At first it didn’t make sense to me. At first I was embarrassed about it. There was almost a sort of shame to it. A sense of missing the boat. And I had always considered myself a liberal-minded envelope pusher. I considered myself someone who loved the idea of offending the status quo, of challenging people to face the taboo issues and the unspoken truths of our society. I could not believe that I would not only dislike Family Guy, but be offended by it. But try as I may I couldn’t get around it. That nagging feeling in my stomach would not go away. Something was telling me that I was being had.
In these moments of cognitive dissonance, I tried to rationalize the show’s treatment of women and minorities. I tried to view it through the lens of witty social commentary. I tried to tell myself that it was a critique of the political correctness movement, that it was a parody of traditional gender and minority stereotypes, that it was making fun of racism and misogyny. Yet try as I may, none of my socio-political pseudo-philosophies made the feeling go away. I was stodgy and unhip, a finger-wagging censor telling a group of edgier, more extreme envelope pushers that they were going to far. And for a while I kept quiet about it, but then I realized the root of why I was offended. Family Guy isn’t edgy and it isn’t controversial. It’s using our desire to push the envelope against us. Family Guy is the most socially conservative thing out there.
For a while I kept quiet about it, but then I realized the root of why I was offended. Family Guy isn’t edgy and it isn’t controversial. It’s using our desire to push the envelope against us. Family Guy is the most socially conservative thing out there.
Some will say that I am missing the parody aspect. I am told that when Peter pushes Lois down the stairs I am supposed to see it as a parody of men who victimize women. Peter is the classic unreliable narrator. He consistently misjudges situations and facts and therefore the writers are actually pointing out that it is unintelligent to beat your wife. This might work if Family Guy could actually be classified as parody, though generally, and especially when it comes to the treatment of women, the show never really strays from pastiche. The visual imagery of the show is largely disjointed with the actual narrative plot, which is often secondary or minimal. Nothing is ever really said about the abuse of women in the show. The images of a man punching a woman and allusions to rape are used simply for shock value with no analysis and little context. Family Guy is the post-modern essence of pastiche. All we really learn from Family Guy is that images of violence towards and subjugation of women are good for a quick laugh. The images tend to be followed by an equally non-contextual eighties reference and nothing more is said. In short, the motif of the show does not serve to “controversialize” these images but to normalize them.
And what of this normalization? Is it a critique of these overly politically correct times? Is it showing us that enough progress has been made toward equality that we can all share a laugh about these primitive and outmoded ways of thinking? Am I just uptight and uncool? Or is it something much more manipulative and much more detrimental to our freedoms. In short, to what extent and to what ends are we being duped?
Herein lies the genius of Family Guy: it manages to sell us our great-grandfathers morality packaged in such a way that it makes those who would object to it seem outdated and conservative. Within this clever rhetorical frame, 1950’s gender and racial stereotypes are given rebel status and those who would object to them are rendered ‘behind the times’. It is suddenly uncool to say that depicting violence toward women is offensive, while it is becoming edgy and hip to follow the ubiquitous sitcom male fantasy of being fat and irresponsible with a pretty and demure stay-at-home wife that mothers your children, cooks your dinner, and tirelessly forgives as you demean her (or in the case of Family Guy as you lock her in a car trunk and drive the car into a lake). In short “Family Guy’s” white-bread white male patriarchy just doesn’t seem that groundbreaking to me.
But is this just yet another benign example of how mass media and pop-culture tend to absorb and de-radicalize the counter-cultures and subcultures that spring up in defiance of them? Is this any worse than cell phone commercials that imply that you are edgy and urban if you buy a cell phone without a two year agreement, Mac commercials that imply that you bypass corporate boredom and stodginess by using a Mac instead of a PC, or mass produced Hot Topic anarchy hoodies? Well...maybe. Family Guy may not be using irreverence to sell an iPOD, but it is using it to trivialize some of the very ideas and constructs that our generation owes many of its freedoms to. The rhetorical trivialization of gender and minority issues, and the backlash against the progress those groups have made, are exactly the tools that modern racism, misogyny, and homophobia use in "enlightened" times such as these. And even if it's not as serious as all this, aren't we at some level all a little irritated at mass media like FOX using our love for irreverent non-narrative randomness to sell us blasé Reagan-era retro-conservatism? Whichever way you want to take this, either our deepest beliefs about individual rights are being insulted or our intelligence is.
And all of this is not to say that I think these sorts of statements should not be made—if anything I wish there was more dialogue about the anti-PC movement going on in our society. We need to figure out in what cases these critiques are valid and present some alternative solutions to the problem that don’t involve simply reverting to "Leave it to Beaver." We need to talk about why it is that a show that serves to re-entrench traditional social hierarchies in America has found such wide veiwership and support in a country that professes to cling so fervently to equality and personal dignity. And most of all we need to give people back their right to be offended, to seek change, and to break social stereotypes. And if this doesn't seem like a pressing social issue, we could at least campaign a bit against manipulation using our aesthetics, commodification using our voice, and the widespread poaching of our collective cool. However you decide to look at it, if left un-discussed, the image of a beaten woman is simply an image of a beaten woman. In conclusion, go ahead and watch the show, and even have a laugh at it, but keep in mind that tiny suspicion that Family Guy just might be laughing back at you, instead of with you.