'Modern Family' and Gay Marriage: It's Complicated

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In a slightly depressing column on sex and television earlier this week, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales singled out Modern Family for its portrayal of gay characters. The show, he said, "depicts a gay-male marriage in which both partners are refreshingly dimensional, believable human beings...they're not flawed in the silly, stereotypical ways that once dominated such portrayals." This statement highlights both how far Modern Family has come—and how far it still has to go when it comes to gay couples in relationships.

Eric Stonestreet—the actor who plays Cam, one half of the couple Shales praises in his column—told me he's proud that the show treats his character's family like an equal corner of the three families who make up Modern Family's supporting triangle. He appreciates that the series doesn't need to dwell obsessively on the fact that the show portrays a loving, healthy, stable family headed by two gay parents. But there are limits to that normalization.

While the parents in the other two families regularly touch, kiss, and demonstrate clear, ongoing sexual lives, Modern Family's creators made a big deal over creating a storyline to explain why Mitch and Cam are rarely seen touching, much less flirting, kissing, or displaying other obvious signs of sexual attraction. And in that storyline, the show whiffed. Rather than having Mitch overcome his fear of public displays of affection, the episode shoehorned in a sly kiss so quick that many viewers missed it. It's alright for the audience to know that gay couples kiss. But apparently, the calculation is that, we're just too jumpy to actually watch a very realistic middle-aged and half-overweight gay couple share even a relatively chaste smooch on center-screen.

And the show walks an interesting line on questions of gay identity and sometimes misses out on opportunities to confront homophobia. In last week's episode, "Earthquake," Cam and Mitch took shelter under the table dressed in costumes for an Oscar Wilde-themed brunch. Mitch insisted the couple couldn't die in the quake because "if they find us in these outfits it's going to be very bad for the gays." It was a self-aware little line about the gay community's own internal debates about perception and reputation. But it acquired a sour note later in the show when Nathan Lane showed up to portray an overdramatically swishy stereotype of the kind Shales commended Modern Family for avoiding.

It wasn't the first time Modern Family has mocked one kind of gay performance to showcase the normality of a gay family. In a first-season episode, the characters assumed a friend of Jay, the family patriarch, was gay because of his mannerisms. Rather than convincingly debunking their assumptions, the show let hang the implication that the man was simply deluding himself.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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