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TelevIsm: Family Guy's Racist Emmy Campaign

Ugh. Family Guy. It's a terrible, terrible show in my opinion. I still watch it regularly, out of long-held habit. But it's just. It's lazy, it's aesthetically not pleasing. It's not very funny. And it's offensive on an insistent, regular basis.

But for some reason, folks really like it, and Seth MacFarlane, its creator, seems particularly proud of it. It's currently in the midst of an Emmy campaign, and it is promoting itself by mocking Precious:

The image above is of two promotional images with an eggshell background. On the right is the poster for Precious, which features Gaborey Sidibe walking, wearing a leather jacket and looking sullen. An imprint of butterfly wings are behind her, and an imprint of a crown is on her head. On the left is the insert for Family Guy, which features Peter Griffin also walking, wearing a leather jacket and looking sullen, with the butterfly behind him and the crown above him. I found it on ONTD (a site I don't recommend, by the way).

This is racist on more than one axis.

First, it is appropriation. This image represents not only cinematic but also written literature made by and about black folks, particularly black women. This is a film starring black women, written and directed by black men, produced and promoted most by a black woman, based on a novel by a black woman.

But here, it's being used to promote a show about white people, made by a white man, that has a rather checkered history regarding race. It's a reference, yeah. Yeah, it's a pop culture show that riffs on cultural happening regularly, but it's still…appropriation.

If it were just this, I probably would have sighed, rolled my eyes, and gone on to the next one. But the problems, they do not stop there.

The text below the main image says "vote for us or you're racist."

This is a problem.

Awards shows are problematic and political, but they reflect the popular valuation of works of art. Family Guy here is equating the artistic value of Precious with white guilt. They are undermining its individual meaning to its viewers, the emotional and intellectual response they had to a challenging movie. Family Guy, here, is saying that people only paid attention to this work by and about African-Americans because they didn't want to appear racist.

Beyond devaluing and degrading the considerable accomplishments of those involved in the production and promotion of this film, it's also saying something about the people who made Precious a success. It's saying that they are all white. Since it's saying that response to it is based in white guilt, it's saying that those championing it are necessarily white. While Hollywood is largely a white-run environment, this is just not true. It's erasing folks like Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who got this movie into production and got it the attention that eventually made it an Oscar winner. [ETA: I recommend checking out the comments for lovely fellow Bitch blogger Snarky's Machine, who has given some much needed anti-racist perspective on the issue of white guilt and Precious.]

The inside content of this insert is similarly distasteful:

The "Celebrating Diversity" theme is carried on inside with a list of all writers on the animated show grouped by ethnicity/sexual orientation: "Family Guy - written by 8 WASPS, 6 Jews, 2 Asian and 1 Gay."

By reducing its writing staff to their cultural/racial/sexual identities, the show is saying that diversity is silly. This passage uses the dehumanizing trend of cutting down people to an aspect of their identity by using adjectives–"WASPS" "Jews" "Asian" "Gay"–as nouns. Through this construction, the passage is reductively inferring that the (by contrast) much less white people who made Precious are successful or worthy of critical attention only because of their race. It's similar to the tired argument that folks in affirmative action programs haven't earned their success–that they're only considered worthy because of their race.

Beyond this, it's a not-so-subtle boast about their erasure of many different kinds of people. They're bragging about being sexist and racist while their whole writing staff has male privilege and at least half their writing staff has white privilege (and they are presumably all cisgendered as well).

I understand that it's making a joke, riffing on pop-culture, etc. But just because it's a cartoon doesn't make it suddenly OK. Just because it's a joke doesn't mean that it's free from critique. Family Guy has a serious, problematic history of racism, sexism, cissexism, and ableism–they consistently degrade and dehumanize oppressed people. This is just one instance of how they accomplish this.

Thanks so much to my Deeply Problematic mod Faye for helping me out on the penultimate two paragraphs!

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Comments

36 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Family Guy's attempt at

Family Guy's attempt at astute cultural criticism fails because it is not theirs to make. There is a legitimate argument to be made regarding the attraction of white folks to poverty "pr0n" showcasing black lives, which privileges Precious over a movie like say Love Jones (which depicts black love in a healthy, loving and complex fashion). However, FG's can take no stand on the issue given their own extensive problematic relationship to -isms.

The fact that in 2009 we have Precious - a throw back - rather than Love Jones is pretty telling and definitely is worth analysis, but of course the creators of FG aren't the right folks for that job.

This was a great entry. Thank you!

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

There is a legitimate

There is a legitimate argument to be made regarding the attraction of white folks to poverty "pr0n" showcasing black lives, which privileges Precious over a movie like say Love Jones (which depicts black love in a healthy, loving and complex fashion).

Exactly! I am not a movie expert like you so I couldn't express this, but I am nodding my head. Thanks for filling in those blanks for me. I am looking so forward to more of your brilliant analysis!

You nailed it. I had a

You nailed it. I had a visceral reaction to the imagery, but couldn't really articulate what specifically was disturbing. Your entry parsed out exactly why this is problematic, both by bringing in the way in which award shows themselves are political and how the FG seeks to exploit the award show desire to be "important".

I'm fairly certain you and I gave far more thought as to the use of the imagery than FG probably did. This parody is a real hard working piece of problematic content. There are so many paths of analysis to choose.

Ace topic.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Exactly -- I have serious

Exactly -- I have serious issues with the "poverty porn" aspect of Precious and the discourse that surrounded the actresses after the release of the film.

Family Guy appeals to the lowest common denominator - in the "spirit" of South Park it seeks to satirize things it doesn't understand and reduces it pure, idiotic, offensiveness.

I haven't actually seen

I haven't actually seen Precious - I rarely see movies these days, though I used to be obsessed with them. I feel like it's a muscle that's atrophied, the ability to concentrate on a film and understand it without feeling restrained by its time-limited scope.

I'm really interested to see where Sidibe's career goes - I find her to be quite charismatic. There is much about her that I find very interesting and very encouraging - she's faced so much bigotry, but much of her support is also problematic and strikes me as condescending.

I think Family Guy is trying to do what South Park does in a much more intelligent (though often just as/more offensive) fashion. I'm actually working on a direct comparison between SP and FG, so I hope you'll stop by my next post and continue this conversation there...

One quick linguistic note - idiotic is an ableist slur so it's probably best to avoid. I know you didn't mean anything, just an FYI. Here's some further reading:

http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/11/ableist-word-profile-idiot/

Wow, I had no idea that word

Wow, I had no idea that word came with such connotations - thanks for sharing the link. Mayhaps it's better to stick with the Bitch-approved phrase "douchebag"?

At any rate, I look forward to your next post on SP and FG.

Happy to help! :) Beyond

Happy to help! :) Beyond "douchebag", I also like "crappy" "asinine" and "jackass". You might check out the rest of that series for some other words that you wouldn't think to think were ableist, like moron or crazy. Privilege winds into language in so many different, nefarious ways.

I'd agree, but add that it

I'd agree, but add that it fails as cultural criticism because it just isn't that astute. The idea that Precious was popular and critically acclaimed as a result of white guilt is indeed quite a reductive and selective understanding of it as a cultural phenomenon. It's a reading that feels like it stems less from a scathing reading of culture and more from the long tradition of white men being threaten by the advancement of anything not associated with white men. Family Guy reminds me a little of Bill Maher. Bill built this whole career on pointing out how political correctness was silly, and for its time, that was an astute cultural criticism. But overtime, it became clear that being "politically incorrect" was a lot like being an old fashioned bigot. I guess I'm arguing that context matters and sometimes when you try to go against the grain of what you imagine to be mainstream liberalness, you end up looking like a conservative retrograde douche-monger. And, by "you" I mean Family Guy.

I'd agree, but add that it

I'd agree, but add that it fails as cultural criticism because it just isn't that astute. The idea that Precious was popular and critically acclaimed as a result of white guilt is indeed quite a reductive and selective understanding of it as a cultural phenomenon.

I agree with the caveat being the argument is astute when made by someone with lived experiences. Precious was not a new take on Black life and for the most part it adheres (the film) fairly well to the tropes. I still am not sure why it need to be made, given this is not a portrayal of black life unfamiliar to audiences. So from my perspective, it is a film for white audiences, regardless of who made it. There's nothing selective or reductive about making an argument that feels uncomfortable to those who don't share the same opinion (which is fine, btw)

that said, in any case, it wasn't FG's to make.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Family Guy's lived experience

Bearing in mind that we shouldn’t take this too far afield…If lived experience matters, I’d argue Family Guys writers’ are trying to make a critique based on their lived experience as makers of cultural products that are judged “important” or “unimportant.” For example, perhaps it might have been an astute cultural criticism for Family Guy to point out how certain forms of entertainment are deemed more worthy of praise and awards. All things being equal, they might have joked about how a drama like Precious, although problematic in some senses, can been seen as "more important" than a comedy like Family Guy. It's a tricky matter because you would need to make clear to your audience that you're critiquing the way in which culture receives and views cultural products, and that you’re not critiquing how well the product reflects certain experiences…that you can’t understand because you haven’t lived them. If that makes sense.

In any event, I sense we’re all in agreement that Family Guy simply got it wrong. Their take is that white audiences are acting like they enjoyed Precious in order to seem not racist. We’re all arguing that white audiences genuinely liked Precious, no acting about it, because the story fits comfortably with ways white people see poor black communities. So, it reveals this huge blind spot that the writers of Family Guy have…and would have needed to examine a little better if they were going to make an astute cultural criticism.

If lived experience matters,

If lived experience matters, I’d argue Family Guys writers’ are trying to make a critique based on their lived experience as makers of cultural products that are judged “important” or “unimportant.”

I disagree on a couple of levels. First, I don't see that FG has any kind of sense of itself as unimportant. Though it was at one point cancelled, that was many years ago, and their grandiose self-congratulation has only grown since it was resurrected. This is a show that rose from the grave, that dominates Fox, that set off protests around the world. Second, this is racialized from beginning to end - from the way Peter is dressed (did you notice the chain around his neck, not present in Sidibe's outfit?) to the description of the writing staff.

For example, perhaps it might have been an astute cultural criticism for Family Guy to point out how certain forms of entertainment are deemed more worthy of praise and awards. All things being equal, they might have joked about how a drama like Precious, although problematic in some senses, can been seen as "more important" than a comedy like Family Guy

Is there evidence that this is what they're doing? I'm not sure what this hypothetical argument has to do with the actual racism going on. To me, there's nothing to indicate that they're making fun of Precious because it's a drama. They're making fun of it being made by black people and championing their own whiteness.

"...which privileges

"...which privileges Precious over a movie like say Love Jones..."

Suggesting that certain forms of art and expression are greater or lesser than other forms of art and expression is a folly that leads us down a road of censorship. As a military veteran, woman, and racial minority I find it disgusting to hold certain forms of expression in high regard while spitting down at others. Just because a movie has a meaning for you does not mean that particular form of expression is somehow more valid than any other. You must remember that unpopular ideas are the ones that need protection, and also that the same rights that allow us women the rights to express ourselves and that allow us minorities the rights to express ourselves is the same right that we must grant to white men. To say otherwise is racist, sexist and hypocritical.

What's the deal with...

the Family Guy insert also saying "based on the novel Push by Sapphire?" It reinforces the implication you discuss that Precious only won awards due to white guilt by reading, "Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, vote for us or you're racist." I don't buy that it was necessary for people to get the reference, considering the blatant similarity to the poster.
Also, while parody is protected, I'm not sure that saying a show is based on an existing, unrelated book is legal...

Thanks for pointing that out...

I completely missed that! I guess it's a way to marginalize and mock the book, specifically, too?

Good spotting, Thebadassmuppet!

I missed it on my first look too and then I got it on the doubletake. RMJ, I agree, I think it's mocking not only the book but the way the book tied into the movie. I remember post-Oscars there was a lot of mockery over the way that the movie title was always spoken as "Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire". I work in marketing myself, and I'm sure that that specific phrase was contractually obligated somewhere, and was probably negotiated by author, agent or publisher during the rights deal. Which, frankly, I feel was smart on their part - since the movie wound up with a different title than the book (unlike, say, Eat Pray Love), it's a persistent link back that keeps the book in the minds of viewers. IMO the way they sold the book-movie link was no different than Coke cups on American Idol or Sarah Jessica Parker shilling for Manolo Blahniks in the SATC franchise. However, to me it seemed like the mockery was trying to make the title styling sound grubby and hungry. Like, for some reason, Sapphire shouldn't be allowed to share in the success of the movie based on the book she wrote, and that the continual presence of the phrase at all was supposed to be clunky and not savvy.

Like, for some reason,

Like, for some reason, Sapphire shouldn't be allowed to share in the success of the movie based on the book she wrote, and that the continual presence of the phrase at all was supposed to be clunky and not savvy.

Nailed it. Thank you.

Taking advantage of a popular movie

Family Guy is a wildly popular T.V. show and I'm not sure why. I use to watch the series years ago, but I've long since stopped. It's an immature, crude show that plays off of cheap shock value. I find the jokes easy and simple and that's it. I agree with the point calling this campaign appropriation, which it is, making the creators seem lazy. Calling the writers/animators racist and saying they think "diversity is silly" is giving these people too much credit. They are obviously trying to shock the viewer, make her/him sit back and gasp and yell a big "oh no they did not!" The campaign is being facetious with a popular and strong movie. I find the humor distasteful and just immature and becuase of the shows very high immaturity level I believe we shouldn't give it this much attention or credit. Family Guy deserves critiques like any other show but I'm going to just sit back, roll my eyes, and relax on this one.

That's the problem, though -

That's the problem, though - it's a huge show that influences a lot of people. One racist joke on the show is not just one racist joke on the show. It's going to be parroted and repeated by people who aren't thinking critically or are also racist.

Understood. However.

Calling the writers/animators racist and saying they think "diversity is silly" is giving these people too much credit.

I actually don't think effort or thought has to go into being racist. Often, racism seems to be the result of *not* analyzing what one says or does enough, which is probably the case with these writers and animators.

This comment sounds like a

This comment sounds like a reboot of the "Moff's Law" franchise. While it's entirely your prerogative to "sit back, roll my eyes, and relax on this one" given what we know about FG I don't believe it deserves any more free passes. It is willfully hurtful, racist, transphobic, ableist, sexist and homophobic. Every time it breathes or moves it deserves to be smacked down.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Yes it's immature, but...

Just wanted to chime in here and agree with RMJ (and super commenters snarkysmachine and thebadassmuppet) that while I agree many of your observations of Family Guy (it's lazy, offensive, immature, etc.) that doesn't mean we should relax and give the show a pass. It's watched by millions of viewers each week, and someone has to stay vigilant and call racist, offensive bullshit when she sees it! (Thanks RMJ for being that bullshit-caller!)

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

The people who vote for the

The people who vote for the oscars and emmys I assure you are majority white. I can also assure you that the writing staff on family guy were not addressing the public as a whole. Their critique was of of the awards show electoral system, which favors media darlings, seemingly independent and avant-garde productions, with "underground buzz" around them. This is coupled with the Hollywood scene being made up of the elite who are obsessed with appearing to be culturally sensitive, worldly, and above all, not racist. Their criticism is apt, and you misunderstand the audience they are addressing.

I agree with you to some

I agree with you to some extent and also partially read the intent of the satire in that way. But, the image remains a racist one, regardless of their intended critique. For me, this is where the idea of a blind spot comes into play. Their intended audience may be the elite group of people who give awards, but in reality it is also the black artists who they are mocking for creating Precious, the people of color and women who may have life experiences like the Precious character, and the white people who may value, at that very least, that such stories are told. What I'm suggesting is that I've watched enough Family Guy to imagine that I "get" the show's intention quite well, but the show's intention is one dimension. It's quite a problematic example of privilege to believe that your right to stick it to the award show elite should be made at the expense of women of color. For me as a fan of the show, I'm going to insist I have it both ways.

I'd agree, but add that it

I'd agree, but add that it fails as cultural criticism because it just isn't that astute. The idea that Precious was popular and critically acclaimed as a result of white guilt is indeed quite a reductive and selective understanding of it as a cultural phenomenon.

Really, then why was it popular? By the way it wasn't a commercial success, particularly in the black community, so I'm not sure what your point is. Despite not being a monolith, the community damn sure seemed to vote with its wallet as it relates to this film and DIDN'T SUPPORT IT. Tyler Perry's other films - "Why Did I Get Married" and such are far more lucrative. Do you seriously believe black folks are eager to spent money seeing another depiction of themselves as depraved monsters. White people went to see the film.

Seriously? Your argument makes absolutely no sense.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Thanks so much for bringing

Thanks so much for bringing this point - unfortunately not considered in my OP - to the comments! I've edited the text to direct future readers to your comments - hope that's okay! :)

I do think there are

I do think there are instances where "the black community" adopts an activist approach to pursuits such as supporting films/TV shows by and about Black folks - "Why Did I Get Married" and "Boondocks" seems to be examples. That said the idea of "broccoli" entertainment seems to be really more the domain of those possessing race/class privilege.

And I definitely agree with the notion that FG was speaking directly to Emmy voters without a particular interest in what viewers of the program - whom they often show contempt for - might feel in regard to their misappropriation of Precious imagery.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Not sure I agree

By reducing its writing staff to their cultural/racial/sexual identities, the show is saying that diversity is silly. This passage uses the dehumanizing trend of cutting down people to an aspect of their identity by using adjectives–“WASPS” “Jews” “Asian” “Gay”–as nouns. Through this construction, the passage is reductively inferring that the (by contrast) much less white people who made Precious are successful or worthy of critical attention only because of their race.

I don't know. While I'm no huge fan of Family Guy (believe me), the admission that the majority of its staff is privileged seems like a caveat of some sort: an acknowledgment that no one on its staff is black, and thus "vote for us or you're racist" is obviously a joke within the context of appropriating an image from the Precious poster. I understand that the ad can be read as hideously offensive -- and certainly embrace the dialogue resulting from that reading -- but at the risk of being a pop culture apologist, propose another interpretation: that the joke here is simply that Family Guy is the product of privilege, by mostly white people and about mostly white people.

Also, like it or not, I have to agree with the commenter who noted that the academies do tend to favor projects that have an aura of otherness to them. Maybe it's only to defend themselves against accusations of racism/sexism/etc. Or maybe it's because they see the merit in art that exposes the majority to the experiences of the minority, and want to reward the courage of those who create and promote these works against all the commercial odds. Art's subjective -- it's difficult to say whether a work merits the attention it receives, and even more difficult when you try to account for the ways privilege works for or against your reception of that work. My point is that I do think there's a joke there. Maybe this isn't the right joke, but there is humor to be found in how the self-aware, privileged majority attempt to assuage their guilt.

It most definitely is a joke.

I don't think that anyone, least of all me, is denying that this is a joke, that it's intended to be humorous. Humor and racism are not mutually exclusive.

the joke here is simply that Family Guy is the product of privilege, by mostly white people and about mostly white people...

So, why is that a joke? How are they joking at their own expense? What about the imagery conveys this joke?

Maybe this isn't the right joke, but there is humor to be found in how the self-aware, privileged majority attempt to assuage their guilt.

Sure, but it needs to come from someone who experiences the oppression at hand or is regularly and thoughtfully critical of privilege. Family Guy is neither of these things, and have proven themselves to be quite sexist and racist in the past. So I'm not inclined to trust them or give them the benefit of a generous interpretation, you know?

I think they're joking at

I think they're joking at their own expense with the image of a white man wearing angel wings bearing the logline "Vote for us or you're racist." That is the joke. What I was trying to assert in my original comment is that I don't think it's necessarily racist -- to see it that way requires a much deeper reading than I believe is warranted. I agree that Family Guy is not regularly or thoughtfully critical of privilege but disagree that that disqualifies them from making a joke about it, and I appreciate this post because I think it's worth examining where we believe the line in the sand is drawn when it comes to humor of this nature. I guess I just draw it somewhere else. :)

Is anything that is made by

Is anything that is made by black people free from criticism, based on your rules of appropriation? That's convenient. Up until that, I thought you just didn't like the joke, now I know that You just have an enormous amount of rules for engaging in any sort of cultural dialogue, esp. jokes.
So based on our racial and gender identities, certain things are off limits?

Is anything that is made by

Is anything that is made by black people free from criticism, based on your rules of appropriation?

If they're joking about being black? Yeah. That is exactly what I am saying. Other people are free to critique it, but my white-privileged ass is not going to tell people of color how to talk about their oppression.

You just have an enormous amount of rules for engaging in any sort of cultural dialogue, esp. jokes.

Uh, yes? Privileged people have a history of killing those who do not share their privilege - a history that allows even those of us who don't personally do any violence to enjoy its benefits. When we make jokes about the people whose bodies they have stepped all over, we need to be pretty fucking careful, or it's just more fucking violence.

Is anything that is made by

Is anything that is made by black people free from criticism, based on your rules of appropriation? That's convenient. Up until that, I thought you just didn't like the joke, now I know that You just have an enormous amount of rules for engaging in any sort of cultural dialogue, esp. jokes.
So based on our racial and gender identities, certain things are off limits?

Pop culture, regardless of who it's made for or by should be critiqued in order to examine its messaging. And if that messaging is problematic, it should be called out. The only "rule" as far as critiquing pop culture is that one should be aware of the way their own privileges may inform their relationship to the material.

I am a POC. I'm also a bunch of other things. I am female. I am upper middle class, I am able bodied. I am cisgendered. These various identities affect what elements I notice in the pop culture I consume. It's not up to those who are oppressed in the areas where I am privileged to hand me a guide book as it relates to unpacking my privilege. It is up to me to actively unpack my own and to be very clear when I choose to critique products which have problematic elements directed towards -isms I don't have that I am honest about my own privilege and clear that I am NOT an authority. Which is exactly what RMJ has done and beautifully, I might add.

"In real life as in Grand Opera, Arias only make hopeless situations worse." - Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Agreed. It's the worst show

Agreed. It's the worst show on TV, but please please please do yourself a favor and stop watching it. I don't say this as a Family Guy apologist, but as a detractor. Don't give these assholes any more ratings. If you value marginalized groups in society in any capacity whatsoever, then stop watching this show; it really sucks. Thanks for the post btw.

Y'all are wrong, sorry

Fucking fags! Family Guy is the best show on this Goddamned earth!

Well, I'm afraid your

Well, I'm afraid your statement is just too powerful for us to even argue with! Calling people "fags" just totally shuts them up, negating every valid and intelligent point they just made-- thus making you truly look superior, doesn't it? Also, the fact that you don't explain exactly why you're right, but you act like your opinion is law... Sheer brilliance!

Congratulations, sir. You clearly won the argument here... And made yourself look like a complete uneducated jack-ass in the process. Judging by your response, I think you're a little young for Family Guy, the internet, and "Precious"/"Push". Also, it's WAY past your bed-time.

You guys should really get a sense of humor...

This poster made my day back in the day. Keep up the good work Seth!