Why Is The ‘Normal Television Family’ Always White?

By Guest Contributor SL Huang

Oh, I know the answer, of course.  A white nuclear family is what networks think everyone can relate to.  And even if people can’t relate, they see and recognize that “ideal” and know what sort of cultural message the writers are trying to send.  It gets across the message of Normal, Everyday, Good Old Down-Home FAMILY to people.

But you know what?  It’s started pissing me off.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love that more television shows are including diversity.  I dig it.  I’d much rather they include people of color somewhere, anywhere, than not at all.

But I’m starting to see the “ethnic sidekick” problem on family shows: that the ethnic or mixed families are being shown in contrast to a “normal” and “ordinary” family, and are therefore implicitly not normal or ordinary themselves.

Let’s take Modern Family. Now, I love Modern Family—I think it’s a smart, sharply-written show and that it does a lot of good with the diversity of characters it does show.  But part of the premise is clearly that the two families that are more “modern” versions of what family can be are being contrasted against the white nuclear family of a happily married mother and father and their three children living in suburbia.  The two families being contrasted? The mixed-generational couple of Jay and Colombian immigrant Gloria with Gloria’s son Manny—who becomes a stepson to Jay—and the gay couple with their daughter adopted from Vietnam.  All of the diversity in the show is bundled into the families that are billed as having “complications.”  What if, instead, Claire’s husband had been cast as an African-American man, and her kids were all half black?[1]  Or, even more scandalously, what if Jay’s first wife had been an Asian woman, and Claire and Mitchell were both happa?  You might argue that it wouldn’t be the same show, and, well, of course not.  But it’s a show that bills diversity as part of its message, and all I’m saying is, what if the diversity weren’t billed as being so “different,” but instead mixed in with what we’re meant to see as “normal”?

The new show The Neighbors is an even better example of this happening.[2]  The aliens who have taken human form have seemingly done so without regard to race (although, of course, the person billed as “their leader” chose to be a white man . . . who would have suspected?), and the lead alien family has a mother who appears black and an oldest son who appears Asian (the father and younger son appear white).  It’s cute, and I’m glad they do have that diversity,[3] despite the always-troubling aspects of aliens being the only people of color on a show (both Stargates, I’m looking at you).  But, of course, the family who moves into the alien development, the “normal” human family we’re meant to contrast the aliens against, is all white.  Because white is normal.  And human.  It’s the weird alien family who cry tears of green goo out their ears who have people of color among them; diversity is acceptable there.  Why not have had the human family be mixed-race, or Hispanic, or Asian?  Oh, I know why, of course;  I said it at the beginning—writers and producers think viewers can’t relate to people of color.  But, well, maybe I’m sick of being forced to relate to white people.

I’ll throw one more example into the mix, since I’ve been so sick I have been watching EXCESSIVE AMOUNTS OF TELEVISION lately.  I have to admit to being a fan of the ABC Family show Switched At Birth, despite teen drama not usually being my cup of tea, and as far as I can tell (not being Deaf myself), it’s pretty awesome at giving people great insight into Deaf culture and experiences.  And I’m all in favor of any show that treats a minority culture with respect and gives it attention, because media has a huge impact on how we all interact with each other culturally (plus all the Deaf actors who have jobs because of that show; mad props for that casting—Sean Berdy in particular should win an Emmy).  But this show does the exact same thing I’ve mentioned above: it contrasts the Kennishes, the white, upper class nuclear family, with the Vasquez women—the family that has a very poor single mother raising a Deaf daughter, the “different” family, and, oh yeah, the one with a mother who just happens to be Latina.  I do give Switched At Birth props for addressing race—Bay struggles with the fact that she’s suddenly Hispanic when she always thought she was white—but we still have the stable, nuclear family being the white one and the “different” family having the diversity.  What if Regina Vasquez had been Caucasian and Kathryn Kennish had been Latina, with everything else remaining the same?  What if the children of the rich nuclear family with with ex-professional athlete father had been the children of color instead of the other way around?

I have to admit, “family” shows (by which I mean shows about families) are not what I usually watch, so maybe this trend is not as universal as I think it is.  But for a sample size of three, we’ve got three shows that contrast “different” families with “normal” families, and in all three cases, the “normal” family is the white one and the “different” families are the ones that have the racial diversity in addition to their other “differentness.”  Just once it might be kind of cool to see the “normal” family have a little melanin.  Wouldn’t it?

Now, we could argue about the merits of a show making out one family to be more “normal” than another in the first place.[4]  For example, there’s nothing textual suggesting that Claire and Phil’s relationship in Modern Family should be seen as any more stable than Jay and Gloria’s or Cam and Mitchell’s, nor their family any more “normal” or “ideal.”  But I think it’s naive to think that the writers weren’t trying to set up the Dunphys as the white-picket-fence, 2.5-kids-and-a-dog type of “normalcy” so that they could contrast the other two families against them.  And I’m equally certain that for all three of the shows I talked about, the casting in terms of race was very deliberate, as it serves to heighten the contrasts between the families.

And does such casting serve to provide that heightened contrast effectively for most viewers?  Reluctantly, I have to admit that it probably does.  But it doesn’t mean that I can’t feel irked, nor feel like it isn’t a problem that we’re still constantly billing minority races as the families that are “different.”

[This post has been brought to you by either Lyme disease or typhus, whichever one I have, as I am STILL SICK and therefore watching far too much television.]

  1. This is not to say that I would want anyone other than Ty Burrell playing Phil; the man is brilliant.  Just making a point.
  2. Did not think I would like this show.  I watched it because a friend of mine works on it, and so far it’s like a train wreck: I’m not sure what’s so fascinating about it (other than Toks Olagundoye), but I CANNOT LOOK AWAY.
  3. Unlike, say, Third Rock From the Sun.
  4. Unless, of course, we are talking about a show like The Neighbors, in which the “different” family is an alien one.
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  • http://twitter.com/amyhoy Amy Hoy

    I remember this being really different in the early 90s. There were so many “normal” shows starring non-white families. (Example: Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Living Single, A Different World; before that, The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, etc.) As a white girl, I watched them, my white friends watched them (my area was very very white), nobody thought it was at all weird or noteworthy. I’ve noticed that starting that in the late 90s, if a character was black, they were black to prove a point… to reinforce a stereotype, their blackness was the main thing about them. (Some might argue Fresh Prince was like this, but I don’t agree; it was a case of Country Mouse and City Mouse (reversed), with a wide variety of black characters: the city kid who makes trouble but has a heart of gold, the successful judge, the annoying suck-up nerd, etc., just like any white family sitcom.) True in movies, too — in the Terminator series, the poor hapless lawyer (who becomes brave in the end) is black but he’s treated just like any lawyer would be (ditto the characters in movies like Die Hard, etc), meanwhile it seems just about every time I see a black man in a modern movie, he’s either a total sex symbol or a bad guy. He can’t just be a guy who happens to have dark skin. Or it’s a modern Eddie Murphy-style movie where the “humor” is simply insulting to the actors & viewers alike.

    What the hell happened?

    • Mandii

      Excellent point. I also noticed the shift in the quality of tv shows and movies from the 90′s. The portrayal of blacks in television/movies seems worse today then in the 90′s.

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  • Michelle Kirkwood

    Unfortunately,
    Britain has the same problems America has had with racial strife
    (remember last year’s riots in London?) In fact, if you do a search on
    the Guardian website (A really good British paper) and look up “Black
    folks in media” or something close to that, the problems with showing
    people of color in the media aren’t much different from what folks deal
    with here. For example, I found an article with Lenny Henry. a
    pioneering black British comedian in which he said that British TV still
    isn’t as diversified as it should be, even after the 37 years he’s been
    in the business. I even found another article about how a lot of
    talented British black actors wind up here in the States simply because
    there’s more work for them here

    Heck, I can count on one hand the
    number of all-black British shows I’ve seen on public TV and cable
    (besides DESMONDS and CHEF, with Lenny Henry.) When the recent series
    LUTHER came to the States, I read about how it was one of the first
    British shows in a long time with a black lead—in fact, I’ve always
    wondered why,even on PBS, they don’t show any programs with all-black
    British casts—they did show a mini-series about black Jamaican
    immigrants to Britain just after World War II called SMALL ISLAND, which
    is on DVD, and worth seeing. The modern shows like MI-5, INSPECTOR
    LEWIS and even some of the recent comedy shows have gotten a little more
    diverse,finally, but where’s the British shows featuring primarily
    black Brits as the main characters for a change? They’re still too white
    dominated for me, seriously.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1367522515 Amanda Ewa Hrabowski

    It also troubles me when TV shows are set in places that are actually diverse. Take “Girls,” for example–it’s presumably set in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and not a single character whose language isn’t primarily English? Contrast this with “Two Broke Girls,” whose leads are white and US-born, surrounded by zany, stereotypically-painted immigrants. Plus one point for actual diversity, minus five for everything else.

  • S.D

    Thank you to the author for this great discussion!
    This reminded me of another white all-american family show- Parenthood. In Parenthood there is one interracial couple- a white man and a black woman….hmmm. Although they are married now, their son was born “out of wedlock” and the man did not find out until his son was five. Anyways, they get married and earlier this season the show decided it was time for the son to get the “race talk.” The father gets very upset because he doesn’t get to talk to his son and his wife gets too etc, it was painful to watch there be little to no discussion about his white privilege. Although they showed the talk between mother and son, it still glossed over the racism in this country, and cited our President as evidence that “it’s almost equal.”
    Did anyone else see the episode and have any comparison to other shows? It seems like NBC at least took a step but is the net effect beneficial or not?

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  • Sils

    With regard to Modern Family, I too find it odd that each family has a stay at home spouse. More baffling is the fact that they often refer to Clare and Phil’s time in college but what the heck did she study? After spending all that money on a college education, wouldn’t she want a job/career? I would think that even in an upper middle class family, in this day and age, women pursue careers. Additionally, as someone pointed out, phil is written as a bumbler and Clare appears to be more competent, yet he is the breadwinner?

    • SL Huang

      Everybody seems to have noticed and found it odd that the Dunphys are single-income . . . I wonder if the writers realize how strange this strikes their viewers!

      And you’re right, what *are* Claire’s aspirations? Did she aim to be a stay-at-home parent? I certainly don’t judge that — my mom was stay-at-home for years because that was important enough to her to do her best to make it happen (and my family was fortunate enough to be able to), but she went back to work once the youngest of us was in school. It’s quite the luxury that Claire doesn’t even feel the need to work part-time, and Luke’s in eighth grade now!

  • Anonymous

    I was thinking about another example. How about stock photos? I see a lot of poerpoint presentations. And many of them have the stereotypicla pictures of people shaking hands, exchanging high fives, sittting in a conference room, standing in front of a computer, or dressed up in business clothing. I rarely see an image with a non-white person in the photos that are used. Many people use the same photos over and over again. And it is all the same cast of white characters.

    • Anonymous

      So true, I write articles for Examiner.com, and the 99% of the time the stock photos I have to choose from feature white subjects. That’s why I’ve resorted to just using pictures of inanimate objects most of the time.

      • SL Huang

        Seriously?? That’s . . . stunning. I had no idea stock photos were that bad. I feel like I see a lot of photo ads with diversity, but come to think of it the ones I’m picturing are unlikely stock images; they’re probably photo shoots for those companies. Wow.

        I feel like I’m always finding out about another aspect of systemic racism . . . it’s very depressing.

  • Kazzy

    Regarding “Modern Family”, it was my understanding that the premise of the show is that all three families are decidedly “normal” and that, despite their differences, are much more similar than they outwardly appear.

    They definitely flub a lot of things regarding race and ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation and a whole bunch of other crap. But I never saw the show as, “Look! A normal white family and two weird families!” I saw it as “Look! Three families all dealing with many of the very same problems!”

    Am I missing something?

    • SL Huang

      You could certainly argue that that’s what they intend . . . and I do like that they tend to give the story lines of the three families equal weight. But — and maybe it’s because I started seeing it as a trend, so now I see it everywhere — I can’t help but see the show as presenting one “traditional” family and two “nontraditional” ones (into which they pack all the diversity), even if they’re all portrayed as being equally valid textually in the show. And honestly, I think some of this comes from the way the show’s been marketed, because if I recall right they did bill it that way when it was first being advertised — as a traditional family and two more modern versions of family. And don’t get me wrong, I love that they do have other types of family and I think the show does a lot of good things, and maybe if it existed in a vacuum nothing about it would bother me, but I just feel like I see the same trend repeating itself with Modern Family another example of it.

      Your mileage may vary, though! :)

  • Anonymous

    I think another part of the reason for why these shows are reluctant to show “normal” families as being anything but white, is because they’re afraid of being seen as racist if they wind up creating “whitewashed” non-white characters (which they are more likely to do if they have very little to no experience writing about lives outside of what they’re most comfortable with). Of course a good solution to that dilemma would be to hire more non-white writers for the show, but not many shows care to do that or even realize that they engage in racist hiring practices.

    • SL Huang

      Oooooh I WISH Hollywood would hire more writers of color across the board! And directors, and producers, and showrunners! There’s definitely a lot of work to be done on the glass ceiling in that regard. Unfortunately so, because I think that would help a LOT.

      You do make a good point. I tend to be of the opinion that the worst thing writers and casting directors can do is not try, though — if they fail at portrayals and face criticism, then they can learn from it and “fail better” the next time. To me that’s the appropriate response, but you’re right; most people are terrified of receiving any sort of criticism about race — and not taking risks with casting is a good way of staying safe. Unfortunately.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

    I so agree with the author of this piece—-just once, why can’t there be a show about a black family with a white stepfather (like my family growing up) or a troubled white foster child learning to adapt to living with a black foster family in the inner city? Or even an older Asian guy who discovers that he’s got 3 black grandkids when his estranged daughter returns home after a long absence?

    Honestly though, as long as white folks run Hollywood and continue to think that non-white people aren’t worth telling stories about,and believing that white people only want to see themselves on the TV screen, it’s gonna stay that way. You’d be better off checking online for shows produced by people of color and going ot films made by people of color (a la MIDDLE OF NOWHERE)

    • SL Huang

      Author here — it’s so great to hear that other people feel the same way!

      I completely agree that a huge part of the problem is that we need more people of color as directors and writers and producers in Hollywood. I think that’s the only way we’ll start seeing real change — and unfortunately Hollywood is a place where it’s very hard for *anyone* to succeed, let alone people whom networks and studios see as “risky” for any reason (read: people of color who want to tell stories about (gasp!) characters of color).

      I’ll check out your film recommendation; thanks!

    • Anonymous

      Actually Disney has a show called ‘Lab Rats’ which stars Hal Sparks as the white stepfather/husband to Angel Parker (a Black woman) and her son Tyrel Jackson Williams (the little brother of Tyler James Williams from Everybody Hates Chris). I’m a big fan of Hal Sparks so I watched the first episode and you could’ve knocked me over with a feather when he came carrying Angel Parker into his house (they’re newlyweds). He’s a scientist/inventor who’s created these super kids in his underground lab and his stepson discovers them and then tries to help them navigate the world outside the lab. It’s a cute show.

      • Anonymous

        Saw that show-quite funny and also a rebuke to those who say that there aren’t any funny sitcoms on TV with people of color in it.

  • Mme. Lou

    I agree with you one hundred percent! I’m not an avid TV watcher. I won’t lie though, I watch The New Normal religiously; I love the show. Yes this family is all white (two gay men, their surrogate, and the surrogate’s nine year old daughter, and the surrogate’s racist Grandmother) but every episode is not only funny but hits the nail on the head about race, stereotypes, political issues etc. One or all of the above is addressed. Recently, they’ve introduced this black male as the surrogate’s potential love interest. The black man is the brother to the gay man’s assistant. I’m liking where it is going thus far.

    Anyway when i do watch TV, most times I watch BBC America. My reason for this is I am tired of dramas with the “perfect white families” or generally with all white casts in lead roles. BBC dramas are very diverse in terms of lead roles with Indians, blacks, bi-racial, etc. (though you don’t see many Asians outside of Indians). Though, i realize the dramas are influenced by the culture? society? (not sure the word) I lived in a suburb outside of London for a month and would often frequent the city. Bi-racial children and mixed race couples are pretty common. It is even seen in advertisements (entertainment, educational, whatever). I don’t think America has quite broken out of the idea of “the normal white family” Some whites still believe that being a minority means your poor/dysfunctional/”different.”

    • SL Huang

      I wonder if British casting is more even-handed because they have a less acrimonious racial history than the U.S. (I don’t know if that’s the case for sure in reality, but I suspect it might be?) so they don’t get tied up in thinking a person of color shows an “agenda” or “can’t be related to” or some other nonsense. I don’t watch a whole lot of British television, but I’ve noticed that they seem to be able to cast nonstereotypically with regard to race without making a big deal out of it (for example, Adrian Lester was the (amazing!) lead on Hustle, and I can’t imagine that happening on an American show unless the actor had serious star power — in fact, the very similar American show Leverage has an older white man in the role analogous to Lester’s). The Brits seem to be able to cast actors of color in all kinds of roles without becoming het up about it. (Or maybe it’s that Great Britain’s small enough that you can’t really live in a place where you’re hundreds and hundreds of miles away from any city with any diversity…I sometimes forget that there are wide swathes of America where people literally do not ever interact with anyone of color ever (which is a little scary), because that’s the opposite of my reality.)

      • Elliete

        You actually can live in a place where you are pretty far away from any diversity in the UK. But TV wise, yes it’s a little bit better then the US situation

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alex-Wright/1120170157 Alex Wright

        The diversity on UK shows, comes from the fact that the BBC and other prominent UK networks made a mandate, that a show has to have a certain amount of diversity or else their show doesn’t even get considered.

  • http://www.allthingsbeautifulblog.com/ Alyssa Bacon-Liu

    On a different note, it has always seemed strange to me that every family unit on Modern Family has one stay-at-home parent and of course it’s the woman (or Cam, who is the more “flamboyant” one). Apparently a “Modern Family” living in Los Angeles means a lack of racial diversity and everyone being upper-middle class with traditional gender roles. And I love that show and watch it religiously, but also am perplexed by some aspects of it.

    • Zahra

      YES. There are so many gender problems with Modern Family, but one of them is the insistence that a “true” or “normal” family must have one stay-at-home, feminine parent–even if it’s completely implausible given the economic realities of the US today or the jobs the characters are assigned. (I don’t personally believe that a family of 5 could live on Phil’s salary, especially as Claire has never worked and Phil is presented as a bumbler rather than a high-earning achiever.) The narrative about gender there is highly linked to class.

      This is a much larger trend in US television, in which implausible wealth or the accoutrements of a higher class status than the characters’ jobs would confer are so often presented as normal, and I think it’s actually related to the silent racism this article so ably describes. There’s an aspirational edge to these shows; we’re all supposed to be either living this upper-middle class existence or hoping to, and I think the creators equate that class bracket with whiteness, explicitly or subconsciously.

      These shows send subtle messages that women should be stay-at-home moms, that this degree of economic comfort is normative, and that people of color only come into these worlds as outsiders–they marry in, they are adopted, they move into the neighborhood. But they don’t represent the reality that most of us live.

      • SL Huang

        SO TRUE. They’re really promoting a certain narrative in re: race/class/gender roles in a myriad of subtle ways, aren’t they? That this is the way everyone desires to live and strives for, and that anyone who doesn’t fit that narrative (whether by choice or not) is somehow not the ideal.

        A lot of people are bringing up the “no working mothers” television trope; someone talked about it on the original post on my blog and another commenter referenced it below as well. I confess I didn’t even think of that, but you’re right; it’s everywhere. Why is it so hard for Hollywood to show ways of life that are *reality* for so many of their viewers?

      • http://www.allthingsbeautifulblog.com/ Alyssa Bacon-Liu

        Exactly and it’s crazy looking back on my favorite shows growing up and almost every one had a stay-at-home mom! Which there is nothing wrong with, but there’s also nothing wrong with a working mom. Or a stay-at-home dad for that matter. You’d think in 2012 there would be an improvement, but sitcoms still generally portray the “typical” working dad, stay at home mom, three kids in the suburbs motif. ESPECIALLY in Los Angeles, unless you are super rich, you NEED two incomes to survive.

    • Zahra

      YES. There are so many gender problems with Modern Family, but one of them is the insistence that a “true” or “normal” family must have one stay-at-home, feminine parent–even if it’s completely implausible given the economic realities of the US today or the jobs the characters are assigned. (I don’t personally believe that a family of 5 could live on Phil’s salary, especially as Claire has never worked and Phil is presented as a bumbler rather than a high-earning achiever.) The narrative about gender there is highly linked to class.

      This is a much larger trend in US television, in which implausible wealth or the accoutrements of a higher class status than the characters’ jobs would confer are so often presented as normal, and I think it’s actually related to the silent racism this article so ably describes. There’s an aspirational edge to these shows; we’re all supposed to be either living this upper-middle class existence or hoping to, and I think the creators equate that class bracket with whiteness, explicitly or subconsciously.

      These shows send subtle messages that women should be stay-at-home moms, that this degree of economic comfort is normative, and that people of color only come into these worlds as outsiders–they marry in, they are adopted, they move into the neighborhood. But they don’t represent the reality that most of us live.

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  • http://twitter.com/TheWhaler Meg

    another problem is that none of the mothers in that show seem to have jobs. No working mothers? not very modern. At least cameron (the “wife”) got a job.

    • SL Huang

      You’re totally right — as I mentioned to another commenter above, a lot of people seem to be bringing up the “no working mothers on television” problem, both on the original post on my blog and here. It’s absolutely perplexing why TV feels the need to characterize families this way.