The problem with Seth MacFarlane is that we’re still paying attention

The cast of Seth MacFarlane's latest project, "Dads".
The cast of Seth MacFarlane’s latest project, “Dads”.

The Asian American blogosphere has been up in arms for the last month over Seth MacFarlane’s latest endeavour, a sitcom called “Dads” picked up by Fox that aired its premiere episode last night. The controversy lies in the pilot’s liberal use of anti-Asian, anti-Latino, and anti-woman “humour”, notably in a scene featuring Brenda Song’s character, Veronica, dressed in a schoolgirl outfit that was included as a preview clip in the Fox website. As summarized by columnist Jeff Yang in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Well, I’ve watched the two available episodes of the show, spent the past month speaking to individuals involved with the production, and even obtained a copy of the original script for the pilot, which airs tonight, and I now feel confident in responding to Suebsaeng and Maerz as follows: “Yes,” and “Very.”

It isn’t just the demeaning subplot that requires Brenda Song to dress up in a Japanese schoolgirl outfit to help her bosses Eli and Warner, played by Seth Green andGiovanni Ribisi, score a capital infusion from Chinese investors. (Despite the writers’ apparent confusion between Chinese and Japanese pop cultural motifs, that gag is essentially more misogynistic than racist — and in an era where women in technology feel increasingly embattled, turning a smart, professional producer at Warren and Eli’s successful videogame company into a glorified booth girl is particularly ugly.) And it’s not the flippant use of the term “Orientals,” or even the extended scene in which basically the entire cast — including Song — mocks the minute size of “China penises,” over and over and over.

What makes “Dads” so deeply and fundamentally racist is that it is MacFarlane’s entitlement fantasy, in which the only castmembers of color are women who exist to serve and service the spoiled little boys’ club at the show’s core.

A bunch of folks have weighed in with similar vehemence on Seth MacFarlane and the racism of “Dads”. To date, I haven’t. Here’s why: I just don’t think MacFarlane deserves it.

Seth MacFarlane wants our attention.
Seth MacFarlane wants our attention.

Let me clarify: I think “Dads” is supremely ugly, offensive, and unfunny. It absolutely deserves to be called out for the intolerant, bigoted, anachronistic hatespeech that it is. So, I totally appreciate why others have written about MacFarlane (and I certainly appreciate Yang’s recent piece which revealed how much worse the original script of the “Dads” pilot is, although it would’ve been nice to know what prompted the show’s creators to remove what they did). But the problem is that I also think lavishing MacFarlane with extra attention does more harm than good.

First of all, I’m not even sure what I have to offer about “Dads”. The schoolgirl outfit, the penis jokes, the casual sexual harrassment — they’re all in-your-face, cheap, low-brow, unapologetically racist and sexist humour. In fact, part of its “appeal” is its obviousness; MacFarlane has always capitalized on the guilty pleasures of taboo comedy that depends, in part, upon the mutual understanding that it is taboo. So, when it comes to “Dads”, everyone involved (from the writers who write it, to the actors who speak it, to the viewers who watch it, to the bloggers who rail against it) already knows it’s offensive. Therefore, why would anyone need to read my reaffirmation that this racist thing is indeed racist? Saying “Dads” is racist amounts (at least a little bit) to stating the obvious.

Secondly, it’s clear that the shared outrage of the race-blogging blogosphere has helped to drive views to a show that is otherwise, by all objective measures, terrible (a consensus that Fox has actually leveraged to its advantage). The Hollywood Reporter reports:

The newest iteration of Fox’s Tuesday comedy block premiered to largely solid last night, kicking off the night with controversial Dads. Fast National ratings give the sitcom a 2.1 rating among adults 18-49, besting last year’s comparable opener for Raising Hope by 24 percent.

In other words, while “Dads” didn’t do that great, it certainly did adequately enough to give Fox executives breathing room. While Nielson ratings don’t give us the “approval ratings” breakdown of TV viewers, it’s almost certain that the free publicity from the race-blogging blogosphere’s widespread coverage of “Dads” contributed at least in part to those numbers. Jeff Yang draws a similar (somewhat self-effacing, somewhat cheeky) conclusion at the end of his column:

And now comes this — a show whose pilot seems designed to provoke Asian Americans in order to generate as much buzz as possible. Yes, most of it is negative. But there will be a significant number of people who tune in just out of curiosity.

So call me a conspiracy theorist — but is it possible that media creators have begun to make trolling the Asian American community a part of their promotional strategy — with columns like this one accidentally complicit? Maybe there’s a method to this madness after all.

I don’t know that I buy that this is a deliberate marketing strategy, but the metric effects of online outrage are undeniable. Consider another thing that I didn’t comment on until now: that horribly racist “Asian Girlz” YouTube music video by a band called Day Above Ground that no one has ever heard of, but which received incredible, viral coverage on social media for a couple of weeks, resulting in nearly 58,000 YouTube clicks on the aforementioned video. Like “Dads”, “Asian Girlz” is blatant racism and sexism; and, like, “Dads” our outrage gave the band exactly what they were looking for — internet fame.

Seth MacFarlane is Day Above Ground writ large: he wants our attention. He needs our attention. Our attention pays his cell phone bill. He’s in the TV/movie game because he’s a class clown who never outgrew the role.

The problem is that’s because Seth MacFarlane isn’t very good. In fact, he’s a shitty, lazy writer. We need no more evidence of this than the fact that everything he has done to date is the same one thing he did when he pitched “Family Guy”. Seth MacFarlane has one big idea, and he’s dead set on riding that mangy donkey into the ground. “Family Guy”, lauded as MacFarlane’s best work, follows the story of an Archie Bunker-esque middle-aged doofus, his incredibly hot wife, his misfit daughter, his socially maladjusted and mildly autistic son, his precocious infant, and a talking stuffed animal as they make wildly inappropriate jokes at the expense of themselves and others in between fourth-wall breaking over-the-top vignettes. Not surprisingly, that also largely describes “American Dad”, “The Cleveland Show” and even “Ted”.

Wise-talking dog? Wise-talking grizzly bear? Wise-talking martian? Wise-talking goldfish? Wise-talking teddy bear? Did we run out of ideas a few projects back?
Wise-talking dog? Wise-talking grizzly bear? Wise-talking martian? Wise-talking goldfish? Wise-talking teddy bear? Did we run out of ideas a few projects back?

MacFarlane isn’t edgy or ground-breaking. He’s a bad, unimaginative writer who camouflages his lack of talent with jokes that are designed to shock or outrage; in so doing, he challenges his viewer to laugh (at something that’s objectively not funny) or be one of those folks who “can’t take a joke”.

The problem is that shock for the sake of shock is the worst kind of lazy writing. In fact, this might even be the current opinions of “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, once known for helming the most shocking (and scatological) show on television. In the 15th series episode “You’re Getting Old“, Stan celebrates his tenth birthday and suddenly sees everything as shit and is bored by it; this has been interpreted by some (myself included) to be (at least in part) a pointed reference to Stone and Parker outgrowing the show’s infantile humour.

Yet, MacFarlane is still relying on shock-schlock. Thus, we have “Dads”, which we should have predicted would be exactly as bad and as offensive as it is based on everything we’ve already seen. That’s why I haven’t seen a minute of “Dads” (and, to be clear, I also haven’t seen “Asian Girlz” either). In fact, if anything outrages me about “Dads”, it’s less that Seth MacFarlane and company can write stuff this terrible, and more that there’s a constant market for this kind of intolerant media. There are people who will buy Seth MacFarlane’s garbage, and do so eagerly.

Actually, to be fair, this also disappoints me. I actually think Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi are too talented for this kind of bullshit.
Actually, to be fair, this also disappoints me. I think Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi are both too talented for this kind of bullshit.

Unlike “The Simpsons” or “South Park” (the two shows that are typically seen as “Family Guy””s conceptual predecessors), MacFarlane’s humour isn’t taboo humour as vehicle for social commentary. It is taboo humour for the sake of relishing in the taboo. It is taboo humour that encourages us to demean those who are different from us. It is media bullying. And, we are all complicit in MacFarlane’s ongoing success because we consume it. We watch it. We talk about it. Some of us even think it’s good or funny or edgy (hint: it’s none of those things). In so doing, we keep a talentless (and bigoted) hack, and his inexcusable hatespeech, relevant.

Like the overgrown class clown that he is, MacFarlane wants nothing more than our attention. So yes, we can point out his racism and his sexism (and his ageism and his ableism and all his other -isms), and indeed, to some degree, our community has some personal responsibility to ourselves to comment. We can protest “‘Dads” or any of his other Hollywood endeavour. We can organize picket lines, and call up corporate sponsors, and threaten to boycott. We can write entire screeds about how his projects are hateful and despicable and shouldn’t exist.

But for Seth MacFarlane, the deepest cut will be if we just stop paying attention.

Update (5/8/014): Following a better-than-expected ratings start, Dads hemorrhaged viewers over the last season as people stopped tuning in to see how racist MacFarlane could be. By the end of its season, Dads averaged a mere 4.2 million viewers with a Nielsen rating of 1.8. Not surprisingly, Fox officially cancelled the show today.

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