Bigotry, Satire, and the Left

[CW: Racism]

I used to be a big fan of “Family Guy.” I owned the first several seasons, and watched them repeatedly. I rejoiced when the show came back from its cancellation, even if the interim productions (A “live from Vegas” album and the direct-to-DVD Stewie movie) weren’t spectacular. I listened to the commentaries, which were often just as entertaining as the show itself. I loved how the show skewered right-wing religious fundamentalism, how frequently it crossed into the boundaries of bad taste for a laugh. Like, there was the bit where a JFK Pez dispenser got shot, or where Osama Bin Laden was trying to get past airport security by singing showtunes, and the whole “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” episode. The latter of those never made it to air; the former segments were even cut from the DVD sets. Family Guy was edgy.

Seth MacFarlane, the creator and significant part of the voice cast of the show, is decidedly liberal, and his politics have certainly informed the series. More and more as the show went on, we saw bits lampooning creationists and religion, promoting pot legalization and gay marriage and positive immigration reform.

Unfortunately, as the show went on, we saw more and more of the stuff that eventually soured me on the series. That same “edginess,” that same intentionally-offensive philosophy of “we make fun of everyone,” meant more characters who were stereotype caricatures. Brian’s flamboyantly gay relative, the Asian reporter (voiced by a white woman) who occasionally slips into a “me ruv you rong time” accent for a laugh, the creepy old pedophile. And of course Quagmire, whose ’50s-throwback ladies-man character is eventually just a vehicle for relentless rape jokes.

Seth MacFarlane would probably tell you that he’s not a racist or a misogynist or a homophobe. He would probably tell you that he’s very liberal, that the show constantly makes fun of right-wing ideologies and satirizes even his erstwhile employers at Fox. In satirical parlance, he’d probably argue that his show is “punching up.”

The problem is that, while doing all that punching, he’s not giving any thought to the splash damage toward people who might not be his actual targets. What about satirizing right-wingers necessitates rape jokes and racial stereotypes? Would his satire be as effective without those elements? Might it be better? I don’t think Seth MacFarlane cares much. They get laughs, and when it comes down to it, laughs matter more to guys like Seth MacFarlane than the targets of those laughs.

There are lots of people in similar boats, willing to throw anyone under the bus for a cheap laugh, then defend themselves by saying that they’re being satirical, that because they’re politically liberal, or because they satirize the powerful in addition to the powerless, that they can’t be bigots. They’re just equal-opportunity offenders, treating everyone the same, and you don’t see their powerful targets complaining.

Which, of course, misses the point. It misses the point like a white person saying “well how come it’s okay to say ‘honky’ or ‘cracker’ but not the n-word?” It misses the point like a man saying “female comedians are always telling jokes about men, how come it’s only sexist when I tell jokes about chicks or rape?” It misses the point that when not all people are equal in society, mocking them equally does unequal harm. Author Saladin Ahmed put it best when he said “In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone serves the powerful. It is worth asking what pre-existing injuries we add our insults to.

It’s an important thing to remember when you’re a satirist. Who is your target? Who do you want to hurt, and who might get hurt in the crossfire? Is it necessary to your point for your target to have sex with an offensive transphobic caricature? Is it necessary to your point to dredge up stereotypical slurs against one minority to lampoon bigotry against another? Is it necessary in making fun of racists and homophobes to replicate racist and homophobic imagery?

“Satire” is not a shield that protects its creators from crticism. “Liberalism” is not an inoculation that prevents its bearers from committing bigoted acts. Punching down is a problem. Splash damage is a problem. Not all slights are covered by “but look at the larger context,” not when your “larger context” conveniently omits the context of centuries of caricatures with hook noses or big lips or fishnet stockings.

And, it should go without saying, “criticism” doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun.

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5 Responses to Bigotry, Satire, and the Left

  1. Being both a student of humor, and a fan of Family Guy, I think you have badly misjudged the difference between “satire” and “parody”.
    Family Guy, and McFarlane’s other shows, are parodies about other TV shows, movies, music and current events. There is no attempt to give you things to think about later. That’s a goal of satire, not parody.

    Parody’s intent is to cause a rapid humorous reaction through mimicry and distortion of the original source. It doesn’t HAVE a larger context to look at. That’s why all the extreme stereotyping is fair game all the time. It’s not out to change the world, like satire is.

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    There is no attempt to give you things to think about later. That’s a goal of satire, not parody.

    Even as someone who doesn’t care for “Family Guy” these days, I think you’re selling the show short. Sure, there are parody episodes (the Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Bing Crosby/Bob Hope episodes come to mind), but the show frequently tackles social and political issues, from the ease with which voters are swayed by empty rhetoric to moral panic over teen sexuality to religion over and over and over. It’s not, by any means, a smart show, but it’s also not “Scary Movie 3” or anything.

    Parody’s intent is to cause a rapid humorous reaction through mimicry and distortion of the original source. It doesn’t HAVE a larger context to look at. That’s why all the extreme stereotyping is fair game all the time. It’s not out to change the world, like satire is.

    Everything has a larger context, and “parody” is no more a free pass to make bigotry “fair game” than satire is. I don’t think the line between parody and satire is quite as sharp or distinct as you make it out to be (Stephen Colbert satirizes the right wing by playing a parody of Bill O’Reilly, “Blazing Saddles” was a parody film that nonetheless satirized 1970s racial politics, I heard enough Rush Limbaugh in the ’90s to know that he played plenty of parody songs that played on the political issues of the time). But I also don’t think it really alters my point/analogy. Whether you’re looking to make people laugh or make them think or both, you need to have some awareness of your message, your targets (both intended and unintended), and the effect one will have on the other. Anything less is hacky status-quo-serving garbage.

  3. Ben says:

    Freedom of expression is incontestable. It needs no defense or explanation & those who would obstruct the freedom may be called any number of names, none of which improves on the fact that self-expression is a sacred right. But this sacred right is also nuanced. It is a right to be exercised with conscience. For every expression, there is an impression. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, I get the impression of an organization that is intolerant, crude, hateful: as backward as the backwardness it attempts to mock.

  4. Seth McFarlane is a Liberal? My, how liberal of him. I hope he didn’t go too much out of his way…I mean that I hope he didn’t go to a lot of trouble, that is, by being Liberal just for us folks out here. Because, you know, it’s hard work being a Liberal–I can imagine it’s quite ennervating deciding just exactly how Liberal is just right for so many different circumstances and occasions, and people and um, you know, political requirements. And, let’s face it, there’s plenty of times one doesn’t want to make a show of too much Liberalism, right? It must be so nice to find one’s Liberal self comfortably around other Liberals–and basking in the reflected Liberalism, compared to being a Liberal around, say, politically aware Blacks, Native Americans, Chicanos, and even working-class Whites, who sometimes have trouble telling a Liberal from a Conservative. Picky, picky, picky. I mean, here goes a nice Liberal, being careful to do them a favor, and showing nice Liberalism and all–and then they tackily (and quite thoughtlessly) bring up the sordid fact that Liberals and Conservatives are just the two heads of the same animal, and that only the culturally bamboozled and politically backward can’t see it. Not only that, they then bring up the fact that Liberals vote heartily for screwing the working class; bombing innocent colored folks in other countries, with few qualms, they add. (They just HAD to point that out, right?) So Seth’s a Liberal, huh? My, my, my how liberal of him!

  5. Pingback: Addendum | Dubito Ergo Sum

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