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.

11 comments

  • thanks for your comments. I really like what you say about how humor is a great way for exposing how ridiculous the justifications for oppressive behavior are. But in this case, the lack of a coherent voice of reason is deeply troubling.

    With regards to MacFarlane’s comment: I am VERY SICK of hearing cisgender people claiming to know what is empowering to trans folks. Was a trans voice consulted in that matter? What community is he speaking of? Does he think merely mentioning us is empowering? Jackass. It’s the same with Israel Luna’s “Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives” – I don’t care if you are a fellow LGBT person, you still have cisgender privilege and don’t know what our struggle is like. My message to these self-proclaimed Trans Advocates: Fuck off. We can speak for ourselves. LISTEN.

    • I totally agree, non-trans folks act like they understand trans experience, writing about us cause we are “interesting” and then the fuck it up.

      “Fuck off. We can speak for ourselves. LISTEN.”

      couldn’t of said it any better myself.

  • Mhm. I would even add to your argument that there is a lack of a conscious character with the fact that Quagmire, a generally repulsive character, is the one who is actually acting the way people should. On one hand, that can be seen as him being decent for a change, but that’s not really how it reads to me.

    I didn’t see this episode but any time they have trans anything on TV, I tend to tense up. It’s 99% no good. >.<

  • I’m happy to see people speaking up about this, but it makes me wonder…where were all of these trans people when the show ripped on every other oppressed group? Talking about how people who don’t like it just don’t get it, and how it’s funny because they make fun of “everyone”? I keep seeing people talking about SMcF having “gone too far,” but is that really code for “he made fun of ME”? It’s not like this episode is so far out of their usual mode of operating.

    • I totally agree, it is very much a “well its about me now, so i’m gonna say something” including coming from myself, I haven’t ever complained much about other family guy episodes. I have to admit that I think that this episode is more over the top than most others, like with the lack of the conscience character and that the entire episode is dedicated to it, as opposed to a section which is more common. I think that it is a lot of compounding factors that make this episode one of the more extreme examples of the show’s fuckedupness…. cause that’s a word.

  • Ok, so how fucked up does something have to be before we stop supporting it? Where do we draw the line? How far do your radical politics extend? Is it possible to call oneself radical and support something that perpetuates the oppression of other groups of people? How fucked up does something have to be before it stops being funny?

  • one- they’re succeeding because we’re talking about it

    two- the conversation was brought to literally hundreds of thousands more people who may have never heard the word “trans” even muttered before

    three- the reality is that in any social justice movement, to grow support the dominant culture needs to start the conversation so that those who have actual experience can step in and give their stories (can you imagine how many trans voices are going to be on the news, being read online, ect because of this episode?)

    I’m not saying they did “right.”
    But we CAN make this work for us– I hate to use a tired old cliche, buuuut… (heh, butt)
    No such thing as “bad press”

  • I think you made some great points, especially in regards to the lack of a conscience character.

    Personally, I feel Family Guy’s writing has been going downhill lately, and that they are replacing good writing with shock factor. I think the recent episode where Brian eats out of Stewie’s diaper in a bank vault is proof of that.

    However, in Family Guy’s defense, they aren’t an entirely inaccurate portrait of America. People like you and me who are comfortable in what are considered fringe situations see these jokes as attacks, but honestly, and unfortunately, I feel these jokes are an exaggerated, yet accurate representation of how many people in this country feel.

    I think the best example I can think of is that I had a client who was starting a match-making business, and she wanted to break into the LGBT market. However, as soon as she started asking me questions like, “Can gay guys actually be in a relationship like straight people?”, it became clear pretty quick that homosexuality may be on its way to acceptance, but it is far from becoming integrated. And when you take a topic such as trans-gender issues, I almost feel like people have this reaction of, “ENOUGH! I already accepted the gays! And that’s confusing enough as it is!”

    Unfortunately, as great as media can be at bringing up subjects for conversation, it can rarely actually have that conversation. That is why I have taken the stance of, if I act the way I want to be perceived, then that is how I will be perceived. I’m a big believer in the idea that each person being a role model unto themselves is far more powerful than a show like Will and Grace introducing gay men into the mainstream.

    I guess what I am saying is that when a show like Family Guy portrays a group in a negative light, the most positive reaction that group can have is to turn the other cheek, and stay upright.

    I think Martin Luther King Jr said it best:

    “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. “

  • I’m glad you brought this up. I saw this episode and initially it really pissed me off because I was sure of where it was going. I also noticed and was very upset that the two main voices of reason on the show turned out to be complete idiots, and the one who is extremely sexually active turned out to be the voice of conscience instead.

    But what made this so hard to hate was how wonderful Ida was. She was absolutely perfect. So it got me to think that maybe by making asses out of everyone on the show and the trans person was the only one who made sense, maybe this was a veiled attempt to show how stupid transphobia is, and wake some idiots up out there.

    SMcF always makes his best comedy within the show more intellectual and yes we all caught this; but the sad thing is that any transphobic out there is so narrow minded that they are not going to catch it and it could easily be used to perpetuate the stereotypes and their own misguided phobia.

    Despite some of the shining moments with the one heavily heterosexual character accepting something different from what he knows and understands, to some of Ida’s moments and comments about “Changing my future; not my past”; I too was left empty by this episode. Thanks for sharing and giving me the opportunity to vent too.

    Ken

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