“The truth is that all comedy has a victim.”
Buckle your seatbelts – this is going to be a long ride!
Is Modern Family sexist? Racist? Nationalist? Homophobic? Misogynist? Does it stereotype? Is it comedy? Satire? Commentary?
Is a TV show ever just a TV show? Can it be? Why do I like it if it’s so (fill in this blank with any of the words above)? Does this make me sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.? Is it an exercise in white privilege to be able to watch this show without being offended? Am I lacking as a feminist?
Does it matter that an American with Korean ancestry – Elaine Ko – is a staff writer and producer for the show and that she was also a staff writer for Family Guy, a show that’s not known for being politically correct in any way, shape, or form? (check this wiki article if you aren’t already familiar with Family Guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Family_Guy )
Just to get an idea – Family Guy
Does it matter that the adults in the show who have jokes made about their ethnicities, genders, sexual preferences, etc. have chosen to play out those roles and jokes for seven seasons? Yeah, they are getting paid the big bucks, but these are fantastically great actors who deserve it; if this show is all of the above, are they choosing to ignore their pride or dignity for money or opportunity? (let’s go ahead and acknowledge that, if so, this is not the first time in entertainment history that this would be happening)
Does it matter that Lily’s mother in real life is a Korean adoptee and permits her daughter to act in this role? If the show is all of the above, does it mean that she is more interested in money or opportunity?
AM I TAKING IT TOO SERIOUSLY? ARE YOU?
Do we only see what we want to see?
Some Context (why I am thinking about these things):
My fiancé and I keep a pretty unconventional schedule. The part of it that always seems to draw the most comment is the usual timing of our dinner – around 1230 AM. At that time, we take our dinner into the living room, sit on the couch, give thanks for our food and to each other for the cooking of it, and fire up Modern Family.
We don’t have a TV and streaming is a (sad) joke in “Digital India”, so we watch the same series every night on my laptop because it’s one of the few we own and it’s a favorite of mine. We have just started season 3.
On occasion, we pause the show to clear up any cultural references– pop or otherwise – that my fiancé may not understand. During these times, it seems that we’ve been figuring some other things out, too.
Additionally, I was speaking with a friend of mine who happens to be a Korean adoptee and she told me that although she likes the show, the jokes regarding Lily made her very uncomfortable and that she felt they were racist. This also prompted me to try watching the show from her POV.
A Teeny Bit of Data:
Pause. “OMG. That’s so racist.” “Why?” “Well, she’s Asian and he called her ‘my little dumpling’.” “What’s wrong with that?” “Well, he’s only calling her that because she’s Asian. If she were white, he wouldn’t call her that – he’d probably say something like ‘my little girl’ or ‘my cutie pie’ or whatever.” “But she is Asian.” “Yeah, I know, but…” “To me, it’s not racist. I don’t think he means to be racist. I guess everyone just takes it differently.”
Pause. “I can’t believe they just said that. I can’t believe Claire just asked Gloria that.” (“Since when do you speak English?” from the Halloween episode)
I’ll probably address Gloria’s accent, etc. later.
*There are numerous other examples, but you get the idea.
Search the internet and you will undoubtedly find a plethora of posts decrying Modern Family for all of the reasons above. You may find a few posts that counter these, but they are lesser in number. Many of these articles make valid points, both for and against. However, none of them really gave me the answers I was seeking.
What I came to realize is that no one else can answer these questions for me; I have to answer them for myself. They can inform my answer, but they can’t provide it. Perhaps these musings will do the same for you.
“COMEDY CREATES INHERENT DIVISIONS OF THOSE INSIDE THE JOKE AND THOSE OUTSIDE. AND QUITE FRANKLY, YOUR REACTION LARGELY DEPENDS ON WHETHER YOU RELATE MORE TO THE MAKER OF THE JOKE OR THE VICTIM.” (Quoted from: “Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK VS. THE CONTEXT OF COMEDY”)
If this is the case, we need to identify who the makers of the jokes are and who the victims are in a sitcom. The writers are the joke makers and the actors are the willing vehicles of the jokes – so who are the victims?
It is generally understood that in this medium (a tv sitcom) some of the actors are really avatars for the writers as joke makers and some of the actors are the necessary and willing victims of the joke. A joke is like a punch – if there is no one to receive it, no place for it to land, then it will have no impact. It goes nowhere and essentially means nothing.
Consider the example where Jay calls Lily his “little dumpling”. For this to be a joke as described above, there needs to be a victim. It’s pretty difficult to find the victim here.
Is it Lily, because she is being described in a particular way – regardless as to the fact that it is intended as a positive comment – because she is Asian? But Lily doesn’t hear this comment, is young enough that she might not catch the more subtle “benevolent racism” in it, and may not even respond if she did. Lily is not the victim in this joke.
Then who is?
Jay. Jay is the victim of the writers’ joke. The joke is being made on Jay by the writers. How so? Jay is a man who likely prides himself on having a “modern family” – a gay son, a Latina second wife, and an Asian adopted granddaughter. If that doesn’t break some of the traditional molds of what a white man his age would have expected his family to be like, I don’t know what would. Yet, he still makes a comment that is kind of racist. He is so comfortable with the idea that his family fits the current definition of diversity that he can say such things without any awareness of their potential negative impact and without any irony.
That is the joke. It may or may not be funny, but that’s it.
What’s the problem with it, then? Well, do you relate more to the maker of the joke or the victim? Are you identifying the maker of the joke and the victim incorrectly?
I, personally, relate to the maker – it is not uncommon for older white men in my family and others like it to say things kindly and easily that make us shudder to hear in contemporary society and would not say ourselves.
If you identify with the intended victim of the joke here, Jay, then you probably don’t get what the joke is supposed to be or you might be offended if you do. What’s the joke, he was just being nice, etc.
If you misidentify the victim as Lily, then you are relating to her for reasons that have to do with personal relativism and those may be too strong to overcome to be able to accept this as a joke in any fashion (admittedly, this is what makes comedy difficult and will be a different post).
If you are my fiancé and none of it occurred to you as a joke, but rather just as regular dialogue in the show, you may be coming from a different place, culture, society, and definition of racism – and THAT will be an entirely different post unto itself!
In the interest of not making this post tl;dr, I’m going to cut it here. I will be continuing to write about this in my coming posts, though. It’s a topic of great interest to me.
The example above does not explain or alleviate any allegations of racism towards Modern Family and there are many more examples to draw from (and I will). However, it should already make one pause and take a second, critical look. Perhaps this show strikes all the wrong chords on a first watch because we are taking everything as it comes at us, without thinking more about potential complexity – which is the opposite of what we expect out of a sitcom anyway.
By and large, when it comes to the potentially racist themes that run through the show, I find that the victim of the joke is often the one who made the joke to begin with – and in a meta way, we are the victims of the joke because so many keep looking to the title and asking “but how can it be called Modern Family when they are so racist, sexist, stereotypical, etc.,?”
Maybe we’ll explore the answer to that later, too.
Thoughts? I know you’ve got ’em. Same with ideas, questions, concerns, and the like. Leave them below for me, would ya?
Btw, Stella is probably my favorite character *^_^* SHE’S SO CUTE!!!!!!!!!!!!