‘Modern Family’ and the Line Between Racism and Satire

Ayaki Kimura '17

Assistant Opinions Editor

Recently, I was watching one of my favorite sitcoms and was caught off-guard by a blatantly racist statement made by one of the characters. Imagine something that a culturally insensitive and bigoted relative might say — one that you have the unfortunate obligation to converse with at family reunions, plastering a smile on your face while resisting the urge to knock him over the head with a book (which might hammer some sense into him) since it is, after all, a family event and you do have to maintain propriety.

The show I had been watching was “Modern Family,” a documentary-style series that captures the daily goings-on of three generations of the Dunphy family, and attempts to diversify the traditional notion of the nuclear family by including less conventional household forms. The clearest example of this concept is the show’s representation of a white, homosexual male couple, Cam and Mitchell, and their adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily.

The problematic statement appeared in Season 6,  Episode 17, titled “Closet?  You’ll Love it!” At Lily’s school talent show, Cam encounters his former nemesis, Andrew, who — in a comical turn of events — is actually married to Mitchell’s former rival, Simon. Much to the chagrin of Cam and Mitchell, both Andrew and Simon are more successful in their careers. Like Cam and Mitchell, Andrew and Simon are also the parents of an Asian adoptee — the difference being that their daughter is Korean. This situation itself would have been fine, were it not for the following statement by Simon: “Yours is from Vietnam, right? We were able to adopt one from Korea. So.”

I was both appalled and totally disconcerted by this statement. “Really?” I thought. “Did he really just say that?”

Cam’s subsequent whispered question to Mitchell also made me cringe: “Are Koreans really better?” By this point, I was pretty horrified, but I continued watching in the hopes that Mitchell would either chide Cam for his ignorance or somehow clarify the racist implications of the question. Much to my disappointment, however, Mitchell simply brushed off the statement with an “I don’t know,” and the rest of the episode failed to address this idea again.

I was left stunned by this lazy attempt at humor through an unnecessarily racialized joke. At first, I rationalized that perhaps this whole scene was supposed to have been perceived as satire. If so, the show totally failed in its attempt. Satire is the use of humor to expose and criticize ignorant views. Ignorant view: check. Humor: debatable, but that seemed to have been the intent, so check. But where was the criticism? There was no self-awareness to the scene. By failing to address why the idea that one’s nationality could make one inherently smarter or better was wrong, the comment failed as an attempt at satire. The show basically just allowed a character to state an ignorant remark without challenging the character’s racist assumption. Racist comments made by ignorant white people are just so funny, right?

The fact that Cam and Mitchell are homosexual, and thus represent a minority group, does not remove their privilege as white males. Thus, the writers should rethink the implications of their decisions in using those characters to bring up questions of racial identity. The comment made by Simon and Andrew clearly relied on the stereotype of the model minority, which has its own negative implications. Not only that, but the fact that the comment was made at the expense of Lily, an Asian character from a different country? The dehumanizing fact that it seemed like Simon and Andrew were using their Korean daughter as an accessory to one-up Cam and Mitchell? Just no. Asians already suffer underrepresentation in the media; do we really need this type of humor to perpetuate stereotypes and the otherness of minorities in America?

Although this episode indicates one example of a problem in the show, there are other issues with “Modern Family.” First, the show only challenges the idea of a white nuclear family. Through its representations — or lack thereof — the show implicitly reinforces the idea that it is attempting to break down: the idea that a nuclear family must be white and middle-class. Not to mention the fact that the show has cast a half-white, half-Korean actress to play Lily, a Vietnamese adoptee. In doing so, the show perpetuates the stereotype that all Asians are the same and erases mixed-race experiences by lumping them together with non-mixed race experiences — while simultaneously erasing monoracial Asians. If “Modern Family” is representative of mainstream American media, then there are clearly many issues to be addressed. At the very least, I hope to see the show step up its game and progress in the future without instances of racialized humor.