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.
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.
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.
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).
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.