A Cultural Dissection of ‘American Dad’

As media makers, most of us would like to believe that we have an understanding of our audience, We like to think that our representations of a people are fair and balanced as many media makers claim their works are. However, upon further examination and several interviews of varied subjects, it has become increasingly apparent that this may not exactly be the case. All 6 of my subjects had their own perspectives, which they were kind enough to share with me in a brief interview, which may offer some insight into what the media has to offer various ethnic groups.
In order to understand the information that I got from my subjects, I first had to engage in a little profiling to understand how what I understand of them, based on sex, race, age, religion, and any other noticeable characteristics, may differ from their actual perspectives. My first subject was a 22 year old female. As a radio major here at Columbia she took particular notice of the way that the –isms discussed in Culture, Race, and Media played a part in recent news relating to the world of radio, namely the Russell Brand controversy. Brand recently came under fire for his crude remarks made to Andrew Sachs regarding his granddaughter and how he “had his way” with her. Brand’s remarks showed an incredible lack of sensitivity to women, my first interviewee believed. “It’s just upsetting when you see a talented comedian like Brand use women so disgustingly in his comedy, because he is actually funny, but what he did with Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter was just overkill.” However, she was also quick to assert that she had a sense of humor, even though she didn’t find this funny. There’s this common misconception that women who take women seriously often lose their sense of humor in the process. However, this interviewee still felt that her idea of humor was left much intact. She even said that she’s learned a great deal from modern comedy. For instance, she talked about how comedy is used to make a political point in shows such as Family Guy. In the episode “You May Now Kiss the Guy Who Uh… Receives” the Griffins deal with gay life when Brian the Dog’s gay cousin, who is essentially a walking gay stereotype, arrives in town with the news that he plans to get married to his long-time boyfriend. This upsets Lois and Mayor West, who passes a gay marriage ban to avoid focus on his own political crisis. It was clearly mocking the past election where Bush used the promise of a gay marriage ban to solidify his political footing. This episode helped demonstrate to her how offensive humor, such as gay stereotypes, can be used to make a greater point. MacFarlane uses his strengths, even if they are offensive, for a greater good. She believed that this was an incredibly important goal to have in mind. “Making people blatantly aware of their prejudices by displaying how ridiculous they are is something I really wish a lot more people had the balls to do.” She said, indicating a lot of people could learn from that. She suggested that comedy was a far more powerful force than we give it credit for, both positively and negatively.
While my first interviewee felt that way, one of the other women felt quite differently. This woman was a 45 year old mother of two. She clearly stated that she felt that shows like Family Guy were a degradation of our culture, reducing characters to their most obvious visual qualities (for example, Peter’s Irish nature gives him reason to drink). She felt that impressionable minds, such as her children’s, could only really see what’s in front of them. They don’t yet understand political satire and that the use of stereotypes to prove a point about stereotypes, especially among a show that’s so popular with a younger audience, may backfire. When asked why she felt this way, she was unable to elaborate, but simply stated that she felt it lacked purpose, as opposed to other programming. Even programs such as the news which, although it shows violence and crime, does so with the point of informing audiences and fleshing out a true story, unlike most films and television shows she sees nowadays. Especially with the amount of crime shows, she felt that consequences were often disregarded or shrouded by numbers such as 15 years in jail or 25 to life. By the end of just about every episode of CSI or Law and Order, the criminal is caught and put away, but there’s no real consequence. I mean, certainly jail is a punishment of sorts, but at the same time, there’s no way to make that truly real to the audience. To a casual viewer, these numbers don’t really mean anything. Sure, they represent jail sentences, but to any viewer that’s never been sentenced to jail, these are just numbers with no substance behind them. All that most people take away at the end of the episode is that the criminal is not behind bars. Producers need to take more responsibility for their stories and their characters in the future.
This was interesting to hear because my third interviewee, a 67 year old woman, told quite a different story. It was her complaint that television had already, at one point, reached a better understanding of its portrayal of minorities and wants a return to those roots. As an older woman, she particularly related to the misrepresentation or underrepresentation of older generations stating, as we’ve read in a previous reading, that it’s rare to see anyone over the age of 50 on television anymore. However, she was quick to remind me that there once was a time when The Golden Girls ruled the domain of television. Not only did this show offer insight into the minds of older women, but it was groundbreaking in other aspects. For instance, this was quite possibly the first time that the topic of old people and sex was ever discussed with any real merit to it. Sexualizing these older women was a risky move, but made them more real, both to younger audiences and older alike. My third interviewee felt that even at the time Golden Girls was on, it was like a more respectable version of some of the television shows that we have on today. One of the shows that she particularly took issue with was the representation of women in shows like Sex and the City. While she understands the importance of having strong female protagonists, which Sex and the City does undeniably offer, she also felt that the emphasis placed on their sex lives invalidates women. While men glorify their sex lives, and it’s understandable that women should as well, she feels that both of these representations are unnecessary. Golden Girls served to sexualize an entire generation with innuendos and comedy whereas shows like Sex and the City and shows aimed towards men, like Entourage, are gratuitous in their portrayals. This is why she feels that a return to older shows, which referenced acts without overdoing their depiction, is what she would like to see in future television.
It was interesting to me to see what issues my female interviewees took up versus their male counterparts. Most of the men, perhaps for obvious reasons, didn’t take issue with the representation of men, but rather focused on more specific issues such as homophobia, racism, etc.
My fourth interviewee was the first male I interviewed. As a college student here at Columbia, and as a former student in Culture, Race, and Media, after having taken this class he began to examine media much more in-depth. As a result, his responses may have been skewed, but remained thought provoking nonetheless. When it came to the portrayal of minorities, there was little to speak of. He made specific reference to channels such as MTV which takes up a different cause each year and attempts to alert younger audiences about underprivileged groups. However, he felt that channels that do things like this, show the recipients as victims, incapable of helping themselves and therefore, somehow less than human. Also, these people receive help for about a year, but are then discarded. MTV shows compassion and charity towards these people as some sort of passing fad. However, there are other shows such as Extreme Home Makeover which go the extra length to not only help, but to help the people that they are helping as real human beings. Although most of the families they help are typically white, they’ve shown variety in the people that they help in terms of race, class, and other factors. This kind of diversity is not only integral to our country, which is supposedly the melting pot, but also important to display in our media. These various ethnic groups are people of substance and it was his firm belief that media makers begin taking responsibility and showing them as such.
One of the other college age males that I interviewed agreed wholeheartedly with this stance, but in particular related it to one of the groups that we’ve discussed in class. It was his belief that homosexuality is seriously misrepresented in our various media outlets. One thing that he felt was particularly misrepresentative of homosexuals was the way that they are handled in shows such as Queer as Folk. While it serves to sexualize them, it also uses gratuitous methods of doing so, while glorifying promiscuity and drug use. This example seemed to be somewhat difficulty for him to pinpoint, because he was clearly able to see what good it had done, especially in later seasons where sexuality was downplayed and the focus became on the characters, but at what cost? It seemed to be his belief that homosexuality could be given a face and even an identity without glorifying the vices that hate-mongers tend to use against the group and as media-makers, more people should start respecting that. However, as a young gay male, seeing these portrayals on television helped him to better understand what he thought it meant to be gay. Portrayals of homosexuals as flamboyant stereotypes like Jack from Will & Grace helped him to discover that he was gay, but not what being gay meant. He spent years spouting catty comments and using words like “fabulous” and “divine” because that’s what he saw gay characters on television do. Not entirely because of these characters, but partially due to them, he had to understand what being gay meant to him, not what others would expect of him as a gay individual. While it proved detrimental at first upon acting out all these clichés, it helped him to become the man he is today and to better see what he did not want to become.
My final interviewee was another adult male who has had a visceral response to the portrayal of racial minorities in today’s media. As a minority, the representation of minorities completely caters to the average white male’s perception of what it means to be a certain race. Shows such as the George Lopez show and The Hughleys don’t do anything to further the exploration of the Hispanic race or African Americans. They rely on lowest common denominator racial stereotypes to get cheap laughs and produce material that isn’t so much funny as it is blatantly offensive. Still, there are some shows, although few and far between, that have taught him that to be a racial minority does not mean to be confined to racial stereotypes, but that they can be in positions of power as well. Isaac Jaffe, played by Robert Guillaume, in 1998’s Sports Nights was in charge of the fictional show. He demonstrated an air of authority, while becoming personable through his faults and moments of kindness. What was perhaps most impressive was that his race was referenced in relation to his character. When Danny, one of the co-anchors, gets in trouble with the network he goes to Isaac and tells them that they have to stand up for this injustice, citing Rosa Parks as an example. Isaac responds simply with “Danny, you’ve got to stop thinking of me as the Champion of all things black.” While, yes, he is a black individual, Aaron Sorkin who created the show, felt it important that Isaac be understood as a person rather than just a race. My interviewee had a certain respect for the fact that race was actually discussed. In a day and age of overly politically correct representations, it is often thought that to stay clear of any unpleasant topic is what we would deem “politically correct”. However, the fact of the matter is that race exists and it is something that’s important to discuss, especially when some people hold such antiquated views of racial minorities. However, attention being paid to race in a respectful manner is essential to bettering the portrayals that are in the current media.
While most of my interviewees held their own interests at heart when it came to matters of representation, it helped to flesh out these issues. I saw real people behind these –isms that we’ve talked about all semester. Although nothing that they said really surprised me too much, I was impressed to see how united people were in the idea that the media has a responsibility to do more. Most importantly, I saw elements of myself in all these people, regardless of age, race, gender, or religion. These were people, just like myself, and they were people that wanted change just as much as I did. In the end, this collection of thoughts represents an important line of thinking that all of the people, no matter if they’re nameless or faceless to you, are real people expressing real desire for real change in the media.


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