Modern Family’s Cussing Controversy

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

This week, Modern Family broadcast a controversial episode in which two-year-old character Lily drops the “f-bomb” (http://insidetv.ew.com/2012/01/18/modern-family-f-word/). The ABC sitcom airs Wednesdays at 9pm (at least in EST), but the episode raised the ire of protest groups before show-time even rolled around. Both the Parents Television Council and a student-organization called The No Cussing Club objected to the toddler’s role in the storyline. To be fair, actress Aubrey Anderson-Emmons doesn’t actually say the f-word; she says “fudge,” and only through the bleeping and visual editing in the final cut can viewers determine that her character curses.

The incident raises for me a lot of chicken-egg concerns about the relationship between the media and its audience. While it’s common to hear that examples of violence, sexuality, and foul language in the media promote similar behaviors in reality, I think it’s fair to ask what kind of audience supports programs like that in the first place. To what extent are audiences passive or active in the shaping of media, which, ultimately, must please the viewers in order to survive? As much as I don’t condone violence or foul language or a lot of the sexual content that exists in the media, I also don’t expect the media to act as my moral compass; television programs like Modern Family exist to entertain audiences and make money for networks, not to provide moral instruction. How much are shows like Modern Family influencing our culture, and how much are they mirroring it, if perhaps with better writing and more comedic fodder?

Given that the show airs at 9pm and consistently features mature storylines, it seems obvious that it’s a program intended for adults. I’m not saying that using the f-word is a good idea, that media watchdogs and viewers don’t have a right to protest, or that the narrative is in good taste. But the show isn’t called “Model Family,” it’s called Modern Family, and this episode fits with the provocative tone of the entire series. It can be an opportunity for reflection on media standards, but it can also be a chance to ponder our roles as media audiences and, for parents, as vastly more influential role models for our children and their language usage.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Stephen

    Not sure what your opinion is on what level of objectionable content should be allowed via broadcast, but I believe you correctly identify this as a chicken-egg issue. The usual question when it regards poultry and their calcium encased progeny is “which came first?” But frankly, I find this question rather irrelevant. I don’t really care which came first if both are immoral. If one goes around smashing eggs, soon there won’t be any chickens around. Likewise, if one starts clubbing chickens, soon eggs will be difficult to find. Point being, a feedback cycle exists between media and culture. What one does influences the other to a very large degree.

    School shootings are a particularly dramatic example. Desire to murder + taking guns to work/school equals “going postal”. Which leads to film scene from “Basketball Diaries”, which inspires Columbine, which leads to massive media coverage, which leads to copy killings, which leads to more media coverage, more killings, etc. I don’t think I even need to belabor this point it’s so self evident.

    The widespread success of truly creative media, such as Pixar films across age, genders, and American sub-cultures, proves that industry success can be achieved without resorting to objectionable content. The old adage “where there’s a will, there’s a way” springs to mind. If such content is barred from broadcasting, media companies will still go on making money, albeit with a little more creativity. Can’t we tell good stories in public media without being overly graphic?

    And before anyone objects that it’s a parents job to select acceptable media for their children, so thus companies can pump out whatever they like, I would point out the completely tragic number of inept, or completely uncaring parents that exist, and seem to flock in large numbers to places like Wal-Mart. A couple times I’ve heard young kids of 4 and 5 talking about the multiple times they’ve watched the “Saw” movies and laughing and talking about the graphic depictions of torture they’ve watched. So, thus I argue (and not merely from the wish to protect children, but adults too), why is there any hesitation from believers over discouraging objectionable content?

  • http://www.thomaslourdeau.com Thomas

    To me, it comes down to this:

    “To be fair, actress Aubrey Anderson-Emmons doesn’t actually say the f-word; she says “fudge,” and only through the bleeping and visual editing in the final cut can viewers determine that her character curses.”

    I don’t mean to come across as though the other points aren’t valid, but if we’re going to start raising issue with inferred activity, that’s a big problem.

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