I like cartoons, and watch several less-than-feminist animated series, but as far as Family Guy goes, I watched my last episode years ago, fed up with its recycled gags and the way it confused political incorrectness with edgy humor (has somone already made the joke "So crass, so old" about Fox's new "So brash, so bold"? Probably?). But the show, and creator Seth MacFarlane's spinoff shows The Cleveland Show and American Dad are, incredibly, still airing. Of course, to sustain the same offensive jokes over the course of three very similar shows and numerous seasons, its creators have to devise punchlines that are equal parts lazy and offensive, and most recently, at the expense of trans women in Sunday's episode, "Quagmire's Dad." Creator Seth MacFarlane prefaced the episode (which is on the Internet elsewhere, feel free to Google it yourself) when he responded to AfterElton.com about the show's gay jokes:
You have … the [gay] news anchor partners on American Dad, you have Bruce the performance artist on Family Guy, and you have my own personal abhorrence for Prop 8. That always distresses me when I hear that the gay community is upset with us, because that's one group of people I hope would know we're on their side. … I can safely say that the transsexual community will be very, very happy with the "Quagmire" episode that we have coming up in a couple of months. It's probably the most sympathetic portrayal of a transsexual character that has ever been on television, dare I say.
Ever been on television? Dare you say indeed. That's a pretty hefty wager, especially for a show that has garnered popularity based on its controversial punchlines, or considering that just a few months prior, a transmisogynist plot was featured onThe Cleveland Show. Well, how did the episode stack up against MacFarlane's claim? Quagmire's dad Dan is a decorated military veteran. Given Quagmire's womanizing, everyone expects him to be the epitome of masculinity. It turns out he's rather effeminate, and while some folks assume he's gay (cue dick'n'balls jokes!), Dan announces that he's "a woman trapped in a man's body" and that he plans on having sexual reassignment surgery there in Quahog and whose chosen name is Ida. There's much attention to the surgery, from a blood-covered surgeon, to Peter asking Ida if she misses her penis and what her breasts are made out of at the dinner table, with no one but Quagmire objecting (out of discomfort). To the show's credit, it makes the distinction (that is, Quagmire attempts to make the distinction to a disbelieving Lois and Peter) that a gay man is different than a transgender woman. Ida never apologizes for who she is, and she tells her son she would be miserable should she continue to live as a man.
Unfortunately, this ends up being the catalyst for the worst part of the episode, when Ida sleeps with Brian Griffin, the anthropomorphic family dog (why it's Brian and not one of the show's human characters is another issue). Upon returning home and informing his family about meeting his possible soul mate, Brian is informed by Stewie that he slept with a trans woman–that is, after some more cracks about "real women." Brian immediately begins to throw up. And not just throw up, but throw up until the cartoon floor is covered in cartoon vomit, a full forty seconds later, followed by an irrational screaming match. Let's not leave out Lois telling Meg to throw out the dish Ida brought (irrational fear of trans people), Brian yelling "When they move to a new place, they're supposed to notify the neighborhood!" (conflation of trans people with sex offenders), and cis characters comfortably switching back and forth between "he" and "she" when referring to Ida (casual misgendering). Quagmire and Ida are the most sympathetic characters in the episode, which is hard to swallow since Quagmire is such an unsympathetic character in every other episode (and if my memory serves me correctly has also been at the center of other transphobic jokes).
You can see the service MacFarlane thought he was providing during some of the scenes, such as when Quagmire tells Ida that he just wants her to be happy, and shares her joy at meeting a partner. What's so problematic is that this "acceptance," about this supposedly over-arching "sympathetic portrayal" does in no way erase the other harmful jokes and subplots in the episode. And whereas other episodes that dealt with racism or abortion are usually used as envelope-pushing ploys and publicity stunts, this is completely self-unaware, it disregards previous outcry about the representation of trans women on The Cleveland Show, and of course, the slap-in-face ignorance from MacFarlane himself who thought he was being a crusading ally. But why is this a big deal? Doesn't Family Guy offend everyone?
As Lisa at Questioning Transphobia points out, "That's bullshit. [MacFarlane's] humor is crafted for a cis, straight, able-bodied male audience. Everything you see on his shows is meant to affirm that perspective." But isn't it satire, isn't the Griffin family a bunch of bumbling buffoons? Really, is Family Guy's fan base (who, let's be honest, includes those far younger than the typical 18-34 male demographic) really "getting" that Lois and Peter are bigoted when they insist Quagmire's dad is gay? That Stewie is most definitely uninformed when he says Ida's genitals are like a "casserole of nonsense"? That when Ida suggests that Meg is also a trans woman that there are acceptable times to misgender another? And the ends–that Quagmire comes around to accept Ida–do not justify the transmisogynist means. The other characters' uninformed transphobia is never reconciled or problematized, and episode concludes with Brian sneering at Quagmire, "I f*cked your dad." Now who's vomiting?
Family Guy's Transphobic Mother's Day Episode [Queers United] May 9ths Episode of Family Guy [Questioning Transphobia] Is "Family Guy"'s Seth MacFarlane a Complete Idiot? [AfterElton]