Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

With the chance to make a statement, Modern Family completely misses the mark

Illustration for article titled With the chance to make a statement, Modern Family completely misses the mark

On January 21, 2017, women and their allies all across the country, and in many other parts of the world, took to the streets in a massive protest initially dubbed the Women’s March on Washington. It was a historic, meaningful event, one that took aim at incoming President Donald Trump even as it focused on issues of gender inequality that have been part of America’s fabric for decades. Considering the doom and gloom many were feeling leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, those protests were beacons of hope. They showed that many Americans, and in fact many more than would attend the President’s inauguration, understood that there was no time to waste in making sure to hold the current administration accountable for any legislative actions they might take. The Women’s March set the tone for the vocal opposition to this administration, a tone defined by equal parts hope and anger.

This week, Modern Family goes to the Women’s March, or at least the sitcom equivalent of one; it may not be the Women’s March, but the pussy hats and gender equality signs are out in full force. Gloria, Claire, Haley, Alex, and Lily are on their way to a local march, impatiently sitting in traffic while admiring all the women around them, all while Luke and Manny volunteer at the event making signs. The setup boasts a ton of potential for Modern Family to craft a story that feels timely and pointed, especially when you consider where some of these characters are in their lives. Lily is getting to an age where she’ll start to understand and notice the sexism around her, while Alex and Haley are both grown women still looking to find themselves. By sending them all to a inherently political event, the show has the opportunity to explore new depths with these characters in a way that would be useful for a sitcom that’s nearing the end of its eighth season. If you’re looking for new dynamics and character growth, this is the opportunity.

That makes it all the more frustrating to see Modern Family completely drop the ball. What starts out as generally promising, with Claire and Gloria talking about how good it will be to get politically engaged and be around a bunch of women fighting for their rights, quickly goes off the rails when their car gets a flat tire and, in the name of female empowerment, they decide to change it themselves. On the surface that’s not a bad story to tell, but rather than have these women come together to make that happen, they hand over the duties to a leather jacket-clad woman who shows them exactly what to do, only to then hop in the car and drive away. All of the “we’re stronger together” talk, all of the potential lessons to be taught here go out the window when the woman steals Gloria’s car.

Using timely real-life issues as a catalyst for a single unfunny punchline is the theme of the episode though. Worse than all the women not even making it to the march or getting any meaningful sort of character moment is the story of Luke and Manny volunteering. Throughout the episode Luke finds himself connecting with Danielle, a passionate young feminist from his school who Manny also happens to have a crush on. Luke learns all sorts of facts about gender inequality, and when Manny accuses him of simply faking it all Luke insists that he’s standing by Danielle because he realizes how important this stuff is. Then, the “punchline”: Danielle takes over a megaphone and says that until there’s real gender equality, she’ll remain celibate, which sends Luke running.

The issue here isn’t just that this is an intensely unfunny way to conclude the story, but that the target of the joke seems to be Danielle. Rather than serving as a criticism of Luke and his close-minded nature, it comes across like an indictment of Danielle’s radical choice. It’s more than likely, due to the episodic nature of sitcoms, that this is the end of the story, that all of this learning and “wokeness” for Luke is just a temporary bit of faux-growth to service a lamentable punchline about dudes only wanting sex and women using sex as a bargaining chip.

It’s a shame that “All Things Being Equal” can’t handle its own politically motivated storytelling because the rest of the episode is pleasant enough. From Phil and Jay learning to work together as true business partners, to Cam and Mitchell working through some jealousy that comes with helping out Pam with her newborn, there’s a low-stakes charm to those stories. But the Women’s March is central to the episode, and the mishandling of its themes and potential narrative implications end up overshadowing whatever good is found in the rest of the episode.


Stray observations

  • Joan comes damn close to embodying the “Magical Negro” trope.
  • The running joke that Cam’s childhood was just like The Wizard Of Oz is delightful.
  • “That wind was so strong it shucked our corn.”
  • Alex’s shirt for the march is as wonderfully dorky as you’d expect: “To Femininity and Beyond.”
  • When Pam accidentally kisses Mitchell, he’s kind of creeped out by how her and Cam kiss the same. Cam: “Well, we did learn to kiss on the same hedgepost.”
  • If you think that sitcoms just don’t handle political themes well and therefore this episode was par for the course, may I suggest checking out Netflix’s One Day At A Time.