To my roommates and me, there are very few things funnier than Fox’s cartoon sitcom Family Guy. Though sometimes called offensive, grotesque, or ill mannered, Family Guy often teaches a lesson—you might have to dig deep. It is a show that rarely leaves any group, religion, or political ideology unscathed, and so I credit for its fairness. At some point or another all races and creeds are represented in the show. Whether it’s Mort, the Jewish pharmacy owner; Cleveland, the black neighbor; Peter, the Irish Catholic drunk; or a character that is only around for an episode or two, Family Guy does a good job of keeping it real (well as real as any cartoon Rhode Island town can be).
Well, on the note of diversity, my roommate and I were talking about the show and discussing a particularly funny line delivered by the youngest child of the show’s star family, the Griffins, Stewie—why Stewie speaks with a British accent when no one else in his family does is a question that takes a back seat once you realize that he is, in fact, conversing with the family dog, Brian, who is quite a fan of cigarettes and a good martini. This particular scene involved Stewie attempting to frame his babysitter by telling his mother that she was smoking and injecting, respectively, what he called mara-joo-wana and hero-ween. Now, in the midst of the conversation my roommate turned to me.
“I just found out that the guy who does Cleveland’s voice is white.” You remember of course that Cleveland is the black neighbor of the Griffins, and my roommate is of course black.
“How devastating,” I said with a bit of a laugh.
“It is devastating!” He seemed genuinely upset. “All those years that I thought I could relate to him as the tokin’ black guy!” He felt really betrayed by this mastermind plot of Fox’s to lure in and deceive its young black viewers.
“All down the drain,” I joked.
“Down the drain,” he repeated.
This conversation couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. This was just hours after we had discussed the ramifications of race in humor in Tyler Perry’s book. My roommate really thought differently of the way Cleveland acted and what he said since he was now aware that the voice actor was actually white. Cleveland has recently been given a spin off, aptly named The Cleveland Show. The show has a wide variety of themes, among which is a prominent theme of black culture. In attempting to reconnect with his past, Cleveland leaves the predominantly white New England town of Quahog and finds himself in the predominantly black town of Stoolbend, Virginia.
To my roommate, Cleveland was an insight to the black culture. He was someone to relate to, someone who spoke with a voice that he could listen to and understand. As soon as he found out that that voice was actually white, he was not as comfortable with the character. The voice was no longer an insight—it became a criticism, an outsider’s point of view. This was exactly the kind of thing that we talked about in class. When is it okay to comment on a culture? Is there a difference between being on the inside or the outside when making such comments?
I think that my roommate seeing Cleveland as a fraud because he was not actually black is related to the idea of being on the inside or the outside. Not only would the white voice actor be on the outside of the black culture, but his portrayal of Cleveland could be seen as an insult to the black community—he is not only pretending to be something that he is not, but he is playing out stereotypes that could easily be construed as insulting criticisms.