I recently finished a course in the sociology of the family.  One of the dominant themes of the course was the gendered assumptions our society is based on.  Like the Matrix, until you are shown what it is, you really do not understand it.  One of the conditions of the paper was that I had to use a pop culture piece to illustrate how heteronormativity works in our culture.  I chose the cartoon ‘Family Guy’ because it is a very offensive show and I was sure I would find heteronormative gold when I analyzed a couple of episodes.   Sadly, I was correct…

** Note, this essay and other essays on the site are for educational purposes only.  Plagiarism is the most serious of academic offenses.  This blog is not going anywhere so cite a reference if you use my work.  Plus, if you can google this essay, so can your prof. **

Family Guy: Not so Edgy After All

According to Charlotte Bunch, “heterosexuality as an institution and an ideology is a cornerstone of male supremacy.”[1] Monique Wittig adds further to Bunch’s dissent when she writes, “these discourses of heterosexuality oppress in the sense that they prevent us from speaking unless we speak in their terms.”[2]

Heteronormativity is the pervasive, hegemonic state that exists because we choose to draw binary conceptions of gender in our society.  Gender identities, as Judith Butler writes, can only make sense within a heterosexual framework or matrix[3].   Butler writes:

The institution of a compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices of heterosexual desire.  The act of differentiating the two oppositional moments of the binary results in a consolidation of each term, the respective internal coherence of sex, gender and desire.

(Butler 1990: 22-3)[4]

Therefore, what we perceive as “normal” behaviour in our society is in large part determined by a culturally defined heterosexual set of norms and values; heterosexual behaviour is the only behaviour seen as natural and acceptable.  Heteronormativity is a prescriptive set of norms that strongly reinforces the patriarchal structure of society. Feminist and queer scholars oppose the heteronormative construct that is pervasive in our society because it is so intrinsically biased and rife with unfair assertions that underlie the heteronormative ideal [5].  A feminist and queer critique can elucidate how patriarchy and its subset of heteronormativity affect the role and structure of the family in our society.

The cartoon “Family Guy” presents an opportunity for an analysis that illustrates the heteronormative assumptions within the context of the family that we often take for granted.  An analysis of the cartoon “Family Guy” will show the impact of heteronormative assumptions on structure of the family and illustrate how the heteronormative ideals the show promotes are not only basic to the show’s structure, but that a non-heteronormative “Family Guy” would most likely not make it to air.

The “Family Guy” show airs on Fox TV and is a culturally ‘edgy’ phenomenon.  Every week the nuclear family unit of Peter Griffin the father, Lois the mother, their children Meg, Chris, Stewie and Brian the dog tackle a usually controversial topic, whether it is homosexuality, race, politics or equality.  The show begins with the family singing at a Piano, a very similar introduction to the unabashedly patriarchally-based “All in the Family”.  However, “All in the Family” presented controversial topics affecting the family that changed the nature of the family and the show, while “Family Guy” always reverts to the heteronormative standard by the end of each episode.

The Griffins in the show “Family Guy” fall into the stereotypical traditional family mold, which is tyrannical by its very nature[6], essentially Lois and the children are chattel and their labour subsumed to benefit the Peter, the Patriarch, and his asinine adventures.

Peter’s role is that of the breadwinner, although his ‘job’ is only mentioned in passing and loosely defined.  Lois’s role is that of a homemaker, her realm defined by caring for the family (she is the primary caregiver for Stewie the baby of the family), the house and Peter’s needs.  Chris is un-athletic and possesses marginal intellect, while Meg is smart but homely and unpopular.  Stewie and Brain, the baby and dog respectively, round out the rest of the family in the cartoon.  Stewie plays the role of a brilliant megalomaniac to counterpoint to the dry sarcastic realism that Brian brings in his role.  The Griffins, at least on the surface, purport to represent what is acceptable in terms of heteronormativity.

The basis of Peter and Lois’s marriage conforms to generally established heteronormative expectations.  What is interesting to note is that Peter and Lois’s marriage generally fluctuates between a conflict-habituated marriage state and a Vital marriage relationship state[7].  (Conflict habituated when Peter is off partaking in his foolishness).  In this quote from the episode, for example, ‘North-by-North Quahog’ Peter illustrates his patriarchal (hence heteronormative as well) underpinnings as he objectifies and insults Lois:

Lois: Honey, whaddaya say we, uh, christen these new sheets, huh?

Peter: Why, Lois Griffin, you naughty girl!

Lois: [laughing] That’s me!

Peter: You dirty hustler!

Lois: [laughs]

Peter: You filthy, stinky prostitute!

Lois: [laughs; slightly annoyed] Okay, I get it.

Peter: You foul, venereal disease-carrying, street-walking whore!

Lois: All right, that’s enough! [8]

Exchanges such as this are quite common in “Family Guy” and do much to reinforce the heteronormative ideals the show is based on.  This is a particularly one-sided example but it illustrates the basic thematic structure of the show:  by being excessively rude and heteronormative, one can put forth an ‘edgy’ product that is theoretically funny.  Not all exchanges are like this; Lois often exercises a fair amount of vitriol herself when condemning Peter, but most of her actions and dialogue fall well within the realm of female heterosexual privilege.  As Charlotte Bunch points out, “heterosexual privilege is the method by which women are given a stake in male supremacy – and that it is therefore the method by which women are given a stake in their own oppression.”[9] Lois is always at the mercy of Peter’s harebrained, ludicrous schemes.  Lois fulfills her heteronormative role usually by silently suffering and enduring the lunacy of Peter’s machinations.  Contrast this with a more egalitarian marriage, in which both persons opinions are given equal weight before embarking on a mutual course of action[10].  Peter’s schemes often reinforce the heteronormative basis of the show.  An example of this occurs during the episode called ‘Sibling Rivalry[11]’ where Lois becomes fat, deviating from the gendered female ideal.  Peter quickly loses interest in her sexually and socially, even becoming verbally abusive toward her, while making fun of her appearance.  The underlying patriarchal assumption is, of course, that women are only valued in relationship to their attractiveness to men[12].   Lois however, is not the sole victim; Peter often schemes at the expense of his other family members as well.

The father/child relationships on “Family Guy” are very one-dimensional. The inadequacy of her physical appearance and her lack of a social life is how Peter judges Meg. Chris is always left alone and makes irrelevant, stupid statements often to the point of taking an infantilizing role during the episode.  We often see Stewie on his own without parental oversight while he plots the downfall of his archenemy, Lois. Considering the quality of socialization (see permissive/uninvolved parental styles[13]) in the Griffin family that is generally present, it is no surprise that overall Meg, Chris and Stewie are maladjusted socially.  Contextually speaking, a ‘normal’ family is not particularly conducive to the humour “Family Guy” purports to offer.   The character flaws in “Family Guy” are over-represented to enhance entertainment value of the show.

One of the entertaining features of the show is the use of cutaway gags or tangential vignettes[14].  The cutaway scenes are often outrageous and push the boundaries of acceptable television.  It is here we see Stewie murder a playmate, or Peter dance provocatively in a gay bar or any number of transgressive actions against the common mores of society (often with a catchy musical number).  Heteronormative assumptions are challenged during these brief vignettes.  However as quickly as they interrupt the regular flow of the cartoon, they are gone; the narrative, firmly mired in heteronormative values, continues.  It is critical to point out the polarization of values in this cartoon.  We see the heteronormative values broken in a surreal cutaway gag, but then ‘reality’ reasserts itself and further reinforces the idea that another narrative could not possibly exist, and if it did it would be unwholesome and brimming with deviance. Monique Wittig describes this dichotomy when she says “Straight society is based on the necessity of the different/other at every level […] [b]ut what is the different/other if not the dominated?.”[15] The dichotomic presentation of the heteronormative and ‘deviant’ view of reality on “Family Guy” further buttresses not only the hegemonic patriarchal view of society, but more specifically supports the intrinsic heteronormative standards to which a ‘normal’ family must cohere.

Heteronormative assumptions are deeply ingrained in our society; going against them would truly make “Family Guy” live up to its ‘edgy’ moniker.  The concept is elegantly described in Noam Chomsky’s mass media model.  Chomsky writes:

“It is our view that, among their other functions, the media serves, and propagandizes on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them.  The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.  This is not normally accomplished by crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalization of priorities and definitions of news worthiness that conform to the institution’s policy.”[16]

– Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent

If “Family Guy” were truly edgy, the so-called deviant vignettes and their radical take on society would be the norm instead of the cutaway gags, but then the show would be unmarketable.  Heteronormative assumptions, like media functions of Chomsky’s model, serve the dominant patriarchal interests.  Therefore, the authors of the show would either bend to the wishes of the institutional will, or they would be out of a job as producers of a cartoon.  In reality “Family Guy” is a safe cartoon from the patriarchal point of view as it amplifies the correct heteronormative assumptions (albeit very crudely) and intensifies the ‘othering’ of competing non-patriarchal based narratives.  Similarly, news that is outside of the dominant acceptable paradigm or boundaries of debate is marginalized or simply ignored by the mass media.  In both cases, the interests of the powerful institutions are served and alternative views are either marginalized or ignored.  Therefore, “Family Guy” as a cartoon may poke fun at heteronormative values, but by its very nature must endorse and propagate an ‘acceptable’ version of the dominant patriarchal norms to continue to be successful in the mass media.

The Heteronormative values put forward in “Family Guy” become very clear, even when viewing only a small sample of the show’s production run.  Peter objectifies his wife and bases her worth on her appearance.  Peter similarly ignores his daughter, interrupting his active neglect only long enough to chastise Meg for not being pretty or popular (Meg’s lack of heterosexual appeal is a running theme throughout “Family Guy”).  Chris, Peter’s son, is marginalized because he is fat, stupid and slow and is presented as mostly a comic change of pace when we want to see someone fail miserably.   Stewie and Brian also fall in the category of Peter’s neglect, as Lois is the traditional primary care giver and therefore they are not Peter’s problem.  The edicts of heteronormative behaviour circumscribe family behaviour in the show.   Concomitantly, the use of the cut-away gags, that often portray deviant social behaviour, serve to squelch alternative narratives (homosexual, feminist, egalitarian, and other radical notions) and unconsciously strengthen the ‘normal’ message of the dominant heteronormative paradigm[17].

The heteronormative assumptions portrayed on “Family Guy” and how they affect the family and Noam Chomsky’s mass media model share many characteristics.  Heteronormativity and the present media culture both claim ubiquity, they are the unquestioned, normative standards in our society; both models, however, serve the interests of the privileged classes.  While claiming to be beneficial for all, in reality, certain classes of people are marginalized.  “Family Guy” claims to be an ‘edgy’ cartoon, but really stays quite safely within bounds of the hegemonic, patriarchal, heteronormative framework that it fosters.  The media similarly polices itself, self-selecting those who are comfortable to accept and parrot the ‘correct’ view of societies’ elite consensus.  “Family Guy” would not be on the air if it contradicted the unspoken heteronormative assumptions supported by the dominant interests in society.  The family structure and roles in the cartoon “Family Guy” are circumscribed by the heteronormative dictates of a patriarchal society.

The “Family Guy” cartoon show is a vehicle to promote a heterocentric view of the family and family functions.    The pervasiveness of the heteronormative message is described by Gill Valentine as she writes about the heterosexing of space in her article, but her words can also apply to media, she says, “[…] the heterosexing of space is a performative act naturalized through repetition and regulation.”[18] Extrapolating from Valentine’s conclusions, the mass media, “Family Guy” included, heterosexualizes the vast majority of the cultural space in our society.   Families are constantly exposed to the detrimental heteronormative media influences (directly or indirectly) that affect how they perform their functions and view their roles in our society.

The assumptions of heteronormativity are woven into the fabric of every day life; consequently, the marginalization of women and minorities is taken for granted[19].  The family as an institution must recognize this heteronormative set of assumptions and adjust their behaviours accordingly[20] to combat the destructive, pervasive heteronormative message that permeates our society.

[1] Materialist Feminism, eds. Hennessy, R. and Ingraham C., (New York: Routledge. 1997).   Not for Lesbians only. By Charlotte Bunch, 55.

[2] The Material Queer, ed. Morton, Donald E., (Virginia: Westview Press. 1996).  By Monique Wittig. 208.

[3] The Urban Geography Reader, eds. Fyfe, Nicholas R. and Kenny Judith T., (Kentucky: Routledge. 2005). (Re)negotiating the ‘Heterosexual Street’, By Gill Valentine, 147.

[4] This block quote is actually from the Valentine article.  The original quote is taken from Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), 22-3.

[5] Charlotte A. Kunkel, Joyce McCarl Nielson and Glenda Walden, “Gendered Heteronormativity: Empirical Illustrations in Everyday Life,” The Sociological Quarterly 41-2 (2000): 283.

[6] Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Morrow and Company, 1970), 12. – The actual quote is “the tyranny of the biological family would be broken” – in context of removing the gendered role of reproduction from the woman hence destroying the gendered division of labour and erasing one of the pillars of the gendered construction of society.

[7] Anne-Marie Ambert, Changing Families: Relationships in Context (Toronto: Pearson Education, 2006), 302-304.

[8] “Family Guy Quotations.” Wikipedia.  Accessed May 31, 2009.  http: //en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Family_Guy/Season_4

[9] Materialist Feminism, eds. Hennessy, R. and Ingraham C., (New York: Routledge. 1997).   Not for Lesbians only. By Charlotte Bunch, 56.

[10] In theory.

[11] Family Guy Season 4 Episode 9.

[12] Charlotte A. Kunkel, Joyce McCarl Nielson and Glenda Walden, “Gendered Heteronormativity: Empirical Illustrations in Everyday Life,” The Sociological Quarterly 41-2 (2000): 288.  – the idea of Heterogenderization.

[13] Anne-Marie Ambert, Changing Families: Relationships in Context (Toronto: Pearson Education, 2006), 332-335.

[14] “Family Guy.” Wikipedia.  Accessed May 31, 2009.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Guy.

[15] The Material Queer, ed., Morton, Donald E., (Virginia: Westview Press, 1996).  The Straight Mind. By Monique Wittig, 210.

[16] Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002), 1.

[17] Charlotte A. Kunkel, Joyce McCarl Nielson and Glenda Walden, “Gendered Heteronormativity: Empirical Illustrations in Everyday Life,” The Sociological Quarterly 41-2 (2000): 289 – Compare with the hetero/homo binary self regulation that the article discusses.

[18] The Urban Geography Reader, eds. Fyfe, Nicholas R. and Kenny Judith T., (Kentucky: Routledge. 2005).  (Re)negotiating the ‘Heterosexual Street’, By Gill Valentine, 146.

[19] Charlotte A. Kunkel, Joyce McCarl Nielson and Glenda Walden, “Gendered Heteronormativity: Empirical Illustrations in Everyday Life,” The Sociological Quarterly 41-2 (2000): 292. – The article also includes the conflation of gender and sexuality as well as the marginlization of of minority groups.

[20] Becoming aware of the accepted norms is the first step.  Feminist and queer scholars lead the way in regards to gender issues, with their analysis of Patriarchy and patriarchal structures so we might challenge the inequality and injustice that are endemic to the structure of our society.