G-Chattin’ Modern Family: “Two Monkeys and a Panda” [TV Correspondent Tryout]

By Guest Contributors Amber Jones and Elizabeth Lowry

Episode Recap: Cameron writes a book entitled “Two Monkeys and a Panda” about Lily’s adoption (to dispel any possible stigma) and learns that Mitchell purposefully did not hyphenate Lily’s last name on the adoption papers. Jay and Gloria argue over where their remains will go once they have died. Phil spends the day at a spa while Claire tries to keep peace between her daughters over a shared sweater.

Liz: Ok Amber… a Panda? Really? I know Modern Family likes to make a joke of the ignorance of Cameron and Mitchell when it comes to their transnational adoption, but I had to roll my eyes.

Amber: Girl, I was rolling mine too. I cringe often when Cam and Mitchell talk about Lily. The writers do attempt to make a joke of the ignorance, but I think when it comes to Lily, it gets really hard for me to just laugh it off. For one, Cam and Mitchell seem to be completely OK with exoticizing Lily most of the time. What is that about? Modern Family is so interesting because even though it does show different familial structures, most of the characters are white and upper middle class. :-/

Liz: Yeah, I’m always amused that this show is called Modern Family, as if it’s the “new” family. I’m usually thinking, “whose family is that?” As far as the jokes, I find myself sometimes laughing at the ignorance (cuz the reality is there are ignorant parents) and sometimes cringing when the joke is played less as criticism and more as “awwww look how silly but really cute they are…she’s a panda!” Because you’re right, the jokes exoticize Lily.

Amber: I actually appreciate that the show is called Modern Family, because it does challenge the traditional “nuclear family” ideal. Having two gay dads with an adopted daughter doesn’t fit into that model, and I definitely appreciate having that image (a reality for many people) on screen. And I agree with you, the jokes are executed very well. I often find myself doing the uncomfortable “oh man did they have to go there?” laugh. But I think the “panda” thing kinda turned me off because there isn’t much context for it other than Lily’s “Asian-ness.” Acknowledging that Lily is “Asian,” Vietnamese specifically, is a good thing and extremely important, but I don’t think that Cam and Mitchell explore enough what it means to be two white male parents raising a Vietnamese daughter. I think instead they tend to place the weight of difference on Lily, i.e. in the story Lily is a panda because she’s “Asian” (and they think it’s so clever) while they are monkeys because Cam can draw monkeys (they can choose to be whatever animal they want, with no added connotation or underlying meaning). *Rolls eyes* It just seems as if they fail to see that their whiteness shapes their familial structure just as much as Lily’s “Asian-ness” does.

Liz: You’re right about Modern Family challenging traditional ideals (justly chastened). What makes me pause, however, is that it’s still primarily white families – with a few people of color sprinkled into their world and thus not challenging other representations of “normal” families. And you’re so right about Cam and Mitchell, which is what makes transnational adoption so layered – how do you navigate the terrain of race and culture? In this episode, Cam works hard to take away the stigma of “adoption” (b/c of Oprah lol) and I’d like to see them put the same effort into exploring how they parent as two white male parents of a Vietnamese girl. (Although let me give them kudos for the adoption angle.) At the end they want to write their own parenting book (because they’ve achieved the pinnacle? mmmhmmm), only to discover so many have been written. How about they read those! Lol. Assuming that they’re any good though…cuz I’m sure there are some bogus ones.

Amber: Oprah changes lives, girl. That’s real. Accept it! Lol. So, um … Pandas aren’t even native to Vietnam. * Fierce side-eye * WOMP. Way to make a stupid (and pretty offensive) generalization. Cam and Mitchell definitely struggle with how to really appreciate Lily’s ethnic background and therefore, how to deal with the ways it will inevitably shape her life experiences and self-perception.

Liz: Girl I was gonna look that up! Plus, notice that they said, “Panda because she’s Asian.” It’s hard to appreciate her background without knowing much about it. And although that is her background, she’s growing up in a completely different environment that will be just as much a part of her identity. It’s a balancing act that any parent isn’t just born knowing how to manage. Which is why you hear of the dumbass approaches some parents have to questions that arise.

Amber: I agree it’s hard to appreciate something that you don’t know or understand, but I’m sure that they could educate themselves on some of the specifics. I think an important part of the parents’ job is to learn about it! The purpose of Cam’s scrapbook was to help remove the stigma from adoption. It seemed as if Cam was trying to emphasize where Lily is from originally and how she ended up with himself and Mitchell–the entire process. (Sidenote: the scenes with Cam freaking out pre-adoption were priceless. I was doubled over with laughter.) So, I think it may be unfair to trivialize her ethnic background in order to “better” integrate her into their family, because her race/ethnicity is something she won’t necessarily be able to ignore and she may very well have questions about her “differences” as she grows older. It would be nice if they were prepared. On another note, in a way Manny is also part of an interesting familial structure. Having been adopted by Jay and the son of a first generation immigrant, Gloria, his identity also may very well be shaped by the clash of cultures there.

Liz: Totally. Parenting is never easy, in any circumstance, so there’s no reason to not try and be prepared! One of my favorite episodes is the one where Gloria has Jay doing all kinds of crazy stuff because “it’s her culture,” and in reality, she’s getting back at him for making fun of her culture. Love it. (I know someone who has told people she grew up with lions in Africa and they believe her. Ignorant white people. Lol.) It is interesting to see Manny also navigating two “worlds.” And Jay clearly is not the type to “prepare” for parenting – he’s already raised two children and still makes the most ridiculous comments/actions towards his gay son.

Amber: Lol. Yeah, I think Jay is supposed to represent that cocky white male, who probably initially didn’t care much about Manny, but has grown to really love him. His interactions with his own kids are definitely interesting, but I think realistic in a way. He loves Mitchell, but is having trouble adjusting to his lifestyle. That’s real and frustrating, but I think it’s a little refreshing to see them work it out on screen. It is also refreshing to see Jay relinquish some of his stubborn “What do you mean? I’m ALWAYS right” (read: wealthy white heterosexual male) privilege in dealing with Manny and Gloria. Btw, Sofia Vergara is excellent and hilarious…I must admit though that I’m often asking myself if I’m OK with the way the writers use her character. Gloria fits neatly into many stereotypical representations, read: fiery, sexy, often objectified (like in this problematic interview) latina. Also I’m often uncomfortable with the way the writers sometimes use her accent as the butt of a joke.

Liz: I feel you on Gloria. I feel like we could do an entire post on her character and Sofia Vergara. In the same way that the writers try to dismantle the problematic representations of Lily through jokes, they’ve tried to do that with Gloria – she struggles with appearing as a trophy wife to others, but not feeling/acting that way herself. And yet, they do use those stereotypical representations wrapped up into funny exchanges. It takes a funny turn in this episode, when Jay and Gloria’s age is brought up – where to be buried? Oh the dilemma. (I feel you, Gloria. I don’t want to be in a drawer.) The accent, however, has also given me pause. There are moments when I laugh, stop and wonder “was that funny without the accent?” And the answer is no. It’s a little bit like Fez in That 70’s Show who didn’t even have a name (dissect that one)! But I do think accents in general can create funny situations. Mispronounced words can be humorous. I’ve tried pronouncing Danish words in such a butchering manner that I’ve been laughed at mercilessly by my cousin….BUT it’s a tough line to walk, because me mispronouncing Danish words does not feed into a particular stereotypical representation (although occasionally maybe the dumb American).

Amber: Yeah. I think the big question is “who’s laughing?” I think you hit it on the head when you mentioned stereotypical representations. Non-native English speakers “butchering” American English on television is a familiar and problematic image. So, I totally agree with you, it becomes a very thin line. And of course, those representations are often harmful and damaging. BUT, it’s important to note that Sofia Vergara does speak English with an accent, so that definitely brings up a lot of interesting questions…

Liz: Definitely – is it more problematic to have someone who doesn’t have an accent fake it for the sake of the joke or to have someone with a real accent be the joke? Television writers might claim that the accent is the butt of the joke, but that, in turn, makes the person the butt of the joke. Plus it’s even interesting to examine my own response to it – do I laugh? Is Gloria the joke or is the situation the joke? Fine line the writers are walking. And I think they’ve slipped more than a couple times.

Amber: Gaaah …kinda reminiscent of Blackface? Smdh. Definitely deep stuff. Well, let’s hope the writers don’t fall flat on their faces because at the end of the day, I really do love this show.

Liz: So do I. And we didn’t even get to Phil and Claire. Next time? * side-eye *

Amber: Oh, I’m aching to go in on how “normal” they are. * catches your eye and joins in on the side-eye* Lol. Definitely.

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  • http://www.thatssodeep.com Liz Lowry

    So on point! I am also an avid Community watcher and hadn’t considered the “decentered” angle, but you are so right. There are often storylines that are driven only by people of color on the show. I can only hope that they avoid giving in completely to the Jeff and Brita normality thing. And can we talk about Annie? Sometimes there is too much “oh the innocent young ideal white woman that we must protect” stories/attitudes going on.  But…also love the show (paintball!).  =)

  • http://www.thatssodeep.com Liz Lowry

    Her specific experiences were with white people (and I do think race is a relevant factor in her interactions) but I also realize that ignorance belongs to many people of many groups/races/etc. Sarcasm fail?

  • Anonymous

    The lady whoplays gloria exaggerates her accent for comic effect, she said so in an interview on oprah.

  • Rachel

    The “Gloria” character is pretty much why I stopped watching “Modern Family”. Sofia Vergara is a talented comic actress, but I just couldn’t really deal with the whole “spitfire sexy latina” thing. On a related note, I found the jokes they make about Colombia (at least during the first season) really unfunny. It was all “TROLOLOLO IT’S FUNNY BECAUSE COCAINE AND DRUG GANGS ARE THE ONLY THINGS THAT EXIST IN COLOMBIA, GET IT?!?!?!1”

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  • Mickey

    Great analysis! Are you going to analyze the recent episode where Lily gets chosen to do a commercial and Cam & Mitchell discover, to their horror, that she was chosen simply because she’s Asian?

  • Xeginy

    I gave this show a try, I really did. While it does show SOME unconventional family structures (Cam and Mitchell, and then the “mixed” family of Gloria and Jay) it’s not actually very different then any other sitcom family.

    First of all, they’re in the suburbs. Every family has a housewife/husband. Every family is upper-middle class (if not wealthier), with the breadwinning husband in a professional job (lawyer, realtor, business-owner.) Even Cam and Mitchell adopt a Vietnamese baby – are we going to talk about the problems with transnational adoption by white American parents? Hell, being white and upper class almost demands that you have an adopted Asian or African baby.

    This show, while interesting in that it handles multiple families with *slightly* different structures, is almost laughable in its depiction of “modern.” No one is struggling to pay bills. No one takes the bus. All of the children have their own cell phones. The houses are HUGE. And honestly, Gloria just feels tokenized to me. Like you said, she’s just one big stereotype of the curvy, fiery “Latin lady,” complete with periodic outbursts in Spanish.

    The show just feels like another “Friends.” Except during the last season, when they brought in Aisha Tyler because everyone was complaining that there were too many white people. Gloria (along with her son) is “Modern Family’s” token non-white person.