Does a satirical television show like American Dad have political impact? Or is it only about venting frustrations and making you laugh?
American Dad, media, and politics
Media, from radio and television to social media have always influenced the political sphere. Social media allows politicians to construct direct messages to their constituents and potential voters to spread their platform. It allows political outsiders to create their own politically charged messages as long as they have access and ability, such as producers and directors do.
That being said, 'old media' like television has not disappeared. Especially in entertainment, we see influencial new political voices popping up. One of them is Seth MacFarlane, creator of the long running tv shows Family Guy and the politically charged hit American Dad, which are both satirical series based on the American reality. Though MacFarlane is not a politician and not running for office, his shows broadcast certain political messages and thus may influence voters, despite him having no personal political interest in the results.
The influence that television and that creators have on people comes from the important role of television and social media in American life. It’s estimated by Nielsen’s National Television Household Universe Estimates that there are approximately 119.6 million televisions in homes in America for the 2017-2018 season and that these televisions may reach up to 304.5 million Americans, which is just shy of all 325.7 million American people. Of the American people it is estimated that approximately 60% of Americans are registered to vote making it seem extremely probable that most of these people are television viewers.
Of these viewers in America, many of them may have come upon an episode of the popular long-running animated comedy American Dad. This show focuses on a family comprising the central characters who go through many outrageous and outlandish adventures while rarely learning or growing from experience, as is with most casual viewing programs.
This highly exaggerated view of a “Typical American Family” has captured a part of American society that is funny and fresh and watchable while still being hypercritical of the country it’s set in. Throughout several seasons and some alien interference, the show from producer Seth MacFarland has had critical and fan success reaching most young Americans and cable television viewers at least once.
American Dad as an index of the political landscape
Each of the central characters embodies a facet of American political identity. The main character and focus of the show is CIA-operative Stan Smith, he represents the far right of the American political system. He rarely questions his government and was for many seasons openly homophobic, xenophobic, and very frequently racist. At times this racism comes from ignorance and stupidity rather than blatant animosity, as if it should be defended.
He is an example of the stereotypical cis, white, heterosexual man. Stan may be the show's true central character and protagonist, but he often acts as an antagonist for many side characters including his wife’s friends, his neighbors, and even members of his own family when they don’t follow his lead. This is especially true with his daughter Haley Smith and her husband Jeff. He is the patriarch of the Smith household but he is not always the final voice in the decisions of his family, at times the voice of finality comes from his wife Francine Smith.
Francine Smith’s identity in this show comes mainly from her position in society as an upper middle-class housewife. She often sides with Stan on many issues despite not believing he is right. In several episodes, Francine’s views on the world are explored and it seems to be obvious that she tends to agree with her leftist daughter. Though like many real-life women in her position, her status in society allows her the freedom to distance herself from politics and the political space simply because she does not have the same stakes in many decisions as minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or the impoverished do.
However, as a child Francine was adopted by a family of Chinese immigrants and therefore is significantly more open minded than her husband ever could be, because her experience of the world was so different. Francine has in several instances shown very truly who she is and what she believes in. For example,in Season 10, Episode 1 she follows Haley as she loses herself to the glamorous side of life as a blonde rather than a dark haired woman, in the process also stopping her mission to help save the planet. Francine shows that she aligns herself with the beliefs that Haley holds and assists her in capsizing the yacht they are on, thus creating more problems for the environment for comedic effect. Francine’s character would best describe the moderate left of American society.
Politicians navigating the creator and created public sphere differs from them having the ability to create their own messages.
Haley Smith, the eldest daughter of the Smith family, quite openly resembles the radical left. Often throughout the series she commits acts of domestic terrorism in the name of the planet, but also at times in the name of immigrants, undocumented peoples, and the LGBT community. In Season 2, Episode 11, Haley becomes an eco-warrior to fight a local mall’s expansion which would clear parts of a forest. Originally, she began by protesting but this becomes much more when she joins a local eco-group. They plan to burn down the mall but do not care about the customers inside, Francine being one of them. Haley backs out of these plans and helps her father stop the radicals. She believes strongly in the ideals of the left and goes to outrageous lengths to anger her far right father.
Haley dates local unemployed pot head Jeff Fischer on and off for many seasons, at times to anger or get revenge on her father. She eventually marries Jeff despite her father’s many attempts to prevent her from doing so. This father-daughter dynamic is however not new, it was featured in long-running 1970’s comedy series All in the Family. At times American Dad has been called a farcical animated version of the original, and was originally inspired by it. Both of these popular shows make use of political satire, bigotry, ludicrous expressions of conservatism and right wing views from their paternal main character and sensible expressions of liberalism from their daughter character. Also it happens that in both series’ the daughter character marries a man and they both move into the family home, adding an additional character to buffer the father figure.
The political impact of entertainment
What people watch on television may not seem very important to the political sphere. But as satire and satirically based humor or political drama becomes increasingly popular in television programing, including comedy news shows like the Daily Show with Trevor Noah and the Late Show with Seth Myers, comedy television series including Brooklynn Nine-Nine and Black-ish, and comedy animation like South Park or American Dad, the political sphere must change in response to the messages being broadcast by people who may not agree with the message at all.
When creating American Dad Seth MacFarlane said, “It was right after the 2000 election, and me and [co-creator] Matt Weitzman were so frustrated with the Bush administration that we would just spend days bitching and complaining, and we figured we should channel this into something creative and hopefully profitable.” This idea is not new, creators often find an outlet to criticize the world they live in through their creations.
The two creators of South Park, another American satirical animated comedy, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have, like the creators of American Dad, openly expressed disillusionment with both of the major political parties of the United States. They have reportedly identified as Libertarians, which differs from the more Democratic views of American Dad creator Seth MacFarlane, but make fun heavily of both Republicans and Democrats.
In recent seasons, South Park has depicted a caricature of President Donald Trump in the character Mr. Garrison, a former school teacher and local crazy person turned president. This character is outlandish and insane, and will go to any length for people to know that he is the best person in the room and in charge of the United States. Travis M Andrews, regarding his opinion of the views held by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone says, “There are two choices, and both of them are awful.” He continues to describe how much the political sphere has changed for South Park, much like how American Dad has responded to changes in political power during its running: “Nowadays, the political stakes feel higher than at any point in the show’s 21-year run. The left and the right don’t just disagree but see each other as morally reprehensible, like when the president defends white supremacists or when anti-capitalist, anti-fascist protesters set fire to a limousine on Inauguration Day.”
Message politics and political entertainment
As these creations becomes more and more popular in the public sphere, politicians must adapt to this and begin to control their message in a different way. Politicians are all actors in a way, in that they use performance to create their political messages and convey them to the voting public (Silverstein, 2003). Anything a politician or political party does is to construct a meaning or send a message to their audience or to the public.
For example, when campaigning for the 2018 United States’ Presidential Election, Donald Trump portrayed himself as a political outsider, someone who can “see through the political swamp and drain it,” and a as a friend of the working man despite being a multi-millionaire. Donald Trump was engaging in performance politics to create and convey his political identity and brand. Members of a democratic government claim to represent the people and the nation at large, often by sharing in the same beliefs as their constituents. They do this by constructing direct and likeable messages for their constituents.
Politicians navigating the creator and created public sphere differs from them having the ability to create their own messages. When politicians or political parties create a message, they can control what they say, but they cannot control what others may think or say about it. Throughout American Dad and its cousin series Family Guy, members of the Republican party are often the butt of the jokes during their time in office.
George Bush’s political performance of himself as a “common man” and speaking like he was more familiar with traditional American blue-collar values made it easy for creator Seth MacFarlane to center jokes around him. During the pilot episode of American Dad, George Bush is seen telling people he “talks to God” and is met with a response from a cartoon of God who asks Bush to stop talking about their relationship so much, as if God were embarrassed.
On the topic of American Dad’s politicism, 20th-Century Fox Television’s chairman Gary Newman said: “The most conservative people in the country controlled both the legislative and executive branches, so it was the perfect time to skewer that point of view.” Politicians exercise control of these messages by participating in several programs that typically may depict them negatively in order to reach out to an audience who usually may not engage with that politician. American politicians and the parties rely on television and cable programs to broadcast their messages as most typical Americans are apathetic towards their government and are not involved in politics. Politicians do this by being involved in or on as guests on shows such as Saturday Night Live and “late night” news shows. This is often American politicians' best opportunity to spread their messages to the general public who often find themselves uninterested in politics.
American dad, satire, and contemporary politics
As viewership of satirical series such as American Dad become more and more popular both viewers and politicians must adapt. Viewers may find themselves agreeing with what they see on television, a common theory for young people who these adult animation shows appeal heavily to. They may also start to see themselves becoming more aware of the world around them as these shows attempt to become as relevant as they possibly can to garner interest and viewership. Politicians may have to engage with their audiences differently after a negative portrayal of themselves on shows such as American Dad, Family Guy, and South Park since many members of their audiences may have been exposed to that content.
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