Since debuting in September 2009, ABC’s Modern Family has become nothing short of a phenomenon. Chronicling the hilarious exploits of an extended family living in Los Angeles, it is now the most watched sitcom on American television and has won a slew of high-profile awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2009 and 2010. Yet aside from enjoying critical and commercial success, the series has also gained a reputation for pushing the boundaries of the domestic sitcom. Indeed, even its very title suggests that Modern Family paints an original, more authentic portrait of 21st century home life. That said, while this status is largely warranted by storylines involving gay adoption, interracial marriage and step-parenting, I maintain that the series is still a decidedly conventional example of its genre. In particular, I think it is interesting to consider just how squarely the series’ three main households conform to traditional notions of gender and class.
Back in the early days of television, domestic sitcoms were almost exclusively populated by white, nuclear families living in middle-class neighbourhoods. As Mary Beth Haralovich has observed, “sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s centred on the family ensemble and its home life: breadwinner father, homemaker mother, and growing children placed within the domestic space of the suburban home.” Consequently, little room was made for depictions of working-class or minority characters, and women were routinely portrayed as submissive housewives. During the 1980s, of course, the emergence of more socially aware series like The Cosby Show and Roseanne meant that such misrepresentations began to be challenged; the eponymous Roseanne Connor appears to have left an especially lasting impression, her “unruly” behaviour having opened the door for increasingly assertive female characters. Nevertheless, from Married with Kids to The Simpsons, the middle-class nuclear family has continued to remain a staple of the American domestic sitcom.
It may seem odd to argue that the three households in Modern Family so obviously conform to this traditional setup – especially since one includes two gay men – but it does not take much effort to realise they are all riffs on the same basic pattern. Lets consider the Dunphy family first, who most clearly demonstrate my point. Comprised of working dad Phil (Ty Burrell), stay-at-home mum Claire (Julie Bowen) and their three kids, Haley, Alex and Luke, they are essentially a carbon copy of the classic situation outlined by Haralovich. Certainly, although Claire is by no means a passive homemaker and likes to remind viewers that she once had a promising business career, she is still left to look after the house while Phil goes out to earn a living. They also enjoy an affluent middle-class lifestyle, residing in a spacious and tastefully decorated suburban home complete with the latest high-tech gadgets. Combined with their comic bickering, then, the Dunphies can easily be regarded as the heir to iconic sitcom families like the Goldbergs and the Bundies.
It can therefore be seen that each of Modern Family’s three main households conform to traditional notions of gender and class that have governed the domestic sitcom for the past seventy years. Like so many beloved series before it, Modern Family set in a middle-class suburbia where the men go out to work, the women look after the home and everyone lives as one big happy family. This not to say that the series has not broken new ground or deserve its place in TV history; certainly, to have gotten away with storylines involving gay adoption in a primetime family show is no mean feat. What it does mean, however, is that beyond its progressive facade and suggestive title, Modern Family remains a fundamentally traditional example of its genre. For the moment, at least, one can only wonder when the American domestic sitcom will finally shake its conservative past and give us an authentic and truly modern family.