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The Soapbox: On Phil From “Modern Family” And Doofus Husband Syndrome

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“Modern Family” is one of the few shows on TV right now that makes me genuinely laugh out loud every episode. I adore all of the characters, their weird quirks, and increasingly absurd story arcs. From the beginning, if I had to choose a favorite character it would probably be Phil. A talented real estate agent, dorky father of three, and loving husband of Claire, I always felt like Phil was a unique male character in the primetime sitcom landscape. On the surface, he seemed like a stereotypical goofy dad who is only slightly more mature than his pre-adolescent children, but as I kept watching, I realized he possessed depth, intelligence, and warmth. Was he immature on the surface? Yes, but there was more going on underneath, and because of that, he was lovable and real.

This season though, something has changed. I’ve noticed that while Phil is still hilarious, he’s lost some of the layers of complexity, and I’m afraid I might soon have to diagnose him with the dreaded Doofus Husband Syndrome…

Before we get back to Phil, let’s talk a bit about DHS, shall we? Doofus Husband Syndrome runs rampant in primetime sitcoms. One of the most severe cases in history was exhibited by Jim Belushi in “According to Jim,”  whose dim-witted, slovenly character had somehow managed to marry a smart, capable, model-pretty woman played by Courtney Thorne-Smith. Doofus sitcom husbands possess the average intelligence of a toddler, the emotional maturity of a teenage boy, and lack most of the life skills required to survive in modern society, let alone help raise a family or be an equal partner in an intimate relationship.

They are married to beautiful women who clean up after them, both physically and metaphorically. They are self-centered and afraid of their emotions.

And for some reason, America loves watching them.

I wonder about doofus sitcom husbands the same way I wonder about most media archetypes: how much do they reflect our society, and how much do they affect our society? These characters certainly weren’t just pulled out of the ether–I know dozens of real life couples with similar dynamics. I know many men who have never learned how to load a dishwasher and probably never will, because their wives or girlfriends do it for them. I know many smart, ambitious women who spend their lives catering to immature, self-centered men. I’m sure these couples would exist even if TV had never been invented, but what if the prevalence of doofus husbands on TV has lowered all of our standards? What if women are seeing these schlubby guys on TV and letting it shape their ideas about what they can expect from their partners? What if men aren’t learning how to load the dishwasher or have a mature conversation because the guys on TV who never do these things are rewarded with big laughs and a hot wife?

Like any stereotype, the doofus sitcom husband is only dangerous when it becomes ubiquitous, when it leaves no room for diversity and complexity. That line was crossed long ago–for years now, primetime has been populated by dumb dudes bumbling their way through a laugh-tracked life. A few doofus husbands in the sitcom world would be OK. Only doofus husbands in the sitcom world? Not OK.

So now let’s get back to my beloved Phil Dunphy. As I mentioned before, up to this season, I’ve given Phil a lot of credit. He has teetered precariously on the edge of DHS at times, but he’s always given me reasons to believe that he’s more complex than that. One of those reasons appeared late in season one, when we were introduced to Phil’s father, who is just as goofy and fun-loving as Phil. At the end of the episode, Phil overhears his dad crying, and in a poignant moment we find out the Dunphy men use silliness and humor to cope with difficult emotions. In fact, Phil showed a surprising level of emotional maturity throughout the first few seasons, while a true doofus sitcom husband would never confess to any emotions more complicated than “I’m hungry.”

Unlike most hypermasculine sitcom husbands, Phil is nurturing and loving, too. He showers his wife with thoughtful gifts on their anniversary, makes himself available to his kids when they need to talk, and, in one of my favorite episodes from season three, even gives his father-in-law a massage to help him recover from a back injury. When Claire is reluctant to admit what she’s really feeling, Phil is able to draw her out with a mix of humor and compassion rarely seen in male TV characters, especially men in family comedies.

This season though, some of these traits have gone missing, and without them, his character is coming off as a much purer doofus than I’d like to admit. His silly puns aren’t balanced out by keen insights. His unintentionally hurtful comments toward his wife (“You’re scarier without makeup”) aren’t mitigated by heartfelt, loving gestures. For the first time, I find myself questioning if Claire deserves better. I’m worried that Phil, like so many sitcom husbands before him, is succumbing to Doofus Husband Syndrome, and I’m really disappointed.

We all act like doofuses sometimes, and that fact should be reflected in the characters that entertain us, but do all sitcom husbands really have to act like doofuses all the time? Phil, come on, I know you’re different–don’t let me down.

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