A Modern Family is A Racist One

Modern Family premiered on ABC Family in September of 2009 and received instant acclaim for its diverse representation of what a family can look like–interweaving the lives of the stereotypical straight, white family, Phil and Claire Dunphy and their three children, with Jay and Gloria Pritchett’s age-differing, interracial marriage and their resulting biracial son as well as Gloria’s own Colombian son, and with Cam Tucker and Mitch Pritchett, two white gay men who have an adopted Vietnamese daughter, Lily.

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The cast of Modern Family

Though many parts of this show are incredibly fruitful for a discussion of beauty and race, I would like to hone in on the third part of this “modern” family triad: Cam, Mitch, and Lily. The concept of a leading role for two gay men in a long-term relationship with a child was a pretty groundbreaking one in 2009–but many viewers were disappointed with this representation, especially the lack of physical affection between the couple, who did not even share a kiss onscreen until the final episode of Season 2 (Zafar 1). But what I am interested in is this couple’s daughter, Lily.

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Season 1, Episode 1: Cam and Mitch have just adopted baby Lily from Vietnam 

LGBTQ people make up a large portion of those adopting children, especially in the case of international adoption, which “provided a pathway for singles, and for gay and lesbian couples to adopt as long as they applied as singles ‘with a housemate'” (Raleigh 513). Because white people in the United States are typically those adopting transracially, Cam and Mitch depict the average family in which an internationally adopted child might grow up. As such, we can read the problematic ways in which the show deals with race through this family as representative of the issues with transracial adoption in the United States.

As Elizabeth Raleigh notes throughout “Selling Transracial Adoptions: Social Workers’ Ideals and Market Concessions, adoption agencies downplay the race of the to-be-adopted children, which grants the adopting parents permission to do the same. If the parents choose to acknowledge their child’s race at all, it “‘happens precisely on adopters’ own terms, in limited doses, and from a comfortable distance away from adoptees’ own birth communities'” (Raleigh 12). Modern Family‘s dealing with Lily’s race fits the bill for each of these categories, with few mentions of Lily’s race and a majority white audience. When the show (namely through Cam and Mitch) does choose to acknowledge that Lily is Vietnamese, they do so through racist jokes, such as those below.

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These issues do not just demonstrate ABC Family’s tolerance for racism or the Modern Family franchise’s being built on an appropriation of “other-ness” through sexuality and race–they in fact represent a real issue with transracial adopting. Cam and Mitch are representative of a system where “frank conversations about race, privilege, and adoption are peripheral,” rendering white parents “colorblind,” at least, until, they want to highlight their child’s race to make themselves seem more exotic or to make a racist joke (Raleigh 21). By only occasionally dealing with Lily’s race, and even then, on an extremely superficial level, Modern Family perpetuates the idea that in transracial families, “children and families [can] ‘put on’ their culture and take it off,” depending on the context… or the ratings (Raleigh 15).

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Works Cited

1.Raleigh, Elizabeth. “An Assortative Adoption Marketplace: Foster Care, Domestic, and Transnational Adoptions.” Sociology Compass 10.6 (2016): 506-17. Web.

2. Raleigh, Elizabeth. “Selling Transracial Adoption: Social Workers’ Ideals and Market Concessions.

 3. Zafar, Aylin. “‘Modern Family’: Mitch and Cam Kiss, Finally.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 30 Sept. 2010. Web. 24 May 2017.

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4 thoughts on “A Modern Family is A Racist One

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  1. In class today, Professor Raleigh showed us promotion videos from Adoptimist. Within those videos, we only saw light-skinned babies being held, being cared for, being touched by white hands. We learned that the majority of parents who adopt transracially are white and that often. We also learned that social workers were not as willing to engage in discussions regarding race, but when it came to darker-skinned children, they often exoticized them as if to make a selling point. For example, in “Selling Transracial Adoption,” Elizabeth Raleigh recalls from her time at an information session for an adoption agency, when the social worker commented that the dark-skinned children from Peru were “beautiful,” with their skin tones ranging from “fair to dark” (23). Another social worker was more explicit in saying that children from Kazakhstan were an “exotic looking people” (23).

    I bring this up because the situation in Cam and Mitch’s family relates to the exotification but also the desire for whiteness in Lilly. Their situation reminds me of the Adoptimist videos, where a majority of adopters were white and the children portrayed were light-skinned. In this case, on a TV show that is aired nationally, the white, gay couple adopted (out of all children), a light-skinned Vietnamese child. And what is actually interesting about this case is that Lilly is actually pretty white…she holds white features that do not look traditionally Vietnamese. She has brown hair that does not look black and her skin color looks like a pale white. After some Google searching, I saw that the actress for Lilly is actually half Korean, half white. That is also sort of problematic as well because why did they cast an East Asian actress to act as a Southeastern character?? Regardless, the fact that Lilly is from Vietnam provides some sort of exotification for Mitch and Cam and the rest of the viewers of Modern Family. But at the same time, the fact that Lilly still has white physical characteristics, this is safe enough to keep viewers watching, because if she was too dark, perhaps viewers would not find her “cute.”

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  2. Wow- in response to the new info on the actress playing Lilly actually being half Korean half white. The fact that the show’s creator’s are just as forcibly blind to race as the subject of this blog post is no surprise. This interpretation of the show following the readings and lecture by Elizabeth Raleigh is quite eye-opening, and begs the question- how can a show that is so lauded for showing an unorthodox family dynamic perpetuate these “color-blind” and racist ideas? Cam and Mitchell are applauded for their adoption of Lilly, and their place in the show as one of the new, “modern” families. But can their family truly be modern if erase the race of their daughter?

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  3. I wish I had looked into the actress’s race before making this post, because that adds a whole new dimension to my analysis! It reminds me of my last blog post where I talked about the original casting of the musical Miss Saigon. The director and casting director defended their choice to cast a white man in the role of a Vietnamese man with the argument that there just weren’t any Vietnamese male actors fit for the role. Whitewashing is occurring in both of these instances not only in the worlds of the musical or the television show, but in the reality outside of those worlds. This idea that the only good actors are white skews the reality of racism’s role in casting decisions.

    Regarding Modern Family specifically, I would argue given that Aubrey Anderson-Emmons is a half Korean, half white actress cast to play the Vietnamese child Lily (and given that Rico Rodriguez, a Mexican-American, plays a Colombian boy) that the show’s decision to include any actors of color is not a matter of progressive diversity or an attempt to depict a real “modern” family, but instead a clear instance of “eating the other,” as bell hooks would say. The show can claim representation, but doesn’t misrepresentation of race and ethnicity erase that diversity in the same way that having an all-white cast would do? Using actors of color who align with white, Eurocentric beauty standards to play characters who are not of their race erases the reality of these races, diminishes cultural and racial differences between races, and whitewashes these races.

    Ugh.

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  4. I’ve thought a lot about Modern Family throughout many of our class discussions, and as I think more about it, I get more and more frustrated by how white-washed and problematic the show is for a show that’s supposed to be about the realities of what life looks like for many people in America- yet it continually falls short. I really appreciated this blog post and its commentary about race and racism on the show. One other thing that we talked about in class that reminded me of the show was when we read about Colombian love tours, and it reminded me a lot of Gloria’s role on the show. They make such a big effort on the show to highlight that Gloria and Jay’s marriage is “real” and that they actually love each other, and he didn’t just marry her because she’s a beautiful exotic woman and she didn’t marry him just to have a better life in the US. However, there are so many problematic jokes that they make throughout the show about how her life in Colombia was dangerous, scary, and unsafe, and the show writers play up these stereotypes about what life in Colombia is like, and reinforce the idea that Gloria came to the US to marry an older wealthy man.

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