Sunday, February 28, 2010

TV: Animated Blackface

Two weeks ago, an episode of Family Guy aired that ended up entering into the news cycle. In the episode, a female teenager with Downs Syndrome existed as a joke to make fun of those with special needs and Sarah Palin (the character informs that her mother used to be the governor of Alaska). Seth MacFarlane hid out during the news cycle before going onto a hideous HBO show where he appeared to accuse Palin of being overly sensitive ("appeared to" because the show's host kept interrupting). Overly sensitive?


Spoken like someone who uses the term "homosexual" to refer to gay men which, for the record, Seth does and you don't have to take our word for it, you can just listen to the audio commentary to the episode "Family Gay." You can hear all about "limp wrists" and how 'funny' it is when two straight men voice gay characters and how 'funny' it is that a gay character has to lift his hands in the air to take "two steps." In the same commentary, Seth makes fun of the "midget lobby" and how he managed to circumvent it ("those mailboxes are just too high"). That's funny, if it's not you. Seth thinks only he gets to determine what's funny and never grasps that he's just one more straight, Anglo White male reeking of entitlement. Executive producer Danny Smith briefly acknowledges the entitlement explaining, "I was talking to a friend who said, 'Your show is racist.' And I said, 'Yeah, it is, but who looks worse than the White people on our show? The Griffins are very despicable people'."

Really? Because most fans don't see them that way. More importantly, a group of straight, Anglo White people -- largely men -- deciding to play their own (overly represented) grouping on TV for humor is one thing. It's something completely different when that same group thinks they can 'interpret' an under-represented group.

Which is how we arrive at The Cleveland Show in which African-American Cleveland is voiced by Anglo White Mike Henry. Cleveland's the best known African-American character in the Seth MacFarlane universe. A Latina maid is the best known Latina or Latino and, guess what, those lines like "Superman no home"? They're also voiced by Anglo White Mike Henry. When it's time to portray people of color as stupid, Seth goes calling on Mike.

Before getting his own show, Cleveland was a minor character on Family Guy. He was one of Peter's three best friends and the only African-American man. For the spin-off, he and his son Junior move back to Cleveland's old home town where . . . he's still in the minority. Other than the school's principal, Cleveland's the only African-American male adult to appear regularly. That's not to say he doesn't have any friends. Two of them are White. It's the third friend that had Betty's eldest son complaining to us.

"They can't show Black people," he rightly complained, "but we get a talking bear?"

We actually get two. The female is voiced by Arianna Huffington proving that type casting still thrives in the entertainment industry.

Cleveland lives with his new wife Donna and her children Roberta and Rallo -- and Mike Henry also voices Rallo. Apparently, that's supposed to be funny. Voice actors in Blackface. Not every one finds it so funny and already the show has seen the exit of one of the few actual African-American voices they had (Nia Long).

Nor are many people laughing when they see episode after episode where the 'joke' is Cleveland and/or his friends think Junior is gay. Strange that with two other MacFarlane shows on the air featuring teenage boys in prominent positions (Chris on Family Guy and Steve on American Dad) there's no need to constantly build 'jokes' around the adult males thinking the boys are gay but when it comes to the only teenage African-American boy, it's funny?

It's funny? Or someone's sexually threatened by African-American males?

On Family Guy, the bumbling and not-so-smart Cleveland had a different wife: Loretta. Loretta was forever coming on to Quagmire. Including once at a boat party when Cleveland proved just how stupid he was by not noticing the two all over each other in front of him. Loretta would sleep with Quagmire and, when Cleveland found out, that would be the end of their marriage.

Now Bonnie and Joe are a White couple and the 'joke' there is that he's unable to sexually satisfy her ("We had what Joe calls sex") due to his injuries in the line of work (he's a police officer) that have left him wheel chair bound. And if you were looking to do a 'break the marriage up' storyline, you might think of having Quagmire sleep with Bonnie. But for some reason, MacFarlane and crew went a different way.

Again, it's funny? Or someone's sexually threatened by African-American males?

As you watch Cleveland and Junior be neutered in one scene after another, you're pretty much left with "someone's sexually threatened by African-American males."

That would explain why the African-American characters do so little on the show. Lois and Francine are right in the mix on their respective shows but, except for a cat fight, Donna's pretty much given nothing to do and no one's bothered to create a personality, let alone a character, for her. There's been nothing consistent about Roberta but since the role has changed voice actresses, maybe that's part of the reason?

Seth likes to claim that he's edgy and out there. View any one of his shows (American Dad is the best -- or was until this season when the quality plummeted) and contrast it to FX's Archer and you'll quickly realize how hollow that claim is.

Archer is a spy. He's an Anglo White male and he thinks he's entitled to rule the world as a result of that. Which makes for humor. Interestingly, unlike the Fox animation shows, women actually are represented in the show and actually do something. The breakdown of regular characters are four males and four females. Only one character is a person of color, the spy Lana (who is also Archer's ex) which creates a problem for the agency when a minor Latino character is killed off and they need to do a "diversity hire" leading Archer to call out, "I vote for hot Asian chic!" Yes, he really is that clueless and he's surrounded by equally clueless characters. Only Lana and her new boyfriend Cyril (White) have any clue as to what goes on around them.

In that episode, Archer's mother (who runs the spy agency) hires a man who is Jewish and African-American. Archer is threatened by him for a number of reasons and goes to the human resource director Pam to file a sexual harassment complaint. Archer explains that Conway pressed their penises together (which sort of did happen, but that's another story). Where, Pam wants to know, and Archer replies "Head and shaft."

That is so much funnier than anything that the 'pushing the envelope' claiming Seth MacFarlane has produced since September on any of his three shows. Archer also boasts a crisper look while every one of MacFarlane's shows is drawn the exact same. Adam Reed actually created something with Archer. It's not yet another rip-off of The Simpsons. It's different and it looks different. It even sounds different. If you recognize a voice, it's from live action work (such as Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell or Aisha Tyler), not from the fact that it's one of the most overexposed voice actors in the country.

Archer's new and fresh and just renewed for season two. The Cleveland Show was renewed for season two too, some might insist. But we'd counter that might not be the case if Fox had waited until after the show started airing to decide whether or not to give it a season two. For example, The Simpsons grabbed 6.1 million viewers last Sunday and Family Guy grabbed 6.3 million. What show airs between them? The Cleveland Show which had 5.6 million viewers. In other words, the show lost half a million viewers from The Simpsons and over a half million tuned into Fox as soon as the show went off.

That it runs off viewers is only surprising if you've never watched. If you have, you may be reminded of how successful spin-offs, think Laverne & Shirley from Happy Days, actually had a sense of purpose and something different to say. For ABC, it was just a cash cow, but for Gary Marshall, it was about what can we do different, what else can we say? That Fox just wanted to milk a cash cow wasn't surprising but that Seth did as well is rather sad.


In the commentary for "Family Gay," the creative team reveals that the 'joke' of the episode is that the gay characters are so ridiculous. It's funny, they insist, because it's a straight guy's idea of what gay is. And looking at the writing credits for this season's The Cleveland Show we're guessing they think it's funny to use Anglo White writers for a show that's supposed to be focused on an African-American family.

And that brings us full circle. If you don't laugh at the cruelty, you're overly sensitive. If you don't laugh at what a bunch of straight, Anglo White males think is funny, you're overly sensitive. You're spoiling their fun. Like so many straight, Anglo White males before them, they really think they and only they have a right to define 'funny' or, for that matter, the universe. And it's for that reason that no one would ever accuse them of being overly -- or even remotely -- sensitive.
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