Homonormativity: Redefining the American Family

By: Grace Harter

The media in today’s society attempts to incorporate dynamic characters and people in shows that visually conflict with the so-called ‘norm’ of what ‘traditional’ family characteristics and values are. However, shows such as Modern Family and The Fosters, exemplify characters of the homosexual orientation that have families of their own and are accepted in society. This modernized outlook and acceptance of different sexual orientations and ethnicities have underlying  ‘traditional’ familial characteristics. With this being said, the media clip embedded on this page from Modern Family exemplifies the stereotypical gender roles of the gay couple (Mitchell and Cam) in an American household.  For example, Cam is taken aback that he is the one associated with the maternal role of a would-be mother because society is not used to circumstances involving male, homosexual couples.  Also, Claire’s husband and dad are on cooking duty that day and are taking on that maternal role of the stereotypical mother in a traditional family.

According to Judith Stacy (1991), “An intact nuclear household unit [is viewed as being] composed of a male breadwinner, his full-time homemaker wife, and their dependent children” (p. 417).  Modern Family’s incorporation of a gay couple on the show who adopt a daughter, Lily, rebels against the concept that all families are expected to be nuclear ones that consist of a mom, a dad, and children to ‘complete’ it. However, Cam and Mitchell still are financially well-off and the presence of their stability as parents is evident in the show. Cam takes on the role of staying at home with Lily, while Mitchell is an attorney (the breadwinner).  Also, they both possess white privilege and they have a daughter who is dependent on them. These characteristics are aspects relating to those of the ‘traditional’ American family when taking into account the repressive ideology of the American Dream.

On the other hand, The Fosters is an ABC Family original show whose main characters are a bi-racial couple who happen to be lesbians raising their own children along with foster kids as well. Diversity is an element that never was associated with the ‘traditional’ family two decades ago (Stacy, 1991, p. 418).  With this being said, the family is an ideological function and way for social organization in society.  Diversity is one of the contributing factors that keeps the boundaries in society vivid and real.  Despite these boundaries, the show The Fosters attempts to blur the lines of diversity and social constitution (Collins, 1998, p.63).  For example, Lena and Stef demonstrate a couple raising their kids together.  Lena is a black vice principle of a charter school and Stef is a white police officer.  In the movie clip below, Lena and Stef get into an argument over the contingencies of their son’s action, which could result in him becoming a teen father.  This conversation then exemplifies how the boundary lines are blurred between societal organization and ideological function due to their beliefs of family, which they talk about.

Stef and Lena defy the norm of a ‘traditional’ American family.  They are lesbians of different ethnicities trying to raise a children. According to Collins, the white woman’s role in the family is different from that of a black woman’s role; race is a family (Collins, 1998, p. 65) On top of this, both women work and are breadwinners for the family.  This show does a good job of demystifying the norm that families have to be nuclear ones consisting of a mom, dad, and children.  However, the show also contains homonormativity just like Modern Family does.  Yes, Stef and Lena are a bi-racial couple, but Stef still has the power of white privilege.  This is ironic because she is a police officer therefore her job is one of power.  Stef also has the masculine role in the family and Lena is more maternal.  This family also demonstrates Americanized ‘traditional’ familial characteristics such as financial stability along with a Middle Class social status.

50s-family-300x297                                                                                                 5235021

Homonormativity.  Homonormativity is the idea that only certain kinds of homosexuality are accepted in society.  For example, refer to the two images above.  The first image is that of a traditional, American family from the 1950s.  This image greatly portrays heteronormativity, which is the assumption that people are heterosexual human beings above anything else.  This image consists of a mother, a father, and their children, which are all assumed to be heterosexual individuals.  The image portrays the power of white privilege, importance of gender roles, and the characteristics of an American family that correlates with the upper Middle Class.  However, when referencing the image with Neil Patrick Harris and his partner with their children, yes, the American familial norm is demystified, but homonormativity is still prevalent in the image.  Neil Patrick Harris and his partner are gay so they do not physically/ visibly abide by the standard society sets for traditional familial norms.   However they still represent traditional familial characteristics.  Just like Modern Family, The Fosters, and the image of the ‘traditional’ American family in the 50’s, this image also represents white privilege, upper class social stature, children whom are solely dependent on their parents, financial stability, and the familial essence of successful co-parenting.  This, in turn, is correlated back to ‘traditional’ family attributes.

So through the aspect of homonormativity, only the visible element of the modernized family and ‘acceptance’ of it is taking place in TV shows and the media.   The traditional familial values that society has been abiding by for decades are still prevalent today and stronger than ever.  For example, the viewers of Modern Family and The Fosters may accept homosexual couples in society, but it is because they are still demonstrating the values that society expects from any family structure.  It is important to link all of these aspects to the repressive ideology of the American Dream and what it entails.  This element is linked to McIntosh’s intersectional critique on white privilege and society and Tyson’s focus on repressive ideologies in America.  The American dream is a repressive Ideology because it blinds us to the diversity factor in the United States.  The American Dream is possible if you own a company (have financial success), get married, buy a home, and have a family while exemplifying stability in the Middle Class.  Nuclear, white families are those aspects that are expanded upon when referencing the ‘accomplishments’ of the American Dream.  Going along with the previous statement, the physical representation of the family has ‘modernized’ and changed.  However, there will always be those underlying attributes of traditional familial characteristics and values portrayed in the media representing homo and heteronormativity.

Works Cited:

Collins, Patricia Hill. “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation.” Hypatia. Vol.13, No. 3.  Blackwell Publishing, 1998. 62-67. Web.

“Dismantling Homonormativity.” Photograph.  Representation Matters. 2013. Web. 30. Oct. 2013.

“Dismantling  Homonormativity.” Representation Matters. N.d., N.d.  Web 30 Oct. 2013.

Green, Kelly. “Do They Like Me Now, 50s?” Photograph. KellyGreene Blog. 2013. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom (July/August 1989), 9-10; repr. in Independent School, 49 (1990), 31–35.

“Mother’s Day.” Modern Family. Wri. Steven Levitan. Dir. N.d. ABC, 2012. Youtube.

“Opinion: My Fight Against Homonormativity.” USA Today: College. 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Stacey, Judith. “The Making and Unmaking of Modern Families.” Reading Women’s Lives.  New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 1990. Web.

“Stef and Lena Fight Scene.” The Fosters. Wri. Brad Bredeweg. Dir. Peter Paige.  ABC Family, 2013. Youtube.

Tyson, Lois. “Marxist Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York, NY:Routledge, 2006. 53-82. Print.

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