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Modern Family’s Most Controversial Character May Be TV’s Most Important LGBTQ+ Ally
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Modern Family’s Most Controversial Character May Be TV’s Most Important LGBTQ+ Ally

Modern Family focused on an extended family's dynamics but it was the patriarch Jay Pritchett, who showed the most growth. What followed is a touching and realistic journey from homophobia to allyship.

It would be a challenge to find someone who hasn't chuckled along with at least one episode of Modern Family, a show about three families trying to navigate the contemporary world -- and everything that implies.

The series was a fresh take on the mockumentary sitcom format and represented family structures we didn't see on television at the time. Most notably, a third of the extended family consisted of Mitchell Pritchett, his partner Cameron Tucker, and their adopted daughter Lily.

While the series didn't delve too deeply into the more serious issues that same-sex couples often face, it did take on the challenges that LGBTQ+ folks have to contend with regularly, from managing expectations of people around them to fielding offensive, if well-meant, comments. In the show, these learning moments were often instigated by Mitchell's father, Jay Pritchett, who ended up becoming a very important character for the show, in more ways than one.

TV's Most Controversial LGBTQ+ Ally

Modern family Jay Pritchett and Phil Dunphy look at camera

Jay Pritchett is a gruff, no-nonsense businessman and Vietnam veteran. Throughout the series, his children's choices and needs force him to reflect on his worldview and adjust his behavior. As is true for many people, learning isn't linear for Jay -- it is often awkward, and comes in fits and false starts.

Jay's daughter Claire is married to a man Jay doesn't respect but learns to tolerate. His stepson Manny is expressive and precocious, needing an emotionally mature and open father figure. And his son Mitchell needs a father who will embrace his growing family and fully accept that he's gay. But this is not what makes him an interesting character, it's how he evolves.

Jay's Homophobia at the Start of Modern Family

Modern Family: Jay Pritchett letting Cam drop while rock climbing, Mitchell looks on.

In the pilot episode of the series, Cam and Mitch return from Vietnam with their adopted daughter. In the final scene, Mitch tells the family, "So about a year ago, Cam and I started feeling this longing for something more - maybe a baby."

Jay handles Mitch's statement with that same level of tact by interrupting him and saying, "That's a bad idea. [...] Kids need a mother. If you two guys are bored, get a dog."

At this point in Jay's arc, he is still so uncomfortable with Mitch and Cam's relationship that he announces himself before entering rooms so he never has to see the two men kiss.

Jay watches while Cam enters holding Lily. While the rest of the family crowd around the baby, Jay hangs back, seemingly troubled by the adoption. But he surprises the audience by admitting, "I know I said I thought this was a bad idea, but what do I know? It's not like I wrote the book on fatherhood. I've been trying all my life to get it right. I'm still screwing up. [...] Anyway, I'm happy for you." He promptly calls Lily "one of us now" and goes to meet his new granddaughter.

Another show might have made this the end of Jay's arc, as fully evolved and fully accepting of Mitch and Cam. But Modern Family does something more interesting. Through 11 seasons, we watch Jay confront his views on his own beliefs and his son's sexuality, and it's vastly important.

Modern Family's Night Out that Surprises Everyone

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Modern Family's Jay Pritchett with Pepper in the episode "Boys' Night".

The next turning point comes in Season 2, Episode 18 titled, "Boys' Night." Jay ends up at the same bar where Cam and Mitch are enjoying drinks with their friends. Jay joins their table and easily slides into the conversation about their first crushes. Mitch is visibly surprised by Jay's total comfort with the conversation, and the father and son enjoy a rare bonding moment. While drunk, Jay agrees to go shopping with Mitch's friend Pepper the next day.

In the morning, Mitchell calls Jay to tell him what a good time he had the night before. When he reminds Jay of the date he made with Pepper, Jay tells Mitchell that he has no intention of going out with "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." As always with Jay, it's a matter of two steps forward and one step back.

Jay Finally Talks About His Son's Sexuality

Modern Family Jay Pritchett and Gloria Pritchett have a conversation

The next big moment in Jay's development from homophobe to ally comes in Season 3, "The Last Walt." In the episode, we learn that Jay and Cameron's father Merle don't get along, in part because Merle treats Mitchell like the "woman" in the relationship.

The two men eventually hash it out; unsurprisingly, Merle also struggles with Mitch and Cam's relationship and is trying his best to understand it. This marks the first time Jay talks to someone in earnest about his feelings about his son's sexuality, and it's with a peer -- another father of a gay son.

Both men admit they don't know how to talk about their sons' relationship, but they are trying to improve. While another show might have vilified Jay and Merle, Modern Family chose to portray them as flawed but loving, something many families watching at home could relate to in the 2010s.

How Jay Saves His Son's Wedding Day

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Modern Family's Jay Pritchett on Mitchell and Cameron's wedding day.

Mitch and Cam get married in the two-part finale of Season 5, coinciding with the legalization of same-sex marriage in California. It's revealed early in the episode that Jay and Mitchell haven't spoken in two weeks following an argument.

While taking a steam together at Jay's golf club, Merle confronts Jay about the fight. When Jay asks Merle if he's also conflicted about the wedding, Merle says, "I'd like to think I've evolved on the subject." This is immediately put to the test when they're asked who's the father of the bride, and neither of them is willing to admit that it's their sons getting married.

The wedding itself is halted on multiple occasions. The first hiccup comes when their outdoor venue is evacuated due to a nearby forest fire. Trying to help, Jay tells Mitchell, "This is not your fault, by the way. The fire was an act of God - not that God would send a fireball down to keep you guys from getting married... I didn't say that right. There's no way that any of this is part of God's plan." Naturally, Mitchell, already angry with his father, takes this badly.

Later, after a second venue falls through, Mitch and Cam's guests are all crammed in their living room. The day has been a disaster, and the couple is ready to postpone their wedding. Mitch is ready to apologize to the guests when Jay steps in and interrupts, saying, "Stop, you can't do this. [...] What I mean is you can't get married like this. You two deserve the kind of wedding you've been talking about nonstop for the last nine months. [...] Trust me, okay?"

Cut to Jay back at the golf club as the guests take their seats, proudly telling other members that his son is getting married. Referring to the gay wedding, he says, "It's what this golf club needs. Shake it up a little." He then surprises Mitch by walking him down the aisle.

Why Jay's Journey Matters in Modern Family - and Beyond

Jay on Modern Family smiling warmly

Representation in the media is one of the ways we, as a culture, can begin to normalize the experiences of marginalized groups. Modern Family did its part by creating three-dimensional characters who grow and learn throughout the series.

Jay's never a perfectly woke ally. His language is often antiquated and his sense of humor can be less than sensitive. But throughout the series, he makes leaps and bounds toward understanding all of his children. And it's in the effort that we see how much he cares for his family.

For so many in the LGBTQ+ community, it can be easy to assume that certain family members are set in their ways and will never accept our identities. But Modern Family's Jay Pritchett reminds us that, sometimes, people -- especially the older generations -- just need the time to educate themselves and adjust. The coming out of a loved one can be the catalyst for a wonderful journey of change.


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