Almost August in one of the hottest summers on record, and my nuclear family — an empty-nesting couple and our three dogs — spends the long evenings inside our air conditioned bungalow, holed up with our other family of choice.
Note of warning: The content of the next few minutes of this sermon may be completely foreign to those of you who never turn on the tube (in any form) or whose dial is permanently set to the public television station.
Thanks to Netflix and Amazon, we have succumbed to the pastime of nightly TV marathons. Every July and August for the past several years we have been getting to know the Sopranos, for example, that peaceable New Jersey mob family headed up by Tony Soprano, featuring his many godchildren; or Big Love, the multiple-wived, polygamous household in Utah.
And this time around, Modern Family, the daily adventures of the Pritchetts, three related families — two very unconventional families by previous network standards, and one that has been called conventionalish.
There’s a gay couple with their adopted Vietnamese baby. There’s another family made up of what one reviewer described as a Columbian trophy wife decades younger than her husband and her son by a first marriage. And then the third — who have been described as an anal-retentive mother; a criminally unhip father who ironically wants to be his children’s BFF; and a clutch of pretty average kids with their own set of problems.
A far cry from the family shows, the situation comedies, of earlier summers, summers of my childhood, and perhaps yours, watching Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and later on The Brady Bunch. Or is it really?
Ordinarily, Modern Family airs opposite the singing competition American Idol, so understandably, I had to wait to watch it, so far clocking in 16 22-minute episodes(without commercials) three, four, even five at a time. Coming quickly to understand why this series is so well loved and successful. It has been renewed for a third season, with syndication rights having been sold for what has been called an astounding $1.5 million per episode.
Some consider Modern Family an exploration of three branches of a dysfunctional family. So dysfunctional, that it has made it on the list of what one commentator has come up with as 10 TV Families More Dysfunctional than your Own.
Believe it or not.
He suggests that as an antidote to our actual family get togethers, whether holiday gatherings or annual vacations (we all know how these go sometimes), that a healthy dose of watching these programs — and kin — like the fractious Connors on Roseanne, or the unceasingly snarky Bundys on Married with Children, or the entitled, hapless Bluths in the more recent Arrested Development (that formerly wealthy family headed by an embezzling white collar criminal), goes a long way toward making us feel (smugly, perhaps) better.
These are outwardly typical families whose ways of relating to each other is uncomfortably outlandish, while they make us laugh.
Add in the over-the-top cartoon universes of Homer and his clan on The Simpsons, or the Griffins on Family Guy, or the Cartmans on South Park, called the most screwed up family unit of them all, even the ghoulish Addams family can look serene.
In comparison with these dysfunctional television families, Modern Family should be taken off the list.
On the contrary, like so many other well-loved situation comedies before it, this show and the structurally unconventional extended family it portrays, it actually very conventional and even conservative in its behaviors and morals.
Because, while the story line might involve a mother of three, naked under her trench coat, caught in a hotel elevator, who randomly bumps into her father and his Columbian wife, whose 11-year-old son is trying to woo a girl with the help of his stepbrother and his stepbrother’s partner, whose adopted baby daughter is dressed up in one of her father’s feather boas for Valentine’s Day — all in one episode — ultimately, as one writer commented, all of this happens within the safe confines of a loving family. A family that wants to be connected, that celebrates its holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries, that tries to understand itself.
Carla Fuentes, a television columnist, talks about why both critics and viewers love this show, beginning with the blend of different kinds of families, which have actually become very common, she points out, in “real” life. In fact, the show is filmed as if the characters are part of a reality TV series, observing their own messes, providing their own commentary and lessons learned.
Claire and Phil, married 16 years, with three children, have the most traditional of all the relationships, even more traditional than what is normative these days.
He works in real estate while she is a homemaker, both trying to keep the love and spice in their relationship while dealing with homework, popularity, dating, sibling rivalry, and driver’s licenses. In many ways their parenting, in particular, echoes other sitcom eras: she lays down the law while he bumbles along.
We see Jay and Gloria, both in their second marriage, and all the struggles that come with this. We watch Jay trying to be a good stepfather to a boy whose flamboyant birth father comes in and out of his life, and whose becoming a father again at an older age is both funny and poignant.
And there’s Cameron and Mitchell in an out and proud same-sex relationship (or partnership as they call it) attending baby play groups and navigating parenthood.
This is a family and a comedy that, while contemporary, is also classic, fresh, and refreshing in its make-up and yet universal.
In the long tradition of mainstream television domestic comedy, Modern Family gives us another middle-class, basically-happy American family that has made it to a choicer generic suburb, with their first-wave iPads, custom granite kitchen counters, hefty car payments and mortgages my family could never manage.
In Modern Family, we see households and extended clans committed to some of the same bedrock values, perhaps unrealistic, but hopeful, of earlier shows. Family values echoing the classic domestic comedies that some of us watched on our black and white antennae televisions, and some of you may have found much later streaming on the web. Families like the Nelsons, Andersons, and Cleavers — and, of course, the Brady Bunch (who were actually an unconventional blended family), all of them committed to stability and security, financial and otherwise.
In Modern Family, we do have the first undeniably popular comedy to largely focus on a gay couple raising a child, and it is not always a rosy picture. Jay, head of the bicultural family, cannot bring himself to introduce his son Cameron’s life partner as such, falling awkwardly back on identifying him only as “a friend of my son’s.” And while he wants to spend time with his son’s partner, he worries about being “locked up” with him in the locker room of a racquetball club. The show does not shortcut or sweeten the tensions still there.
On the other hand, in many of the scenarios, the day-to-day life of the gay couple, it has been observed, is actually the most normal of the lot, as they deal with employment and relationship issues, and the best methods of raising their child (including an hysterical look at how to get their baby to sleep through the night). This, of all three interlocking families in the show, is the one that fans love best, we are told, because their family unit highlights what it has in common with heterosexual unions, not just the differences.
The clip we saw earlier shows us the anxieties of new parents of an adopted child from another country and culture in a humorous but recognizable way. In this and many, but not all, other scenes, their sexual orientation is at most secondary.
Their family structure — two male, partnered, adoptive parents — is unquestionably new to network television, just as the upper-middle-class black Cosby Show family was, beginning in the mid 1980s. But/and, like the Huxtables, many of their concerns and much of their interaction parallels that of what was once considered the holy norm on the small screen — families that were white and heterosexual.
In both shows, we see universal situations played out in previously unrepresented family configurations, rather than envelope-pushing scenarios played out in conventional systems.
Perhaps because this is ultimately a make-believe family, however it tries to mimic reality television, audience response has been encouragingly and overwhelming favorable.
In a nation torn by debate about gay marriage and adoption, as one critic observed, in what could have been an eyeball-raising family depiction on prime time network television, ABC has reported no large-scale protests or consumer boycotts of the show.
Or is this show and others which have been defined as edgy and quirky and society-bending less that than a mirror of the changes that are already here and here to stay? In our country, in our communities, and in our congregation?
Indeed, what is a “modern family,” after all? And what makes one healthy and strong?
One of Unitarian Universalist Association Tapestry of Faith classes for youth explores the nature of families, asking in one session the question: Is that a family?
Are the following groups families or not?
- Snow White and the seven dwarfs?
- An eighteen-year-old living alone?
- One youth, two households — one with a mother, stepfather, and sister; and another with a father?
- A foster child living with two children and a dad?
- A woman and her two children living with her sister, who also has had two children?
- A boy living with his mother?
- A grandmother living in an assisted-living facility?
- A mother, one child, and a live-in nanny?
- And, of course, two partnered men or two partnered women, with or without children?
Which of these are families? And who decides?
If we are looking at national policy responses to these possible varieties of families, the official federal government definition of a family can be found in the documents that came out following the 2010 census. I read verbatim to demonstrate where we are in terms of what we do and still do not recognize:
“Families” consist of a householder and one or more other people related to the householder by birth, marriage, or adoption. They do not include same-sex married couples even if the marriage was performed in a state issuing marriage certificates for same-sex couples.
Same-sex couples are included in the families category if there is at least one additional person related to the householder by birth or adoption. Responses of “same-sex spouse” were edited during processing to “unmarried partner.”
This, at a time when a Pew Research Center survey found that there is a sharp decline in heterosexual marriage and a rise in new family forms shaped by attitudes and behaviors that differ by class, age, and race. And — most strikingly — by generation.
In 1960, two-thirds of all twenty-somethings were married. In 2008, just 26 percent were, and how many of today’s youth and young adults will eventually marry, the researchers say, is an open question. For now, they tell us, the young are much more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other newer family forms — such as same sex marriage and interracial marriage — in a positive light.
As an aside, interracial marriage was only finally determined to be legal nationwide in a court case in 1967 and was opposed in 1939 in the Universalist publication The Christian Leader when the sister of a black minister married a white Universalist minister. There is also a strong, but not absolute, correlation between the states that only permitted interracial marriage following the federal ruling and those which have banned same-sex marriage.
By emphatic margins, the survey found that the public does not see marriage as the only path to family foundation, with fully 86 percent saying that a single parent and a child constitute a family, that nearly as many — around 80 percent — saying that an unmarried couple living together without a child is a family, and 63 percent saying a gay or lesbian couple raising a child is a family. With the presence of a child or children making the difference whether they believe that same-sex households are a family or not.
And despite evidence of and film and television representations that show otherwise, more than half of those surveyed still believe that children of gay and lesbian families face more challenges than those from other families, more than single-parent families or children of divorce.
What is believed about the “modern family” is one thing. On the ground there have been some actual sweeping changes.
Here in the Atlanta region, the traditional nuclear family — the 1950s setup, as one reporter described it — of husband, wife, and kids, is being eclipsed by every other type of living arrangement, according to the Census Bureau findings in 2010.
Increasingly our households are being made up of single moms and dads and their kids, childless couples, and people living alone or with someone other than a family member.
Among the fastest growing types of households are those that include a father and kids without a wife (up 45 percent), those with a mother and kids but no husband (up 35 percent), and people living alone (up 35 percent).
Growing numbers of gay couples across the country, like the life partners in Modern Family, are adopting, despite what is still reported to be an uneven legal landscape that can leave their children without the rights and protections extended to children of heterosexual parents. About 19 percent of same-sex couples raising children told the Census that they have an adopted child in their house, up from just 8 percent a decade before.
This is where we really are with families today — not a network sitcom version, but the actual data about how people choose to come together to love and support and care for each other.
A few weeks back I flew to New Hampshire and then drove the interstate and a rural back road to Vermont to do a wedding. In the weeks before the ceremony, the couple had posted on Facebook about some of the planning overwhelm but also the excitement that accompanies all such events.
The day before, guests began to arrive from all over the country, and that evening there was a Karaoke party at a pub a distance away. Some folks got lost, but otherwise, by all accounts, it was a great kick-off to the celebration.
The morning of the wedding, there was a rehearsal on the pastoral grounds of the Calvin Coolidge Historical Site, and the rehearsal lunch, with grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade vegetable soup.
The hour of the wedding, the musicians were in place, the co-officiants — me and another female minister from a United Church of Christ congregation — and the wedding party — sisters of the couple but no parents, one of them too ill to come, the others a no-show.
I was given the opening words and prayer to deliver, and what I said, as I often do, is this:
What we are about to take part in, to witness, is more than an event. It is the making-public of a sacred covenant between the couple standing here today. It is therefore not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly, but reverently. Into this closest of relationships you two come to be joined by a ceremony which, to be true, must be the symbol of something inner and real — a sacred union of hearts and minds — which religion may bless, and the state — thank God — make legal…
And then there was a smattering of amens in the crowd, because this was indeed a legal same-sex wedding in one of the handful of states that has so far allowed it. The first legal same-sex wedding I have ever performed, and my extraordinary privilege and thrill to do so.
I wrote the Church of the Larger Fellowship Senior Minister the Rev. Meg Riley recently, a lesbian with an adopted Chinese daughter of her own, asking her what she thought was the basis of our Unitarian Universalist commitment to advocating for and conducting these kinds of marriage ceremonies — and recognizing and embracing these kinds of families.
She wrote back, saying:
“What undergirds our UU commitment to LBGT people (and how they choose to form their families)? Honestly, I could tell you lots of things about our theology and history, but I truly believe it comes down to authentic and powerful relationships. Our folks are committed to authentic lives…”
Former UUA President William Sinkford, our first African-American leader, wrote some years ago that “the religious right finds threats to the family pretty much everywhere it finds a difference… to them, family values are rules that require everyone’s families to look like their families, love like their families, and believe the same things as their families — or else be excluded from the definition of family.
“As religious liberals, we have a different view. We have long worked to expand the conversation about family values to reflect the reality that there are (indeed) many kinds of families in this country. Our values ground in respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our experience tells us that our diversity is to be celebrated, rather than feared.
“We affirm the variety of families in our faith community and have made a commitment to support our congregations in helping all our families strengthen themselves and to grow in spirit, love, and justice.”
In 2008, he spoke at a rally during our General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale in front of banners saying “Stand on the Side of Love” and “Valuing All Families.” He told the gathered crowd, “the American family is threatened today… but some families are more threatened than others, our GLBT families and those of immigrants.” Threatened by lack of legal standing, by the possibility of being broken apart, by castigation and threats. Not by all, but by a powerful some.
As we work to honor and protect them, we honor and protect the “modern family.”
Families with children, families with no children, single-parent families, multi-cultural families, multi-generational families, blended families, families of choice. All families who live lives of justice, equity, and compassion.