Tuned In

Modern Family Watch: What the Bleep Was the Big Deal?

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I hadn’t planned on reviewing last night’s Modern Family, and probably wouldn’t have after watching it, if not for the advance, sight-unseen controversy over something toddler Lily said in the episode. Or rather, didn’t say.

One storyline in “Little Bo Bleep” involved something I, and am guessing most parents, have experienced: the time your very young child starts using a swear word he or she heard somewhere, probably without even understanding what it means. For Cam and Mitchell’s daughter Lily, it was the f-word, which she gets into the habit of saying just before appearing as a flower girl at a wedding.

You don’t hear the curse, of course, and for what it’s worth, the actress who plays the girl didn’t ever swear in real life. She said “fudge,” and the producers inserted bleeps over that. Nonetheless, a group called the No Cussing Club (there goes my title for my planned line of kids’ detective books!) condemned the episode and asked ABC to pull it. Because for some reason, a TV episode premised on the idea that it is a problem for a child to cuss encourages children to cuss. Naturally, the Parents Television Council signed on to the protest. “The more we see and hear this kind of language on television,” said a spokeswoman, “the more acceptable and common it will become in the real world.”

Oh, for ___’s sake.

Mitchell and Cam’s dilemma is familiar: How did she learn it? How do explain to a two-year-old the concept that some words are “bad”? How do you make sure you’re not encouraging the behavior by paying attention to it? And how do you keep from laughing? (My story: at one point, a toddler Tuned In Jr. picked up the habit of exclaiming “Jesus!” when he got frustrated. We talked to him, he stopped—it is no small feat to explain to a three-year-old why it is bad to use the actual proper name of a figure from a religion that is not our family’s—but I would be lying if I said it is not hilarious to hear a red-cheeked toddler innocently swear like a 40-year-old man.)

The subplot was not the most brilliant Modern Family has ever done, but it felt well-observed and honest—particularly Mitchell’s frustration with Cam (who can’t stop giggling) and the couple’s disagreement about how best as parents to discourage the f-bombs. There was nothing close to a message that all the cool kids are swearing, or that having your little flower girl bust out the f-word in public is a parent’s dream. The storyline ended with Lily, seeing Cam crying at the wedding, saying “f___” in front of the church to cheer him up; his having giggled at Lily’s swearing blows up in his face, and he ends up fleeing the church with her.

So this glamorizes indecency among children how? Because the situation resolved humorously? Modern Family is a comedy. If the show had Lily’s swearing result in, say, a highway accident that killed three people, it would have been something of a departure in tone.

People have the right to protest what they want. I will at least credit the No Cussing Club and the PTC with not trying to get the FCC to punish ABC for the story. But incidents like this make me think suspect that the real reason decency advocates are always so concerned about “the effect on the children” is that they themselves watch and interpret TV like children. That is, they can’t or won’t interpret a narrative on any level more complex than: if a TV series depicts a behavior, it must therefore approve of that behavior. Thus Modern Family is pro-child-cussing; thus The Sopranos was pro-violence because its protagonist was a violent mobster.

The controversy of this episode will blow over quickly, I’m sure, but the nature of it is telling. It’s not enough that the word was bleeped. It’s not enough that the child actress was not swearing to begin with. It’s inherently bad that the character seemed to swear, because simply depicting it will encourage swearing. There’s no room for situational irony; there’s no assumption that an audience can see that Lily’s swearing is shown as undesirable.

In other words, for groups like the protesters, it’s not enough that the language on air in primetime be appropriate for children: the level of narrative sophistication itself has to be at children’s level.

Anyhow: if not for the controversy, I probably would hardly have paid attention to this subplot. For my money the best part of the episode was Claire’s preparation and debate for the council election, which featured some fine physical comedy from Julie Bowen as Claire physically fought her instinct to roll her eyes and point her finger.

Some people, it seems, just can’t stop themselves from pointing fingers and scolding. What an appropriate time for Modern Family to show us that.