If there is one thing I can say with certainty about gender depiction in media, it is that gender is represented as a dichotomy. But let me let you in on a little secret. Gender is not a binary. People actually experience gender on a continuum. Unfortunately, that mentality is rarely reflected in the media we consume because that is not the current social mindset. For example, let’s look at scripted television. If we were to examine the main source of comedy of a TV show on air today, we would see that it often comes from gender-related behavior. The idea of women acting like anything other than the traditional woman, i.e. beautiful, passive, obedient, and high heel wearing, is laugh-inducing. The same goes for men who act like the traditional woman. People are programmed to associate a person’s sex with a set of corresponding gender behaviors and when this is not the case, audiences immediately identify it as “wrong” and find humor in the inconsistency. Case in point: Modern Family.
Modern Family is considered the best comedy on TV right now. The show itself has won four Emmys and it’s viewership is nothing if not consistent. But after recently binge watching all five seasons, I found myself not having such a positive reaction. I honestly don’t think Modern Family is the trailblazer it’s cracked up to be for one main reason: the oppressed characters the show is supposed to be mainstreaming are being scapegoated. Mitch and Cam, the gay couple on the show, are not challenging America’s thinking, as Jesse Tyler Ferguson claimed in a recent interview. These two characters rather, fit perfectly into the stereotyped pigeonhole America has made for them. The same goes for the female characters. Claire is considered the resident bitch of the family simply because she’s assertive. Her authority is rarely appreciated. And Alex’s character is consistently a punchline simply because she values learning over her looks. Every time she refuses to conform to societal norms, she is approached, convinced to change her mind, and eventually gives in, all to the tune of a heart-felt instrumental so everyone at home watching thinks this is how things should be. And the issues with Sofia Vergara’s character should really go without saying.
This phenomenon of using gender stereotypes and gender-related behavior as a main source of comedy raises a series of questions. If society accepted the fact that not all women are traditionally feminine and not all men are traditionally masculine, would the root of all comedy for a large percentage of shows on the air cease to exist? Will a gay man with traditionally feminine qualities always be something an audience laughs at, or will that behavior one day be seen as “normal?” Will an audiences’ impulse to laugh at such behavior be squashed? Only time will tell. Modern Family is just one example of a series that plays with gender roles by having non-traditional characters, but rather than commending these characters for their progressiveness and breaking of gender barriers, they are unfortunately used as rhetorical tools to be laughed at.