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.