Last Spring at PJ Lifestyle my friend Susan L.M. Goldberg began developing her own vibrant brand of cultural criticism. Combining the provocative literary style and rebellious ethos of Camille Paglia and Ann Coulter with a proud Jewish heritage and hard-learned lessons in the wilderness of postmodern academia, Susan has developed an exciting polemical vision, laden with erudite analysis and witty humor. She’s become such a fun writer to edit.
Her first target was Seth MacFarlane’s overrated cause célèbre, the cult TV show Family Guy. Susan knows this territory well. Through her series she’s able to explain how behind the show’s seemingly random structure, non-stop pop culture references, and all-purpose viciousness lies a dangerous worldview which causes real life problems. Ideas have consequences. And a culture grown numb with shocks, endless narrative deconstructions, and a hipster’s nothing-is-sacred shrug will not be prepared to defend itself when real evil strikes.
Not every idea in human experience should be put on a manatee ball and randomly combined into a 30 second sex joke for junior high boys. Susan explains why here.
– David Swindle
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Boob Alert: Top 5 Side Effects of Watching Family Guy
When Seth MacFarlane sang about boobs at the Oscars, I’m pretty sure he was referring to his own fans.
Most of the time it is taken for granted that we recognize the latent moronic nature of most television programming today.
Then again, do we?
If we agreed as a culture that television programming like Family Guy is so moronic, why would a collective cheer rise up at the sight of another Emmy win? Would we be told by media commentary royalty to worship Seth MacFarlane, the show’s creator, as fascinating? Not only does the guy have mega street cred in the pop culture universe, the primetime structure he’s so wholeheartedly mocked is singing his praises. In fact, it could be said that Family Guy’s seemingly counterculture humor has been legalized by the mainstream.
What’s more, like a bad addiction, Family Guy is the drug that has turned a generation of Boob-Tube addicts into junkies. So, what are the signs, Doctor? How do you know when a co-worker, a friend, even a loved one has become a total Boob? Let’s play MediaMD as we examine the 5 most common side effects of watching Family Guy.
I have friends who admit to growing impatient when an internet video lasts longer than 2 minutes. Professional surfers would tag YouTube or social media as prime culprits, but long before high speed (when most of us were still mesmerized by 56k), Family Guy presented 23 one-minute gag reels slapped together. Compared to Warner Brothers shorts, these episodes are the hot pants of the cartoon industry. Between 30 second pop-culture references and 72 second gags, the cutaway nature of Family Guy trained our brains to multitask long before anyone developed the speed to download.
4. Stunted Personal Growth
Never in the history of television have five characters remained so completely static over the course of 11 seasons. In fact, some (including the Cracked crew) would even argue that the Griffins have devolved over the course of the series.
Yes, television is formulaic, but even Lisa Simpson transitioned from being a “female Bart” in her Tracey Ullman days to a vegan, a Buddhist, and a feminist and managed to hold onto those changes as the series progressed. The Griffins may cover a dearth of pop-culture territory in the course of an episode, but as for personal growth, the clock gets reset at the beginning of the next episode. According to the A.V. Club, Brian the dog is the “best and most developed character” in the show. Perhaps because he was able to kick his cocaine habit? Don’t worry – the dog still likes to “hit the sauce.”
3. Apathetic Acceptance of Political Correctness
Whether you’re on the left or the right, you hate Family Guy. If you’re on the left, you hate its endless mockery of political correctness: racism, sexism, homophobia, it’s all there. If you’re on the right, you hate Family Guy because of the crude way in which those politically incorrect jokes are made. In any case, you’re missing the bigger and even more depressing picture.
By making political correctness the object of its humor, Family Guy asserts that political correctness is the structure sustaining our culture. To most of us this is no surprise. Yet our problem with political correctness in our daily life is purely a source of mockery for Family Guy. By doing nothing but cracking lewd jokes in response to PC attitudes, Family Guy argues that the only solution to the PC crisis is to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Theirs is a useless deconstruction that mocks the problem without providing a sustainable solution.
And for the “Well, who cares, they offend everyone so they must be okay” crowd, consider this fact: Family Guy does mock political correctness, but they do so within the confines of FCC regulations.
So much for being counterculture icons. You can’t damn The Man and follow the rules.
In other words, Family Guy is as effectively counterculture as the ’60s hippies who traded in their tie-dye for power suits. Not only have they resigned to playing the game, they’re laughing about it and encouraging you to do the same.
2. Creative Dysfunction
Like bad costume jewelry at the flea market, there’s Family Guy: shiny and attractive on the outside, cheap and hollow on the inside. The only reason Seth MacFarlane has been deemed a creative genius is because he was smart enough to mash up a standard cartoon formula with an endless stream of pop-culture references.
MacFarlane’s rape of the creative heights of 20th century pop culture is best mocked by CollegeHumor.com. In a sketch titled “Seth MacFarlane’s Nightmare,” an entire episode of Family Guy is boiled down to 30 seconds, at least 10 of which are total silence. That is exactly how much originality you have per episode. In fact, when Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park, mocked Family Guy‘s lack of originality, they received kudos from fellow animators:
…we got flowers from the Simpsons people because we ripped on Family Guy. Then we got calls from the King of the Hill people saying, “You’re doing God’s work ripping on Family Guy.”
1. Craving Moral Relativism
Whether it’s Jesus or Ground Zero, nothing is sacred in Family Guy. Every aspect of human history is a source for mockery. Have a problem with that? Go ahead and sue. The courts will decide if your offense is justified. Hence, Peter Griffin’s wild night out can “one up” Jesus’s death and resurrection and 9/11 is just a card in the campaign deck used to play up to “the biggest idiots on the planet.” Nothing is sacred in the world of Family Guy except for the laugh, and even that lacks intrinsic value.
When Family Guy turns its deconstructive eye towards the sacrosanct in our society, we are being challenged to let go of what we hold dear. We begin to weigh our values in the big scheme of things; like the FCC’s tonnage precept, our values become relative to the scale on which we are being judged. When that scale has been culturally tipped in favor of not taking anything seriously, our own sacred cows are set out to pasture.
I’ll never forget my favorite birthday present, a white, fluffy mechanical dog with an orange and white ball between his paws. I loved that puppy as much as if he were real and wanted to share that love with my newfound kindergarten friends. My mother warned me not to take him to class, but I was sure everyone would think he was the cutest thing and I’d be the coolest kid in school. Sure enough, within five minutes some kid broke my dog and I was tossed off as the loser with the broken puppy. The parents of the child never even bothered to apologize, let alone offer to pay for the toy.
I had unknowingly sacrificed my puppy for five minutes of fame. Now, if we truly treasure our sacred values (which I’d imagine should be a tad more important than a child’s toy), why are we so willing to throw them aside for an empty laugh? When you’re a Family Guy Boob it’s easy to do; you’re trained to react apathetically to the world around you and to give up on your own creative spirit in favor of riffing someone else’s. How much easier is it, then, to laugh in the face of what truly matters? After all, according to Family Guy there’s no point in doing anything else.
On the bright side, I suppose if we’re embracing apathetic nihilism, we might as well enjoy doing it. Family Guy definitely scores some points for originality there. Oh, wait ….nevermind.
NEXT: Totally Petarded: The Top 5 Masculinity Myths on Family Guy
Totally Petarded: The Top 5 Masculinity Myths on Family Guy
Watch out, ladies in the dating world: Family Guy’s prized demographic is totally Petarded.
According to the show’s creator, Family Guy’s target audience is men ages 18-34. This happens to be one of the most desirable demographics for advertisers and women looking to eventually get married and settle down.
Who hasn’t dreamed of a life with Peter Griffin?
Obviously, not all men between the ages of 18 and 34 are going to find the humor of Family Guy appealing. Yet a growing majority of them do. I long ago learned as a woman not to attempt to comment on the male psyche; why these men find Family Guy so appealing is not in my realm of interest. However, the message Family Guy sends about masculinity is so apparent that I can’t help but laugh at this not-so-subtle irony: Most women looking for men, the ladies trolling the clubs and hitting Happy Hours at the bars, are the ones who tend to stereotype men exactly the way they are portrayed on the show.
5. Men Are Idiots
This is my personal favorite: “All men are idiots.” You’ve heard it, usually expressed loudly at a bar by some chick who just can’t understand why after four shots and twice as many beers some guy wouldn’t want to take her home. For the women with men in their lives, the statement usually gets expressed during a girl’s night out or mommy-time venture. “All men are idiots” is the most outspoken secret of the female mind.
In the case of Peter Griffin, he’s not just an idiot; he’s “Petarded.” Yet, despite being uniquely mentally retarded, Peter is bright enough to realize that his diagnosis can get him off the hook in a number of circumstances, from running over the local TV news anchor to having to provide for his family. After accidentally burning Lois with hot oil and losing custody of their children, Peter is rendered helpless thanks to his diagnosis. Only Lois can come through and save the day, leaving Peter to be Petarded to his heart’s content.
According to show creator Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy’s humor can run the gamut from rape to racism because lead character Peter Griffin isn’t so much mentally retarded as, well, “oblivious.”
NYT: Personally, I find the show’s rape jokes especially unfunny. In one episode, Peter learns that three co-eds were raped and murdered. He says to himself, “Everyone’s getting laid but me.” Why is that funny?
SM: Because he’s so oblivious. You’re not laughing at rape; you’re laughing at him being an idiot.
NYT: In another episode, Peter asks, “Would you rather be black or crippled?” Why is that funny?
SM: Once again, it all comes back to Peter’s obliviousness. If Peter meant that maliciously, then it wouldn’t be as funny. We try to keep it so that there’s an innocence to the way that he conducts himself.
4. Men Are Children
With the 21st century trending towards rejuvenile behavior among adults, in particular adult males, the idea that men are just grown boys has taken on a whole new meaning. It is an accepted fact of womanhood that most men can live in a house that looks like a bomb went off, prefer junk food to vegetables, and get lost in oddball projects in the garage or behind the computer. Family Guy’s type of rejuvenilia, however, has the potential to draw viewers to a newfound dark side of youthful innocence.
According to Susanna Schrobsdorff at Time magazine, Peter’s “innocence” may fly past the censors, but carries with it the potential for serious consequences in real life. In an article commenting on the recent Steubenville rape case, Schrobsdorff writes:
[Family Guy], which has become hugely popular among teen boys and young men, features more rape humor than one could tally, including one scene in which a woman is being assaulted on a beach and screams for help while another character, Aquaman, issues lame threats to the perpetrator without leaving the water. The scene ends when Aquaman gives up, saying: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have led him on.” Maybe this was brilliant, sophisticated meta-humor in which we’re supposed to see this as a commentary on the pressure men feel to be heroes, but is that really how the show’s prime audience of young men will understand it?
Even the superheroes who show up in Family Guy glom off its apathetic vibe. As a result, innocent youthful notions of heroism are replaced with ignorant attitudes towards violent behavior that can have dangerous real-life consequences.
3. Men Are Fraidy-Cats
Whether it’s the military, the doctor, or the monkey in the closet, the men on Family Guy do more to avoid perceived threats than to confront them, even if it means putting their own self-respect on the line. Ironically, while feminism focuses on the disenfranchisement of women, it has often done so by disenfranchising men. The “we don’t need men” mantras of the second-wave feminism movement in the 1960s and 1970s liberated women in the workforce while creating huge psychological gaps in the way men perceive themselves and their roles as fiscal and emotional providers. As a result, today’s third-wave feminists like Carlos Andres Gomez argue that while “modern masculinity” may involve admitting vulnerability, that does not translate into running from responsibility or giving into childhood fears.
2. Men Are Terrible Fathers
Never has a term been so despised in the ivy halls as “The Patriarchy.” Whose fault is it when things go wrong? The Patriarchy. Who do we love to loathe? The Patriarchy. It is as if feminist scholars have an Electra complex for dominant father figures: These men are complete failures, yet our world revolves around them.
Peter Griffin is an incompetent provider who’d rather rely on welfare than have to work for a living. He’s immature, ignorant, and most likely scared of his own shadow. Yet, Peter’s belief that “women are things” translates into a truly disturbing pattern of mental and emotional abuse of his daughter Meg. In fact, Peter’s line, “Shut up, Meg,” has become a catchphrase of the show.
Peter is the one who establishes that Meg is the outsider in the family. Meg takes on an Electra-feminist response, continuously struggling to create some kind of a relationship with her father through a variety of circumstances including learning how to drive and dating. Yet all of this is to no avail. In one episode, Peter reminds Lois, “We agreed, if we could only save two we’d leave Meg!” In the end, her unfulfilled need for a father figure results in an apathetic and sometimes violent response to Peter’s insults.
1. Men Are Perverts
“All men are perverts.” I don’t know who said it, but they should have copyrighted the phrase. It has become an all-too-common everyday mantra, the “Om” of Cosmo readers around the world. No one stops to ask why all men are perceived to be sexual nutjobs, it’s just an accepted pop-culture fact stemming from the “men are beasts” school of feminist theory.
Family Guy embraces this assumption in a multitude of ways. Herbert the Pervert is a dirty old man trolling the streets of Quahog scheming up ways to inadvertently molest underage boys.
While nothing will stop Peter Griffin from seeking sexual pleasure, even if it means inflicting bodily harm on himself.
Yet Peter’s neighbor Glenn Quagmire trumps them all. This guy is a walking orgasm, living the life you’d imagine Jack Tripper’s best friend Larry from Threee’s Company would have gone onto once everybody abandoned the apartment complex for the suburbs. New women (or cross-dressers) every night and the kind of varied sex life that would make the Kama Sutra look like an Idiot’s Guide to the First Time Out. Top it off with an unhealthy addiction to Peter’s wife Lois and you’ve got the perfect perv next door.
Whether playing up to feminist theory or playing into the results of a generation of male bashing, Family Guy’s definition of masculinity is the monster pieced together between books and over Cosmos. Idiotic immaturity that spirals into abusive behavior and perverted tendencies depict men in a far different light than media role models of generations past.
The line between how much the media affects culture and vice-versa may never truly be drawn. As some commentators have observed, Family Guy’s portrayal of masculinity may very well have a negative impact on its target audience. And, as still many more single women have observed, Peter Griffin and his crew aren’t unique. Perhaps the answer lies in the words of the great Theodore Herzl as quoted by Walter Sobchak: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
NEXT: Who’s to Blame for Fueling Pop Culture’s 5 Worst Female Stereotypes?
Who’s to Blame for Fueling Pop Culture’s 5 Worst Female Stereotypes?
Poor Seth MacFarlane. The guy sings one song about boobs and suddenly he’s #1 on the Hates Women List with a Steinem next to his name. (That means if they capture him, she gets to rag on him incessantly. Who wouldn’t want a bullet after that?)
It’d be too easy to join the chorus singing, “MacFarlane hates women.” As a woman, I despise the cop-outs women often take, chiding every man as being both the desired master of her universe and the despised crafter of her fate. If we really believe in Girl Power, what’s our responsibility in all of this? Are we allowing the fate scripted by guys like MacFarlane to come true?
It took about 10 minutes to pull video for the following five most common stereotypes about women portrayed in Family Guy. The sad news is that it took about 15 to pull five examples of the same behavior from the most popular Girl Power reality television show out there: The Kardashians. Praised by some feminists as career women comfortable in their own skin, it has been observed that “50 years ago, the Kardashians could never live the way they do. It’s all thanks to the Feminist movement that they are who they are – and they embrace every benefit from it fully.”
So, culture judges that you are, tell me: Is the evidence compelling? Is MacFarlane a He-Man Woman Hater, or do the Kardashians prove that girls finally busted through the glass ceiling in the tree house and joined the club?
#5 Women Are Backstabbers
Loving and supportive we are not, at least not towards each other. The Myth of the Backstabbing Bitch has been entertainment fodder for ages. According to one linguist, a woman’s tongue has been her primal weapon throughout the ages. While men fought with their fists to claim territory, women talked their way into battle in order to keep the social pecking order in line. For those inclined towards intelligent design, Eve was the first to blame her husband for her own sin. Either way, cultural myth has determined that women trash-talk to blame others, only to end up maligning their own character along the way.
#4 Women Are Hyper-Emotional
The typical male response to “men are idiots” involves depicting women as emotional nutcases. While mood swings are usually accompanied by hormonal imbalances normally associated with certain cycles (that’s the verbose way of saying, despite what my feminist friends may think, women do suffer PMS), we are, in general, relatively normal and thoughtful creatures. Perhaps too thoughtful at times. But, thanks to the few women who made it big (Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath) before and during First Wave Feminism, any time we shed a tear we’re simply two steps from sticking our head into an oven.
Of course, any good screenwriter will tell you that success relies on drama and drama relies on conflict. In other words, the reason Donna Reed and Mrs. Cleaver aren’t big news on television anymore is that their placid nature is simply, well, boring. In fact, most women in the movies and on television in the golden age were fairly calm, completely collected, and quite in charge most of the time. I don’t recall an emotional nutcase entering the scene until the dawn of Method Acting, aka Emotive Gymnastics. (Even then, the early portrayals were more closely tied to mental illness than womanhood. Move over, Virginia Woolf.)
While I doubt you’d ever put Kim Kardashian into the same category as Joanne Woodward or Natalie Wood (seriously, don’t, or I’ll have to hurt you), she definitely knows how to make a scene. In fact, she’s great at taking cues from Seinfeld when it comes to making a scene about nothing.
#3 Women Are Dominatrixes
Nothing says Woman Power more than the ability to control the phallus. Don’t believe me? Ask Margaret Sanger. Equality of the Sexes is easily understood in the context of equal pay for equal work, but when it comes to sexuality itself, the lines start getting really confusing, really fast. For early feminists like Sanger, true freedom translated into power over the penis. From a eugenicist’s standpoint (which she most definitely was), if the result of male domination is an unwanted, unexpected, or unplanned child, a woman’s prerogative is simple: Get power over the penis.
Silly, Margaret: Any woman in a good relationship knows she has power over the penis. We’re just not vulgar enough to talk about it so blatantly. Usually it comes out in more direct, unspoken ways, like when we need something fixed or want to reward someone for buying us diamonds. Or, in the case of Kris Jenner, when we decide to completely emasculate the one guy who sticks with us despite being made the object of ridicule on national cable television by taking over the one room in the mansion where he can put his stuff.
One can’t help but find striking similarities between Bruce Jenner’s toy collection and the adolescent male behaviors on Family Guy. What was that I just said about emasculation?
#2 Women Are Sex Machines
And here’s where feminists become those raging, emotional lunatics men love to laugh at (because, honestly, they don’t know how else to respond except to, of course, maintain eye contact and slowly back away). Clothes used to make the woman. Then, breasts became objects of repression, so we decided to …flash them all over the place.
Lest I walk into the territory of the Toronto Police, I’ll simply tell the analogous story of a gay man I know who feels reclaiming the word “fag” somehow empowers the gay rights movement. The idea being that by taking on the negative terminology, you’re claiming power over its use, much akin to the N-word controversially being popularized among African Americans. Picking up on this trend, women of all sexualities have elected to embrace the term “slut,” insinuating that no matter what a woman does or doesn’t wear, she doesn’t deserve to be sexually assaulted.
Of course, they could have easily stated, “Nothing justifies sexual assault,” but that’s not as catchy as “Slut” now, is it? And, quite frankly, the term isn’t that far off the mark. When pop culture rewards women who star in sex tapes, like “fierce female entrepreneur” Kim Kardashian, with their own prime-time television shows, not only is there nothing wrong with being a Slut. In fact, it has actually become a viable, financially rewarding career option. (I guess poor Fantine dreamed a dream a few centuries too soon.)
#1 Women Are Perfect MotherWives
Still, beyond being backstabbing, hyperemotional, absurdly over-sexed power mongers, we are still, first and foremost, mothers and/or wives. Despite Sandra Fluke’s embodiment of Margaret Sanger’s utopian-fueled dreams, women continue to play the role of wife and mother because, despite Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best wishes, we’re still the ones with the uterus.
Not to be outdone, Kris Jenner has often been tagged as the perfect “Momager,” crafting a sex tape into a multimillion-dollar family brand. Taking a cue from their mother, the Kardashian girls are making the most out of their motherhood experiences. Kourtney is now on child number 2 with adolescent male Lord Disick (but, have no fear, she isn’t letting the “social construct” of marriage get in her way), Khloe made the goal of getting pregnant the central plot line of her spin-off, and Princess Kim is happy to watch her infamous behind expand to make way for baby. If drama brings ratings, the conflict can’t always be about earrings. Besides, when the plot lines run dry, TV shows always introduce a new character to spice up the episodes.
So, is MacFarlane the director or reflector of today’s woman? There is compelling evidence to suggest that Family Guy is mirroring the virtues exhibited by female role models who display truly liberated behavior and have garnered at least a modicum of approval among feminist circles.
Not that long ago, Bitch Magazine (whose title surfaced long before the Slut Movement) surveyed five episodes of Family Guy for their series The Offensive Olympics. With “an average of 43.4 offensive jokes per 21 minute show” the author concluded the show “is not thoughtful or considered oppression.… It just doesn’t care, period. …It’s not a smart show, it’s a lazy show.” For the author at Bitch, Family Guy represented easy laughs in a “kyriarchal” system. Given the evidence illustrating the Kardashians’ own mutual embrace with feminism, the question isn’t “if” but where today’s woman falls in this theoretically constructed pyramid scheme of power.
Perhaps what matters the most is what women plan on doing about it. We were happy to demonstrate capability for equal pay, but are we willing to accept culpability for equal power?
NEXT: Quiz! What’s Your TV Sitcom Family Lifestyle?
Quiz! What’s Your TV Sitcom Family Lifestyle?
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.
NEXT: 4 Easy Steps to Pitching Your Own TV Sitcom
4 Easy Steps to Pitching Your Own TV Sitcom
So, you want to pitch a TV show — a sitcom no less! Or maybe you’re just an armchair TV enthusiast, a mental writer playing out episodes of the ideal sitcom in your head. Whether your concept is ideal or idyllic, if you want to get it off the ground, you need to get your head out of the clouds and start viewing your human reality in terms of numbers — good numbers. Take a tip from Seth MacFarlane: Be sure to include an African American, a disabled character, and an Asian reporter if you want to stand a chance in TV land.
In other words, start counting your minorities.
It’s all in the spirit of being fair that we view people based on their color, class, gender, or physical ability. Not only is it fair, it is super easy to follow the 4-step program for crafting your perfectly pitch-able TV sitcom.
So, get out your calculators and get ready for a math lesson in how to write a situation comedy for television!
Step 1: Study the Demographics and Stock Your Writer’s Room Accordingly
Minority is a numeric term. Call me a sensitive Jew, but when I start hearing people referred to in numeric terms, I get a little nervous chill of disgust running down my spine. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I was being counted and numbered by two graduate students eyeing me up in their rear-view mirror and asking, “Why are there so many of you in the media?”
Oddly enough, the same people who are so quick to decide that Hitler’s IBM-precision math was a bad thing have absolutely no problem counting and grouping heads when it comes to who appears on a television screen.
The Writers Guild of America-West recently released a series of statistics on “minorities” in television writing rooms:
…fewer than 2 of every 10 writers is African American, Latino or Asian (or Native American). And most TV writers are based in L.A., a county where one out of every two of us is Latino. …female representation in writers’ rooms has only gone up 5 percent, to 30.5. …Among the ranks of executive producers, women are underrepresented at a rate of 2-1, with minorities at nearly 5-1, the Guild says. …One in 10 shows during that latest season had zero — count ’em, zero — women on their writing staffs, says the group: Nearly one-third (!!!) had not one minority writer on staff.
Responding to these numbers, “the Guild has developed a Writer Access Project to get minority and women writers gigs in Hollywood.”
Their answer to numbers is, of course, more numbers. Not the kind of numbers that give hard evidence of discrimination against these “minorities” when it comes to hiring writing staff; after all, how do you know that more latinos, blacks, women, and gays wouldn’t prefer to be doctors, lawyers, or teachers rather than TV writers? No, an absence of appropriate quotas must mean prejudice, therefore, we need to encourage those kids who want to be doctors but can’t afford medical school to take that free program in screenwriting instead. As for the kids who want to be writers, if they’re white Jews, they’ll have to pay their own way …after all, there’s “so many of you” in the media already.
Step 2: X + Y = Stereotype Du Jour
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In case you’ve never pitched a TV show before, the process goes something like this: Take Show A, combine with Show B, and you have a new show. In other words, you aren’t developing creative genius as much as you are rehashing what’s already been done. For example: Saturday Night Live = Your Show of Shows + Laugh In. Two and a Half Men = One Day at a Time + The Odd Couple. Family Guy = The Simpsons + MAD TV. In other words, nothing is new; TV execs aren’t adventurous with their money. If you want to pitch a show, you’d better find one just like it to compare it to. The same goes for characters.
Obviously, many more ethnic characters have cropped up on TV since Cosby. The problem is that they’ve grown increasingly stereotypical in nature. These characters aren’t so much reflections of real life as they are imitations of assumptions — often negative ones. In “Where Are The Realistic Black Characters on TV?” Allison Samuels writes:
Not since the The Cosby Show has prime time successfully delivered a show featuring African-Americans leading normal, regular, everyday lives. That show was groundbreaking because it featured us as mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons. Can you name another show like that on the air right now? Not unless you count Tyler Perry’s TBS comedies—but it’s never been an issue for mainstream audiences to laugh at us. The same thing is true of the Chris Rock series Everyone Loves Chris, which enjoyed some success but is no longer on the air, or the cartoon The Cleveland Show. The brilliance of The Cosby Show was that while funny, it also changed the cultural landscape. It presented African-Americans in an entirely different and new context. It moved beyond the stereotypes of the inner city, jail cells, and basketball courts to present a more well-rounded look at who we are.
Blacks aren’t the only group being stereotyped on TV. Over at Being Latino, Adriana Villavicencio writes:
Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, for example, though absolutely lovely, serves as merely a caricature of the loud, crazy Latina with the thick accent and tight clothing (Vergara has subsequently become her character full-time. Case in point: check out the way her accent seems to have evolved into a thicker one) Sometimes, Gloria Pritchett’s character works because the show itself is so well written and performed…and sometimes it’s just plain disappointing that that’s the only mainstream depiction of a Latina on TV.
Similar arguments can be made for practically every people group we’ve been taught to define by race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Bottom line: Stereotypes sell. Tried and tested, they’re a safe investment.
The sad part is that many critics have grown to accept stereotypes as the fact of television fiction. In fact, some critics, like Zack Rosen, are willing to accept the stereotyping as an accurate (if not holistic) reflection of reality:
Community traffics in stereotypes — judgemental black Christian, over-achieving neurotic Jew, disaffected metrosexual — and it would be narcissistic of us homos to complain when we get the same treatment. That is, if the treatment is done right. There are a million stereotypes of what a queer guy can be. To call the one show last week offensive just does a disservice to all the great guys out there who happen to fit the mold. Would you like it if the kind of person you were was offensive to others?
In other words, rejecting the stereotype can even be considered an offensive act because we are taught to presume that somewhere out there someone must fit that mold. Far out as it may sound, the thinking that normalizes stereotypes stems from the thought process that defines prejudice as an inherent aspect of human thinking. If you’re born prejudiced, you must view the world through stereotypes, thus the vicious cycle of social engineering continues.
Step 3: Craft Your Model Minority
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Drunk, screw-up Asian. Hindi artist who hates computers. Jew who fixes cars because his dad fixes cars. And all of them have supportive parents. Please, if you ever find any of these types on TV, please let me know.
With stereotypes come deranged notions that allow us to either glorify or vilify the group being portrayed. In 2002, Princeton University Professor Susan Fiske developed a model of stereotype content that theorizes how we define good versus bad people groups based on the way they are stereotyped. The two deciding factors are warmth and competence. How these two factors are combined determines the kind of reaction a stereotyped people group are likely to receive. If a group is perceived as having low competence and high warmth, they’re bound to receive a pat on the head. If, however, they’re highly competent and low on warmth, they’re going to get the cold shoulder.
In other words, while we may mock them, certain psychologists believe that we often use stereotypes to define worth. Hence, Asians are a “model minority” consisting of brilliant professionals who come from stable home lives and make valuable contributions to American culture. Latinas are busty and brash, and Jews are pseudo-WASPs. Homosexual stereotypes even feed into the “model minority” portrayal, often being crafted to be more appealing to straights of the opposite sex:
Who are these homosexual characters for? Not the LGBT community, that’s for sure. Numerous heterosexual women are drawn to the idea of boys who can give them fashion advice and go shopping with them, whilst occasionally entertaining them with a spontaneous dancing session. Straight men love the idea of a conventionally beautiful bisexual woman.
Instead of rejecting stereotypes outright, the “model minority” creates a safe middle ground. For purveyors of stereotypes, the boundary has been drawn for how far their prejudicial thinking can extend, while the stereotyped groups are presented with a definition — a model, if you will — within which they feel they can be accepted into mainstream society.
Step 4: Make ‘Em Laugh!
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If they aren’t hard-bitten cops, most “minority” characters on television are in comedy shows. In fact, stereotypes are generally a hot comedic topic. And when you start getting too critical of them, you’re the one who’s uptight. After all, Han Lee, the Korean diner owner on 2 Broke Girls, the Changs on Glee, and Gloria on Modern Family are funny, right? They also happen to be listed among the top 7 most racially stereotyped characters on television. In fact, the character of Han on 2 Broke Girls is so blatantly stereotypical that Cracked.com listed him as #1 on their Most Bafflingly Racist Shows on TV Right Now:
The actor is from San Francisco and speaks perfectly clear English except on the show, where he’s Asian reporter Tricia Takanawa. His character has been designed specifically as an Asian stereotype — he’s a workaholic nerdlinger with an iPad who speaks like he just rolled out of the fortune cookie factory and is surprised to find a lack of bamboo in our crazy, Western world.
According to show creator Matthew Moy, “But the comedy on 2 Broke Girls always comes from a place of love it’s never mean. We’re a comedy, and we often go right to the edge. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve encountered this all my life. I’ve been made fun of all my life.” Or, as Ian Fortey over at Cracked.com explains, “…it’s all OK because everyone gets made fun of and he himself is gay, so how could what he does be offensive? How could a gay man be racist? Go on, get your abacus, try to explain it. You can’t.”
In minority numerics, one people group downing another is the mathematical equivalent of the zero times table. In Moy’s crude portrayal of Asians as minorities, albeit from completely different spheres, they can bond in their minority-ness and make fun of each other “from a place of love.” Moreover, accusing Moy of racism is, in itself, a hate crime because he, too, is a member of a minority group. It’s like a one for one — I’ll trade you my gay writer for your Asian joke and we’ll call it even. Oh, so that’s why the Writers Guild wants to offer incentives to minority writers …it’ll save them all the bad press when they promulgate stereotypes on TV!
See? If you’re good with numbers and even better with stereotypical humor, you too can create your own TV sitcom!
But, what does any of this matter to you, the viewer? As one reader remarked on a previous article in this series, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Yet, when that cigar is in the mouth of a White House intern, it takes on a whole new meaning. The problem with stereotyping isn’t the stereotype itself; it’s what people choose to do with it. According to the National Communication Association, “Media messages subtly legitimize existing status quo by providing causal explanations for why subordinating groups deserve to be in their assigned positions.” The Writers Guild of America-West couldn’t agree more:
It all begins with the writing. From concept to characters, from plot to narrative, writers play a fundamental role in the fashioning of stories a society circulates about itself. But in the Hollywood entertainment industry, unfortunately, there has all too often existed a disconnect between the writers hired to tell the stories and an America that’s increasingly diverse with each passing day.
Yes, some audience members are smart enough to laugh it off or change the channel. Yet there are an increasing number of viewers and critics out there who have succumbed to the TV style of social engineering. Like Zack Rosen, they are beginning to view the stereotypes as the way television functions and, consequently, a fact of life. In other words, we are no longer people, we are numbers and the numbers are here to stay.
What loss, television? Perhaps Adriana Villavicencio put it best:
The one show with Latino characters that strikes me as having achieved that balance was the George Lopez show. The fairly sterile sitcom didn’t make Latino-ness inconsequential and used it to set up plenty of punch lines, but the characters were also kind of just regular – funny and flawed and multidimensional – in other words, human.
Come to think of it, her idea sounds somewhat familiar. I recall somewhere along the line a guy who pitched an idea about characters…oh yeah: valuing people for their character, instead of the color of their skin. I wonder if he was in television.
Geez, I bet he stunk at math.
Since finishing this series Susan has taken on additional subjects — like HBO’s Girls and wine. I plan to compile more of her writings — and her colleagues here at PJ Lifestyle — in the upcoming weeks. If you have any questions for Susan or ideas for stories for her to write then send me an email at [email protected] Or reach us both on Twitter @SLMGoldberg and @DaveSwindle.