Monday, October 13, 2008

Family Guy's moral worth

I have been watching a lot of Family Guy recently and because it is such an intelligent show, I wanted to get some opinions about the nature of the show. I googled "Family Guy essay" and the first hit was an essay submitted for a "Studies in Pop Culture class" that was posted online by a guy named Adam Cozens who identifies himself as Christian. His "Christian reading" of Family Guy wouldn't interest me because I'm not Christian myself and generally feel that Christian entertainment watchdog groups are somewhat detrimental to the entertainment industry (i.e. baseless protests over the Da Vinci Code, Dogma, and The Life of Brian and inflating support for a bad film like Passion of the Christ), but he attacks the show mostly on secular moral grounds, and I found that interesting. I do tend to agree with the author that movies and tv shows can have bad moral content and it is a concern of mine. I objected highly to Sin City, for example, on moral grounds: It just preached nihilism and celebrated violence and misplaced masculinity to excess.

His essay can be found here:

His essay has a very interesting insight about how bad fathers on TV are a result of how baby boomers's dads had to work multiple jobs in single income households and that prompted children of the 60s to love mom and resent dad. The children of the 60s set the template for the modern family sitcom and took that resentment with them to those shows, creating multiple generations worth of loveable and affectionate TV mothers and lazy, slobby, hard-drinking, disinterested-in-their-kids dads. These stereotypes exist far more on TV than they do in real life at this point but TV is one generation behind society in this sense. The writers of these shows that feature such figures were born during that postwar suburban boom and they are writing about the nuclear family as they remember it from their roles as kids and not as parents or adults. Bernie Mac of "The Bernie Mac Show" was born in 1958, Ray Romano of "Everybody Loves Raymond" was born in 1957, and Jim Belushi of "According to Jim" and Matt Greoning of "The Simpsons" was born in 1954.

But the bulk of his essay talks about Family Guy's lack of morally redeeming value. He summarizes the show as about a "an overly obsessive daughter, a blissfully ignorant son, a beautiful submissive wife, a maniacal toddler and an arrogant, emotionally distant, and yet, still so lovable father." So, here's my response:

Family Guy's purpose is not to be morally redeeming but, rather, to entertain. It provides escape, like the author says, but it does so very intelligently, and I think there's morally redeeming value in entertainment that's intelligent. Intelligent entertainment, like art, is a work of beauty to be appreciated and has the potential to inspire.

Another way the show is morally redeeming is through positive portrayals of minorities, in Cleveland, and the handicapped, as is Joe. For a show that attacks anything and everything, the show has handled these two characters with the greatest of sensitivities.

I also think the author greatly misreads the characters. The show takes pages from pop culture and parodies them, and a parody draws focus to certain elements that ordinarily don't get focused on. The character of Meg for example, has low self-esteem about her looks and is treated with an absurd amount of apathy from her dad. He doesn't abuse her and act like a bad dad, but rather he acts like she doesn't exist: He can't remember her name and actively wants her removed from the family, at times. It's a comic method, Gerald Mast in "The Comic Mind" calls "ad absurdium": No dad would act like that in real life. A abusive dad might unintentionally say mean things to their kid which could scar them, abuse them, or neglect them, but for Peter to actively forget the daughter's existence, considering he plays an active role in the lives of his other two kids, highlights the absurdity of the situation and of the societal context in general. It's a form of parody, and so we must examine what is being parodied: Some ideas to throw around here are 1) the fact that teenage girls in the media, a class of people largely filled with girls who star on sitcoms, are so closely scrutinized about their looks. Meg is really not that much more overweight than her mom, who is considered hot, so there's a certain rediculousness to the way she's perceived by the people of Quahog. 2) the fact that sometimes child actors get written out of sitcoms (see Family Matters, Happy Days, Roseanne) and they act as if they were never part of the family. Peter's selective memory is an example of this. 3) The lazy father archetype mentioned earlier. To draw light in a satirical way to an issue like portrayal of teenage girls in the media is morally redeeming in my opinion.

In all, the show teaches us not to take things at face value. The author mentiones that Chris seems unintelligent, but that's because he talks slow and doesn't sound intelligent. He has actually said some surprisingly intelligent things. To dismiss Peter as an uncaring dad is also somewhat baseless. In the episode where he became a lobbyist, he stopped campaigning for smoking because he saw the effect on his kid, for example. He also saves Stewie from the horrors of Disney World. If anything, my complaint about Peter is that he is written inconsistently: Sometimes he's a perfectly capable father, sometimes he's virtually retarded, sometimes he's apathetic.

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