When I just want to shut off my brain and watch affluent white people get into shenanigans, I automatically go to Modern Family. They often have funny references and I thought it was pretty cool that they chose to give a nod to the college bribery scandal — until I saw it. In the season finale entitled “Commencement,” the whole family is going through various stages of graduating. Everyone is getting ready for Alex’s Graduation from CalTech, Cam finds himself presiding over a High School graduation last minute, and Jay is actually speaking at the graduation. As per usual, nothing is going according to plan, but in the meantime, Gloria (Sofia Vergara’s Character) is dealing with Manny’s anxiety over possibly being cut from his CalArts program and her youngest son Joe’s moving up to a yellow belt in Karate. When Manny discovers Gloria bribed Joe’s Karate sensei with a gold watch to pass him, he begins questioning if any of his accomplishments were ever really his and if his spot (which he does get to keep) at Cal Arts was his mother’s doing.
Later Manny uncovers that Gloria also bribed the High School superintendent to get Jay (Gloria’s husband played by Ed O’Neill) the speaking opportunity and confronts her. Manny quips at his mother “well maybe if you believed in your sons instead of giving everyone Colombian handshakes.” And what she says seems like a sincere mom response: “I’m sure you would have gotten all these things on your own but the world sometimes is very unfair and the watches are like insurance. I love you guys too much to leave your dreams to chance.” To which Manny says “I suppose where you grew up bending the rules were just a part of life. It’s what you had to do to get by, why wouldn’t you do that to help the people you love?”
So okay, let’s rewind for a minute. Straight off the bat, there are already a few things wrong with this picture, the most obvious being the fact that the person implicated in the bribery is a Latina immigrant — a group that is not by any means bribing themselves into elite spaces or any spaces for that matter. I also found it pretty distasteful that they would exploit Gloria’s identity as a Latina and as an immigrant in order to justify her bribery. Because in reality although Gloria is an immigrant and an overbearing mother, she is also white passing, wealthy, and perfectly capable of knowing right from wrong. Depicting the Latina as the rule breaker who just can’t help it because of where she came from plays into tons of awful Trump-era stereotypes about Latinxs. It also conflates the tough life and death decisions immigrants often need to make in order to survive with the wealthy knowingly breaking the law to get opportunities for kids who don’t deserve them. Manny is by no means poor, needing, or lacking in opportunities, neither is Jay or Joe. These are wealthy people dismissing the implications of bribery by saying it was something done out of love because bending the rules is harmless, right? WRONG.
In reality, we know our actions don’t exist in a vacuum and if Manny got his spot in College because of Gloria, that’s one less spot for someone who earned it. If Jay got a speaking opportunity (which he was obviously unqualified for) that means someone else was turned down. Similarly, this exemplifies the hypocrisy brought to light by the college bribery scandal, mainly the idea that working really hard for merit will pay off when in reality rich kids will always have the upper hand. Or that affirmative action is “stealing” seats from more “deserving” students when there is an entire system in place for legal bribery and legacies that fast track wealthy white kids into elite schools. There is also the erroneous idea that doing anything to give your children a better life is “just what good parents do” but is utterly unacceptable when you’re an immigrant of color or an asylum seeker.
I think the most telling thing about this episode is that the bribery is discovered but nothing is done about it. There is no talk of giving the yellow belt back, there is no call made to Manny’s school to sort things out, Jay doesn’t try to find the rightful contender in the commencement address — because at the end of the day it’s not going to affect them. It’s just “oh well,” which leads me to believe that they really don’t understand why that attitude is harmful and how it’s perpetuated to continue harming people of color. The episode is left open-ended, leaving us wondering if Manny did get in on his own? Is Joe actually good at Karate? But if this is anything like real life, I think we already know the answer.