The animated sitcom series Family Guy, which began broadcasting on American television channels in 1999, has always courted controversy. The perceived crude humor and lack of inhibitions in the characters of the show have offended the conservative sections of American society. At times unfavorably compared to The Simpsons, an animated family comedy which preceded it, Family Guy has many defining qualities of its own. The show has also had issues with commercial viability, as its producers have at times hesitated to begin a new season. Yet, the show has left a mark on American television scene by drawing and sustaining dedicated fans. It has also left an impression on the broader popular culture, as some of the themes and motifs of the show are adopted and discussed in other shows and other media. This essay will argue that despite the controversial elements in its makeup, Family Guy is a valuable tool to understand American culture and society, especially human interpersonal relationships and the humor/aesthetic sense of American TV audience.
In Family Guy, the male characters talk openly about their sexual desires and experiences. Also, men praise each other for their sexual conquests. For example, in one episode, in what is a spoof on a popular children’s cartoon, one smurf congratulates another smurf for ‘smurfing’ Smurfette in a clear sexual allusion. In turn, boys/men express pride of accumulating sexual experience with girls/women. Women set sexual limits. Women were sometimes portrayed actively rejecting men’s sexual advances. Lois’ repeated efforts to curb her husband Peter’s requests for sex is another source of humor. In more than one episode, Peter attempts to initiate sex with Lois in the presence of their young child. Outraged, the wife stops her husband, exclaiming, “For God’s sakes! Stewie is right here!” (Kim, et al. 145) Women need boyfriends or husbands. Female characters without boyfriends or husbands were made to feel deficient. A teenage boy asks his inexperienced sister, “What kind of gifts have boys gotten for you, Meg?” causing Meg to cry hysterically and run out of the room. (Kim, et al.145) In this context, not all media critics are able to appreciate and hold a liberal view of Family Guy. Those from the conservative sections rate the show lowly. They cite the show’s supposed foul, raunchy angle for the denigration. According to this view,
In its first full year, the show’s creators managed to include nearly every conceivable obscenity, and references to every imaginable sexual perversion from incest to necrophilia. Series staples included nudity and references to pornography and masturbation. One episode this spring featured Peter Griffin giving his adolescent son his entire stockpile of pornographic magazines. The fact that Family Guy aired during the family hour makes it that much worse. Institutions such as the church and family were held up to ridicule on a near– weekly basis… (“Top 10 Worst Anti-family Shows on Television” 12)
The very first episode of Family Guy, titled Death Has a Shadow (which Fox Network first broadcast on January 1999) encapsulates the show’s humorous take on a major political issue – that of social welfare. The episode shows how the head of the family, Peter Griffin, accidentally ends up getting government welfare payouts (a whopping $150,000 a week due to a clerical error). There is a series of comic errors both en route to acquiring this welfare and also till its rightful cessation. But this episode is typical of the crude, dark, and at times irreverent humor that Family Guy has come to represent. There are references to some of the major features of American culture, including binge drinking, welfare state, addiction to sport, toys, incarceration, prison sentences, etc. Michael V. Tueth has made a distinction between television programs that engage in satire and those that produce ‘transgressive humor’. By his classification, Family Guy belongs to the latter. Therefore, critics of the show will have to grasp this nuance before forming their judgments:
Rather than portraying the objects of its humor in hopes that witty ridicule and public shame might provoke change, transgressive humor does not expect or even desire a change, for then the fun would end. This distinction seems to be supported by the way focus group members differentiated between the humor of King of the Hill and Family Guy, which they had less commentary on but claimed to watch more often (Tueth B06).
The first episode also reveals the aesthetics of the American audience that is attuned to relishing magic realism on screen. For example, the sudden interruption of the realistic narrative flow by the giant anthropomorphized jug of Kool-Aid (an artificially flavored soft-drink) takes everyone in the courtroom by surprise. As people in the courtroom gaze bemused at this unexpected entry, the Kool-Aid icon backs away out of the room gently, smoothly, and efficiently, only as a cartoon character can do. This example typifies another aspect of American television, namely that of product placement. In terms of the aesthetic relevance, it shows how American viewers enjoy elements of magic realism. As a noted media commentator observes,
The episode offers no explanation for this sudden incursion and hardly any time to dwell on it because as soon as the invading creature exits the scene, the episode continues apace, forcing the viewer to move on with the renewed flow of narrative. This was a familiar sensation, however, one I recognized but never before from animation. In fact, I was reminded of works from the literary world, particularly those that use a technique called magical realism… (Crawford 52)
When ones studies the show in question with other animated sitcoms such as The Simpsons (the first animated show to be screened in prime time since The Flintstones in the 1960s), Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, South Park, and Futurama, one could see what is fresh and new with Family Guy. Developing on the strong foundation of audience of animated sitcoms allowed writers to be more adventurous with novel comedic styles. In other words, upon the groundwork of ‘realism’ left by preceding animated sitcoms, the ‘magic realism’ of Family Guy thrives. In this sense, the show could be seen as a chapter in the evolution of American television entertainment. To this extent, Family Guy is a source for sociological study and insight. For example,
…although Family Guy is essentially a situation comedy, and comedy is the prime objective of the show, the concerns of the postmodern age are evident in the pop-culture magical realism it utilizes. The fact that Family Guy and many other prime-time animated sitcoms are so sophisticated intertextually is due to the anxieties that the postmodern writer experiences (Crawford 52).
In conclusion, Family Guy is a rich source for sociological study in the context of American culture. It reveals interesting details about the American audience’s sense of humor and other social preoccupations. In particular, the role of sex and the complexities of family relationships are colorfully and humorously portrayed, offering the audience fresh perspectives.
Crawford, Alison. “”Oh Yeah!”: Family Guy as Magical Realism?.” Journal of Film and Video 61.2 (2009): 52+. Print.
Tueth, Michael V. “Family Guy’ Alive”. The Washington Times (9 Jan. 2007): B06. Print.
Kim, Janna L., et al. “From Sex to Sexuality: Exposing the Heterosexual Script on Primetime Network Television.” The Journal of Sex Research 44.2 (2007): 145+. Print.
“Top 10 Worst Anti-family Shows on Television.” Human Events (25 Aug. 2000): 12. Print.