Alex, the middle child of the Dunphy household on Modern Family, in many ways, seemed like the perfect daughter: she was incredibly smart, followed the rules, and always kept her mind focused on her grades above all else. And while Alex was very proud of her intelligence, being constantly trapped in the ‘Smart Girl’ box started to wear on her over the seasons – until it broke her completely. Alex’s story provides both a look at how awesome it can be to be the smartest one in the room and the immense pressure that can bring. Let’s unpack Alex’s life as the Smart Girl, what actually caused her problems, and how she overcame them (plus the real reason she and Haley were always fighting.) Here’s our Take!
CH 1: Smart Girl Problems…
Alex is a stereotypical Smart Girl in many ways: she’s an incredibly book smart overachiever who sees herself as above others because of her brainpower. In addition to her intense dedication to learning and her quest for perfect grades, she’s also in every extracurricular that might look good on her University applications, from lacrosse to debate team to French club. She even chose to play cello over violin because she knew that it would be more likely to get her a spot on a university orchestra – and even though she admits she doesn’t even enjoy playing, she refuses to just give it up because she hates quitting things.
While she may lack social skills, Alex is very confident in her own brilliance. She’s not just smarter than her siblings, she’s brainier than the adults around her, too. This often leads her to treat everyone around her as less than, looking down her nose at them because they aren’t smart in the same way as her. Sometimes this comes out in harmless things like playing pranks on her siblings or shooting a quip back at an unsuspecting adult family member, but sometimes she can be pretty unnecessarily mean. This is obviously partly for humor on the show, but it does also help showcase one of Alex’s biggest problems: she often lashes out because she feels like she doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t really have any friends – outside of her small group of nerdy fans, at least – and usually feels ignored at school. While her older sister Haley is a social butterfly, Alex has a difficult time connecting with her peers. She’s so laser-focused on her grades and making sure she’s absorbing all of the knowledge she can that she doesn’t really make time for interpersonal connections (though she gets some help with that over the years, which we’ll discuss in a bit!)
Even at home, she’s the odd duck out. Because she’s so self-sufficient, her parents often leave her to her own devices. But sometimes this extends to the degree that they kind of forget that she’s still a kid. She often feels like she’s having to pick up the slack and parent herself. Whenever her family is reminded of this, they’re usually exasperated instead of regretful (okay so maybe Alex’s attitude doesn’t help) And this pressure, both from others and from herself, really starts to get to Alex after a while.
CH 2: Finally Cracking Under The Pressure
Like with her choice of cello over violin, Alex pretty much always makes choices based on what she thinks a perfect smart girl should do – without really factoring her own feelings. She puts an intense amount of pressure on herself to do the right things, get the right grades, be the “right” kind of person. As she ages, the stress of her school work, and preparing for university and, you know, being a teenager all begin to compound to an unhealthy degree. Because she seems to be doing so well compared to Haley and Luke, this mostly goes unignored. Until that is, Alex finally snaps.
On her sixteenth birthday, Alex has finally reached her limit and blows up during her birthday party. At first, her family think she’s just being her regular, intense self – but they quickly come to realize that something is really wrong. Alex, having to support herself even in the midst of a breakdown, books herself in to speak with a therapist. At first, Alex keeps up her smart girl, ‘I can handle everything on my own’ wall. But eventually, she’s finally able to open up about how much pressure she’s been under and we get a look inside Alex’s mind at just how much she’s been trying to juggle all by herself. Hearing her own stream of consciousness out loud really helps her to realize just how much her mind is always racing. While she’s proud of her smarts, she’s also come to feel like it’s the only thing about her that really matters – so that’s why she’s always so concerned with proving that she’s the smartest.
But Alex isn’t the only one that has this realization. While Alex is in therapy, her mother Claire attends the open house at Alex’s school and comes to understand just how much Alex has been doing. Claire had been so focused on helping her other two, less self-sufficient kids (and her husband) sort out their lives, that she never really took the time to pay attention to what was going on with Alex. She always seemed fine and like she had everything under control, and so Claire never really questioned it. But the truth was, Alex was dealing with a lot. It takes actually experiencing everything for herself for Claire to really start to grasp what Alex’s life was really like and allows them to have a new, deeper level of understanding between them. While it took a walk in her shoes for Claire to get Alex, there’s someone else who was surprisingly always on her side.
CH 3: Alex & Haley, Opposites Navigating the World Together
To say that Alex and Haley don’t get along might be a bit of an understatement. The sisters are complete opposites in pretty much every way – Haley is an outgoing extrovert obsessed with clothes and boys, everything Alex abhors. They’re constantly sniping at one another on the show about everything. While Alex has always been jealous that Haley got more attention – both from their parents and from people at large – Haley was jealous that Alex always seemed to be able to do everything right. Their family also often pits their skills against the other – making fun of Alex for not being as cool as Haley, and Haley for not being as bright as Alex. This does lead to them being at each other’s throats a lot of the time, but their deep sisterly bond means they’re always looking out for one another.
Each sister is able to use her special abilities that the other lacks to try to set her on the right course. As the big sister, Haley is especially prone to finding ways to help Alex through the tougher parts of life. She knows that Alex struggles with her social skills, and so tries to use her secretly pretty deep emotional intelligence to push her down the right path (even if it’s with some tough love) Haley gives Alex tips on things like how to be cool and flirt with boys – though this doesn’t always go quite to plan. But Haley never gives up on Alex and is so proud when she hits any emotional milestone. And as annoying as she might find Haley, Alex shows up for her when it counts, too. When Haley shares that she’s pregnant and terrified that she won’t be a good mom, Alex could have kicked her while she was down – but she realized how important it was to comfort her in that moment and found the right words to say. Even though they don’t often (okay, really ever) see eye to eye, they both help one another grow and feel like they can survive in the world. They show how important it is to have people around you that aren’t just like you – who can see problems from a different perspective and help you come up with new solutions that you never would have thought up on your own. Even when everyone else in the family may have been disappointed in them, or forgot about them, or underestimated them, they were always there for each other.
CH 4: Facing The Real World (& Learning To Love It)
As Alex reached the end of high school, she was hit with another terrifying realization – just being a ‘perfect student’ isn’t always enough to get what you want. After putting in so much work for years, molding her entire life around what she thought would make her the ideal applicant, she didn’t get into Harvard. But instead of letting this break her, she begins to open herself up to the idea that there is more to life than just school, though that’s not an easy road. Her entire sense of self had been wrapped up in being the straight-A overachiever, that when it was finally time to graduate college and move on to the next phase of her life, she was genuinely afraid. She even tried to bail on her own graduation because she didn’t want to have to accept this scary future full of unknowns. But with the reassurance of her siblings, she finds the courage to take that big leap into the next phase of her life.
She starts exploring different facets of herself, from her rebellious streak to her feminine side. And even though she didn’t get into Harvard, she does get into a different great school. And while her time at CalTech certainly has its own stressful moments, she continues to excel academically while also cultivating other aspects of her life as well and eventually goes on to do research in Antarctica. Old Alex doesn’t disappear (like when she’s nasty to her boyfriend for being too dumb) but in the later seasons, she’s clearly grown from her experiences and gained confidence in herself. She uses her overachieving and dedicated nature to carve out a life she actually enjoys. Alex is a perfect example of how modern Smart Girls are breaking free from the cliches of the “perfect” girls they’re told they’re supposed to be and learning to do things their own way.