Modern Propaganda: How Animated Comedies Can Change Our Opinions
Modern animated comedies like Family Guy, American Dad! and South Park can be considered one of the heaviest impacting forms of modern propaganda. These shows, because of their animated nature, can do things (including making explicitly edgy statements) that a non-animated show could never get away with. There are virtually no animated shows very serious in nature, and there is a reason for this: when exposed to humor, people are more apt to be accepting of the content. This gives the writers of these shows a “rule-breaking” edge. They can say things through their characters that no regular actor could get away with saying (and even if they could, most actors wouldn’t want to be branded with outrageous statements or ideologies). Perhaps a closer look should be taken into exactly what messages can be found imbedded in modern animated comedies, and what the writers are actually trying to tell its viewers.
Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy is best known for its use of flashback, cut away jokes, and pop culture references. It features the average blue-collar, dysfunctional family that becomes entangled in misadventures and otherwise outrageous circumstances.
Harmless enough, right? Well, if you don’t include the baby with a British accent who tries constantly to kill his mother, an alcoholic talking dog, and a dad who’s more clueless than a goldfish, then the show tends to lack substance, excluding the fact that it already severely lacks a structured plot. That is okay though, because animated comedies are rule breakers. They can ignore things like plot because they are funny! Shows like Family Guy are able to indirectly channel ideologies toward its viewers because comedy helps take the sting out of their statements.
American Dad! is known most notably for its concentration on subtler humor that works more closely around its characters and the situations they encounter. It features the average American conservative family, from Stan’s wife Francine, his two teenage children, a talking goldfish, and an alien living in the attic, which encompasses a broad spectrum of conservative qualities from the actions of the father to the rest of the family.
Both Family Guy and American Dad! appear on FOX network, but it’s interesting as well because this show, while still remaining largely popular, seems to draw in a smaller demographic than Family Guy. Instead of drawing a large focus on what happens to them, American Dad! seems to focus more on what the family does about their circumstances instead. In this way, now two animated shows exist that each identify more with one of both major political parties, covering the full spectrum of political opinion.
The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, really knew the power invested in exploring opinions through the use of comedy. Probably the most intricate and well-planned satire in the history of animation and television itself, South Park has shown that it isn’t afraid to push boundaries on all of the touchy subjects. Perhaps the show draws its power on the notion that their reputation upholds them. Their pilot episode depicted an alien encounter that resulted in a probe being placed in a boy’s rectum, a boy who drop kicked his baby brother around for fun, and a group of 7-year-old friends who spoke like potty-mouthed college students with the minds of a 7-year-old. Being glaringly obvious, it is a show that aimed to be blunt and offensive, and it was that stability that projected the show into a cult classic, and ultimately one that millions of teenagers would secretly tune into after their parents went to bed.
The bluntness of the show is alarmingly enticing, and one that provides an experience that no other show has before it. First time viewers would witness the show for one major reason: because they heard others say they simply had to watch it to see what it was about. This would have been the ideal atmosphere for a South Park-perfect-storm. With that base being established throughout the first season, it allowed its creators to push on to bigger and badder things, knowing it had the support of its viewers. It simply accepted what it was as a show meant to be offensive and vulgar, and not surprisingly, those are both chemicals for comedic success. Because it is known to be offensive, they can virtually touch on any subject they please, and are almost guaranteed a positive response from regular viewers. Although it is a less mainstream genre of comedy, those who enjoy it typically enjoy it a lot, and for good reason.
What Gives Animated Comedies An Edge?
The reason that animated shows are a perfect medium to channel thoughts and ideas around so abstractly is simple: depersonalization. Because its characters are only voiced actors, the characters begin to take on an identity of themselves, because viewers attach ideas, quotes, thoughts, motivations, actions, and philosophies to the characters we view, and not to those who create them. In Family Guy and American Dad!, we don’t readily attribute Peter’s blind stupidity or Stan’s unyielding arrogance to Seth MacFarlane, who voices many of his shows’ characters, but instead to only Peter and Stan.
Why does this happen? Mostly because people see them interact as their animated persona, and, because we learn about characters (animated or not) from those actions, over time they build credibility, and ultimately, we believe them to exist in some way. If, for an episode, Peter were to turn into a full-scale racist, as viewers we would mostly be at least accepting of the humor expected in the show, even if that would ordinarily offend someone. This is different from when viewing a real actor reflect these opinions for two major reasons.
First, these shows can be thought of as a credibility clock, being that over time audiences grow to expect certain types of humor in the shows, and become more accepting of the content that falls in line with the expectations of that show. In this case, an episode on racism from Family Guy would be seen as funny because Peter’s stupidity acts as a safeguard, and, because we have come to know Peter’s character, we expect that kind of ignorance from him. Likewise, if an episode of South Park were to instead to make an episode on political correctness, it would be even funnier to its viewers because we have come to expect South Park to be bluntly offensive and insensitive.
In the beginning of a series, had a character done something very outrageous in some way, the show would, in response, be branded to contain those types of ideas from the beginning. So, unless a show had a goal similar to South Park, typically it would be expected to start safely, with some elements included that would be expanded on in the future. When the first Family Guy aired after the Super Bowl XXXIII, it received wide skepticism because of its controversial content. Still, it remained popular through its second season, before being beaten out on the network by the show Frasier. After facing near cancellation, a few months later it returned as a cult classic and renewed the interest of its viewers immensely. After it secured its place in the hearts of American television audiences once more, it began to stockpile the expectations of the viewer. In the later seasons of these shows, notice how all of the humor has gotten cruder, ruder, more obvious, and in some cases more graphic and otherwise simply more blunt. Every season South Park breaks new ground when pushing the boundaries of the extremely sensitive topics. Family Guy has gotten much gorier and contains more physical violence in the later seasons. American Dad! has also become more crude in subject matter. Why can they do this? Viewers accept these additions because of the notoriety the show has created for itself. Expectations are living and breathing, and grow with its viewer population as a show progresses in time. We accept new ideas and new ground as character/plot development, and are almost thankful for new material to continue to enjoy.
Second, the writers of an animated comedy make sure to establish characters very well in the beginning, to allow growth and wiggle room over time for more complex situations. Because these characters are not real people, it’s important to define them well because a viewer will come to acknowledge those characters like they would with a regular actor. This means that, if an animated character has already been shown to act in a similar way (to a lesser degree) in the past, then viewers accept his/her growth as a character regardless of the subject matter. Over time, after they build up substantial credibility, it allows the writers more flexibility to investigate new subject material with their character, mostly because audiences will ultimately begin to believe them. In this case, character development is a key tool for writers to be able to eventually speak through these characters, and leave its viewers with messages to walk away with.
What Types Of Messages Can Be Projected?
Although the targeted audiences for mature animated comedies usually range from 14 to an adult for TV-MA shows, it seems that mostly pre-teens and younger teenagers dominate this realm of television. So, there is a reasonable concern among parents and choosing to let their children indulge in these shows. Some possible reasoning behind this might be found in an article published by another member of The Artifice, Robyn McComb, found here.
With any sort of show, fictitious, animated, both, or neither, there is usually a prevailing theme. Whether or not this is even realized by the creators, a show viewed by someone will be left with a message of sorts regardless of any further effort. What the writers are able to do is try their best to craft that message to be as clear as they want it to be with the tools they have to use, or else they leave the message to be received at face value, without any specific impression. In this way, writers and creators have a choice: either leave the message up for personal discretion, or try to make it more clear what they want the message to be, because a message will be received regardless of their efforts.
The point is, the heart of each resulting episode can be looked at as the prevailing opinions of the network, writers, and creators, and the backbone of the show itself. This is what each episode boils down to: their opinions about any particular topic being projected through their filter of comedy and directly into the retinas and then into the mind. In the meeting room, decisions are made for each joke placed in the show, including some and excluding others intentionally. If they didn’t agree in pre-production, the episode wouldn’t have included that element. With animated shows especially, they have the power to create their world exactly as they want it; they can create and destroy characters, change their surroundings on a whim, and otherwise distort reality in any way they see fit. The point is, their inception and creation is not accidental or serendipitous, but rather it is completely deliberate. This means that numerous benefits can be achieved from watching these shows with more depth than a laugh factor, and instead using them to critically analyze them for thoughts and opinions about life in America, politics, religion, sexism, and every other delightfully interesting and yet politically taboo subject excluded in non-animated shows.
Pop Culture Pleasures
Pop culture references are used excessively in these shows because of two major reasons; pop culture references are relatable and current, and because of that fact, dissenting opinions (Or over dramatized ones) can easily be rib tickling. Pop culture is a rare comedic candy that can spark conversation easily as well as also be used to maximize the laugh factor. In more cases than not, current pop culture is widely entertaining to us because we can relate to the events in real life. In Family Guy and South Park, cameos by actors playing real people or groups are often seen making appearances into these shows. For example, Family Guy has hosted a variety of pop culture characters from the 80’s to the present, including the Pope, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dane Cook, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, the band KISS, and countless others. In South Park, they use character cameos more directly to poke fun at current events affecting that person. Other than characters, these shows also often use pop culture to reflect current events, and their opinions attached to them. They do this for the same reasons listed above; they are funny when be over-dramatized, over-worked, and otherwise satirical.
These shows, because of how wildly popular they have become, have the ability to change the opinions and mindsets of its audience. Being that the majority of this audience happens to be predominantly very impressionable youth, this can be considered a large source of power. Because these shows are animated, and regardless of how believable they can become, it’s hard to remember that they are more than cartoons. Continued exposure to debatable subject matter (such as gay rights, sexism, racism, religion, etc.) tends to desensitize the viewers, and when projected through the lens of that certain show, slowly begins to shift opinions of the audience. Animated comedies are one of the most effective methods of impressing opinions and beliefs onto its viewers, and it’s through the unique genre of animation that they are able to do so so successfully.
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