“Family Guy” is approaching ten years on television. The show uses ironic humour to discuss race, gender, and sexuality. Quite often, it crosses the line of what is considered to be in good taste. Its regular characters include the neighbour Quagmire, who has committed rape on more than one occasion, and an elderly paedophile. Lois, the mother, is routinely sexualized and cast in opposition to her daughter Meg, who only manages to get the family dog Brian to kiss her when he is drunk. The patriarch Peter is meant to be a neo-Ralph Kramden, and his only talent seems to be in making gross jokes and out-running Death.
“Family Guy” is not about complexity; it is about taking the -isms that people normally confront while using ironic fauxgressive humour to challenge stereotypes. It specifically posits a challenge of so-called “PC” speech terms, without considering that the reason such language exists in the first place is because racism, homophobia etc., are not laughing matters to the people that must live with them.
In a recent interview with Playboy, creator and writer Seth MacFarlane announced that Stewie Griffin, the one year old baby, is gay:
“We had an episode that went all the way to the script phase in which Stewie does come out … But we decided it’s better to keep it vague, which makes more sense because he’s a one-year-old. Ultimately, Stewie will be gay or a very unhappy repressed heterosexual. It also explains why he’s so hellbent on killing [his mother, Lois] and taking over the world: He has a lot of aggression, which comes from confusion and uncertainty about his orientation.”
The above statement stands as evidence of how little time MacFarlene has spent immersing himself in queer theory. Explaining Stewie’s matricidal tendencies as a result of repressed sexuality frames members of the GLBT community as perverse and violent. This plays into the binary construction of heterosexuality being depicted as both good and normal; conversely, homosexuality is then seen as deviant and “other.”
Stewie’s contempt for his mother seems to be more of a reflection on how little we value women. Violence against women has become a social norm and using Stewie’s so-called repressed sexuality as justification only cements the idea that issues of “othering” in an adult life can be traced back to the mother, rather than to a culture of homophobia. Freud would be proud of MacFarlane.
Gay representation has been incredibly spare in mainstream media. It quite often relies upon tools of heterosexist oppression while still claiming to foster inclusivity and tolerance. Simply placing a gay character into a script without artifice or device is a rarity. We have “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy,” reaffirming that all gay men are knowledgeable about fashion. This is juxtaposed against characters like Vito Spatafore, played by Joseph R. Gannascoli, in “The Sopranos.” Vito is a sociopath who is ultimately killed for being gay. It is impossible for Vito to be understood as masculine, despite being married with children and engaging in acts of criminal violence. His death in the series affirms that masculinity can only be understood through a lens of heterosexuality, despite his equal participation in the criminal acts of the Soprano family.
Casting Stewie as a gay character is not necessarily gay-positive. It is assumed, without specifically outing him, that his behaviour will indicate to the audience that he is indeed gay and this posits that all gay males act in uniform ways. Stewie likes show tunes and is both violent and quick-witted; how do these characteristics together equate to having a gay identity? The media simply needs to move away from the assumption that introducing a gay character, and then playing upon social constructions, is equal representation.
It is further troubling that a one year child as being portrayed as gay. Consider that sexual orientation does not present itself until puberty. Much of our social gay panic involves the myth that homosexuality is predatory. Placing a supposed gay baby in a clearly dysfunctional family lends credence to this construction. We exist with the idea that if we rear children in homes filled with Christian fundamentalist values that we can forestall or prevent a gay and lesbian identity. The very dysfunction of the Griffins can be seen as confirmation of this idea.
“Family Guy” is not meant to be taken seriously. It is, after all, a cartoon set in a town in which Adam West plays the Mayor. Unfortunately, even programming created in jest is informed by our social dysfunction and therefore necessarily perpetuates ideas that are harmful. Words are not understood as damaging, though they regularly translate into action which leads to violence and death. Therefore, how gay characters are presented in media is of utmost concern. In a world in which the GLBT community is regularly subjected to violence, a character like Stewie cannot be understood as simply meaningless.