Yesterday, ACLU Action launched an online campaign urging producers of the massively popular sitcom Modern Family to incorporate a gay-wedding narrative in the show’s sixth season. In an era when no major network shows feature an openly gay character (this season saw the cancellations of The New Normal, Partners, Happy Endings, and Smash), Modern Family stands out in that it features two gay characters who are in a monogamous relationship and are raising an adopted daughter. The ACLU’s campaign argues that the couple should be wed, just like the two heterosexual couples on the show. Despite the good intentions on display, the campaign is completely absurd.
I’m not the only person to think so: Daniel D’Addario writes at Salon, “Pushing a couple who barely seem to like one another into marriage when they’re common-law spouses reads less as positive forward momentum and more as the sort of normative pressure that gay opponents of gay marriage push back against.” Slade Sohmer of HyperVocal had a similar opinion, writing, “While marriage is an important step for some couples, and a great option for every couple, stop trying to force every gay tandem in America to join the institution.” I agree with both critics, and must assert my own opinion that these two fictional gay men, who in five seasons have only kissed each other once on air, are in no way ready for the popular, government-sanctioned version of the commitment they already hold. (The writers addressed criticism that Cameron and Mitchell were not at all affectionate with each other by explaining, via dialogue, that Mitchell was uncomfortable with public displays of affection; the episode in which Cameron and Mitchell kiss — titled, aptly, “The Kiss” — soon followed.)
I expected to see similar responses on other mainstream sites and especially media outlets run and marketed toward gay men. Perhaps I was being naïve, as there’s little response to the ACLU Action’s campaign against Modern Family. It’s a bit surprising since the sitcom is the number one TV comedy in America, and it’s a show that is watched in both the Obama and Romney households. How can a news item about such a popular show, one that coincides with two major Supreme Court cases concerning same-sex marriage, go relatively unnoticed and not commented upon? Could the fact that it’s about the LGBT community have something to do with it? Compared to the numerous weekly think pieces about HBO’s Girls, which ludicrously treat that show’s male and female characters as representative of literally every single 20-something America, it’s a bit disconcerting that no one noticed the ridiculous notion that the only two major gay characters on television should, without question, be married.
The sad fact about the way LGBT characters are portrayed in the media is this: each one must fit into a convenient packaging, and each one must represent what the straight world believes to be true about those who fall under the LGBT umbrellas. While we’ve made massive strides in representation in the last decade, there’s still a very narrow gaze pointed at LGBT characters, particularly those on television shows created, produced, and marketed to the straight mainstream. It’s impossible not to politicize any gay character on television, and Modern Family’s Cameron and Mitchell, like the gay characters who paved the way for them, are safe, subdued, “normal” gay men whose typical lives spark little debate on the show (and therefore provide fodder for much discourse among critics). That marriage is their chief concern is telling about the straight world’s idea of gay men; that Cameron and Mitchell might not want to get married didn’t cross the minds of the people who launched the ACLU campaign.
It also says a lot about wedding culture in this country, a culture that is starting to absorb the LGBT communities. Weddings on television are typically used as a ratings grab and, often, a plot device for a series finale (see: tonight’s episode of The Office). The underlying notion of a wedding as the ultimate achievement is ridiculous, and that’s where all people — straight, gay, queer, male, female, transgender, what have you — should find the ACLU’s suggestion that two fictional characters be married in order to make a statement old-fashioned and, in a way, puritanical. Marriage equality strives to make matrimony an option for everyone, but not something that should be forced upon anyone. To urge that a couple get married to make a point is destructive enough; to urge that two made-up people on a TV show get married is downright idiotic.
Should the ACLU continue to campaign for the rights of fictional TV characters, perhaps it should look at the other issues on Modern Family, particularly the not-so-modern fact that its two adult female characters are stay-at-home moms (which is curious, since Cameron and Mitchell are the only couple on the show who both work). Or, even better, the ACLU can make a push to avoid politicizing the characters we see on television, who, despite what any cultural critic with a laptop and an Internet connection would have you believe, do not necessarily represent the vast, varied communities to which they belong.