Though the dynamic between all three families is often portrayed through crazy situations, funny misunderstandings, and definitely modern flair, the family I will be focusing on for my purposes is the Tucker-Pritchett family. Mitchell, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Cameron (Cam), played by Eric Stonestreet portray two gay men who live together in the Los Angeles area. The sexual orientation of Mitchell and Cam both establish and rely on stereotypes as a base for their characters, but are also resisting and changing boundaries of archetypal gay men to create more three-dimensional characters within the show Modern Family.
When a person’s character is profiled, we often rely on preconceived notions, or stereotypes. Within American culture, gay men are often portrayed as very flamboyant and feminine. We as a society have come to profile gay men as intense lovers fashion, Broadway musicals, and clubbing at gay bars. Many gay men today are considered to be deeply embedded within “hookup culture,” and not looking for a long-term relationship. If they do become involved with a significant other, many men in relationships are stereotyped as either being the feminine gender role or masculine gender role, ascribing to heterosexual lifestyles.
In Modern Family, the basis for both Cam and Mitchell’s characters are supported by these stereotypes. Described all too accurately by Mark Harris, in his article, TV’s New Gay Clichés, Cam embodies the flamboyant archetype of an “OMG! Adorbs! Ka-WEEEEN!” male who is too caught up in whether his chic custom-made shirt cuffs couple his boot-cut denim jeans perfectly. He is portrayed most predominantly as the feminine character of their relationship, especially when Lily gets adopted, when Cam becomes a stay at home dad (Staricek). Whether it is him becoming over-emotional and squealing about locking their baby in the car in the episode “Run For Your Wife,” (S1E6) or him waving his hands in the air as he chases a vehicle down the sidewalk in “Hit and Run,” (S3E5) Cam is “pretty much as camp as they come” (Bowen) when it comes to establishing a dramatic gay representation. Modern Family pokes fun at this stereotypical representation in Season 3, Episode 7, “Treehouse,” when Cam bets Mitchell he can get a woman’s number at the bar. Cam attempts to fool a lady named Katie into believing he is heterosexual, however she is never fazed for a second, stating, “I know you’re gay. It’s obvious… The way you talk and walk and dress and your theatrical hand gestures…” This shows that even when Cam tries to hide it, people such as Katie are perceptive of characteristics that signify gayness, and automatically assume these personality traits ring true.
Mitchell, on the other hand, is just as stereotypically gay as Cam, however portrays it through different means. Though his archetype of gay may not be as common as Cam’s over-the-top performances, Mitchell’s character is “repressed, fussy, and trapped in a permanent state of exasperation” (Harris). He is continually unsure of his footing around his dad Jay about how “gay” he can be. In the episode “Boys Night,” Mitchell and Cam are enjoying martinis with their mutual friend Pepper. Mitchell’s dad Jay shows up and is encouraged to stay to enjoy a drink with them, much to Mitchell’s discomfort. This shows how Mitchell, though openly gay, is still uncomfortable with how much his dad knows about his ‘coming out,’ and shows that even Mitchell himself relies on covering up gay stereotypes around his family. Additionally, Mitchell holds down a job as a lawyer, which contributes to making labeling him as the ‘masculine’ gay in the relationship, which reinforces Cam and Mitchell’s prescribed heterosexual gender roles.
Though stereotypical gay archetypes are used to establish the characters initially, as the series progresses both Mitchell and Cam become more dynamic and three-dimensional people. I believe this is a move purposely employed by Executive Producers Levitan and Lloyd to challenge the audience’s preconceived notions and give them means to continually recreate their idea of a ‘stereotypical gay’. This move innately makes Modern Family a very modern show, presenting new forms of gay representation. This can be compared to past gay depictions such as Will & Grace, which only relies upon gay stereotypes and desexualizing the characters to prevent from “pushing people’s buttons too early” (Denziel) and keep an all-audience appeal.
Both Cam and Mitchell, while portraying some conventional characteristics as basic building blocks, challenge these very traits with other lesser-known aspects of their characters. The audience soon comes to find out that Cam has a background in football and he is very proud of his accomplishments as starting center for the University of Illinois football team. In Season Five, he takes the post as Freshman Football Coach for their local high school. Cam also grew up as a farm –boy in rural Missouri. This shows that while he is gay and portrays stereotypical characteristics on the surface, he is still able to work hard and embrace masculinity proudly.
Though Mitchell does not actively challenge any stereotypes personally, with Cam they both challenge societal representations of gay men in relationships. The sheer fact that both Cam and Mitchell have a long-term relationship based on commitment to one another directly challenges the somewhat negative stereotype of gay men solely looking for hook-ups in bars. This commitment can be shown through the episode “Suddenly, Last Summer,” when gay marriage becomes legal in the state of California. Both Cam and Mitchell become extremely excited to propose to one another almost immediately. This reinforces that though they may not be married currently, the only defining difference between their relationship now and after their wedding would be a legal sheet of paper. Lastly, and probably the biggest challenge to societal stereotypes of gay men is Cam and Mitchell’s adoption of their Vietnamese daughter, Lilly. Raising a child together shows that gay couples are capable of being maternal, caring people, no different than any other heterosexual couple. In the “Pilot,” this progressive move of adoption is preemptively challenged by the conservative patriarch, Jay, stating, “Woooh, that’s a bad idea... kids need a mother!” By having Jay directly assault Cam and Mitchell's progressivity and then eventually come round to fully accepting them as loving parents, it makes the radicalized notions of adoption seem normal, and additionally easier to accept if audiences see an on-screen character adapt their beliefs first.
Retrospectively, Modern Family engages the audience by establishing stereotypical gay representations of Mitchell Pritchett and Cameron Tucker, but eventually expands these stereotypes to become resistive and even challenge boundaries of archetypal gay men that are typically portrayed on American television. This creates more believable, three-dimensional characters for the show to work with. Though Cam will always have a place in his heart for Broadway show tunes, and Mitchell will be fussy and uptight, among other things, Modern Family highlights Cam and Mitchell’s committed relationship and the adoption of their Vietnamese daughter to give depth to their otherwise stereotypical characters.
Deziel, Shanda. "Gaily Prime Time: Homosexual Characters Are Cropping Up All Over the Tube." ABI/INFORM Global. Rogers Publishing Limited, 30 Oct. 2000. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Harris, Mark. "TV's New Gay Clichés." Entertainment Weekly. Film & Television Literature Index, 10 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Levitan, Steve, and Christopher Lloyd, prods. "Modern Family." Modern Family. ABC. N.d. Television.
"Modern Family." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
Staricek, Nicole. "Today's "Modern" Family: A Textual Analysis of Gender in Domestic Sitcom." Auburn University, 6 Aug. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.