Peter, Louis, Chis, Meg, Stewie, and Brian Griffin are invited into audiences’ homes on a nightly basis. The Griffins provide humor, satire, sarcasm, and a great deal of laughter to viewers. These characters exist within the vastly popular show Family Guy, an American adult animated sitcom. Peter and his wife, Lois, live in the fictional city of Quahog, Rhode Island, with their three children – Chris, Meg, and Stewie – and their talking dog, Brian.
Created by Seth MacFarlane and aired on Fox Television Network, Family Guy has been nominated for fifteen Emmy Awards, with five wins. Although comical, the widely popular sitcom has serious implications for its viewers and for society at large. Many innocent viewers consider the show to be a form of entertainment, a source of release, perhaps, after a long day at work or a full day of classes. And the show can deliver such release. However, that is the beginning, not the end, of the story. The comedic instances in Family Guy are frequently based off sexist, heterosexist, and racist jokes and insults. The sitcom both reflects and perpetuates the larger social phenomena of stereotyping, inequality, and the oppression of marginalized groups, especially women.
The basic plotline of Family Guy is a reflection of patriarchal inequality. The storyline is extremely male centered, as it follows the tale of Peter and his friends, who are also male. Peter’s sons, Chris, and Stewie, along with his dog Brian, are also featured in the show a great deal. Peter’s wife, Lois, and daughter, Meg, are included in the show, but they are given traditional female gender roles and attributions. Lois is constantly helping Peter get out of the trouble he creates. Peter’s wife is also featured cooking meals, satisfying Peter sexually, and supporting him emotionally.
Peter’s daughter, Meg, is regularly teased, put down, and degraded. It is easy for viewers to become accustom to Meg being the butt of the joke, and to laugh along without a second thought. However, by putting down Meg so frequently, Seth MacFarlane and Family Guy’s writers symbolically insult women as a whole in our culture. For example, Peter sometimes refers to Meg as “Girl Chris.” The nickname emphasizes the extent to which women are viewed as second-class citizens within the larger culture, and repositions men at the central focus of our attention. Calling Meg “Girl Chris” demonstrates that she is deviating from the norm, she is effectively Other, simply by virtue of being female. In contrast to the regular degradation that Meg confronts on the show, her brother, Chris, is repeatedly rewarded and praised.
Are satirical shows like Family Guy “just entertainment’? They are entertainment, to be sure, but the problem with such a sentiment rests on the “just.” What that “just” belies is the fact that media both reflects and shapes our social world, coupled with the reality that many forms of entertainment are enabling conditions for real world negative consequences. Media has an impact on our culture beyond the page or the screen in which it appears. Media literacy – the critical capacity to analyze, evaluate, and understand media – is a crucial first step to understanding and addressing the real world implications of TV shows, movies, music, and all forms of media. By disrespecting minorities and casually using sexist, heterosexist, and racist humor in entertainment, it is more likely that individuals will use these types of behaviors in real life.
Often times, individuals fail to realize the underlying problems with sexist, heterosexist, and/or racist behavior and comments since these actions are very normalized in media. An article published by wikiHow entitled, “How to Appreciate Family Guy,” admits that Family Guy makes sexist, racist, and homophobic comments. However, the article claims that the existence of these jokes is harmless, and the humor is purely, “for the entertainment of the viewers.” This phenomenon, in Family Guy and in many other forms of entertainment, has serious negative consequences, such as the objectification of women, gender/racial wage gaps, violence against minorities and gender/racial discrimination, prejudice, and oppression.
In today’s society, media literacy is one of the biggest tools for success that individuals can possess. Through an understanding of media literacy, viewers can use a critical lens to evaluate messages received through all channels of media. Thus, I encourage all media consumers – nearly everyone in the Unites States, as media is almost impossible to escape – to take a critical eye to media and entertainment. By adopting media literacy, individuals can better themselves, media’s creators, and our culture as a whole.
Some questions to ask while viewing media:
- What are the creators’ intents?
- Does this media source hurt or harm individuals or groups of people?
- How does this media source reflect the broader culture?
- Do you agree with the messages portrayed through this media source?
- Is this media source “just entertainment,” or is there a deeper meaning behind it?