Throughout this series I’ve questioned where the line is drawn between reflecting and affecting when it comes to the media’s relationship with real life. Either way, the determining factor is relatability. You aren’t going to imitate something unless you can relate to it, and if you can’t relate to a show, chances are it isn’t anywhere near a reflection of who you are.
So, in the interest of all things entertainment, let’s take a simple quiz to determine your relatability factor when it comes to the portrayal of “traditional family” on television using two popular prime-time family-themed shows: Family Guy and The Middle.
Family Guy: The show is apathetic, even nihilistic at times, mocks the same politically correct values it thrives on, and typifies men and women in terms taught best in Gender Studies 101. The Middle is one of a handful of shows to make it to the air that depicted exactly what its title intimated: a middle -lass, middle-of-the-road family living in the middle of nowhere, America. As working middle class as the Griffins, the Hecks are a family of five that mirrors the demographics of the Quahog clan: father, mother, two sons with a daughter in the middle.
1. Who’s Your Daddy?
According to the experts, Peter Griffin falls into the Idiot Dad trend in television:
The late ’80s and into the ’90s featured the rise of the idiot dad. [Pop Culture expert Al] Martin says that in an attempt to counteract and ridicule authority and patriarchy, TV moms became overly strong and TV dads turned into buffoons. “The Simpsons” started a wave of deplorable, idiot dads (looking at you, “Family Guy”) who need more mothering by their wives than their kids. Homer Simpson (D’oh!) was more often seen drinking, belching and tripping up rather than doing any real parenting.
As MacFarlane has said, Peter Griffin is funny because Peter Griffin is oblivious. Instead of being involved in his kids’ lives, he avoids them at all costs. In one early episode, Peter blows off his son Stewie’s first birthday party only to realize (after being yelled at repeatedly) that it isn’t about the kids (because they wouldn’t remember it, anyway), it’s about Lois. So, in the interest of keeping his wife happy, he unwittingly gets Meg out of drinking the Kool Aid at a cult function she attended in a desperate attempt to make friends.
Then there’s Mike Heck, patriarch of The Middle clan. A different kind of working middle-class dad, Mike not only takes the time to pay attention to his daughter’s life, he actually … gets involved.
What dad would you want at your dinner table?
A. Peter Griffin
B. Mike Heck
2. Which Mother Knows Best?
Last year, the Huffington Post featured “Mom Advice: Tips from Our Favorite TV Moms for Mother’s Day.” Included was the matriarch of the Family Guy clan, Lois Griffin, who has said such heartwarming things as, “Ya know, I wanted us to live in a place with real family values, but values don’t come from where you live or who your friends are. They come from inside, from your own beliefs.” Then, of course, you’re given the Lois Griffin fans love through YouTube montages highlighting the perfect mother as a sex-craved slut, porn star, and parent who feels it’s important to remind her daughter that she is, indeed, hotter than her. Lois is also happy to teach her daughter the important lessons of life, like how to make out with another girl in case she wants to turn a guy on (or just can’t find one).
In a rather bizarre piece published last year in the New York Times (oddly enough, on Mother’s Day — is this the only time of year we talk about mom?) media critic Neil Genzlinger cited a litany of bad television mothers stretching back to their nascence in the character of Jane Wyatt from Father Knows Best.
This was the moment that civilization began to fall apart. A mother has told her child that Father, the universal authority figure who for centuries has kept society from devolving into chaos, is an incompetent boob, and she has done so on a show named “Father Knows Best.” There can be no stability, no constancy after this. Margaret has effectively neutered the only thing standing between us and social and political anarchy, the Omniscient Patriarch. All of the bad TV mothering that followed was inevitable.
I’m assuming this to be a tongue-in-cheek review, but given the fact that feminism is fighting hard to make sluts of us all, the idea that women have emasculated men is nothing new. Apparently, neither is the idea of a mother leading her daughter down the road of sexual depravity. (I’m sure I suddenly became quite uncouth by using that phrase. Then again, Victoriana has come around, so chalk it off to a minor in Steampunk.)
Contrast Lois Griffin’s hypersexualized behavior with that of Frankie Heck. The mom of The Middle is disorganized, to say the least. When the shower ceases to work, Frankie washes up at the kitchen sink; oblivious to the constant mess around her, she stores the quilts in the oven and opts to provide fast food for dinner. Moreover, she happily encourages her daughter Sue to mature at her own rate, without applying pressure to conform to societal norms or cultural expectations.
Which mom would you go to for advice?
A. Lois Griffin
B. Frankie Heck
3. Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?
Both Chris and Stewie Griffin are man-children in their own right; something that would make their adolescent male father rather proud. Chris, afraid of a monkey in his closet, has a penchant for laughing at “poo” and has a talking pimple for a best friend. Stewie, who showed great potential early on as a future maniacal world leader (much akin to The Brain) has devolved into a latent homosexual. The chances of either carrying on the family name are about on par with their ability to function successfully as adults. The most one could assume based on stereotypical fates of character types is that Chris would wind up in a series of less-than-romantic Forrest Gump-like experiences while Stewie would, at the most, own an antique shop in downtown Quahog, perhaps becoming one of Mark Steyn’s boring gays.
Axl and Brick Heck are at times as intenstly adolescent as their Family Guy peers. Unlike the Griffin boys, Axl manages to create a small business with his two best friends (Boss Co., because they’re all the bosses) and snag a smart chick for a girlfriend in his senior year of high school. Brick, with his littany of OCD behaviors and passion for reading displays similar intellectual qualities as those of Stewie. However, instead of using his brainpower to malevolent ends, Brick takes his intellectual maturity in stride. He befriends the adults in his life (the librarian, the guidance counselor) and even manages to console his mother over her The Bachelor-induced heartbreak.
Which set of brothers would you spare a dime for?
A. Chris & Stewie Griffin
B. Axl & Brick Heck
4. Who’s Your Sister from Another Mister?
Meg Griffin and Sue Heck are quite alike. Both are exceedingly awkward; Meg has glasses and wears a bizarre pink beanie while Sue dons braces (with nighttime headgear) and possesses a wardrobe that looks more 1993 than 2013. They are definitive outcasts; most of Sue’s peers don’t even know her name while Meg’s think she’s a boy (if they notice her at all). They both possess the unfortunate role of middle child; Meg is the bane of her family’s existence, while Sue is the recipient of older brother Axl’s typically endless bullying.
Like any real abuse victim, Meg resigns to her role as the source of mockery and contempt with all the hormonal teenage angst of a [insert name of stock teenage nitwit character here]. Her fight to fit in consistently leads her down dark paths, into closets where she unknowingly makes out with her brother Chris (7 Minutes in Heaven became 1 Minute in Hell) and an attempted job as a phone sex operator. When Neil Goldman, the one guy who will give her the time of day, pursues her, Meg spurns his advances believing that his ultra-nerd status will only further tarnish her non-existent reputation. Meg is, in a word, miserable. And she has accepted her misery as her badge of identification. In an age of female empowerment, Meg is the most disenfranchised of them all.
Therein lies the difference between Meg Griffin and Sue Heck. Meg is resigned to always trying to fit in, while Sue carves out her own space in the teenage jungle. The endless optimist, Sue is resilient in the face of heckling, always kind to others, and despite all of the awkwardness of teendom, maintains a positive outlook on life. With a Napoleon Dynamite-like fervor, Sue retains and embraces her style in the face of an undifferentiated ego mass, illustrating the empowering nature of standing out instead of fitting in.
Which one would you like to call big sis?
A. Meg Griffin
B. Sue Heck
5. Faith or Folly?
The old joke goes, to the dyslexic, God spelled backwards is Dog. Seth MacFarlane ran with the inference when he created Brian, the dog of the Griffins. Touted as the “voice of reason” on the show, Brian “is the most sensible member” of the Griffin clan, often mediating arguments and “sensing impending danger.” His backstory reads like a featured profile from the society pages of the New York Times. Having studied at Brown University, Brian loves opera and jazz, speaks multiple languages, is a member of MENSA, and palled around with Andy Warhol. He’s also an alcoholic, recovering drug addict, chain smoker, and devout atheist. Yet, this four-legged paradox of intelligence and emotion is considered the bastion of reason in the otherwise absurd household.
While the Hecks don’t have a household pet (unless you count the evil rabbit out back), they are fairly active church members. While religion is not a central topic of the show’s story line, the Hecks are seen attending church and participating in church functions throughout the series. Faith comes easy for some members of the family, like Sue, while other more intellectually driven members, like Brick, prefer questions rather than answers. And yet, the Hecks are far from perfect, possessing their share of doubtful moments.
Spiritually speaking, you’d favor:
A. The Griffins
B. The Hecks
What’s Your Score?
If you answered mostly As, you’re on the side of Family Guy.
If you answered mostly Bs, you’re stuck in The Middle with the Hecks …and the majority of most television-viewing Americans.
Hailed as a “rock solid show” by Entertainment Weekly, The Middle is a sleeper hit that continues to build a strong fan base four seasons out. In the 2012-2013 season, the show has already been picked up for syndication by ABC Family based on the following stats:
,..currently wrapping up its third season, is up 3 percent year-over-year in total viewers and 8 percent in viewers 12-34, ABC Family’s target demographic.
In its Wednesday time slot, Middle has been a constant winner for ABC, topping NBC’s Whitney by 45 percent in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demo and up 4 percent in total viewers. The series, co-starring Neil Flynn, also outperforms CBS’ Survivor in the adults 18-34 and women 18-34 demos.
In its fourth season, The Middle‘s premiere garnered 9.16 million viewers (its highest rated episode this season pulled 10.16 million) compared to Family Guy‘s 6.55 in the same adults ages 18-49 bracket.
Family Guy may provide the kind of shock value that’s hard to ignore, but with each passing season its viewership decreases; you can only stare at a trainwreck for so long. And while Family Guy may be garnering fame for promoting the kind of worldview Brian Griffin studied at Brown, it isn’t necessarily a worldview to which most TV viewers, even the ones looking for a few laughs, can relate.
As to affect versus reflect, famous Marxist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich once defined the “bourgeois family” as “the most important ideological workshop of capitalism.” While we cannot say how the next generation of TV viewers, who are now being parented by that oh-so-prized demographic, will choose to raise their children. Whether they will favor the critically leftist view of Family Guy or the more traditional reality of The Middle, only time will tell. Yet, according to the numbers, there is reason to hope after all.