Down syndrome is Fox’s idea of a good joke

By now you’ve probably heard that the Fox animated sitcom, “The Family Guy” recently made a really mean joke about Sarah Palin. But that’s a highly selective take. The entire episode is really about how amusing Down syndrome is and how even women with Down syndrome are just high-maintenance bitches like all other women. (Oooh, almost a win there, with the suggestion that someone with Down syndrome might have a personality of her own just like everyone else, except they just had to pick a misogynistic stereotype.)

To summarize the episode, Chris asks out Ellen, a girl with Down syndrome (that he finds her attractive sounds promising at first). Stewie helps him dress for the date while singing a musical number, “Down Syndrome Girl“, which refers to Ellen having just recently learned to tie her shoes. (For bonus points, it also contains the line: “You wanna take that little whore, and spin her on the dancing floor,” because apparently the writers think calling a teenage girl a whore is funny.) Ellen proves to be extremely demanding, making Chris give her massages and make her ice cream sundaes before she’ll let him touch her sexually. This culminates in his saying: “I don’t care how hot you are! I don’t much like being treated this way. You know, I used to hear that people with Down syndrome were different than the rest of us, but you’re not. You’re not different at all! You’re just a bunch of [bleep bleep bleep] like everybody else!”

Okay, let’s get the Palin joke out of the way before I start dissecting the above: when Chris asks Ellen about herself, she says, “My dad’s an accountant, and my mom is the former governor of Alaska.” This joke fails completely on the humor front, because a child having Down syndrome does not imply anything at all about her parents. Where’s the humorous dig at Palin?

Jezebel says:

Out of context, it seems mostly mystifying…  The dig about Ellen’s mom being the former governor of Alaska just seems sort of out of place, and the entire scene appears less about disabilities than about a girl who likes to order her date around.

The rest of the episode yields some more upsetting bits — notably the musical number “Down Syndrome Girl.” Stewie sings a bunch of jokes about Ellen spilling Yoo-Hoo and learning to tie her shoes, all of which are tasteless. There’s also the odd assertion that Ellen has a super-strong, crushing embrace. Given the fact that people with Down syndrome sometimes have poor muscle tone, this seems especially stupid: an attempt to play on stereotype without even understanding what the stereotypes are.

Yes. And the only way these jokes “work” is if the viewer simply equates having Down syndrome with being “a retard”, thinks “retards” are good fodder for jokes just on the basis of how they look or act, and – in the case of the Palin dig – thinks that giving birth to a “retarded” kid suggests that a parent is defective in some way.

Also disheartening is the fact that Chris’ attraction to Ellen turns out to be based on the assumption that a Down syndrome girl would be sweet and malleable. While I like that Chris learned his prejudice was wrong, the idea of a neurotypical person deliberately seeking out a date with someone he believes will be less socially/emotionally mature sounds more than a little predatory.

The emphasis on the Palin dig distracts us from what’s really happening here. Everyone’s trying to score points for their political agenda, the right wing calling out liberals for accepting a joke that uses a child with Down syndrome to get at her mother and the left wing suggesting it’s all Palin’s fault for using her kids to further her political agenda. It’s all crap – even the bits that are true. We’ve talked before about the faux liberalism of Hollywood and the inability of many Hollywood people to recognize that children who aren’t somebodies have as many rights as their good buddies. It’s almost clever that right wingers have finally picked up on this hypocrisy in the past few months, but they so often end up re-using the victims in question to attack their liberal opponents that I’m just sick to death of all of ’em – both sides.

“The Family Guy” had a cool opportunity to make an awesome character who happened to have Down syndrome and be a girl. But the portrayal failed epically because instead of thinking of her as a character, the writers thought of her as a disorder they find humorous and a gender they’re content to stereotype


  1. says

    I’ve got no idea where it comes from, but I’ve definitely heard my parents refer to “retard strength” when talking about people with Down Syndrome and autism. But it doesn’t come up often, so when it does, I ignore them.

    My biggest problem with Family Guy is that all the messages about women are pretty much that they’re all giant bitches and whores. They try and cutesy it up by being very “wink at the audience!” about it, but that’s why when/if I’m going to watch, I prefer non-women-centric episodes, where the stereotypes are at least varied and you can expect several visual/physical gags.

    …I prefer The Boondocks and Big Bang Theory, but those aren’t shown with anywhere near the frequency.

  2. says

    And the whole Sarah Palin being her mother thing is supposed to be funny just because the audience’s assumed response is, “Hey! That’s a retarded person I know about! HAHAHA. Her kid is retarded!”

    My dad laughs at jokes like this, you see. I know the call-and-response formula.

  3. Zeth says

    I wonder if all the “mentally handicapped = super strong” stereotypes come from Of Mice and Men, since the handicapped character in that book did not understand his own strength.

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