Modern Family is no stranger to cultural discussion. The show has won awards for everything from best acting to outstanding directing and casting. In addition to the brilliant dialog and hilarious characters, Modern Family‘s bold approach to contemporary American life and politics has set the standard for effective in-your-face comedy. Throughout the recent episode, “Bringing Up Baby,” fertility, ageism, and gay adoption are all seriously addressed in tastefully humorous scenes and the show’s playful tone is not lost.
In the first episode of Season 4, Phil surprises his father-in-law, Jay, with a poorly planned birthday excursion, Cameron and Mitchell cope after their adoption agreement falls through, and most notably, Gloria reveals that she is pregnant. Gloria, played by Sofía Vergara, has been criticized for embodying the hypersexual and strident stereotypes that dominate representations of Latina women in the media. In the context of the show, however, her character is much more than a ploy for laughs.
Gloria is Jay’s significantly younger Colombian wife, whose beauty is referenced in almost every episode. As Jay’s second wife, her relationship with his children has had its ups and downs. While her lively personality and carefree spirit sets her apart from her exhausted in-laws, her thick Colombian accent is a continual reminder of their cultural differences.
Although many characters of Modern Family posses stereotypical qualities, they are all validated by their multidimensionality. Cameron and Mitchell, the moderately flamboyant gay couple, and Phil and Claire, the all-American middle class couple, represent much more than those labels. The same goes for Gloria’s character. While she is overly celebrated as an exotic sex symbol on the show, the main tension of her marriage with Jay lies within age difference and not race.
In the episode chronicling Jay’s most recent birthday, in which his actual age is undisclosed, he depressingly comes to terms with the fact that he is old. His day is ultimately wrecked by surprises, which he hates, and each unfortunate incident highlights his increasing inability to do what he was once able to. When Gloria conveniently reveals her pregnancy to almost everyone except for her husband, her main hesitation to tell Jay lies within his potential reservations to having a baby at such an old age. There is no mention of how raising a multi-racial baby will affect their relationship or the family. Everyone in the know is more so concerned with Jay’s age rather than their obvious cultural differences and contrasting parenting styles. For this reason, when Gloria makes a comment about her Colombian heritage, it is tasteful and not derogatory.
In assuming that Jay would be opposed to her pregnancy, Gloria tells him, “I can raise it on my own. I have done it before and I can do it now. I come from a very long line of strong Latin woman [sic] whose husbands are nowhere to be found.” While this can be read out of context as a culturally insensitive joke, it is funny because Gloria was referencing her own reality. She did indeed raise her son, Manny, on her own and has previously shared stories of her family members, many of whom are also single parents. In this moment, she is not speaking for her entire demographic; she is defending her own strength and history, and the humor stems from this truth. Viewers are prompted to laugh at Gloria’s random remark about her Colombian family, rather than at Colombians and their culture as a whole.
This important distinction is what sets Modern Family apart from the excess of shows that simply exploit race without making an effort to develop honest human characters. This show has beautifully demonstrated how racial and cultural stereotypes can be utilized in socially conscious comedy. Rather than encouraging the attribution of fictional characteristics to real demographics, Modern Family showcases the humanity of television’s favorite archetypes and challenges the abuse of cultural stereotypes in comedy.