When you watch Family Guy, you have to take the bumps where they come. Unless you’re a straight white guy, you’re always on the show’s list of easy targets, and even then there’s a chance you’ll end up in the crosshairs. When Family Guy emerged, it was merciless, and swaggered across our screens with an untouchable attitude. Recently though, Family Guy has been less sure of itself, has pulled the trigger on those crosshairs far less often, and seems to actively resent the kind of show it is.
I’m a trans woman, and while the jokes about Ida occasionally feel forced or misinformed, it’s not a cartoon’s job to educate people. And I can’t in good conscience laugh at the jokes directed at other groups then cry foul when Family Guy turns their attention on me. Most of the Ida jokes are great, she’s a well written character and an important supporting cast member. There’s definitely an issue that – moreso a decade ago when Ida debuted – trans women only feature on television as the butt of a joke, but that’s not an issue to solely blame Family Guy for. There’s specific failings I’d like to zoom in on – being an edgy cartoon isn’t a blank cheque – but let’s save that for another time.
I’m not here to solely talk about Ida, but I think there’s an important context needed here. I’m transgender. Family Guy has laughed at me. I understand that’s how the game is played.
Unfortunately, Family Guy has changed the rules recently, and they seem to have changed them to their own disadvantage.
I first noticed this with Season 17’s Trump Guy, but I think there’s hints of it before that. Focussing on Trump Guy for now though, it sees the Griffins head to the White House to meet Donald Trump. There’s so much opportunity for Family Guy to swing for the fences here, but instead they bunt it and end up in an average chicken fight. It finishes in a bizarre monologue where Trump equates Family Guy ripping on Bob’s Burgers to Trump’s own failings, racism, discrimination, and caging migrants. Peter then argues back that it’s different, or something, because they’re just a cartoon and Trump is President. It’s a comparison nobody else was making, but Family Guy still feels the need to defend itself.
Did someone somewhere say Family Guy was as bad as Trump? Like, maybe? But who cares. The Family Guy of the late early ‘00s wouldn’t care about something so trivial, but the modern version of the show constructed a whole two episode arc around it, wasted a huge opportunity, and spent most of the time defending its own existence. I don’t think Family Guy crosses ‘the line’ as much as Trump, and even if they did, aren’t they trying to? Why do they feel guilty?
‘I can be insulting sometimes, I admit it. But so what?’ Peter asks Trump.
Oh, if only Family Guy believed it. And don’t even get me started on the way Family Guy self selects mocking Bob’s Burgers as an example of the worst thing they’ve done.
I could continue on all the ways Trump Guy stumbles, but this is less about this specific episode than it is the general issues modern Family Guy has. It routinely goes on the back foot, defending itself from criticism nobody has even made yet, dulling their sharp wit and eating up chunks of episodes which have always struggled with pacing problems.
Let’s go back to Ida and their transgender representation. In the last two seasons – 17 & 18 – there have been two transgender episodes, and both are fairly terrible. I’m not saying that because they’re transphobic; in fact, and this is never a criticism I thought I would ever have, they’re not transphobic enough.
Let me be clear; being a Family Guy fan is a strange business. You can’t laugh at the jokes about other minorities then balk at the ones about you. Watching Family Guy as a minority is a deal you make to take the punches when they come. I’m happy to discuss the transphobia any episode might have, but only within the context of what watching Family Guy means. There are certainly times when they’ve crossed the line, but recently they’ve been afraid to even be in the same room as the line.
In the first of these two episodes (Trans Fat), Peter is accidentally assumed to be transgender after using the gender neutral bathroom, and is then given a sex change on the company healthcare policy. There as are so many jokes on the table here, but instead Family Guy goes for very tame ‘Peter is a woman’ jokes, none of which land, and never address the context of being a trans woman as opposed to a cis woman.
Never, that is, until the episode’s conclusion, where Ida lectures Peter about trans peoples’ struggles in life, and how Peter has not earned the supposed ‘advantages’ being trans brings because he has not suffered for them.
First off, Family Guy’s recent trend of ending with morality hardly ever works, but this is one of their biggest misses. It positions the pros and cons of existence as a trans person as being equal, and even seems to posit that once you reach a certain point in your transition, any disadvantages cease to exist. There’s also the dangerous idea that trans people must ‘earn’ the right to be happy and safe, while the whole thing feels the show trying to absolve themselves of their former sins, using Ida as the priest to their confession.
It’s life as a trans person looked at through a specifically cis lens, where the struggles are broad and vague, the successes specific and selfish.
It’s an attempt to walk back their earlier transphobia, but much like Peter’s argument with Trump, it’s horrendously self indulgent. The episode cares much more about trying to prove they’re not transphobic than it does about actually addressing anything. It’s the ‘I have lots of trans friends’ argument with Ida as the friend.
Secondly, there’s Bri-Da. This has Brian – who once famously non stop vomited after discovering Ida was trans – dating Ida. It again centres around the show forgiving itself. Ida is prepared to give Brian another chance, and so the sins of the past no longer exist, right? Had they committed to this arc and tried to add a bit of depth to Ida, I could see this angle working, maybe. Unfortunately, while Brian now defends Ida, she still comes in for several body blows from other gags, is used as a prop to demonstrate changes in Brian (and, by proxy, Family Guy) since Ida’s debut, and is very much the target of the episode rather than the star. They eventually break up for a flimsy reason and Ida, no longer needed, disappears again.
There are yet more examples. Season 18’s The Movement sees Peter accidentally take the knee a la Colin Kaepernick at the hall game; Peter actually had to go to the bathroom and was desperately trying to hold it in. This is an idea with legs, and initially sees Peter take advantage of the respect being ‘woke’ gets him, but ends by introducing a weird Black Panther parody where Peter discovers racism is wrong, and sees him apologise for pretending to have taken the knee. It is never addressed why he doesn’t simply actually take the knee from now on.
This empty statement about how racism needs to be taken seriously (followed with zero action) is exactly the problem with modern Family Guy. It’s not my place to speak for Black people, but when it comes to trans jokes, I’d rather they just commit to the bit than tell the jokes, apologise, pretend they’re the good guys, and keep telling slightly neutered versions while feeling guilty about laughing.
I understand some people will not see the value in this critique. As a member of a minority Family Guy frequently takes swings at, I get that some people would rather it just went away. Myself, I won’t shed a tear when they pull the plug. But the biggest issue right now is that they’re desperate to absolve themselves while not really changing. Ideally, they’d turn their attention to punching up at the people who actually deserve it, but if they’re going to keep punching down, I’d rather stopped apologising in between the punches.