The success of Modern Family is undeniable, particularly so in its early incarnation (winning the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of its first five years). The series, being a sitcom, frequently relies on stereotypes and tropes as can be expected, but these tropes become regressive and increasingly problematic.
The show has, for me, become increasingly questionable in its recent series; an issue that seems to correlate with an escalation in poor quality. The portrayal of women for example, in which Claire fulfils the role of harridan, or the representation of Phil, the husband who is often more child than adult, are both tired and seem especially lazy given the increase in television’s quality over recent years. For me though, the issue of Manny and the manner in which his heterosexual desire is represented, is perhaps the most damaging.
Teen desire, particularly male desire, had long been represented in sitcoms as a source for comedy and humour. Certainly there is nothing wrong with that, in fact, given that the media often proves itself to be formative in helping teens navigate their burgeoning sexuality, a representation of desire which is both relatable and empathetic is, I believe, crucial.
This is where Modern Family missteps so dangerously. Manny, held up for ridicule due to his dramatic tendencies, is permanently seen as a source of humour. Rather than being encouraged to laugh with Manny, we are encouraged to laugh at him, especially when he is determined to woo a potential love interest. Immediately this prevents Manny from becoming an empathetic character for teens: they don’t want to be like Manny as they don’t want to find themselves a similar subject of ridicule. This is concerning enough, but it is Manny’s interactions with women that are the most troubling.
Manny, despite his comedic characterisation, truly believes himself to be entirely desirable to all women, including his cousin. His interactions with other girls, in which he attempts to increase his confidence by driving a car are, initially, endearing.
Yet, it is as Manny gets older that his continual attempts to attract women veer into harassment. Take his treatment of the nanny employed to look after his younger brother for example. His machinations in which he ensures that he is alone with her, begin to stray into manipulation and control. His fascination with her seems to largely stem from her physical attractiveness as he is found sculpting and drawing nude images of her as part of his classwork. Thus his desire for women is not based on personality, but rather levels of attractiveness.
I find it useful then, when considering Manny’s improbable interactions with women, to reference the sublime Malcolm in the Middle. All of the men in the family spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to attract members of the opposite sex, but unlike Modern Family, Malcom in the Middle is able to portray both the humiliation and empathy of the onslaught of puberty in a way that is both comedic and far more positive.
Unlike Manny, who seems to believe that any woman should think themselves lucky to be involved with him, all of the boys understand that in order to attract a girl, they may need to moderate their behaviour. Take the episode in which a babysitter is hired to look after the boys for the weekend (a useful parallel given Manny’s treatment of the nanny). The boys, immediately finding her attractive, spend the weekend attempting to please her. They take great pains to ensure that they listen to her and most importantly, that she feels listened to. They consciously make sure to keep the house tidy as instructed and make an effort to present themselves in as positive way as possible.
Now I am not, of course, suggesting that this depiction is wholly positive, but compared to Manny, the Wilkersons are positively progressive.