The Myth of Gay Affluence and the Problem with Modern Family
By Tony Shu (Concerned Viewer)
I think ABC’s Modern Family is an excellent show and I am not alone.
It has received 21 Primetime Emmy awards and has an average viewership of nearly ten million people per episode. The show is also one of Barack Obama’s favorite shows and Ann Romney, during the 2012 election, publicly acknowledged that Modern Family was also her favorite television show; this move was described as a “cautious reach across the aisle to the liberal voters.”
Why is Modern Family a favorite among liberals? It is in part due to another one of the show’s major achievements: further normalizing gay couples and families in pop culture. The show’s characters Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett go through the trials and joys of gaining familial and societal acceptance, adopting children, and even getting married (after California’s Proposition 8 was overturned). Modern Family joins The Ellen Degeneres Show, Glee, Will & Grace, and numerous other shows to demonstrate that television can function as a beacon of society’s progress and sometimes even as a leader to expedite that progress. In fact, a 2012 poll found that 27 percent of likely voters were more pro-gay marriage after seeing gay characters on television.
Television is powerful. It features characters to empathize with, introduces unfamiliar perspectives and ideas, and it can even change people’s minds. There is an immense amount of responsibility for television shows to not only entertain and make profit, but to also be socially conscious and accurate. It is in the latter that Modern Family falls short.
Cam and Mitch do not accurately represent the gay community. They are two white males living in Los Angeles, one of the most liberal cities in the USA. Furthermore, they live in the affluent Westside of Los Angeles County, near Beverly Hills. One blog found the exact location of the duplex used for Cam and Mitch’s home; it is currently valued at about $1.6 million. Therefore, we can confidently place the couple in the middle or upper-middle class.
Modern Family’s characterization of Cam and Mitch perpetuates the ‘myth of gay affluence’: the belief that a disproportionate amount of gay people are financially well-off.
Television and pop culture plays a significant role in promoting this myth because it reveres gay people for skills, interests, and actions that are connected with the upper middle class. As noted in Whose Gay Community? Social Class, Sexual Self-Expression, and Gay Community Involvement, “Gay males and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, are depicted as having the affluence to be relatively high consumers of goods, with professional or white collar occupations,” This depiction makes gays valuable to marketers. Joshua Gamson notes in The Intersection of Gay Street and Straight Street that gay men are used by advertisers to “cheerlead for consumption...Gay men’s stereotyped affinity for home, leisure, and body professions makes them an especially good fit for [those types of] programming.” Gamson goes on to argue that “It is this that the gay men are celebrated [on television]: they are master shoppers, and excellent instructors in participation in upper middle class urban culture.”
In this way, television has moved beyond just accepting gay men to actually flaunting them. The problem is, television only flaunts wealthy gay men. These advertisements and programs engrain in viewer’s minds that the gay community is one-dimensional and that gay men are only useful in society for providing fashion or home advice. Rather than challenging the stereotypes of the LGBT community, the entertainment industry is attempting to profit off them.
Although Cam may be a football coach and Mitch may be a lawyer, Modern Family also depends on and reinforces gay stereotypes. In the episode “Strangers in the Night”, much of the humor around Cam and Mitch revolves around them fussing over their designer white couch, which is at risk of being stained by a distraught, drunk colleague. In the episode “Ringmaster Keifth”, Cam reconciles with his ex-boyfriend Keifth who praises him on his happiness, success, and the fact that his cuffs do not match his sleeves. Whether it be valuing expensive furniture over people or equating success with fashion prowess, the characters in Modern Family continue to suggest that the quintessential gay life is an upper middle class life dominated by constant concern about appearances and expensive goods.
While viewers are captivated by Cam and Mitch (and their stereotype-dependant humor), there are entire segments of the LGBT population that are missing from the limelight. What many people do not realize is that there is just as much economic diversity in the LGBT community as there is in our national community. In fact, the Williams Institute at UCLA observed in a 2009 study that “Poverty rates for LGB adults are as high or higher than rates for heterosexual adults.” More specifically, 24% of lesbian women are poor compared to 19% of heterosexual women and 15% of gay men are poor compared to 13% of heterosexual men. Beyond just individuals, the study notes that “After controlling for other factors, same-sex couples are significantly more likely to be poor than heterosexual couples.” When television consistently only shows well-off gay males, viewers can be brainwashed to forget that the LGBT community too faces poverty, unemployment, homelessness, workplace discrimination, and much more.
As Nathan McDermott argues in The Myth of Gay Affluence, “This misinformation is more damaging than simple ignorance. It holds back the entire gay equality movement.” McDermott specifically points out the 1996 landmark Supreme Court case, Romer v. Evans. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the Colorado state constitutional amendment (that was overturned in the case), which prohibited legal protections for gays and lesbians, was an “entirely reasonable provision.” He went on to argue that because gays “have high disposable income...they possess political power much greater than their numbers.”
It is exactly these misguided beliefs about gay affluence that can make people, including a Supreme Court Justice, believe that gays do not need or deserve federal government policies (such as anti-discrimination policies) to aid in combatting poverty.
The myth of gay affluence even undermines the effect of existing government aid and financial assistance. Barbara Raab, a senior producer at NBC, argues that the stigmatization around being gay and poor can prevent those people from going out and applying for the aid they need.
Furthermore, this stigmatization may even prevent less-wealthy gays from coming out in the first place. The authors of Whose Gay Community? find that “Working-class [gay] men are less likely to describe themselves as gay and be involved in the socially visible gay culture”. Without a strong sense of community or support, thanks in part to lack of television representation, working class gays may feel that there is no place for them in gay society. Because poorer gays may not self-identify themselves as gay to researchers, studies like the one conducted by the Williams Institute could actually understate the true levels of poverty in the gay community.
There is still so much injustice facing our LGBT citizens and the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 is just one step in the right direction. Unfortunately, not all gays can live in places like California, Massachusetts, or New York. Not all gays can live with financial stability. Not all gays can live the comparatively comfortable lives of Cam and Mitch. The entertainment industry must strive towards highlighting the nuances and diversity of the different communities they present. Our government must strive towards reducing poverty in all communities and protecting all citizens from discrimination.
Last year, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ laws were introduced in 38 states. So far this year, more than 100 were introduced.
We cannot let the misrepresentation of the gay experience in the media blur our focus on the substantial amount of work that still can and needs to be done.
*Here's how author Tony Shu suggests you can get involved: Sign the Human Rights Campaign's "No Hate in My State" Pledge
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