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: