Seth MacFarlane’s blockbuster animated series Family Guy features gross-out humor with a mean-spirited kick. Parodying a sitcom, the series portrays Peter Griffin and family as dopes who deserve to be laughed at. But when the series shifts to laugh with the Griffins, it undercuts the satire and instead reinforces… the dopiness.
MacFarlane says the show “likes to hold a mirror up to society and say, ‘Society, you’re ugly.’ “ In the Season Seven premiere, that society includes snooty upper class, both political parties, and wife beaters, as well as feminists, paraplegics, and overly attentive mothers. The show has no clear politics, except perhaps libertarianism, and by slamming all targets equally, it runs into a serious problem.
Consider the critiques of gender roles, which often veer over into misogyny. This new episode’s main plotline ridicules both a brainwashed bimbo and a promiscuous bimbo, with little distinction between them. The first is a woman Brian the family dog tries to pick up at a costume party (the running joke is that no one ever notices he’s a dog and he’s the smartest one in the family; i.e., men are dogs). Covered in blood, she explains her costume by saying, “I’m a victim of the liberal agenda. I’m a murdered fetus.” When Brian asks, “Have you ever had sex that was voluntary,” she replies, “No, I have not,” at which point, he backs off. He calls her “crazy” for her adherence to a strict right-wingism, but what makes her even crazier, according to the show, is that, according to her stated sexual history, she lives in a world where date rape is the norm.
Seeking a woman who “gets him,” Brian meets Carolyn at a bookstore and romances her. The infant evil mastermind Stewie convinces Brian to “take it slow” and not push sex on the first date. After three weeks of chaste dating, Brian finds Carolyn having sex with Cleveland in a car. Devastated, he tries to break them up convincing Cleveland’s ex-wife Loretta (who cheated on Cleveland) to win him back. More cheating follows. While Brian tries to be the perfect gentleman, his ideal woman Carolyn only wants quick sex and will betray him (and the men after him) at a moment’s notice. She’s a different kind of crazy, but still crazy.
Contributing to the misanthropic vibe, the series regularly features numerous bathroom jokes and pornographic gags. In this episode, the wacky “sick” moment comes when Stewie is trying to get Brian not to chase Carolyn and he starts brushing Brian’s face and puts his finger first into in Brian’s mouth, then into his own. It’s gross, but hardly unusual here.
The caricatures are more successful when the targets are pop cultural, especially the history of TV sitcoms. Loretta spoofs stereotypical portrayals of black women as pushy wives who speak in exaggerated dialect. But again, the episode defeats itself, dragging the gag on for too long, so that even as it mocks the racism of earlier shows, its own joke turns racist.
This mix of messages is offered up in the series’ opening theme song, an old-school variety show number sung by the family members> Decrying violence and sex on TV, the lyrics ask, “Where are those good old-fashioned family values on which we used to rely?” But these “family values” were always illusory. Family Guy is only telling us what we already know.