Written by Erin Tatum.
One of my favorite things about fall is watching the majority of my favorite shows come back from hiatus. I’ve been a loyal viewer of Fox’s Animation Domination Sunday night lineup for years. Naturally, I was excited when I heard that Family Guy was doing a crossover with The Simpsons for their season premiere.
I watched it and I was underwhelmed for the same reasons that I was surprised that the crossover was happening in the first place – the tonal discord between the bumbling yet endearing Simpsons and the aggressive and insensitive Griffins was palpable. What followed was a particularly uncomfortable 45 minutes of television.[caption id="attachment_15383" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Lisa encourages Meg to find her hidden talent by offering to let her play her prized saxophone.[/caption]
I was especially bothered by the decision to pair Meg with Lisa for a cringe-inducing B plot. Basically, Lisa takes pity on Meg after witnessing her rock-bottom self-esteem and spends the episode trying to convince her that she’s good at something. It turns out Meg is an even better saxophone player than Lisa, causing Lisa to feel threatened and dismiss Meg’s talent in a moment of uncharacteristic cruelty.
Lisa is a much more three-dimensional character than Meg will ever be. She has incredibly well formulated views on feminism and politics at the age of eight, whereas Meg is more or less a human punching bag for just about everyone in the Family Guy universe. There’s really no comparison, so the plot fell flat.
I’ve been debating breaking up with Family Guy for quite a long time. The jokes are offensive, the plots are merely filler in between cutaway gags, and every single character is terrible. I remember thinking it was cutting-edge satire as a young teen and being absolutely thrilled by it, mainly because it was by far the raunchiest show that my mother (begrudgingly) allowed me to watch. But times have changed. Above all, the one thing that has consistently repulsed me as an adult is the show’s treatment of Meg.[caption id="attachment_15390" align="aligncenter" width="259"] Lois, Meg’s mother, shows little sympathy or patience when dealing with Meg, who often turns to drugs and self-harm to cope.[/caption]
Meg is a 17-year-old girl who’s not conventionally attractive. That’s the entire punchline, which creator Seth MacFarlane apparently thought was substantial enough to make Meg’s abuse the most prominent running “joke” season after season. Oddly, her character started out as a pretty generic teenage girl, but I guess it’s not funny without misogyny! Meg is belittled by not only her family, but the entire town. Her sense of self worth is frequently eroded by negative remarks about her appearance and weight. Most notably, her sexuality is treated with absolute disgust. You can count on anything related to Meg and sex or romance to be handled as gross-out comedy.[caption id="attachment_15381" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Meg kidnaps Brian after becoming infatuated with him following their drunken make out session at her prom.[/caption]
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about more of Meg’s lowlights. It’s implied that she uses hot dogs to masturbate. She makes out with Brian (yes, the dog) and briefly becomes his deranged stalker after he refuses her further advances. She has a short-lived boyfriend that’s committed to abstinence, only to have him dump her at the end of the episode after seeing her naked body. Peter, her own father, attempts to molest her during a cutaway gag and it’s played for laughs. Meg even unknowingly makes out with Chris (her brother) during a costume party. Following the revelation, Meg plays up the previous night to her oblivious parents, saying that she hopes the boy will call. Standing next to her, Chris unenthusiastically replies “Don’t count on it.”[caption id="attachment_15391" align="aligncenter" width="259"] Meg is horrified to realize she’s been making out with Chris.[/caption]
Haha! Because it’s an insult that even your brother wouldn’t want you sexually! Bizarrely, incest is routinely used to highlight just how undesirable Meg is. Why? Who knows. Meg is supposed to represent even lower standards than incest, I guess.[caption id="attachment_15392" align="aligncenter" width="300"] The Griffins’ creepy pervert neighbor, Quagmire, repeatedly attempts to seduce an unwitting Meg with various acts of kindness.[/caption]
The audience is encouraged to mock Meg for being an insecure teenage girl. She is the only female character who can’t be treated as a traditional sex object, which invalidates her right to be treated with respect. Plus, you know, that whole perception of teenage girls as emotional and frivolous and silly and therefore that makes it fair game to trivialize their thoughts and feelings for like seven years. Too bad Meg is permanently stuck in adolescence.
This already paperthin premise is further validated by the fact that everyone else is an awful human being with no motive for any of their actions beyond their own self absorption. It makes no sense to put so much effort into treating Meg like shit when all they care about is getting whatever they want. There’s nothing to gain in keeping her down. And, barring several neglect fueled outbursts of depravity, Meg arguably has the greatest sense of empathy and compassion out of the entire cast (albeit that the bar isn’t high) due to her low self-esteem. It’s misogyny for misogyny’s sake.[caption id="attachment_15394" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Tina takes a part in ‘Working Girl’ in the S5 premiere to try and get closer to her crush.[/caption]
I watched Bob’s Burgers premiere the following Sunday and was, as usual, charmed and utterly delighted by the Belcher’s 13-year-old daughter, Tina. I realized that Tina finally offered me a framework to articulate all the things that were wrong with Meg and how she’s portrayed.
Unlike Lisa, Tina’s characterization is fairly similar to Meg, at least on the surface. Tina is socially awkward, frumpy, and uncomfortably sexual on occasion. She’s voiced by a man (Dan Mintz) who makes no attempt whatsoever to make his voice more feminine. If this were Family Guy, that alone would be the catalyst for an onslaught of sexist and probably transphobic jokes. However, about 97 percent of the women on Bob’s Burgers are voiced by men. Baritone is clearly en vogue for the ladies. It’s never used as a punchline and the show pretty much naturalizes it. By the end of an episode, I forget that almost all the women have male voice actors because no one is gunning to designate them as less feminine.[caption id="attachment_15379" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Words of wisdom.[/caption]
And there’s the kicker: everyone in Bob’s Burgers acknowledges that everyone is weird! Femininity or female sexuality is not a source of shame because gender isn’t a spectacle! They’re all quirky for their own reasons that have nothing to do with how well they conform to gender expectations or the way they express themselves sexually. Bob is friends with a number of transgender escorts and takes their flirting in good stride, even enjoying the attention. He’s propositioned by a male grocery store worker at Thanksgiving and bashfully declines, adding that he’s “mostly straight.” There’s not a superiority hierarchy among characters because they all know that they aren’t in a position to judge anyone else, nor do they have any desire to.[caption id="attachment_15396" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Linda, Tina’s mom, cheers Tina’s decision to write erotic friend fiction.[/caption]
The primary difference between Meg and Tina is that Tina comes from a loving and supportive environment, whereas Meg does not. Tina’s parents accept her unconditionally, despite her displaying much of the same repressed eroticism as Meg. She writes “erotic friend fiction,” eagerly shares fantasies of dating an entire zombie football team at once, and does little to hide her attraction to the family dentist. Hell, her defining characteristic is an obsession with butts, an obvious manifestation of tween lust that has inspired a spectacular increase in pro-butt artwork across the internet.[caption id="attachment_15382" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Tina has a deep admiration for butts.[/caption]
The Belchers never shame Tina for her desires or try to bully her into changing her behavior. She’s not grotesque, it’s just who she is and her family embraces her regardless. They respond to her momentary teenage dismay and heartbreak with gentle encouragement. If anything, her idiosyncrasies make them stronger as a family. They gather strength from the individual uniqueness of each family member, rather than seek out a black sheep to vilify and take focus off everyone else’s flaws. Tina feels comfortable in her own skin and has an incredible sense of confidence for a 13-year-old.
It is a little disheartening to compare her to Meg because that’s when you really see all of the latter’s wasted potential. Meg could have and arguably should have been Tina, but MacFarlane was too easily seduced by the promise of cheap laughs. Tina is certainly a source of comedy, but in a way that’s endearing. She reminds you of middle school awkwardness and the time you felt like your heart “pooped its pants” because your crush didn’t like you back. Whenever Meg comes on screen, I feel like I’m either about to witness harassment or a sex crime.[caption id="attachment_15385" align="aligncenter" width="300"] Dear Seth MarFarlane[/caption]
Forget mingling with the Simpsons. Once Meg turns 18, she should get the hell out of Quahog and move in with the Belchers.[caption id="attachment_15388" align="aligncenter" width="160"] …and they all lived happily ever after.[/caption]
Erin Tatum is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, where she majored in film and minored in LGBT studies. She is incredibly interested in social justice, media representation, intersectional feminism, and queer theory. British television and Netflix consume way too much of her time. She is particularly fascinated by the portrayal of sexuality and ability in television.