Disability on Television: Family Guy

The following excerpt is taken from an article that was published on August 27, 2010.

The National Down Syndrome Congress of the U.S. is taking Emmy organizers to task for nominating the song Down Syndrome Girl for an award for outstanding original music and lyrics.  The song was sung by Baby Stewie on the satirical animated show Family Guy in an episode broadcast in February.  There was outrage when the episode was shown, and Down syndrome advocates became more concerned after the song picked up still more viewers on YouTube. The Emmy nomination added to the insult.  “It goes through a litany of stereotypes that people with Down syndrome have been fighting for years, and so self-advocates stood up and said ‘we’ve had enough,'” Carol Bishop Mills, a member of the board of the National Down Syndrome Congress, said Friday in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

To read the rest of the story, go to the CBC site here or at this url: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/tv/story/2010/08/27/down-syndrome-girl-emmy.html

You can also listen to the relevant segment of the episode of Q referenced above right here or at

http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2010/08/27/should-the-song-down-syndrome-girl-from-family-guy-win-an-emmy/

You can watch the video for Down Syndrome Girl immediately below

Next is a video that displays the lyrics fairly clearly:

And you can watch a short video of Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy creator, talking about the character with Down syndrome at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbZmuym8Sjk

I confess to being somewhat ambivalent on this issue.  I do think that negative portrayals of disabled people are far too common in the media generally, and I think such portrayals can reinforce misconceptions and perpetuate discrimination.  I would be hard-pressed to come up with a blind character that doesn’t lean too much towards one of the extremes of superhero (e.g., Daredevil) or bumbling fool (e.g., Mr. Magoo).

That said, I think shows like Family Guy, Southpark, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and so on are as appealing as they are because they deal with taboo subjects, and do so in a way that is shocking, outrageous, and, yes, offensive.  Seth MacFarlane has defended the show on the grounds that it is an equal opportunity offender.  No group is safe from being made fun of.  You are as likely to hear jokes at the expense of AIDS sufferers and cancer patients as you are jokes about white, middle class men.  If this is right, so the argument goes, making fun of people with Down syndrome along with everyone else is a form of being inclusive.  This is arguably not a very progressive way of being inclusive, but, still, to be singled out as off limits when it comes to the offensive comedy of Family Guy doesn’t seem right to me either.

I think I have confidence, perhaps too much, in the ability of viewers to not take a show like Family Guy very seriously.  It’s the shows that are not so extreme and outrageous — the shows that are meant to be taken seriously — that concern me more.  I think a case could be made that a show like Family Guy, in general, does more harm than good (though a similar case could probably be made about most television programs), but if we agree that the extreme satire of Family Guy is acceptable, or even useful in so far as it points out and makes fun of stereotypes, then I’m not so sure that trying to designate certain groups and subjects as off limits is a battle worth fighting.

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One thought on “Disability on Television: Family Guy

  1. “You are as likely to hear jokes at the expense of AIDS sufferers and cancer patients as you are jokes about white, middle class men.”

    So what? White, middle class men get AIDS and cancer, too. But “joking” about the ones who don’t, doesn’t affect their level of privilege, and it doesn’t add further to their marginalization – because it doesn’t exist to begin with.

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