Family Guy and American Dad: equal opportunities offenders?

Family Guy and American Dad are well-known US sitcoms that arouse controversy for their stereotypes of Asians, blacks, gays, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, and so on.

The creator, Seth MacFarlane, defends this as equal opportunities offending: any group can be laughed at.

Asian_MathThere is some truth here but it misses the key problem: these sitcoms are not equal opportunities stereotypers. Asians, blacks, gays and so on usually get depicted in the same, stereotyped ways. By contrast, White Americans get depicted in great variety – unless they’re gay, Jewish or Italian-American, in which case the predictable stereotypes usually surface.

That’s a problem.

For example, each character in the main American Dad family has a separate, clear personality. But the two gay men over the road, Greg and Terry, are virtually identical: they are both newsreaders, they are both exceptionally camp, and … that’s about it. There is not much more to their personality than this. It’s as if the scriptwriters don’t know enough about gay people to portray them in any other way. And the same applies to almost every gay male who appears, even fleetingly, in American Dad and Family Guy.

Francine, Greg and Terry ... or is it Francine, Terry and Greg?

Francine, Greg and Terry … or is it Francine, Terry and Greg?

(This is also true of Little Britain, where one of the main writers is actually gay. That doesn’t excuse lazy stereotyping! The saving grace of Little Britain is that Daffyd Thomas, ‘the only gay in the village’, turns out not to have had any gay experiences and might even be disgusted by homosexuality. To me, that’s comedy genius, like the final episode of South Park series 1, where Cartman is so full of bile that when he’s playing with his teddy bears and doing their voices, one of them even insults him, which angers him.)

There are some exceptions to American Dad and Family Guy stereotyping. For example, in American Dad, Principal Lewis and Snot have far more personality than most of the two shows’ other black and Jewish characters, respectively. But these are the exceptions.

Such stereotyping isn’t necessarily a problem. Consider the cyclist who keeps answering questions by saying that what he’s doing is ‘a great way to stay in shape’ (in ‘Peter’s Daughter’, Family Guy season 6 episode 7). This is a nice parody which doesn’t do any harm.

Also unproblematic are stereotypes of British people. As on The Simpsons, Brits are usually portrayed as having bad teeth and weird accents. I’m a Brit with decent teeth and a nice accent, but I have no problem with the above stereotype, which can be extremely funny (as in Chap of the Manor, the spoof British version of Family Guy in ‘Viewer Mail 2’, series 10 episode 22).

But I do have a problem with virtually every Muslim-American or Arab being portrayed as a terrorist (e.g. in ‘Turban Cowboy’, series 11 episode 15). Still, even that is not my main gripe, and it’s been dealt with by others (e.g. about racial stereotypes and disabled stereotypes).

I also want to leave aside the question of whether these stereotypes are actually poking fun at white Americans who don’t fit into the above categories. That is sometimes the case, as with the caption ‘White guys: scared of every race’ (in ‘Save the Clam’, Family Guy series 11 episode 19). But even if this is always the case – which I doubt – then it again implies that the writers are writing for and about white Americans.

And that is a problem. I suspect that most writers on Family Guy and American Dad are sub-consciously thinking ‘what can we write that will make white Americans laugh?’ And sometimes the answer is ‘let’s show that Mexicans are lazy.’ Perhaps many white Americans know so little about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that such jokes get a quick and easy laugh. But compare the way that Arrested Development deals with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans: not exactly perfect, but much richer and more diverse in the characters and personalities. Or consider Key and Peele on white-sounding black men, which has a subtlety to it that usually eludes American Dad and Family Guy, where almost every Italian-American man is the same, almost every black woman is the same, almost every gay man is the same, and so on.

I still enjoy American Dad and Family Guy hugely, and I laugh at some of the jokes based on stereotypes: hell, I’m a bad man. And hell is where I’m heading, into the special section for self-righteous hypocrites.

But my point remains: we can’t keep defending these shows by describing them as equal opportunity offenders. We also need to see that they are unequal opportunity stereotypers.