Monday, April 28, 2008

Family Guy: A Symbol of Feminism?

We are exposed to all sorts of television figures that promote anti-feminist values. Two types of men contribute to these values. We can find the suave James Bond types who have casual sex often using women and objects, but we can also find “bumbling incompetent idiots” (Monaghan, 5). Monaghan explains that,” We like men as idiots. They make us laugh. Idiot men are funny so we fill our sitcoms with them.” These men scatter the adult cartoon landscape in shows such as South Park, The Simpsons and Family Guy. But in most of these sitcoms I will argue that we find something unexpected: a strong woman or women. In South Park we can see it in Kyle’s mom, in the Simpsons there is Marge and Lisa, and in Family Guy there is Lois. These women do not move the show forward in the way that the leading men do, but they might play the most important role: holding the show together. They are the people that keep the bumbling idiot men from ruining everything. In order to discuss feminist issues I will use the show Mind over Murder from the hit Fox series Family Guy. Lois, in the episode Mind over Murder, displays her choices about her family and her career and uses her sexuality to gain agency and empowerment. In order to set the context I will first go through the masculine themes of the series and that episode in particular, then discuss Lois in relation to gender roles and sexuality.
Most episodes of Family Guy begin with a short clip that often has nothing to do with the episode followed by the introduction theme song. This song appears before every show and is a great example of why Family Guy critics would say that it is not pro-feminism. The song states what we are lucky to have a family guy in order to bring us traditional family values that we do not have. The assumption that I made is that these values are traditional man top down values that would seek to prevent feminism. The reason that I make this assumption is based on two things. The first is that the song assumes that we need a man, the family guy, to bring us these values and that we are lucky to have him. The second is based upon the show itself. There are characters such as Lois’s father who talk down to his wife, and Glen Quagmire who is the epitome of the man who only looks for lose women and has no respect for women. This song can have a profound effect because “musical numbers can be understood to offer utopian resolution to the conflicts expressed in the narrative” (Moseley and Read, 246). The opening sets the stage for the top down, male dominated system. The Family Guy and his values are the way that we should deal with all of the conflicts that erupt in the show.
The show has many other elements of anti-feminist rhetoric. In the episode “Mind over Murder,” Peter is anything but a feminist. As Lois works all day doing housework, Peter is out on a boat drinking and when he comes home he destroys the living room. This action takes for granted the work that Lois had been doing all day and Peter often makes the assumption that because she is a woman she loves doing house work. These thoughts are examples of blatant sexism that women should and should like doing housework and that is their place. Later in the episode Peter builds a bar because he is bored in the house. At first he uses Lois as the dishwasher, but when she comes down to yell at him for being a bad father she finds her piano. To stem her anger, he asks her to play piano. This moment, when Lois gets on top of the piano and begins to sing is when we see Lois for who I believe her to be.
Family Guy is often criticized for women being passive and only their for men. Monaghan explains that in these shows “women are increasingly objectified as the objects of sexual appetites of men” (Monaghan, 5). But in that objectification, is there something feminist? In talking about Ally McBeal Moseley and Read make this argument for why it is a feminist text, “The show consistently addresses issues that have traditionally been of concern to the women’s movement, including female sexuality; the consequences for women of choosing family over career; the tyranny of feminine self-presentation.” All of these issues are at play in Mind over Murder as Lois struggles with her choice of family over career and her sexuality as she plays in her husband’s bar.
What I am about to discuss are emblematic of debates between second and third wave feminists. If Lois is a feminist it is for two reasons. The first is that she chooses to do the housework and to put her family very high on her priorities. The second reason is that she uses her talent and attractiveness in order to gain agency.
Lois has chosen to be a stay at home mother. When she responds to Peter’s comments about how she loves to do house work, by saying that she chooses to do it because she loves her family she uses a traditional third wave feminist notion. The notion that as a woman she has choice is an important ideal of third wave feminism. Women no longer have to fit the independent, man free model in order to be a feminist. The notion of choice is what sets the second and third wave apart. Some would say that Lois is not a feminist because her choice has placed her with a husband who demeans her and objectifies her. This argument is simply an indictment of Peter or the choice that Lois made; but the feminist value is that she has a choice, not that she makes a good one.
As Lois learns about what is going on in her basement, she goes downstairs to discover her older son is a bouncer, her daughter is a waitress, her baby boy is drunk, and her piano has been moved down to the bar. Quick thinking Peter tells her that he brought it down there so she could perform. In her mind she will finally be able to perform and be the mother that she has chosen to be.
Her performance hits a high note with the guys when she strips off her robe revealing little underneath. Her performance is an action of her sexual identity as a way to gain agency. As Gail Levin puts it (talking about explicit art), “the drive for free expression in art is intimately linked with women’s quest to claim their sexuality, agency and power.” Lois’ free expression through her performance is a claim to her agency as a woman. A command of agency is what feminists, especially third wave feminists, argue is necessary to combat the patriarchal system. In order for women to be able to make strides against patriarchy they first need to have control of their own self and body. This control is necessary in order to prevent a reintroduction of patriarchy through an attack on a woman’s literal body, their self-esteem, or their political agency.
Some will say that performances like these reinforce the beauty myth and place women under objectification. The beauty myth, as Naomi Wolfe explains, is a societal construct that women should look and act a particular way to be beautiful. This myth is very harmful to women because it forces them to become obsessed with the way that they look. This obsession will often lead to anorexia or other eating disorders. It also, according to Wolf, keeps the traditional patriarchal order. Men may have lost control in many areas, but they can maintain their dominance through the beauty myth. The idea of sexual empowerment and the beauty myth seem to be in opposition to each other in the abstract. Does it hold true in the situation of Lois?
I believe that there is a way out of this seeming contradiction. Lois does use her sexuality to her advantage, but she probably does not fit the model of the beauty myth. A large part of society’s current myth about beauty is slenderness. Lois is not slender, especially for a cartoon. She is an older woman, a mother of two teenagers. She does not fit the mold. Even if she does not fit the mold some would still argue that she is reinforcing the patriarchal system through her actions such as wearing skimpy outfights and singing provocative songs. But, as explained above, one way to fight the system is to gain agency over one’s body, or else patriarchy will always find a way to dominate. Lois’ use of her sexuality and identity is a great example of how these acts can fight the patriarchal system.
Patriarchy takes a face in Peter, her husband, when he becomes jealous and decides that Lois is forbidden to sing. Lois’ response is one of sexual empowerment and feminist ideology. Despite her husband she does what she wants to do. Her sexual display is a tool of her empowerment because it is an act against Peter and the patriarchal system that he is emblematic of. Even her song choice is proof. “Don’t tell me not to fly, I’ve simply gotta. If someone takes a spill, it’s me and not you. Don’t bring around a cloud to rain on my parade.” Her performance is similar of the feminist struggle overall. She is told that she cannot do something, so she responds.
Lois is a feminist, and she is often the voice of equality throughout the course of the series. These values are probably not the goal of the show so we will often see her stray a little bit from a traditional feminist role. But, it is safe to say that she is a third wave feminist because she has made the choice to put family first and she uses her sexuality as a way to gain agency in order to fight patriarchy. However, Lois’ character is not enough to say that Family Guy is a show that is oozing with feminist values. Some would say that this is very problematic, but I believe that Lois shows that feminism can be found in places that we may not expect. Do not be so quick to right off a cartoon as intellectually bankrupt and let us keep our eyes open to the possibilities that feminism has to infiltrate our cultural knowledge.

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