Turner Batdorf was one of my top American Studies students for the 2010-2011 year; he is a student in my AP European History course. One of the themes discussed in this course was that of religion and popular culture. Turner reviewed a number of academic articles on the dynamics of the American family and religion, while analyzing countless episodes of Family Guy in constructing this essay
The way the American family works and the typical values that are associated with various members of the family define not only what pop cultural portrays and mocks, but also the values influenced by Puritanism. But how does one possibly summarize the American family into simple roles for each individual and a set of specific values for the family to follow as a whole? Scholars of the typical American family, a middle class white family, have tried to define it, yet have always discovered that no family is the perfect model because every family is dysfunctional. While Puritanism describes the work ethic the father should possess to provide for his family and put a moral code into place for the family, not everyone is going to be able to follow that code. The Cosby Show, which portrays the “ideal family” consisting of smart, studious kids, a hard working father, a caring mother, and little to no problems involving drugs, alcohol, or violence is unrealistic. No family in America is like the Cosby’s because every family is dysfunctional. In his creation of Family Guy, Seth McFarlane “uses ‘uncomfortable humor’… by taking advantage of generalizations with stereotypes, race, and sex” (Employing Comedy: Family Guy). McFarlane is not afraid to show the flaws of the typical family, although sometimes he does in exaggeration. Ultimately, McFarlane tries to show how the family is, not how it should be, thus making the show directed toward the mockery of not only the typical middle class man, but also what he believes in.
One of Family Guy’s biggest targets is American Protestantism and the values that the average American calls American values, despite its Puritan origin. Family Guy’s approach to Protestantism is simple: They want to make God and Jesus look as silly and ridiculous as possible. Some people might say that this would drive away a large American audience, but in no way is that the case. Family Guy allows them to look at their own views and laugh at them from another perspective. While one person may have his own beliefs that define the way he lives his life, the show invokes humor by making the guy laugh and say, “Wow, that is horrible.” Though it may be looked at as “a light-hearted, yet potentially hurtful strategy” (Employing comedy: Family Guy), the show allows the viewer to not be offended by a lot of the humor because the characters are animated. While Peter may represent the average, stupid American, he is not real, and thus, his comments or actions cannot be taken personally, despite one not agreeing with what the show is saying.
American values obviously had to have an origin, as it is very improbable that the laws of our country do not originate around some random Moral Law. Therefore, when one looks at the most important documents of the United States, such as The Declaration or The Constitution, one sees that these documents make reference to a God, mainly because the majority of the nation’s founding fathers were wealthy Puritans. Therefore, the United States naturally adopted a Protestant value system. In their article, “American Moral Exceptionalism,” Uhlmann, Poehlman, and Bargh argue that, “one does not have to be an American Protestant to exhibit implicit responses consistent with traditional Puritan- Protestant values. One may only have to be an American” (Uhlmann, Poehlman, and Bargh). Because American values relate back to Puritanism, God and Jesus become easy targets for Family Guy.
On a consistent basis, Family Guy portrays God as a womanizer, a drunk, and someone not able to control his powers. For example, in “Blind Ambition,” God approaches a girl and lights her cigarette with his finger, to which he says, “Yeah. I got the magic fingers.” Then, God points and winks, setting her on fire. In response, God screams, “Jesus Christ!” and Jesus appears; God then says, “Quick, get in the Escalade; we’re out of here!” In another episode, “Death has a Shadow,” God is shown the audience at church. When the priest reads the story of Job, God responds by sighing and saying, “Oh crap, I hate when they tell this story.” While comments on You Tube would show that even Christians admit to their humor, a few parent organizations disagree. For example, “The Parents Television Council, a watchdog group founded by L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center, has been outspoken in his opposition to the portrayal of God and other religious figures on Family Guy. Several times, the PTC has deemed the show ‘The Worst Show of the Week’ specifically due to the portrayal of God in a gag or longer sequence” (God). While they were upset namely by the episode, “The Courtship of Stewie’s Father,” where God is shown in bed, about to have sex with a girl (God), the portrayal of God is very similar to the rest of the episodes.
Jesus, on the other hand, is portrayed as a magician. In “I Dream of Jesus,” Peter buddies up with Jesus, who is on Earth because he “visits every once in a while.” Upon first having dinner with the Griffins, Jesus says, “I’m actually glad you are all here tonight. I want to tell you that one of you will betray me… ha! Just kidding!” Peter then replies, “Haha, he is doing that thing he did in the storybook,” obviously showing Peter’s lack of religion. Throughout the episode Jesus walks on water, snaps his fingers to make ice cream sundaes appear, and, upon the request of Peter, makes his wife Lois’, breasts much bigger. He then reveals himself to be truly the Messiah, and goes off without Peter, to party and be a celebrity. While it is true that Peter is definitely not shown to be religious by his “storybook” remark, Jesus is a target for Family Guy because, as Stephen Prothero would argue, he is present in every American’s life, no matter what his or her religion is.
A theistic creation is also mocked in “Airport 07.” In the episode, Peter Griffin attempts to explain the origin of the Earth to his family. The show depicts a logical transition from lizard to dinosaur, to show evolution, and then proceeds to show a genie, emerge from the same water that the lizard came out of, and nod her head to create the rest of life, to show creationism. This is only after God creates the universe by lighting a fart, thus the “Big Bang”.
So what does this show about pop culture and our society as a whole? Although he claims that Seth McFarlane is an atheist, James Snare, from Hillis Bible Church, states in his article, “What should a Christian’s Response be to Pop Culture” that, “The irony is that their [Family Guy’s] mockery and satire has probably done more to bring Jesus and Christianity into the minds of Generation Y than most preachers in the world (Jesus has appeared in Family Guy in 19 episodes and that doesn’t include appearances made by God or other biblical characters). Generation Y is a generation that is deeply interested in spirituality yet many of its members have almost no experience with the Church, let alone any conception of who the biblical Jesus Christ is… If we as Christians remove ourselves from the pop culture discussion by only condemning portrayals of Christ like those mentioned above then the only conception of Christ that many members of Generation Y have are those which the likes of Family Guy shows them… if we fail to recognize the awesome opportunity that pop-culture depictions of Christ and Christianity are giving us to engage with a culture that ordinarily shirks at the name of Jesus, then we ignore Paul’s lesson at the Areopagus to engage a culture in a language they understand in order to preach to them a message they desperately need to hear” (Snare). While Snare may offer a good point on the positives that the humor has for Christianity and does agree that McFarlane “is not out to destroy Christianity” (Snare), it does not explain why Christians find the jokes humorous. One could argue, that for starters, Christians laughing at these jokes show that the public is generally accepting of jokes that target the beliefs of a large audience. While there may be a few groups that are very upset by the mockery of God, Jesus, or Christianity on Family Guy, there has been no effort to remove the show, nor has there been any shortage of the amount of puns intended toward God.
That being said, does this make America more or less Protestant? On one hand, one could agree with Uhlmann, Poehlman, and Bargh that “popular media designed to shock and titillate may not always reflect the average American’s explicit moral values” (Uhlmann, Poehlman, and Bargh 29). But one could easily argue that Family Guy shows America to be more Protestant, as jokes towards other religions are definitively used less frequently, mainly because people are nervous or uncomfortable about laughing at a group that they are not a part of because they do not want to offend someone. This relates a lot to the use of the word “Nigger.” A lot of times, it is white people who are against using the “N-word” in the classroom and the Blacks more for it, just like a the average Protestant American is okay about laughing at himself, but uneasy about laughing at jokes that target someone else of a different group. Therefore, the constant mockery of God displays that Family Guy is continuing its strategy of allowing people to laugh at themselves, and, thus, shows America to be truly Protestant.
Along with the element of religion, Family Guy depicts the societal norms and values of the typical middle-class man in Peter Griffin. As Family Guy takes on a different approach in portraying the family, one must question why so many people find it humorous. Do people laugh at the show’s constant mockery of minorities and social misfits, such as homosexuals, minority races, especially Blacks and Hispanics, and the mentally disabled, or is there a broader approach to what Family Guy is trying to appeal to in popular culture? More specifically, could it be that by making fun of minorities and social misfits, Family Guy is mocking the common man’s stereotypes and viewpoints of these groups? It is exactly through the creation of Peter Griffin that his stupidity allows us to laugh at the common man. For example, in the episode “Family Gay”, Peter is short on money, and thus signs up for experimental drugs. He receives the “gay gene” and ends up changing his clothes, the way he talks and walks, and in the process, invokes every stereotype that society has of the homosexual, White male. But, what is to be noted is that Family Guy is not making fun of gay people, but of Christians, who oppose the idea that there is a gay gene and believe that being homosexual is immoral. This precisely demonstrates that “Family Guy’s spontaneous and sometimes foolish attitude is effective because it targets a general audience to either laugh at themselves or laugh at another specific audience” (Employing Comedy: Family Guy). But this all generates around McFarlane’s idea to not portray the ideal American family but show how the common, White American thinks, and, more importantly, his faults.
There is no doubt that Peter is ignorant, socially unacceptable, and often, acts in ways that would peg him as a bad father. In fact, he is either rude or acts inappropriately to all of his children. For example, in “And the Weiner is,” Peter becomes very self-conscious and basically disowns his oldest son, Chris, because Chris has a larger penis than Peter. On another occasion (“Blind Ambition”), Peter becomes temporarily blind and waltzes into Chris’ bedroom, thinking it his own, climbs into bed with Chris, and mutters, “That’s right Lois, I’m your daddy. Shush, shush. Don’t talk Lois. Don’t talk. Just let me do all the work. Feel my warm breath on the nape of your neck, my hands on your big, soft boobs, running down your man-like chest… Holy crap, it’s Chris!” Peter, embarrassed, leaves the room, and is heard in the next room, saying “Honey, are you awake?” and is responded to by his other son, Stewie, an infant, yelling, “What the Deuce?”
This is also not the only time Peter mistreats Stewie. While wishing he was a mother, fat Peter caresses Stewie in his arms and breast-feeds him until Stewie realizes that there is one of Peter’s chest hairs in his mouth (“I am Peter, Here me Roar”). But, Chris and Stewie do not even get the worst of Peter’s immature behavior towards his kids. Meg, his daughter is constantly the receiver of the harshest puns. Primarily, one of Peter’s catchphrases on the show is, “Shut Up, Meg!” Also, Peter ravages Meg with disgusting behavior, like in “The Tan Aquatic with Steve Zissou”, where Peter runs around the kitchen after Meg farting in her face and laughing, until she falls on the floor and vomits, to which Peter replies, “Oh, not in the kitchen, Meg!”
But, when looking at the character of Peter Griffin, it is important to note that he has good intentions, and, while stupid, attempts to do the right thing on a daily basis. In all the examples sited, Peter has no intention of harming his children. He lacks basic common sense and maturity, and thus, finds humor in things like farts, wants to be a loving mother, and only “molests” his children as a result of his blindness. He feels threatened by Chris’ larger penis because he wants to feel like the man of the house, the provider just like middle class family ideology would dictate that the man is supposed to be the provider. But, while viewers find Peter’s worst moments to be the most humorous, and thus, the writers exaggerate the flaws of Peter and make them seen by the view more regularly, Peter still displays qualities that society would find admirable. A great example is seen in the first episode of the series, “Death Has a Shadow”. The episode begins with Peter wanting to go to a stag party that his wife, Lois, is opposed to because of his irresponsibility when there is drinking taking place. She reminds him of the time he got drunk of the communion wine and said, “Whoa, is this really the blood of Christ? He must have been wasted twenty-four hours a day, huh?”, the time he got drunk off of butter-rum ice cream and passed out, and the time he got drunk at the movie Philadelphia and said, “I got it, that’s is the guy from Big. Tom Hanks, I love this guy. Everything he says is a stitch. (Tom Hanks: I have Aids) Haha!”. But Peter persists, saying authoritatively, “As the father of this household, I demand you to give me permission to go to the stag party.” “The oxymoronic nature of this statement is the “demand for permission” between two mutually accepting married people (Employing Comedy: Family Guy), and shows that while being the man of the house, Peter still has respect for his wife (In fact, the only time Peter ever cheats on Lois is after everyone thinks she is dead). But, Peter ends up going to the stag party, promising not to drink, and then under the poor influence of his friends, drinks “twenty-six beers, a new family record, thus raising the bar for his son, Chris.” Peter loses his job as a result and begins to worry about how he will tell his wife. He does this because Peter, being a good father and husband, wants to provide for his family. He invokes his welfare and begins to receive an inordinate amount of money from the government, an obvious mistake. But, he remains mute on the subject, buying excessive material gifts for his family until his wife becomes extremely angry with him. After realizing his mistake, Peter attempts to receive forgiveness from the both government and his wife, and states, “I cheated the government, and worst of all, I lied to my wife, and she deserves better”, showing that Peter does possess genuinely good qualities and intentions, despite his incompetence.
Peter is not a racist, as seen in his friendship with Cleveland, a Black man and does not discriminate against the handicapped, as seen in his friendship with Joe. He is against adultery and does not have any resentment towards upper class people despite his desire to be one. This is seen in his numerous attempts to befriend Lois’s rich father. Despite his lack of intelligence and bad decision-making, it is next to impossible for someone to find Peter Griffin, the exaggerated depiction of the flawed, middle class American, to be completely immoral.
That being said, how does Peter fit into the role of the father according to the scholars of the family? Eggebeen and Knoester claim in their article, “Does Fatherhood Matter to Men”, that men who are fathers are not only more dedicated to the work place, but also spend less hours working (Eggebeen and Knoester 384). If this is true of the typical middle class father, it is much easier to place Peter Griffin in the category of good fathers. There is no question that Peter wants to be a provider; after getting fired in “Death has a Shadow”, Peter tries numerous jobs, although failing in a lot of them. But, does that make him a bad father? No, it only displays his inabilities. In at least one episode, Peter attempts to bond with each of his children, including Meg, a child who a lot of viewers assume he hates. Additionally, upon becoming rich, he buys whatever his children want, all as a way of Peter trying to show his love. There may not be a great example of the Protestant work ethic in Peter, but he does attempt to provide for his family. He also revolves his goals around consumerism, just Family Guy is trying to depict of the typical American. But Peter fails is in his lack of control and minimal change upon becoming a father. Eggebeen and Knoester hypothesize that fatherhood should make a man reduce his risky behavior, such as a drinking, drug use, and smoking. As seen in the example from “Death has a Shadow”, Peter drinks a lot (twenty-six beers), and Peter could be setting a bad influence for his children, especially his sons. Stewie, is shown to have gotten drunk on occasion and there is an episode devoted to Chris doing a new drug the kids are using called “toad.” But, again, what rationalizes Peter is that he does try to think about his family, except that it comes after he has done something stupid. In “Death has a Shadow”, Peter sleeps on the kitchen table after the stag party, to avoid waking up his wife. And in the instance of Chris, Peter works hard to stop the use of “toad,” not only within his household, but also in the school itself. While his lack of social skills may get the best of him and determine how he treats his children, Peter’s fatherly work ethic, his will to provide for his family, and his respect for doing the right thing display that he is a good replication of the American value driven father.
For me, Family Guy, simply put, is humorous; I watch Family Guy because I find it funny. While I do agree that sentiment behind the humor is sometimes inappropriate, and I do often wonder why I am laughing at puns that are degrading to not only other people, but also me, I applaud what Seth McFarlane has attempted to put forward in the making of his show. Family Guy makes fun of me, the average American in many ways. As a Christian, I am targeted with the God and Jesus puns; my favorite music has been targeted, like when a character gave a Maroon 5 record to Meg and told her that “she would like it because he knew that she liked terrible music”; and above all else, I can find myself relating to the characters, especially Peter, even though he is simple-minded, to say the least. While Peter is immature, he makes up for his mistakes with a genuine care for his family, proving him to actually be a “Family Guy”. While the theme song is ironic, singing, “What ever happened to those good old fashioned values on which we used to rely?” and, yet, still displays excessive amounts of violence and sex, there is definitely a sense of values underlying in the Griffin family, namely those that actually do relate back to Protestantism. While the show is inappropriate, I must give credit to McFarlane, as he succeeded in creating the perfectly dysfunctional and highly immoral, Protestant value driven family.