During a recent conversation with a colleague about Working Girl and Baby Boom—two iconic eighties films documenting the movement of women into the workplace—I questioned whether popular culture has progressed from these depictions of tennis-shoe-clad secretaries shuffling to midtown in two-piece suits. If we are to believe the, invariably male, writers of network sitcoms, it would appear that mothers have long ago retired those power suits in exchange for 1950s gender ideals. There would be nothing wrong with network television featuring stay-at-home moms if these comedies also showcased at least a few working mothers and stay-at-home dads. But … alas … network sitcoms appear to be in a Mad Men time warp despite demographic changes, the growth of female-headed households, and dire recent warnings about the coming end of men. Popular culture has no problem featuring single working women. Granted, these women usually spend 95% of their time talking about men, but I spent approximately three hours yesterday dissecting a recent relationship, so perhaps I’m not the best feminist to pass judgment here. Although women clearly can still “make it after all” on television, this only remains true until they get a ring on their finger and enter the delivery room. One can always point out exceptions like Up All Night (which I’ll admit, I’ve never seen), but, in most cases, network comedies remain particularly loathe to feature modern, shifting parental roles. Which brings me to Modern Family.
New Yorker television critic Nancy Franklin recently pointed out that Modern Family, one of the most popular and critically acclaimed sitcoms of recent years, features surprisingly outdated gender norms despite the fact that it is ostensibly a show about … you know … modern families. I should preface this by saying that Modern Family is on my DVR every week because it features one of the best ensemble casts on network television. Despite the conventional story structure, the jokes are usually inventive, witty, and really freakin’ funny. (I’m thinking about the recent bit with the unintentionally naughty stuffed animals on top of Cam and Mitch’s car and giggling.) But this innovative mindset takes a decided U-turn back to Mitt Romney’s America when it comes to the show’s depiction of gendered spheres. The leading female characters, Claire and Gloria, are both housewives, who, funny though they may be, rarely express any interests besides yelling at their husbands and being so emotional. It’s a testament to the strength of these two actresses—particularly Sofia Vergara—that they can create such multifaceted characters given the oddly retro material. While Gloria is constructed as the archetype of the sexy younger wife who is ALWAYS wearing a cocktail dress, Claire is forced to play the humorless shrew who invariably looks as though she is in desperate need of a Klonopin. Neither of their husbands is ever seen with a vacuum, and if these men do attempt to move into the “female” sphere (e.g., Jay trying to pick out a stroller or Phil attempting to make his daughters clean the bathroom), they always fail miserably because they are apparently stuck in an episode of I Love Lucy, minus the single beds and bongo drums.
Speaking of I Love Lucy, what were the writers thinking with the recent episode in which Mitch and Cam trade spheres like a gay, 21st-century Lucy and Ricky? Yes, even the gay couple, seemingly the most modern of the bunch, uphold conservative notions of gender and work: Cam, the couple’s more effeminate member, stays at home with their adoptive daughter while Mitch financially supports them. Apparently, those who are feminine can’t handle money, and those with a deeper voice can’t possibly figure out how to close a child’s lunch box. Seriously? Lunch boxes are made so that five-year-olds can operate them; I’m pretty sure a lawyer could do it. Although Cam at no point pops bonbons into his mouth and Mitch does not cover their kitchen in flour, they both may as well have, for they fail to traverse gender norms as epically as their straight 1950s counterparts. By episode’s end, order is restored (with a little help from the always angry Claire), and traditional gender norms prevail. Yay?
Where is the new seesaw marriage described by Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men, wherein men and women switch off parenting and paid duties depending on whose career is in ascendancy or who is better equipped for either roll? When Phil’s career is failing, no one ever suggests that Claire look for work despite the fact that all of her kids are past the age when they would need constant care. Claire briefly runs for local office but only because she is upset about a gender-appropriate issue: a local intersection that is dangerous to children. Although her family eventually supports her bid for office, they only do so long enough for her to make a grand attempt, fail, and then be shuttled safely back home. I’ll say it again: the show is called Modern Family. The lack of even one working female seems more than a tad anachronistic.
Clearly, there is nothing wrong with a television show centered on family life featuring a stay-at-home parent, but why must it always be the mother (or effeminate parent)? It’s 2012. This simplistic “mother = housewife” equation only reinforces the idea that childcare and housework are “natural” female duties and, consequently, not real work. From watching real-life stay-at-home parents, I can say that taking care of children is VERY real work that seems much more difficult than many office jobs that involve at least three hours of dedicated Facebook and Gawker time. But until the spheres are ungendered, people will never respect this work because it will always be seen as unpaid woman’s work—something a mother should be doing regardless of her duties outside the home. It’s absurd that one of the best network comedies today still needs to be reminded that we no longer live in a strictly gendered land filled with women who have no economic power and men who have no desire to raise their families. If those (mostly male) writers who recently accepted all of those awards at the Emmys want Modern Family to be a truly great sitcom representative of more than bourgeois fantasy, they need to open a newspaper or that book I keep referencing and discover a brave new world, wherein parents are developing more flexible roles that aren’t based on the quality or one’s genitals but on the needs of one’s family. This would be truly modern.