Where openly gay couples on network television were once a novelty, it seems as if their portrayal in television is now en vogue — mainstream, “modern,” and “normal” you could even say. Sitcoms Modern Family and the recently canceled The New Normal both testify to this. They’ve both been noted for their depictions of gay characters, which are generally positive inasmuch as they are long overdue, gaining relevance and merit on the backs of a Supreme Court Trial for marriage equality, the once sexually exclusive Boy Scouts of America now allowing gays to openly join their ranks, among a host of other large and small feats trending towards a more inclusive society. But while this is great in theory, it’s not so much in practice.
While gay and lesbian sexual identities are presented as redeeming features of each show’s characters, these representations always incline towards the liberal while retreating to the conservative, centering on the experiences of white people — and in particular white gay men. Although it might be fair to say that prejudice is an equal opportunity employer (no one’s exempt from cultural bias, these shows implicitly purport), it’s deeply troubling that the redemption of one historically marginalized group so often comes at the expense of another. To boil it down, being gay has become the latest excuse for being unabashedly racist.
The New Normal, created by Ryan Murphy of Glee, Nip/Tuck, and American Horror Story fame, is this trend’s most egregious offender. In typical Murphy style, Normal bends genre as much as its characters bend their tongues, mashing a gushy (though horribly contrived) and heartwarming story — centered around the birth of Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David’s (Justin Bartha) first child, carried by doe-eyed surrogate Goldie (Georgia King) — with endless bigoted jabs, most of which come from Jane (Ellen Berkin), Goldie’s mother.
If racist humor is the spice that gave New Normal its scintillating and edgy “bite,” its attempts at sentimentality are arguably what watered it down. Goldie’s daughter Shania, who possesses an earnestness not found anywhere else in Ryan Murphy’s fantastically sterile, vapid universe, is most akin to Little Miss Sunshine’s Olive Hoover, a girl who strives for purity in a world of corruption. Shania’s heart is matched in warmth by the scathing bigotry of her grandmother, who dished out racism, sexism, and homophobia to anyone who challenged the mores of her staunchly conservative upbringing — most often Bryan and David themselves, who she at first found disgusting, as well as Bryan’s assistant, a black queen played by Real Housewives of Atlanta’s Nene Leakes, whose depiction often bordered on minstrelsy.
It’s this tension that underlied the logic of The New Normal‘s humor: no one was a real person, therefore there were no stakes involved whenever a character said something utterly naïve (as Shania was oh-so-prone to) or morally reprehensible (which Nana never took a break from). This liberal, gay-positive dish was one best served cold, accompanied by a side of post-racial satire, topped with some nice sprigs of good ol’ misogyny, sitting on a bed of ham-fisted, completely bland characters.
Undeniably, the show traded its suburban, sun-drenched vision of the “New Normal” (taking place in Hollywood, where celebrities and vapidity abound) for a rather cynical take on cross-cultural relations. As Lauren Bans of GQ wrote, coining the term “Gaycism” in the process, The New Normal promoted “the wrongheaded idea that having gay characters gives you carte blanche to cut PC corners elsewhere.” She cites New Normal, along with the quickly canceled CBS comedy Partners and ABC’s Modern Family as flagrant examples of this trend, charging these shows with taking the most palatable representations of gay identity (white, male, upper-middle-class professionals) and using them to denigrate the rest of the multicultural universe, because apparently gays can’t be bigots, regardless of what they say, do, or promote.
“Progress,” by this definition, is best represented by the success of white, male faces. As Willa Paskin of Salon wrote of New Normal, calling it nothing short of hate speech, the show used its vision of “equality” to bring us to a point of unfiltered frankness, merely making honesty the “pretext for behaving like an asshole,” somehow managing to keep white supremacy, misogyny, and other barefaced displays of hateful and discriminatory sentiment — like one agonizingly transphobic joke about an intersex person who was shown to be completely socially inept, giggling at the dinner table, speaking in gibberish — firmly intact. It’s a ruse, I tell you.
Disappointingly, this cynical slant on multiculturalism merely makes the universe of The New Normal and the ethos of its time a place of thinly veiled bigotry promulgated by a jaundiced take on the idea of equality and cross-cultural inclusivity. Modern Family, which has earned a slew of awards, chief among them the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, falls prey to this as well, despite being a little nicer on its characters. Where the show is technologically progressive for a sticom, it remains latched to typical sitcom conventions, treading towards the formulaic: clumsy and ignorant dads (racist, sexist Jay Pritchett and his son-in-law Phil Dunphy) and their loud, overbearing wives (Gloria Delgado-Pritchett and Claire Dunphy); the Pritchett-Tuckers have the conservative, suit-and-tie-clad lawyer, Mitchell, and his flamboyant, paisley-wearing partner Cam, who is a former clown. The kids include the irresponsible, ditzy, unmotivated teenager Haley Dunphy, precocious Alex, and their younger brother Luke, who’s as immature and crude as any typical boy; Manny Delgado, Gloria’s son from her first marriage, a 12-going-on-60 romantic who’s often out of his league with “the ladies,” as he calls them; and Cam and Mitch’s daughter, Lily, whom the couple adopted from Vietnam.
The writing of and around Gloria Delgado-Pritchett is undoubtedly the best example of television writers attempting to exploit a sardonic, multicultural vision. She is typecast as unmistakably Latina, speaking in a thick Colombian accent — often too loudly and quickly for her family to understand — and frequently waxes about her experiences in rural Colombia. While Modern Family could’ve easily taken these aspects of Gloria’s identity and used them to develop her character in meaningful ways, they feature as nothing other than a throwaway gag or petty witticism, consistently making Gloria the butt-end of her own exaggerated identity. In this past season’s finale, the entire family goes to Florida for a funeral, and when Gloria arrives, dressed head to toe in black in an extremely tight, chic dress and a fussy headpiece with lace, Haley asks if Gloria’s at all hot. She replies, but not without overplaying her ethnic distinction first: “In Colombia we take death very seriously.”
These kinds of jokes, littered throughout Modern Family, at once suggest that Gloria is stereotyped as an Other, but only insofar as she stereotypes herself, usually in a hollow vein, absolving the rest of the family from being accused of racism. For whatever reason, while the show’s writers have no problem playing up Gloria’s ethnically coded sexuality for a quick joke, they are in fact willing to give considerate attention to the way they portray the sexuality of Cam and Mitchell, the show’s gay couple. It wasn’t until Season 2 of Modern Family that Cam and Mitch were shown kissing on camera, and although their chastity drew fire from fans, who went so far as to make a Facebook group petitioning to show the couple being physically intimate, the writers maintained that the story arc building up to the kiss was one they had been developing since the show’s inception. Those same writers were hardly patient, however, when writing Gloria’s sexuality, at best making her an exotic, objectified MILF, and at worst bashing her for being a potential gold-digger — in good, old family jest, of course.
It’s both telling and frustrating that Modern Family is so discriminatory in its portrayals, especially surrounding issues of race, when the show is purportedly all about modernity. One of Haley’s story arcs contained multiple allusions to (and then an eventual revelation of) the fact that she’d lost her virginity; in the episode “Caught in the Act” the Dunphy children accidentally walk in on Phil and Claire having sex, sparking a series of awkward and honest conversations about romance and physical intimacy. If the universe of Modern Family — which is a slightly exaggerated version of our own — can find a way to render the complexities of sex, love, and intimacy with its white characters, Gloria’s consistent pigeonholing as a hypersexual caricature is not only hypocritical, but just downright racist; its multicultural schtick is nothing short of a gimmick masking its pervasive, biased representations.
Across the board, Modern Family’s characters of color suffer from the worst kinds of racist satire passed off as post-racial irony. In the Season 2 episode “Unplugged,” Gloria is compared to an “obnoxious, squawking parrot,” and Mitch and Cam lament that they might be raising “the only under-achieving Asian baby in America.” Then, in order to secure Lily a spot in one of the most prestigious preschools, they exaggerate their “diversity” (in addition to playing up their gayness, Cam goes into a painfully disturbing rant about how he’s one-fourteenth Cherokee, speaking in a caricatured “Native American” accent), only to be beaten out by a biracial, disabled lesbian couple with a black baby. That the aforementioned recent season finale includes one drawn-out joke about how Gloria can’t show her face in Florida because she was once affiliated with a whorehouse makes this brand of joke-telling all the more pernicious, supporting the stereotype that immigrants are either too naïve, lazy, or incompetent to know how to properly navigate the American legal system (Jay says it’s “quick and easy,” which was also the name of the whorehouse, Gloria mentions in a confessional). When Mitch asks if Gloria “really looks like the kind of woman who would run a brothel,” a close-up of her ass is the only answer he needs.
The takeaway message seems to be that stereotyping a person is fair game when you view her as nothing more than a sexual object or a comically racist cliché. This kind of writing is plainly unintelligent and unfathomably inconsistent with the show’s purported mission. In Modern Family as well as the real world, people of color are seen as existing purely to confirm or disprove white liberals’ preconceptions about modernity — which we now includes gay, white men — and are never given the luxury to exist in their own right. You could say that a step forward for some is still a step forward, and that we should applaud progress wherever we can get it, but I’m skeptical of the convenient, pervasive pattern that progress for “some” means progress for whites, and that people of color are expected to ingratiatingly sit back and applaud their successes as they continue to be stereotyped and objectified.
The New Normal won’t be coming back next season because it was a bit too mean-spirited, far too inconsistent, and more grating than entertaining. Modern Family will return for its fifth season this fall because its sugary familial tone is easily digestible and admittedly occasionally heartwarming. But despite the difference in tone, Modern Family‘s politics aren’t so different from those of The New Normal. In fact, perhaps the show is so palatable to audiences and critics precisely because its brand of humor doesn’t stray too far from the kinds of racist, sexist, and discriminatory humor that are anything but modern.