Since its debut in 2009, Modern Family has broken records and barriers. Not only has its witty writing and sharp acting received critical acclaim—the show has served as a feasible image of a new reality.
Modern Family revolves around the extended Pritchett clan, three interrelated families joined by one name and one strong spirit of unconditional love. In the show, the family patriarch (Ed O’Neill) fathers two grown children—a daughter (Julie Bowen) and a gay son (Jesse Tyler Ferguson)—and weds a younger Latina woman (Sofia Vergara); Ferguson’s character raises a child (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) with his husband (Eric Stonestreet).
Perhaps such a family would not draw much attention these days. But imagine this show airing in the 1950s: It has divorce. It has racially mixed families. It has a gay couple. That gay couple has a child. The show would have broken every social norm; the public would have advocated in force for its cancellation. But today, in 2016, Modern Family is entering its eighth season, with a loyal fan base and 21 Emmy awards in tow.
In one particularly memorable episode of the show, Mitchell discusses his coming out process—how he felt the need to tell his family his true identity once he reached college. That episode struck me when I first saw it six years ago. I resonated with Mitchell. I understood him. I was not out to my family yet, and I was still figuring out my identity for myself. But I recognized Mitchell’s desire to share his thoughts with his family. It is only in retrospect that I can reflect that Mitchell, and Modern Family as a whole, helped me accept who I am.
When I matriculated at Harvard, I started to relate to Mitchell’s process more and more. Near the beginning of college, when I would call my parents, I always hung up the phone feeling like I had offered them a false version of myself. And then one day, for some reason I still do not know, I decided that I was done living a lie. I felt empowered. I picked up my phone and dialed my mother’s number. And it all spilled out very naturally. While Mitchell’s father did not call him for weeks after Mitchell came out to him, I am fortunate that my relationship with my family has only become stronger in the months since.
But way back when Modern Family first hit the airwaves, I was just a confused middle schooler, sitting on a couch with my family, watching an episode that mattered more to me than they realized. I knew I was different, but I saw being gay as a disadvantage. I wanted to change myself somehow. This show altered my views. Every week, it broadcast into my living room proof that gay people can have families, happiness, acceptance, normality. That felt revolutionary to me.
As positive as my conversations with my parents have been, I have not shaken one thing my mother told me after I came out: She said she is scared.
She is not scared of homosexuality or of her friends’ opinions. “Your life is just going to be so much harder,” she said to me. She is not wrong: In June, Orlando’s gay community was targeted in the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history. In 2015, Daniel and Larry Lennox-Choate, the first gay couple to be married at West Point, were victims of an assault just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Hate crimes still exist. People are still attacked or murdered because of their sexual identities. Republicans are still advocating for the repeal of marriage equality and other laws. A New York Times editorial called their 2016 platform “the most anti-LGBT Platform in the party’s 162 year history.” . We have a whole party—a whole group of people—fighting against the rights of fellow humans. My mother is right: That is scary.
But I’m not scared. And shows like Modern Family are the reasons why.
Ever since Modern Family’s debut, LGBTQ+ characters have become more and more prevalent in entertainment. Grey’s Anatomy brought Arizona Robbins, a lesbian pediatric surgeon, to the halls of Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital. House of Cards revealed its protagonist Frank Underwood to be bisexual. Transparent showcased a father telling his children that she is transgender.
It is striking that the pop cultural climate and the political climate are sending two starkly different messages to the public. Television is promoting progressivity, while some corners of the government are advocating for the exact opposite. But that dichotomy—that contrast—is exactly why I am not scared. History has proven that the dialogue fostered by entertainment yields social change.
Take, for instance, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When it premiered in 1970, it was the first show to feature an independent, single business woman as its central character. Before the show even aired, ABC executives were nervous about approving it. But now, 46 years later, the debate has changed. Our modern television landscape suggests that it is no longer taboo to see a successful, unmarried woman on our screens—Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and Once Upon a Time all feature powerful, solo female characters who focus on their careers or communities.
Just as The Mary Tyler Moore Show contributed to the evolution of feminism, the television miniseries Roots had an important effect on the conversation surrounding civil rights. Premiering in 1977, Roots tells the story of author Alex Haley’s ancestors, including their migration from Africa into slavery. By viewing slavery from the perspective of the actual slave, Roots showed that this heinous act is part of America’s story, not just black America’s story. The legacy of Roots lives on in programming like Blackish, How to Get Away With Murder, and Empire, which all feature African-American casts.
Modern Family is doing the same for gay rights. It has generated a dialogue and projected a message that LGBTQ+ individuals can be as loving parents, as happy, and as human as heterosexuals. When that idea is accepted as normal, our rights will no longer be a partisan issue; they will be a civil one.
So while the current political state may frighten my mother, I take solace in the lessons conveyed by television shows and other staples of pop culture. As more and more people are exposed to these lessons, being gay becomes less and less taboo. Modern Family showed that to me by furthering a dialogue that promotes acceptance of all. In the years since, I have accepted who I am, LGBTQ+ characters have appeared in entertainment with increasing frequency, and we have even seen the legalization of marriage equality. Social change is in progress. That is irrefutable. That is not scary. That is beautiful.