Did Modern Family fail Haley? For most of the show’s run, the oldest Dunphy daughter was pigeonholed as the pretty, dumb, popular character – but did the show let her down by not letting her be more? Haley is actually really good at a lot of things – even if those things aren’t necessarily valued as much as her sister’s academic intelligence. There was an opportunity to use Haley to explore and celebrate the elements of intelligence that society often devalues – her social savvy, her growth and learning as a romantic partner, even her smarts as a mother.
Did Modern Family fail Haley? For most of the show’s run, the oldest Dunphy daughter was pigeonholed as the pretty, dumb, popular character – but did the show let her down by not letting her be more?
In fact, is Haley even really dumb? She’s often compared to her sister Alex, who’s a genius. But Haley is actually really good at a lot of things – even if those things aren’t necessarily valued as much as her sister’s academic intelligence.
Haley’s lack of textbook smarts is often played for laughs. But it didn’t have to be that way. There was an opportunity to use Haley to explore and celebrate the elements of intelligence that society often devalues – her social savvy, her growth, and learning as a romantic partner, even her smarts as a mother. Instead, we got disappointing character development that felt more like a circle than an arc. Here’s our take on how Modern Family failed Haley.
Her Secret Smarts
Sarah Hyland’s Haley is the archetypical pretty, fun, and not-too-bright character, and that’s how she’s seen by her whole family. Her sister, Alex, often plays up her own intelligence by belittling her siblings, and even their parents, Claire and Phil, openly call Haley dumb.
But even though the characters around her rarely acknowledge it, there are moments that reveal Haley is actually very astute.
More than anyone else in the Dunphy family, she’s socially gifted. She is great at reading people and always knows how to tell them what they want to hear – or how to push their buttons and manipulate them. And while she sometimes uses this power for personal gain, she also uses it to help the people she loves.
In season 2, Haley overhears Alex’s planned valedictorian speech and knows it won’t go over well at graduation. She uses the social intelligence that her book-smart sister lacks in order to subtly convince Alex to change her speech. Instead of making a logical argument, she appeals to Alex emotionally: she sees that it’s the popular kids (like her) who Alex is railing against, so she makes herself vulnerable and flatters her unpopular sister.
Haley Dunphy: “Give your stupid speech. Be an outcast. But you’re only doing it to yourself because you’re smart and pretty, and sort of funny in a way that I don’t really get…”- Modern Family
This is a pattern throughout the series – Alex might be the smart one when it comes to academics, but she regularly relies on Haley’s social smarts to get through life outside of the classroom. And Haley can often get the better of Alex by tapping into an emotional side of things that Alex doesn’t really get. But no one ever gives Haley credit for her social intelligence.
Even through the final season of the show, Haley is still represented as a pretty, dumb character. The writers don’t let her grow beyond that stereotype.
The strange thing is that this is despite some false starts – where Haley shows more potential, but then her resulting character growth is stunted or outright ignored. At several points, she’s shown to be savvy, with a talent for business – but this part of her personality doesn’t get developed into sustained storylines. There are multiple times over the 11 seasons where Haley appears to have a talent or seems on track to achieve something. There’s her burgeoning fashion career, her idea for a promo business, or her interest in photography. But none of Haley’s professional dreams ever come to fruition, nor do we see an arc that really explains why not; these ventures simply fade into the background and we never hear about them again after a few episodes. By dropping those storylines, the show misses an opportunity to showcase the many different paths to career fulfillment. Or it could have explored more deeply why Haley doesn’t channel a sustained drive – if Haley’s insecurities from how her family views her and the way she’s been pigeonholed are the underlying reasons her excitement about new projects doesn’t endure. Instead, the show isn’t meaningfully interested in this aspect of her and seems to just take it for granted that Haley’s personality won’t really lead to any kind of achievement.
Haley Dunphy: “Even someone as dumb as me can see that I’m a giant failure” - Modern Family
It implies that Alex’s route – of going to college and studying hard – is the only way to get the career you want. Because Haley’s got more social skills than traditional intelligence, her story arcs rarely get to be about professional success or trials – instead, they’re usually built around her romantic life.
Her Return to Dylan
Another way Modern Family failed Haley was arguably by having her end up with Dylan.
Although fans loved the chaotic nature of Haley’s relationship with her original love interest, she had so many other boyfriends who were a better fit. Dylan was always obsessive about Haley, and their connection was more physical. But in her relationship with Andy, for example, the two grew to like each other and got to know each other on an emotional level before getting together.
Haley Dunphy: I mean… I care about him, he makes me laugh. I like spending time with him…” - Modern Family
Andy appreciated Haley in a way that no other guy had before. Unlike most other people in her life, he recognized that she was smart, and also that she needed to hear that. Their relationship was a slow burn, and it addressed a lot of things that Haley’s coupling with Dylan didn’t. It helped her know herself better and wasn’t based in insecurities. Their genuine, honest connection made their relationship a fan favorite, and the only reason their love story ended when it did was because Adam Devine left the show due to scheduling issues.
Phil Dunphy: “You guys love each other! You’re making a huge mistake!” - Modern Family
Fans had little love for some of Haley’s other love interests after Andy – and they may not have been the one – but even those relationships let her grow in ways she never could with Dylan. Her relationship with an older weatherman named Rainer Shine brought her a lot of maturity. And dating Alex’s professor, Arvin, helped her learn to stand up for herself and feel more secure in her intelligence.
So after her seasons of soul-searching and finding a new-found maturity through her romantic life, it felt like a step backwards to send Haley back to Dylan. She’d done so much growing, both personally and professionally, since they’d last dated. And while Dylan was a sweet person who’d also grown in some ways, Haley deserved a different conclusion to her story that reflected how far she’d come since season 1. Instead, the final two seasons flattened out all her development and brought her right back to where she started.
Her Final Arc
Haley got less screen time than usual in the final season, and she abandoned her professional ambitions once again after an unexpected pregnancy. And Haley’s final story arc wasn’t just a bit of a letdown for the fans. Actress Sarah Sarah Hyland, who plays Haley, voiced her frustrations about the final season to Cosmopolitan magazine: she said she wished her character had been able to ‘“own her badassery in the fashion world—becoming a badass stylist or brand mogul or anything like that.” “There are so many amazing mothers who are also hard workers and excel at their jobs and kill it every day in both aspects.”
So it wasn’t just the fact that Haley’s pregnancy came out of nowhere – it was also that her final story arc got in the way of what could have been. The pregnancy could’ve been an opportunity to let Haley show off her personal and professional growth.
Instead, at first, the writers regressed Haley further and even set it up to look like she was going to fail at parenthood. Eventually, Haley does get to demonstrate growth and maturity in her approach to parenting – when she discovers that she’s pregnant, she thoughtfully interrogates what motherhood means, what she might have to give up as a result of it, and how she might cope with it.
Haley Dunphy: “Oh, my God, I have to get to work. To a job that I love, which I don’t even know if I can do with a baby!” - Modern Family
And when the babies arrive, she comes into her own even more: she overcomes her insecurities about being ready for motherhood – reasonable insecurities after a lifetime of being told she wasn’t good at anything! And ultimately it makes sense that someone who’s always been socially and emotionally intelligent is going to really excel at being a parent. But those wins came at the cost of a finale that truly celebrated and devoted screentime to Haley’s smarts and growth across 11 seasons. In the end, the air-headed, beautiful woman finally proving herself by being a good mother is, well, a bit clichéd – and fans wanted more for Haley.
Haley’s endpoint might not be the most satisfying of the Modern Family characters’ stories, but her arc still has its merits. There is something poetic about the way she ends up with Dylan after both of them have gone through a lot of change and developed hugely as people. And despite the clichéd feel of her accidental pregnancy plot, it was nice to see some positive representation of millennial parenthood, something that’s rarely explored on network television. Haley channels the young, hip aspects of her personality into motherhood. She reads up on the latest parenting strategies and even brings new ideas to the show’s other mothers, Claire and Gloria. And she reminds us that moms are still human. Ultimately, that’s the best thing about Haley. She tells it like it is, and that’s just so fun to watch. So even if the show didn’t get everything right, it gave us a character we can enjoy and appreciate on rewatching. Haley teaches us that you don’t have to be the most traditionally smart or successful one to have a really great time and be a valuable person – which is a lesson worth living by.
Haley Dunphy: “Who says you have to race into being adults? Why wouldn’t you want to enjoy a carefree life as long as you could?” - Modern Family