barriers. Perhaps its most vital engine is the critically acclaimed, Modern Family, celebrated for its sophisticated portrayal of non-traditional households. But what if I told you Modern Family is no different from most shows in that it fails to address the poor and working class?
In fairness, Modern Family makes great strides for cultural inclusion. Each week, audiences are invited into the homes of first generation Americans, an adopted child, racially and ethnically mixed homes, and, perhaps most boldly, an engaged, gay couple. The fresh familial perspectives offer cross-cultural identification to traditional families while providing inspiration to non-traditional homes across the nation.
Despite efforts to represent with dignity the often underrepresented, at least one American family appears left out completely—the working class. Never do we find any of the characters struggling to make ends meet. In fact never does money become an issue at all. Originally it depicted only single-income households, and now it portrays second incomes as purely disposable. Attention to postmodern architecture, fine clothing, and expensive automobiles all help serve television’s singular mission—put viewers in the mood to consume.
So while on one hand the show bravely charts new territory by highlighting issues of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, on the other hand it merely perpetuates fantasies of the American dream. Upholding the age-old television formula, it depicts affluent, attractive characters working through “uptown” problems. One episode centered on “flipping” a house investment, while another involved hiring a nanny. Here the ambiguity of the term, “modern,” begins to unfold. Modern Family not only depicts America’s new family unit, it also provides a modern— that is to say—sleek, sexy, and sophisticated fantasy of upper-class identification. To be fair, televised escapism is nothing new, nor is criticism of this phenomenon. Nor is it possible to represent every family type simultaneously.
Still, for a show purporting to represent the modern family unit, Modern Family ignores the growing gap between the rich and poor in the United States. The median income of the true modern family cannot afford the affluent lifestyles presented here. Again, television has long enticed audiences with the proverbial carrot of consumer culture. But for a show that attempts to represent the changing face of the American family unit, Modern family makes no such effort socio-economically. Instead, viewers are universally trained to identify with the lives and struggles of the economically elite.
What makes Modern Family’s omission of working class culture especially troublesome is that it also asserts itself as a show of social conscience, perpetually pushing cultural boundaries. Yet as it does so, it simultaneously pushes the working class family to the periphery of both popular culture and, in turn, progressive struggles for social change. This comes at a time when working class issues are already inaccurately pitted against causes such as environmentalism and immigration (both reoccurring issues on Modern Family). To leave the poor and working class out of the show is to leave them out of an important political conversation. Such omission only exacerbates the perceived antagonism between progressivism and the working class. For these reasons, it is understandable why some working-class families may fail to identify with such shows and the issues they address. In reality, there is nothing elitist about cultural tolerance or the desire to preserve our planet.
Traditionally, working class families are either absent from sitcoms or, when present, caricaturized as small-minded buffoons. Perhaps most notable is Archie Bunker, the working class protagonist who feared all things progressive. Let us also not forget actor, Ed O’Neil, who, before gracing the screen of Modern Family, famously portrayed the working class moron, Al Bundy, a character purposely designed to foil the affluent, culturally refined, and loving father, Cliff Huxtable. More recently, King of Queens protagonist, Doug Heffernan, shed only a dim light on American union workers as lazy, content, simpletons.
Perhaps two of the most successful sitcoms to portray working-class culture with relative dignity were Cheers and Roseanne (Cheers still staged its drama in a bar). The success of these shows begs the question of whether they could survive today. Roseanne ultimately felt compelled to flip its working-class script with a rags-to-riches plotline before meeting its demise.
There are certainly other notable exceptions. Today I would argue the family-friendly sitcom, The Middle, warmly portrays the working class family, albeit ultimately falling short of the class-generated catharsis Rosanne provided. Nevertheless its successful run demonstrates that audiences are still willing to engage working-class culture on television. Alternatively, Modern Family succeeds precisely where The Middle fails (just as did Cheers) regarding issues of cultural diversity, which is precisely the problem: Hollywood portrays these issues as politically antagonistic when in reality they cover the same territory.
My aim here is not to chastise Modern Family or Hollywood in general. On the contrary, we may praise Hollywood—and Modern Family in particular—for playing a critical role in shifting cultural perspectives of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in America. Regarding the poor and working class, however, Hollywood still does more to perpetuate counter-productive stereotypes than broaden our horizons. I hope we may inspire a more dignified portrayal of poor and working class culture on popular television, particularly as it relates to issues of cultural diversity and social change. Maybe then we can facilitate much needed collaboration between working class politics and the various social and environmental issues that affect us all. Perhaps producers will be pleasantly surprised by the results. While working class viewers may lack the disposable income advertisers crave, we/they may offer more than meets the cash register.
Kevin Marinelli is Assistant Professor of rhetoric at Young Harris College in Young Harris, Georgia. His research interests include ideology, consumer culture, and materialism.
Anne Phillips says
You make great points! There was that one episode where Gloria went back to her old neighborhood with Phil meet with a potential buyer of her condo but they ended up hanging in the salon where she used to work for years. She fondly remembers her salon ladies and expressed some guilt for leaving them behind, but there could have been more done there. In the end, the trophy wife trope and Latina caricaturization of Gloria make me uncomfortable.
Not sure if my FB posted comment will show here, so this is an experiment.
Anne, you stole my comment! Either that or great minds think alike? LOL. Well said.
The first few times I watched Modern Family I found it so strange it might be from another planet. I thought Gloria’s accent was phony for the character, and I was offended. (I live in a city with a large Latino population and had met Columbians who don’t sound like that.) Since I grew up in fundamentalist Kansas with abusive parents, any show about suburban bliss is something I won’t relate to.
Since it went into syndication I’ve watched it more and I’m able to enjoy it when in the right mood. I realized Gloria’s accent is real partly because I recognized the y to j sound in the word “yo” which is common in some Latino areas and I also saw a clip of the actress saying she would do an American accent if she could.
I’ve come to expect this sort of thing from TV – an unrealistic show about a suburban family where there are never any problems with money, traffic, bored or destructive children, abuse, politics, denial, or anything else that’s real. The mother is always skinny and blond, they always drive everywhere and have the latest gadgets, beautiful homes, etc. Modern Family is another of these but better than most.
In real life the suburbs are boring and hostile to anyone without a car. This includes residents who aren’t old enough to drive. Growing up in a car-dependent place with uncaring parents, the boredom and isolation were traumatic in themselves. These shows never address the fact that America is rapidly becoming one big oil-dependent gridlock. If only most of our towns had infrastucture based on trains! Being stranded in the suburbs is one of the reasons teenagers turn to drugs and destructive behavior. At least it relieves the boredom.
One thing I’ve gotten from TV over the years is examples of healthy supportive relationships, which I did not see growing up. I think this is very valuable and Modern Family does this well. I found Phil very strange at first, but I’m starting to appreciate his creativity and supportiveness. So even though the show is very unrealistic in some ways, I appreciate it. The Middle has good relationships also, and this is another show that took me a while to appreciate.
L.A. Kurth says
Thanks! It’s interesting too, that in leaving out working class families, Modern Family, for all its significant merits, misses the chance to include all those gay and non-white families who are poor–and there are plenty.
I’ve watched Modern Family a few more times, but I think I have to stop because it’s getting depressing. I don’t have relationships with my abusive parents and I’m single. I’ve always wanted a happy marriage and I wonder more and more if it will ever happen.
I have lots of friends, but not close ones because they are busy with their families. Everyone on Modern Family except the children is happily coupled. It’s reminders of what I don’t have. Also, I find Cam and Mitchell’s relationship unrealistic. The people I’ve known who were bitchy and stuck up like Mitchell didn’t have long-term relationships because no one would stay around them that long.
I don’t watch dramas (except for Burn Notice) because the violence and negativity make me feel so bad. I’ve always watched comedy. I don’t like All in the Family because it’s so negative and unpleasant. I’ve known people like that in real life and don’t need to watch them on TV! My favorite comedies are the Dick Van Dyke Show, Two and a Half Men, Mom, and the Big Bang Theory. Mom is a new show about a working-class family in which the mother and grandmother (both single) are recovering alcoholics. The first season dealt with the teenage pregnancy of the daughter. It’s very well done and very funny. As of now it’s supposed to come back next season. So that’s one example that I hope will continue for a few years and even better if it maintains its current quality (most shows don’t). Kudos to CBS for making and maintaining such daring shows!
I’ve stopped watching Two Broke Girls partly because it’s so raunchy and partly because they shout all their lines. It was a good show before it got so crude. The last few times I watched it the plots seemed more and more unbelievable.
Good Times was so unrealistic that I can’t watch it as an adult. I watched it as a child but with my Kansas background found it incomprehensible. I never watched Sanford and Son because I found Mr. Sanford so unpleasant.
I watched Roseanne for a long time but after several years when the lives of the characters seemed to go downhill I stopped because it was depressing. It may be unreasonable, but I need a show with characters I like and plots that don’t make me feel bad. There are enough unpleasant people and horrible things in real life.
M Warner says
“Raising Hope” (R.I.P.): working class morons, or subversive humor? I vote for the latter, mostly because I liked it so much.
Actually, on reflection, I guess it was both. As a working class moron myself, though, I still mourn its passing.
In the UK the comedy “Rising Damp” was a fair portrayal of working class/lower middle class/and ethnic characters, set against the background of dismal bed-sit life. The bigotted, stingy landlord is a classic character. The tenants are realistic.