Family Guy; Affectionate Oppression?
On Sunday Fox aired a Family Guy episode in honor of Mother’s Day. In the episode, Quagmire’s father comes out as a transwoman named Ida. The show follows Ida coming out and the subsequent reactions where she is repeatedly torn apart by appallingly transphobic remarks from nearly the entire cast. GLAAD is all over it, and prominent queer blogs like Bilerico are talking it up really well. And while everyone is quick to say THIS IS BAD, I feel there is a lot not being said about why this is such a problem, the complex attempts at support, and the deep the oppression this episode exemplifies.
I will admit it, I have been a major Family Guy fan; I’ve seen every episode dozens of times. And since I am a fan, what sucked almost as much as dealing with the episode was my expectation that it would finally force me to boycott Family Guy (and I’d do it too, fan or not).
Some background: I am very familiar with the methodology of the series, and the arguments against it. The biggest case against the show is that it is unfailingly offensive, and it is. Some argue that it is ok because the show attacks everyone. I DO NOT think is a viable argument. The show attacks everyone who is already dis-empowered, but rarely, if ever, do you see any episodes talking about how fucked up white privilege is or how misogyny is a major theme in the show. Even with this, I liked the show because like the shows that came before it (i.e. The Simpsons, South Park, Married with Children,) I can appreciate the irony. The purpose of the problematic stuff is to highlight reality, and in this hell-trap of oppression sometimes laughter is good medicine. Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson are NOT intended to be heroes or idols. They are a mirror of what the USA is at its worst and in that awareness we are to laugh at them and not be like them. Yes, I realize not everyone reads the show like I do, and I am sure the producers milk the uneducated demographic without trying to change it, but sometimes I just want to say “Fuck the bigoted idiots who take it seriously, I want a smart laugh.” But as seasons progress that has gotten harder and harder to say about Family Guy…
Family Guy has progressed past social commentary. The show’s creator and writer, Seth MacFarlane, frequently goes too far, and this transphobic episode is one of those times. I am positive the guy is absorbed in white male privilege and regardless of his decent politics and good intentions, he’s still a rich white-male jackass poking fun at unrepresented groups in whatever way he and his writers can imagine we, the minority, are like. After Elton’s Brent Hartinger highlights some good points about Seth MacFarlane’s statement saying that he:
“…can safely say that the transsexual community will be very, very happy with the “Quagmire” episode… It’s probably the most sympathetic portrayal of a transexual character that has ever been on television, dare I say.”
Now, I agree with Hartinger that MacFarlane is most likely an idiot. But honestly, Ida herself is a decent representation of a transwoman. Aside from her saintliness in receiving discriminatory remarks from EVERYONE and a‘trapped in the wrong body’ description, Ida actually presents a pretty positive (or at least not negative) representation. Ida describes thinking about transitioning her whole life and at one point she says a very empowering statement: “I’m changing my future, not my past” which is not the common representation of trans folk, especially by non-transfolk. The show even recognizes that being trans is not the same thing as gay. Ida’s son Quagmire’s reaction is also non-offensive. He reacts realistically, torn emotionally between his own concept of his father, his personal masculine hang-ups and lack of education about trans identity, and his desire to please his father. And though he is clearly upset, he never says or does anything out of line and continually shows his love and concern for his parent. In the end, Quagmire supports Ida, saying he loves her and wants her to be happy. He is the only character in the show who does this, or demonstrates any other form of acceptance of Ida’s trans identity.
But though the episode created a positive trans character, it but normalized the attacks on her. The rest of the cast has repetitive transphobic dialogue that is so offensive it was nothing else but horrifying. It is hard believe anyone could say this episode is sympathetic, or indeed close to anything but monstrous.
The episode has its dose of sexuality specific homophobia. Peter and Joe are clear in expressing their disapproval of gender variance, that feminine qualities in a man inherently means homosexuality (and makes them uncomfortable), and that gay can in no way be good or acceptable. The majority of jibes are trans-specific, even directly promoting disregarding the difference between sexuality and gender as nonsense. When Quagmire goes to Peter and Lois for support about his dad’s transition, Peter and Lois repeatedly refuse to acknowledge that trans is not the same thing as gay, to “agree that he (Ida) is odd” and that they should “have fun at the circus.” Peter offers support, but it comes along with statements like “What are you gonna name your he-she father-mother?”and laughing at Quagmire’s experience behind his back.
Ida is discriminated against in a slew of ways, some of which I choose to highlight. Ida makes a dish for dinner, Lois is kind to her face and then turns to tell her kid to “Throw it away in the outside garbage.” because anything a trans person has touched equals toxic waste. At dinner, Peter asks a slew of offensive questions that Ida bears like a saint, not at all offended that someone would ask her if she “misses her penis” or if her “knockers” are made from “ass fat.” Lois and Peter roar in laughter when they learn that Brian slept with Ida and that he calls her a “real woman.” Brian is really excited about Ida, and thinks she is the best woman he’s ever met. Then when he realizes that Ida is trans, he vomits for almost a full minute then screams that someone should have told him because “when [trans people] move to a new place they are supposed to notify the neighborhood.” because all trans folks are sex offenders. He then goes to shower, scrubbing himself and shaking as if he’s been traumatized by a horrific event.
A particularly bad part of the episode is when Brian and Stewie talk about Ida, saying that it is”hysterical” that she transitioned. The two discuss their confusion about trans experiences saying: “What do those people do with relationships and sex and stuff” and in reference to genitalia Stewie says,”Its gotta be a train wreck down there… a casserole of nonsense.” Brian wonders what “it”, meaning Ida, looks like and calls her it a few more times, interchanging “she” with “it” – carelessly dehumanizing her. I found this especially troubling, not just because of my own experiences being called ‘it’, but because of a recent hate crime against a trans guy where an attacker carved “IT” into his chest. If it can happen to him, it can happen to any of the rest of us. Last thing we need is more support for us being called ‘it.’
No matter how well presented Ida’s character is, without majority cast support, the audience is 200% more likely to identify with the transphobic cast than the supportive Quagmire or cast down Ida. Which brings me to another point, which I feel underlines how truly deep-rooted trans oppression is. In every offensive topic presented by controversial shows like Family Guy, there is always a ‘conscience ‘ character to be your guide, point out the problematic stuff and provide the correct view to counter the offensive one. For example, The Simpsons has Lisa, South Park has Kyle and Stan, and Family Guy has Lois and Brian. In this episode, however, there was none of the usual wifely ‘voice of reason’ from Lois or philosophical analyzing from Brain. Without that “Conscience Character” to guide the audience, or whats worse the usual consciences joining the problematic behavior, the message is clear; that it is ok to act this way towards trans people. This absence of the “Conscience Character” shows how deeply rooted this trans oppression is, because unlike the gay marriage episode, this transphobia doesn’t even deserve a counter opinion. It is so natural to be freaked out or amused by a trans person, there is no cause to present the other side of things through a “Conscience Character” like Lois or Brian – the usual queer advocate of the show. To that I say, WTF Family Guy? How are you gonna try to be a supporter, and even succeed in some ways, and then create a violently oppressive product such as this episode? Your heads are so far up your asses eating your privileged shit you can’t even see how this effects us. How is being called it and being treated like a monster is helping us? If this is how you show your support and affection for us, you can keep it.