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.
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