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How to be funny: Start by not sucking

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, July 30, 2009 13:25 EDT
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Samhita said something about this whole controversy over the now-censored abortion episode of “Family Guy” that I think bears repeating:

I guess no one is seeing the real humor in that unless you are avidly pro-life and anti-women’s right to chose, abortion is not really a fringe topic that is so edgy it must be banned from TV. Again not shocking, but maybe they should try something easier like period jokes, until they can get with the really big scary stuff.

If you want a textbook example of how systemic sexism works, the taboo about portraying abortion on TV will suffice. It’s the most common outpatient procedure in the country, and yet we write it off as fringe. There’s only 694,000 open heart surgeries a year on average, 600,000 hysterectomies, and 193,000 hip replacements a yearbut there’s 1.2 million abortions performed every year. But I’ll bet you could find more people who claim they don’t know anyone personally who’s had an abortion than make the same claim about hysterectomies, heart surgery, or hip replacement. Of course, they do know someone who’s had an abortion, most likely, but she’s mum about it, because of this taboo against speaking about it. And that troubling taboo creates ridiculous situations where shows like “Family Guy” that get away with pretty much anything can’t do a show about abortion.

The commenters at Feministing seem completely convinced that the episode will be sexist and vicious towards women who’ve had abortions. At Broadsheet, the concern was more that it would be tasteless, which seems like it’s undoubtedly true. The irritating and meaningless phrase “politically incorrect” gets tossed around a lot with regards to this show, which I pretty much never watch, and so I can’t say. But if the commenters at Feministing are right and MacFarlane indulges in a bunch of rape jokes at the expense of victims, I wouldn’t hold my breath that he’d be decent towards women who’ve had abortions. Using misogyny to get a rise out of people is a cheap writing trick, but it gets financially rewarded, so I would be more surprised if it didn’t happen in this case.

That said, there’s an angle on abortion that doesn’t get discussed much, but is nonetheless important and influences a lot of people’s opinions on the subject, and that’s the issue of religious freedom and respect for science. I do know that MacFarlane is an outspoken atheist and has helped promote better science literacy in Hollywood, and that gives me pause. True, a lot of pro-science and even some atheist types are so sexist that they can’t see how assaults on reproductive rights are a religious freedom issue—see above, about how women’s issues are considered automatically fringe, no matter how much they’re objectively a major issue—but in general, I think there’s a lot of people who come around to being avidly pro-choice because they see how anti-choice arguments are based on theocratic ideals and a hostility to science that extends to anti-choicers trying to create male-centric definitions of pregnancy (defining it as when a man’s sperm accomplishes its goal of hitting an egg, instead of the more scientifically sound medical definition centered around implantation). If you’re a big picture thinker, it’s not hard to see that abortion bans and creationism stem from the same hysterical, fundamentalist religious worldview. I don’t know if MacFarlane is smart enough to see that this is an interesting angle for him to approach the issue from, but it’s just something to consider.

One thing that makes me nervous when I read feminist bloggers post on this subject, though, is the automatic tendency to get angsty about the possibility that something might be “tasteless”. Samhita avoids that trap entirely, but not the commenters and not the blogger at Broadsheet. And the concern plays right into the hands of people who want to dismiss feminists arguments by using the sexist stereotype that women are humorless fuddy-duddies. (Even though we support a series of rights that make it easier to have earth-shattering crazy sex all you want.) Just because something is gross or tasteless doesn’t mean it’s misogynist. For example, there’s the abortion episode of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”, which manages to be utterly tasteless without really indulging in cheap judgments of women who have abortions or creating a false equivalence about how “both sides” are crazy, a narrative that persists even when doctors are getting shot and fetus-fetishizing jewelry is being made.

Actually, what made the abortion episode so amazing is that they made a point that more in the mainstream media should consider, which is that the main characteristic of the abortion debate in this country is complete ignorance, with a side dose of belligerence. It’s like they read Andrew Sullivan or saw Chris Matthews on the subject and realized, “By god, they sound exactly like our shallow, small-minded idiot characters would if they ever decided to get involved in this issue.” Mac joins up with the pro-lifers because he’s trying to sleep with one of the women, and he accomplishes his goal by pretending that he’s murdered abortion doctors. Of course, she pretends to be pregnant and he immediately tells her to get an abortion. I watched the whole thing, slack-jawed by how much the writers actually fucking understand the dynamics at play—the way that the anti-choice movement trots out their ingenues (often underage) to both attract and cover up the creepy men and angry, mean-spirited women that are the heart and soul of the movement, how anti-choice arguments play with people that are too shallow and stupid to really think about the implications, and how violence is more than a little tolerated from anti-choice nuts. How the anti-choice movement is marked by a competition to see who can be the meanest and most “hardcore”, and the way that hostility to contraception plays into the whole thing. And again, how fucking stupid the whole thing is, as you get from this exchange:

Sweet Dee: Did you have sex with her?
Charlie Kelly: Yeah.
Sweet Dee: Well did you use birth control?
Dennis: Woah, Dee, we’re from a Catholic school.
Sweet Dee: So, premarital sex is alright, but you’re not allowed to use birth control?
Charlie Kelly: Ok, now you’re just twisting words around and getting cute.

Tasteless and on the nose, and a real demonstration of how actually getting the issue and writing from a place of understanding makes it ten times funnier.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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