Ty Burrell, who plays the loveable real estate agent/quirky dad on Television’s “Modern Family” turns 50 today. Burrell, who after college lived out of a van while working at various Shakespeare festivals, deserves celebration. He has been the star of a series that has brought joy and laughter to millions of Americans. More importantly, it has changed them.
“Modern Family” premiered on September 23, 2009. Parallel to its eight seasons has been the greatest period of advancement in both legal gay rights and cultural acceptance of the LGBTQ community in our history. That is no coincidence. A mere decade ago, even the staunchest and most optimistic LGBTQ advocates would not have predicted nationwide legalization of gay marriage as well as gays being allowed to serve openly in the military so soon.
Mitchell Tucker and Cam Pritchett are the gay couple on the show who adopt a Vietnamese daughter. They have the same tendencies as the typical heterosexual couple. They have ups and downs, exciting and mundane moments. They share their moments of laughter and sadness with us. They have a good and bad relationships with their in-laws. They help us transition from thinking of them as a “gay couple” to a “couple.” It is hard not to like Cam and Mitch, and hard not to identify everything about them as normal and human.
We watch how other characters on the show interact with Cam and Mitchell and how they grow in response to them. Especially Mitchell’s father Jay Pritchett, the 60 something Vietnam veteran and man’s man who has to come to grips with a gay son and son in law. Jay is at first reluctant, mocking, and sometimes just plain mean to the couple. We watch as Jay evolves in his acceptance and treatment of Cam and Mitch, and we cheer for him to do so. Who didn’t get a bit of a lump in their throat when they saw Jay proudly walking his son down the aisle?
There have been gay characters in film and television since the 1970’s. However, they typically played right into the long held stereotypes that average Americans who did not know any gays held. They were often ultra feminine men who were the joke of the show, not accepted as normal working professionals like Cam and Mitch. In the mid 1980’s, one of television’s most popular shows, “Cheers” actually had an episode where the entire plot was based around a rumor that there were two gay men frequenting the bar. The bar regulars spent the episode trying to figure out who they were so they could kick them out.
Thank “Modern Family” for making us better than that.
“Modern Family” is not the first show to have significant impact on how Americans felt about certain groups. “The Cosby Show”, showed America a working upper middle class black family for the first time, the Mary Tyler Moore show helped us cheer for the single, working women of the world. “Murphy Brown” helped America realize that a single mom could still be an effective mom..
People who hold negative stereotypes about a group often do so because they really haven’t had any significant day to day interactions with members of that group. They just don’t know any better. They allow their opinions about a group to be shaped by misperceptions taught to them by others. It is amazing what happens to an anti-Jew, anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ person when they really get to know a member of those groups. Not everyone has the chance to do that, so the arts become the next best thing. Television has the power to shape hearts and minds, in both good and bad ways.
How much did “Modern Family” have to do with the legal advancement of gay rights in this country? Hard to say. It is not hard to say that it had a lot to do with the advancement in tolerance and acceptance by average Americans, which likely came into play with politicians and government leaders. No, the Supreme Court did not take a poll of how Americans felt about gay marriage before the Obergefell V. Hodges ruling of 2015 which made gay marriage legal in every state. However, the court is not deaf to changes in public opinion either.
There has been a shift even in people who say they object to homosexuality because of “moral and religious” reasons. They are much more kind and decent in how they treat and interact with gay people. The meanness of past generations has decreased significantly. Are we all perfect and kind in every way? No, but we have gotten a lot better.
Want to see the biggest way that American’s have changed their attitudes towards the LGBTQ community? Talk to young people. They have gay and transgender friends, and want politicians and leaders to treat them well. Ten years ago, you heard young people using the word “gay” to describe negative things, or insult people. Today, that has not entirely vanished, but is used much less. If you do hear one teenager say, “That’s so gay”, you are likely to hear another admonish the offender.
We will never be able to quantify the social and cultural impact on America by the show “Modern Family.” We will never know exact effect it had on changing laws, hearts, and minds in America, but we can say the answer is not zero.
So, happy 50th birthday Ty Burrell, and thank you for being the backbone of the show that makes us laugh, learn, and grow. You, and your show have made America better.