A Writer looks at modern families.
IT was charming and kind of awkward when Australians welcomed the cast of America’s ABC comedy Modern Family (what Aussies might prefer to call a ‘new-fangled mob’) to our shores earlier this year, for the production of a special Australian ‘destination’ episode.
The series has consistently rated highly with Australian viewers and the locally filmed episode was always going to please and offend us.
Did they hit the mark and show us something about ourselves that’s not already apparent from any number of fantastic Australian television families, from The Sullivans to The Moodys?
The answer might lie in comparing the fiction with the data.
“There is simply no mainstream equivalent on Australian television.”
The first major difference is in Modern Family’s portrayal of three family units with kids – it’s simply not representative (what Aussies might prefer to call ‘average’) of this country.
A trio of multi-generational groupings, including biological, adopted, and step-children, is not the Australian way, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Two out of three Australian families had children in the 2011 census, in fact, couples without children made up the dominant chunk of the pie chart, at 37.8 per cent of family units.
A beloved and core element to Modern Family’s make-up is the male same-sex couple (Mitch and Cam). Despite pushing boundaries in the United States for its honest (and to many, not honest enough) portrayal of the realities of same-sex families with children, this is not Australia’s reality.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that Australian same-sex couples with children are overwhelmingly female (a whopping 89 per cent).
Australia is undoubtedly ready for Mitch and Cam adopting children on our television screens, but our communities are a long way behind.
The first legal adoption by a same-sex couple in Australia took place in 2007, in Western Australia, where adoption had been legal for same-sex couples for five years prior. Currently, four Australian states and territories allow same-sex couples zero adoption rights.
Racial and cultural diversity is a core principle of Modern Family’s casting. Out of a total of twelve main characters, 33 per cent of the show’s key cast could be defined as racially diverse, including Latin-American and Asian-American representation.
There is simply no mainstream commercial equivalent on Australian television, an issue which continues to plague the industry, while a racially diverse audience of just under one-quarter of all Australians remains barely represented on our small screen.
Modern Family’s Australian episode did not hit the mark with everyone on home soil – The Guardian Australia’s review carried the headline: ‘Modern Family’s Australian episode was a cliched travelogue’.
But there was one sign that the show’s content could drag Australian television content, and our nation, into the 21st century.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet (who play Mitch and Cam) released a video produced by Australian Marriage Equality, comically expressing (what Aussies call ‘taking the piss’) their astonishment that same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Australia.
So, not until a racially diverse, childless lesbian couple inhabits our television comedies, will Australians become a truly ‘modern family’.
Until then we’ll need fictional outsiders to show us what we could be if we tried.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.