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Stay-at-Home Parents, Working Women, & TV’s ‘Modern Families’

Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy and Rob Riggle as Gil Thorpe on the "Modern Family" episode "Career Day"

Julie Bowen as Claire Dunphy and Rob Riggle as Gil Thorpe in the “Modern Family” episode “Career Day”

Claire Dunphy is thinking about going back to work. Note: The Modern Family character is thinking about it, weighing her options, and getting into scrapes week after week that teach her that her best job is as mother to her three kids. She tries to get a job with her husband’s arch nemesis, only to learn that he’s a sexist pig and has only hired her to get back at Phil. It’s been said before, but is there anything “modern” about this family? The show has a pile of Emmys, and the ratings to match, so maybe I’m the idiot here, and not the writing staff that thinks three stay-at-home parents reflects “modern” family life.

Then again, I have an ex-president in my corner: Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (and the actress who played the president on Commander in Chief) has conducted a new study on gender roles in popular media. The results are pretty bleak. Only about one-third of characters on television are female. That number is lower for family films and children’s programming than it is for primetime TV. Family films, apparently, are even worse than TV at showing women in leadership roles. But, out of all the procedurals on TV right now, the study found not one female chief justice or district attorney. Not one. The vast majority of fictional doctors, politicians and CEOs are also male.

Phylicia Rashād as Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show"

Phylicia Rashād as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”

Jobs on TV certainly feel more gendered than they used to. Twenty years ago, in the 1991-1992 TV season, Murphy Brown, Designing Women and Roseanne, all three about working women, were among the 10 most popular shows. Cheers and Murder She Wrote, which featured strong female leads, were also in the Top 10. Today, only two shows with female leads are even in the Top 20: 2 Broke Girls and New Girl.

When I was a kid, I remember watching The Cosby Show, on which attorney Clair Huxtable managed to raise her kids with a doctor husband. No one had to stay at home, no one had to decide being a mommy was more important than being a career woman. I’ll grant you that very few people in the real world would be able to handle all that work with the same grace and upbeat charm Clair Huxtable radiated in every episode. But if you like your sitcoms grittier, Roseanne Conner offered a different point of view as part of a working couple struggling to make ends meet. As a youngster, I saw a variety of families on TV; granted, there were no gay parents or interracial couples, but sitcom families in the ‘90s included a wider variety of roles for women.

I don’t want to do a time warp back to 1992. I do, however, want networks to stop making excuses that a show about a working woman can’t be funny and popular. Yes, Parks and Recreation and the late 30 Rock have lower ratings than the networks would have liked, but don’t let the quirkiness of those shows stop the production of other mainstream shows that feature female leads — female leads with real, powerful jobs.

Most of all, I hope Claire Dunphy starts working again. She’s tough, she’s smart, her kids are growing up — and she deserves to use her skills for something other than badgering them night and day. Claire could go back to the corporate world, pick up a failing institution and turn it around the way she flipped that suburban house. Gloria, too, has gifts other than her body and her funny accent. She could work as a counselor (she’s certainly a master at getting the seemingly unfeeling to express themselves). There is so much more that these characters could do on screen. It would just take creativity, and a belief that modern women do, in fact, go to work.


  • Jerry Ordway

    How about Castle? The police boss is a woman, and of course the co-lead is a female cop. Or on TNT the Closer, and now Major Crimes has a female lead.

  • Etain

    Don’t Trust The B was pretty funny with strong, interesting female leads. Unfortunately, the ratings weren’t there to get it renewed.

    Keri Russel’s Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans is an interesting take on an ’80’s mom juggling work and home. And by work I mean a KGB spy.

  • shaunn

    Good points. But I should point out that “Modern Family” is, probably inadvertently, making an interesting point. Women started going into the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. For many women, this was not a “choice” – it was seen as economic necessity, if they wished their families to have a middle-class existence. In MF, the Pritchards can have three stay at home parents because they are a very wealthy family – they can, literally, afford to do this.

  • Tyler

    On the Cosby show, Cliff DID stay home. His practice was in the basement – which is what made it work. It would be interesting to see a show developed to follow what happens when dropping kids off at day care.

    What is interesting to me, in terms of media – is when a woman does work as a mom, she is usually a single mom. Somehow dropping a kid off in daycare Is more acceptable for a single mom than when there is a
    Mom and dad in the picture.

  • justicegray

    Anna, do you have kids? If so, how many?

  • LorrieKR

    I’ve always found it strange that Claire doesn’t work (her youngest child is at least 13 years old) and wondered how Phil could earn enough to support the Dunphy family on his own. Could he really sell that many houses? Is the market that good in Southern California? Jay may be rich, but I doubt he’s supporting his adult children. I know Modern Family is very much a fantasy of modern family life, but still, it’s weird.

  • joe35

    No female district attorneys? Erin Reagan (Bridget Moynahan) on “Blue Bloods” is an Assistant District Attorney. I think that’s close enough to qualify.

  • ProfElle

    What strange, utterly irrelevant questions. One’s personal family status is immaterial. This is an article about representation of women in television, justicegray. You should considering reading articles before you comment.

  • batGRRRl4ever

    I got the sense of disdain that insinuates yet again that being a full time stay at home parent is not in itself a “real” job. If that is the insinuation of the article, that a woman isn’t “enough” as “just” a stay at home parent, it’s insulting. It’s one of the more difficult jobs out there.

  • John E Cupach

    This is easy…by the time you factor in the expenses of having two jobs (daycare being the biggest one) it’s not worth the trade off of having latchhook kids whose parents are too tired to interact with them. I’m sure we’ll see shows with the stay-at-home dad.

  • Jay

    I agree that it is very jarring that the show is called Modern Family but features two stay at home moms. Even if they are financially capable, a positive model for women would be for the moms to pursue careers not because they have to, but because they want to. They should want to have their own careers.

  • DC Sheehan

    Great points, Anna. I can understand Gloria not working, but never understood it from Claire who reminds me of several of my sisters and friends, none of whom would be happy not working.

    MF’s modernity is wrapped up in a heap of traditionalism. Note that the gay couple were keen to be parents, something almost every gay couple on TV seem to want to do now. It’s a good show but it’s also more status quo than it appears.

  • Larry Carter

    Granted, I have a small sample to judge by, but in my discussions with women in the workplace, many really would prefer to be stay-at-home moms. Unfortunately, many cannot. My wife would love to stay at home, run with our kids and help take care of her aging parents. One of the best members on my team left because it was too expensive for her to work. She had two children in daycare and the costs simply took all of her paycheck. She was basically working for nothing anyway. She saw no need to work forty hours a week to be away from her children. Many others I speak to would simply love to raise their children themselves. Perhaps the choices Claire is facing are much more reflective of real life (albeit played up for comedy) than what was depicted in shows like The Cosby Show, etc.

  • leigh

    I doubt that is the point. The name of the show is modern family and none of the women on the show work outside the home. That is certainly not typical anymore and is more reflective of the TV shows of the 1950’s.

  • Andrew Ulrich

    Not to mention that EVERY Law and Order show (excluding original cast) has had a female district attorney featured.

  • Hamish Kanakaredes

    Honestly? It’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment. And maybe people are enjoying the fantasy of a stay at home parent when in real life very few families seem able to do that anymore…

  • Andrew Ulrich

    Are you berating the studios and networks because there’s only 2 “female lead” shows in the top 20?

    Shouldn’t you blame the viewers, who are the ones not watching what you want them to watch?

  • MadMikeyD

    Why can’t a woman want to stay home with her children? Why is that looked down upon? My wife chooses to be home with the kids and now homeschools as well. She doesn’t have to. She wants to. Her children and their education is her priority. I couldn’t be any more proud of her if she ran a multi-million dollar corporation. Who are you people to tell her she’s making a wrong decision?

  • justicegray

    LOL, ease up on the snark there princess. Bad morning?

    I actually was looking for context *before* I commented further. I think the relevance of my question is fairly obvious (at present, at least 6 other people understood why I was asking it).

    Perhaps you should take a critical reading course so that you also consider background of the author before critiquing an article? ;) I’m happy to offer you guidance in this for a small hourly fee or a lump sum. Feel free to comment back if you’d like to take me up on it, I’m happy to set something up so you can take your reading comp to the next level! =) As a bonus, I’ll throw in the reason I asked the above question *for free*.

    Probably worth noting here too that Anna has yet to reply, so it looks like she got why I was asking as well. ;) I’m happy to take this back if I’m mistaken, it’s just a comment thread on a fansite! :)

  • Princess? Really?

    I hope your inexpensive critical reading course will touch on Roland Barthes!

  • justicegray

    Probably not, cupcake. Given this thread I think you probably need to start with the basics. You know, milk before solid food, all that jazz.

  • Jay

    No I’m not saying that being a stay at home mom is the wrong decision. Nor that they can’t. I’m just saying that in a show called Modern Family, it would nice for the show to put women in a different role than they have been for most family sitcoms. Additionally, sitcoms have showcased the stay-at-home mom role for decades. Having a woman working because she wants to would be different than most shows who depict it is because both need to work.

    Both parents work in the household for 59% of American families. It would be nice if TV reflected that.

  • Drew

    I think Anna is missing the irony in the title name which is also why it works so well. It is anything but a Modern Family, while also being a “Modern” Family. Look at it, Phil and Claire has the every day family, her brother is married to another man with an asian baby, and their dad has married a young latina who can hardly speak english and their son Manny who is more mature than Phil. The title of the show is a clever way of titling the show.

  • Chuck777

    The ratings weren’t there because the show was not meant for network television. It got a lot of bad press.

    Which is sad because I thought it was funny.

  • Chuck777

    Daycare is outrageously expensive these days.

    Still, all of Claire’s kids are well past the age of needing a babysitter, so there’s no reason she doesn’t have a job, other than the fact that she can afford not to have one.

  • Barrett

    Good points and interesting topic. (Also depressing.) The Mindy Project has a strong female lead, but she’s not a mom. I can’t think of any other sitcoms though. “Nurse Jackie” and “The Good Wife” definitely don’t count as sitcoms, but they have examples of strong working moms, even if Jackie and Alicia aren’t perfect.

  • kaniole

    Don`t want to be rude, but maybe Anna is too young for this article.
    Some women DECIDE to stay home and raise her kids, it’s a real valid choice as it is to go out and work.

    I’m cool with both ways, but:
    The real problem here, it’s the world sometimes forgets how hard it’s to raise childrens and live for them, sometimes is harder than many other works, and in the name of love, not less…!

    I totally can understand that when you are young your career it’s the whole world for you, but once you are a mother (i’m a father myself) those values changes a lot….