The inclusion of a gay couple in “Modern Family” is a great thing that helped a lot of viewers realize that gay men exist, and that many of them live in loving, monogamous relationships as they raise children. And, remember, the ABC sitcom debuted six years before same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States.
But the inclusion of these two characters — Cameron Tucker (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) — has been problematic. (The series ends Wednesday at 8 p.m. on ABC/Ch. 4.)
Don’t get me wrong. The good greatly outweighed the bad. But increasingly as the seasons went past, you had to wonder if there wasn’t some harm in two of TV’s most prominent gay characters being so stereotypical.
[Read more: Mission accomplished: ‘Modern Family’ has changed TV]
In 2014, out gay actor Tuc Watkins (“Desperate Housewives,” “One Life to Live”) made headlines when he posted a Facebook comment praising “Modern Family” but adding that he had “a hard time laughing at the gay guys. In fact, I kinda cringe. It feels a little bit like the gay equivalent of ‘blackface.’ It doesn’t feel ‘modern’ at all. Sure, people come in all shapes, sizes, etc. So why are we fed such ’80s stereotypes every week?”
Watkins received all kinds of backlash for his comment (including from me) and apologized for his use of the term “blackface,” which he called “inexcusable.” But, the thing is, Watkins wasn’t wrong. And I apologize for criticizing him six years ago.
“Modern Family” deserves all the praise it’s gotten for inclusion. But it also deserves the criticism, because it’s true that Mitch and Cam lean into gay stereotypes — they’re flamboyant and (particularly in Cameron’s case) feminine. They’re obsessed with decorating and Broadway shows; they’re highly emotional and demonstrative; and (particularly in Mitch’s case) they’re uncoordinated and disinterested in sports. They react negatively toward lesbians, who are also portrayed quite stereotypically.
Watkins isn’t the only one who cringes when Stonestreet goes over the top, screaming and running around irrationally. And Stonestreet has said that he based the character of Cameron on his mother. Which feeds into the stereotype that gay men are feminine.
(To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a straight man like Stonestreet portraying gay characters. Some activists make that argument, ignoring the fact that there are a lot of gay actors playing straight roles who’d be out of work if they were restricted to gay roles.)
I’m more than a bit uncomfortable criticizing a show that has done so much good. And I agree with Ferguson (another out, gay actor) when he says that, yes, there really are gay men exactly like Mitch and Cam. And that “it’s impossible to represent an entire group with two people.”
“That was Jesse’s first piece of advice to me, by the way,” Stonestreet said. “He said, ‘We are not going to be able to make everyone happy with our relationship and our characters.’”
That’s true. But that doesn’t make it a blanket defense. When the show premiered 11 years ago, there weren’t a lot of gay characters on TV — so maybe an effort could have and should have been made to go beyond the stereotypes.
It’s pretty easy to say, “Oh, Mitch and Cam are just two gay guys. They’re not meant to represent all gay men.” But that doesn’t explain why the vast majority of gay men portrayed in “Modern Family” by guest stars were just as flamboyant, if not more so. Go back and watch the episodes with Nathan Lane as Pepper or Oliver Platt as Martin.
“I hope that Mitch and Cam open the door for other writers,” Ferguson said, “and for people to be inspired to keep creating. There’s so many more stories for the LGBTQ [community] to tell.”
I hope he’s right. I think he is. And I’m sure that, in years to come, “Modern Family” will be recognized as a show that made a difference in LGBTQ representation.
I’m also pretty sure that the show’s portrayal of gay men will be looked upon as quaint and outdated, if not at least vaguely offensive.