Eleven years after Cameron Diaz smoothed sperm through her hair, one taboo still exists in comedy and, contrary to what certain sections of the British media might have suggested, it does not involve Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It is abortion.
There has been a bit of a hoo-hah in the US over an episode of Family Guy in which Lois, the main female character , considers an abortion. To be precise, she considers the abortion after she agreed to act as a surrogate mother and the couple for whom she was acting as surrogate dies. Her doofus husband, Peter Griffin, then meets some anti-abortion protestors and is momentarily swayed. Then he is unswayed and she has the abortion. The end.
As this summary suggests, this show was never intended as a wholly serious thinking point. Nonetheless, it has managed to cause quite an outrage in the US, annoying both the pro-choice and anti-abortion camps, and Fox has now refused to run the episode.
Despite being neither as ingenious as The Simpsons nor as brilliant as South Park, Family Guy is often pretty funny and it has been nominated for a best comedy Emmy, the first animated show since The Flintstones in 1961 to be so, making it arguably the most influential cartoon series in America today. Part of its appeal has been, as creator Seth MacFarlane puts it, its “edginess”.
Off the top of my head, the only American sitcoms that have featured a major character considering an abortion are Maude (1972) and Roseanne (1994), plus the 90s whinge-fest Party of Five, although that was more sit than com. The only one in which the character was allowed to have the abortion was Maud, which says something about the growing influence of the conservative movement on popular culture in America over the past three decades. In the others, Roseanne found out she wasn’t actually pregnant and in Party of Five the character had what the scriptwriters almost certainly described as “a convenient miscarriage”. That even Roseanne lamed out with her non-choice ending is definitive proof of how nervous US TV producers have become when it comes to abortion.
Fox’s squeamishness about abortion is no surprise, seeing as we’re talking about the unashamedly conservative Fox network here. However, it is under the same umbrella as Fox News, on which the swivel-eyed bozo Glenn Beck recently claimed that President Obama is “a racist”. Beck remains one of Fox News’s star presenters. So chez Fox the rules are, accusing your president of racism on a news channel = great! But a fictional character having an abortion on a cartoon = get out of my house.
In fact it was the liberal outrage that initially surprised me. After all, the anti-abortion sentiments come from Peter Griffin, who is to rational thought what Sarah Palin is to political acumen. Although it is currently impossible to see the actual episode, there is a video of the actors doing a read-through of the script and then the outrage becomes understandable. My goodness, Seth MacFarlane put some nasty words in Peter Griffin’s mouth. And they’re not even funny.
Family Guy still ostensibly toes the liberal line to appeal to its young audience, yet in order to maintain its “edginess” it seems to be becoming increasingly conservative under the Obama presidency. This would explain why conservative wingdings Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove are to appear on the show. It also explains why MacFarlane recently said that Stewie, the villainous baby on the show, is gay – which “explains why he’s so hellbent [on killing his mother] . . . He has a lot of aggression, which comes from confusion about his orientation.”
MacFarlane recently said that Brian, the family dog and moral centre of the show, has changed from being a liberal to a conservative because “now that Obama’s in charge, Brian finds . . . he’s not happy unless he’s the underdog, so to speak, so he switches parties.” This could well apply to the whole show. I’d have thought that the current healthcare debacle would have given liberal satirists enough material but some, it seems, desire a bit more “edge”.
One might reasonably say that abortion – ha ha ha! – does not lend itself to comedy anyway. But then, neither does the Holocaust, and Mel Brooks squeezed comic milk out of that unpromising cow. The only reason to make a programme about any controversial subject is if you are making a point, and comedy is often the best way to get that point across to a mass audience. Team America: World Police, the film made by the people behind South Park, remains the finest commentary on American foreign policy (again, not a naturally hilarious subject) ever committed to celluloid, while South Park itself remains the shining example of how an edgy cartoon can make points without being preachy. This has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative. It’s about having the courage of your convictions. Otherwise, you may as well be a dog, chasing the next bone of contention.
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