Steubenville and the Family Guy Generation

Our culture constantly blurs the line between real-life pain and bad humor. Why would we expect our children to do otherwise?

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Jason Cohn / Reuters

A sheriff's vehicle patrols the area around Steubenville High School

It’s tempting to believe that the cruel behavior of teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio, is an anomaly. And it’d be easy to blame the whole sordid mess surrounding this now famous rape case on the unique dynamics of athlete-worshiping towns. Why else would two star football players think it was O.K. to sexually assault an incapacitated 16-year-old girl while dozens of their peers looked on, laughed and uploaded photos of the rape in progress without really comprehending that it was rape? At the sentencing of the two Ohio teens convicted on Sunday, the judge, Thomas Lipps, said: “The things our children were saying and doing were profane and ugly.” But those Steubenville kids are not so different from kids across America. Before we condemn them, let’s remember they could be our children.

(MORE: Steubenville Rape Guilty Verdict: The Case That Social Media Won)

Every time a tragic bullying case or some other national event exposes the unpleasant underbelly of teen social media, we’re all dismayed, not just about the possible crime in question but also about the tone and tenor of the world that is revealed — whether it’s the Florida teen bullied on a new social site called Ask.fm by kids who anonymously taunted her with “Just kill yourself. Your [sic] worthless,” or by the recurring scandals brought on by the epidemic of consensual but disturbingly explicit sexting. These incidents have parents cringing.

In the Steubenville case, one of the many disturbing revelations was that too many kids didn’t seem to understand that rather than make jokes or forward photos, they should do something to help the victim. But we can’t expect much from our kids when we adults seem pretty conflicted about what exactly constitutes rape — or what’s O.K. to joke about and what’s not.

Up until January 2012, the FBI’s official definition included the word forcible — an effective exclusion of nonconsensual sex with a person who was incapacitated or unconscious because they were drugged or intoxicated. That has changed, but the culture might take a while to catch up. And it bears reminding that the GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan sponsored an antiabortion bill allowing exemptions only in the cases of “forcible” rape, which could exclude cases in which the victim was underage or unconscious. In that context, it’s not hard to understand why one of the Steubenville witnesses, Evan Westlake, testified that he didn’t think what he was seeing was rape, saying: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”

(MORE: Girls on Film: How Innocent Pictures Feed the Internet Porn Machine)

And as for what’s funny, my 16-year-old daughter tells me that while her friends would never rape someone, the language used by the Steubenville kids to describe sexual assault and to degrade the victim is common online. Joking about rape, referencing sexual acts and girls making fun of girls perceived as “sluts” is just part of teen online culture now. The Steubenville kids captioned a picture of the passed-out victim “B-tches is b-tches. F— ’em,” but you could find dozens of similar comments online written by both young men and young women.

If rape is too common of a punch line for this generation, we shouldn’t be shocked. After all, these kids were raised on Family Guy, a show created by Seth MacFarlane, who drew ire after this year’s Oscars ceremony with his “We Saw Your Boobs” routine and a litany of other offensive jabs. But that’s nothing compared with the animated series’ abortion-coat-hanger jokes and the constant verbal abuse of the female characters. The series, which has become hugely popular among teen boys and young men, features more rape humor than one could tally, including one scene in which a woman is being assaulted on a beach and screams for help while another character, Aquaman, issues lame threats to the perpetrator without leaving the water. The scene ends when Aquaman gives up, saying: “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have led him on.” Maybe this was brilliant, sophisticated meta-humor in which we’re supposed to see this as a commentary on the pressure men feel to be heroes, but is that really how the show’s prime audience of young men will understand it?

(MORE: American Dud: Seth MacFarlane’s Awkward Oscars)

Of course, it’s not fair to link fictional characters and real-life violence. But if you can laugh at rape on TV, why wouldn’t the real thing be funny if you’re young and drunk and if the developmental maturity to control your impulses is years away?

Now, under the glare of the media, the kids in Steubenville have been forced to think twice. Recently, a Steubenville college student not involved in the assault, but who was shown on tape laughing hysterically at images of the rape and calling the girl “dead,” has, despite statements expressing horror at his own behavior, been so vilified and threatened online that he withdrew from college in January. His story is an example of the kind of ancillary damage that happens when the line between real-life pain and bad humor has been blurred — and not just for that kid or the other Steubenville teens. Perhaps it’s time we made it our responsibility, as parents, to explain where we think the line is and who is crossing it — in the media and elsewhere.

Addendum: For those who wonder what a successful rape joke might look like, that topic has been explored here, with a special shout-out to Wanda Sykes.

MORE: Amherst Rape Scandal: What We Get Wrong About Sexual Assault on Campus

120 comments
Heian
Heian

So the lesson we take away, is to let children who have done monstrous things and committed monstrous acts they THEY are victims?

Let's just perpetuate the lack of accountability and I'm certain that it will fix things. People will look for any avenue to deflect blame but it simply falls to those who committed these acts. Likening comments posted with images to others posted is a ridiculous logical stretch in an effort to link their bad behavior with a corrupting influence.

People know the difference between right and wrong. To even imply that what they did was somehow recognizable as "not wrong" is just empowering their ability to escape responsibility. Saying "I didn't know it was wrong" is not an excuse, when you are hurting somebody else, ridiculing somebody else, or demeaning somebody else.


Don't make excuses. There is no excuse.

Buzzramjet
Buzzramjet

Interesting article. SOME valid points. The one that ticked me off the most was the idiotic comment of "before we condemn them let's remember they could be our children".

Did you really write that seriously? Were you actually serious? My child did that and I would condemn him for a very very long time. I do not care whose child it is, such behavior is beyond the pale not to mention illegal, immoral and lacking in humanity.

And I do remember the episode of Family Guy showing Aquaman and the assault. That wasn't a funny scene which makes me wonder why he put it in. BUT I don't think young people who rape use that as a mental underlying excuse to rape thinking it's funny. I just personally find those things in his shows to be disgusting and not remotely funny.

 MY problem with Family Guy and to some extent American Dad, both shows of which I do like to watch, is what appears to be Seth's underlying hatred of woman. The women in his shows are mistreated nonstop. The treatment of Meg stopped being funny by the third episode. Beating her, shoving her face in his rear and farting in it, treating her less than human, the inhuman jokes even her mother makes very much stopped being funny a very long time ago as has his treatment of animals and pets. I have YET to see a single part of an episode where killing, running over, maiming and showing total disrespect for animals is funny OR necessary to any of the plot lines. I remember one episode that showed the family dog being forgotten, run over repeatedly and blood spurting everywhere and it had absolutely NO reason to be part of the episode. Not one.

The amount of people murdered in both shows and by the family is astounding. 

His shows can be funny and socially out there when they are not including those scenes.  Edit out the Aquaman scene and it doesn't affect the show in any way shape or form. Yes I know it is one of their famous "Just like the time..." set ups but it wasn't necessary at all.



LiamCallananana
LiamCallananana

An utterly awful article. Family Guy is not too blame. Like Marilyn Manson wasn't for Columbine, like Call of Duty wasn't for other school shootings. Like Oldboy wasn't for V tech. Popular media is not too blame for rapes or murders. What should take the most of the blame is education. If they were brought up properly, like decent parents like mine. And had proper sex education then it would have been less likely to happen. Too often many political pressure groups not just feminism but feminism included react in a very right wing manner to events. Family Guy is a joke, often those jokes are close to the bone and offensive, but it is simply a joke. It does not condone rape, it does suggest it is okay. The humour works from a shock value. I am sorry but blaming a cartoon is so easy and so lazy. 

hat.dina
hat.dina

America imprisons people but refuse to allow regulations that will prevent the crimes they have done.Imprisonment it`s used as an ultimate thread.

This case was not won by media,as you say.Nobody is a winner.It just shows that big part of the population has very sick ideas about the other part.Also it shows that people think they can do anything ,if they are encouraged  by others around them. These students they would have not go on ,if somebody from the watching crowd  stopped them,instead of taking photos 

The Roman crowd  watched people eaten by lions.We  haven`t changed much since then

The behaviour of these children  is the result of their upbringing and the society they grow up,in


rohit57
rohit57

America imprisons people at seven times the rate of France and even compared to Iran, the rate is bad; America imprisons peopleat  more than twice the rate of Iran does.   And needless to say, in this "male dominated society" most of those imprisoned are male.

But we have had of late tendency to regard more and more behaviors as felonuies even though, as the writers points out, such behaviors are common.

It is important in this domain to remember two things.  One is that girls and women need to be protected.  But other, equally important is to remember that male Americans are not trash to be put behind bars and the key thrown away.  America needs to resort more to education, to necessary precautions and to make much less use of prison.   Can we do that?

Or are we going to follow our vindictive, righteous nature, which has led to two completely unnecessary wars and has resulted in 2 million Americans in prison?

moni222
moni222

This article make it sound like this type of behavior didn't exist before Family Guy and the internet. Let's put things in a little perspective. The fact is rape is down. In 1992 (the highest rate reported), forcible rape was 42.8 per 100,000; in 2011 it was 26.8 per 100,000. And the fact that there is national outrage over what happened in Steubenville is a huge improvement over the not too distant past as well.

Let's look at the problems with have realistically so we can continue improving. Let's not pretend we had some nostalgic time in the past when things were better. That doesn't help solve anything.

MichaelMales
MichaelMales

Ms. Schrobbsdorff says the Steubenville rapists "are not so different from kids across America." This is an extremely ugly statement. Had she said that, say, an African American rapist was not so different from African Americans across the country, she would be rightly condemned as a racist and forced out of her job in disgrace. I often wonder why it is all right for commentators to indulge sweeping, degrading declarations about young people that would be branded hate speech if said about any other group. I also wonder whether she likewise would agree that she and other adults across the country are "not so different" from the adults who commit and abet rape--such as the Catholic Church heirarchy, Penn State University officials and others, the school administrations who cover up for abusive personnel, the parents and caretakers who inflict hundreds of thousands of rapes and sexual abuses on children every year--just as she imposes collective responsibility on all teens? What she says is worse than anything I've heard on Family Guy, and I wonder if she would consider apologizing to young people for her prejudicial statement in order to set an example of the respect she would expect of them.

AaronDarc
AaronDarc

I'm not sure about the line, "Before we condemn them, let’s remember they could be our children." If they were my own children, I'd also condemn their rape. 

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

Sadly we have a generation  who has grown up on foolishness called Media

Family Guy, Married with Children, American Dad, Ted "the movie", Jackazz(3 parts), and more. We have 30 year old men who have the maturity of 10 year old boys . I feel sorry for the  women of this generation who are stuck with these underdeveloped adult "boys" 

The last generation of real men ended in the  1950's 

Hollamann
Hollamann

If you're worried your kids could be like the Steubenville rapists, maybe it's time to evaluate your parenting techniques.

This whole idea of blaming the media, from television to video games, for the lack of moral fiber in kids this days is beyond ridiculous.  If you're not going to parent your children and make them aware of what's right and wrong you should not be having children.  If you try to teach them what's right and wrong and they don't seem to be able to comprehend it, then it's up to you to figure out what's going on in their heads that's preventing them from doing so.

This pass the buck mentality that this country has developed is sickening.

feministkilljoy
feministkilljoy

The blame should not be shifted from the rapists.  It was their genuine choice to rape and humiliate Jane Doe.  But the media is not blameless.  It normalizes and perpetuates violence against women.  It is our society that raised those cowards.  And the cycle of violence will continue unless we own up to the rape culture we have created.

feministkilljoy
feministkilljoy

IT IS NOT SAYING THE MEDIA IS ENTIRELY RESPONSIBLE.... IT IS SAYING THAT THE MEDIA (MORE THAN JUST FAMILY GUY) HAS CONTRIBUTED TO THE MAKING OF A SOCIETY WHERE PEOPLE LIKE THE STEUBENVILLE RAPISTS ARE NOT ANOMALIES.  THE MEDIA AND SOCIETY AS A WHOLE CONTINUALLY UNDERMINES THE SEVERITY OF RAPE.  IT INFORMS OUR DECISIONS EVERYDAY.

MattAnderson
MattAnderson

Oh, good.  We've finally figured out the cause of the problem: comedy.  All these people making fun of things confuses kids into thinking that it's okay to do the things they're making fun of.  Time to ban humor and sarcasm!

lleitl08
lleitl08

Get off your f-in' high horse and blame the PARENTS. I was "raised" on Family Guy and would never dream of raping someone. You are just a pathetic excuse of a human being, always blaming someone else but YOU, the real problem.

bananajamm
bananajamm

I agree with the cultural reasons for why Steubenville happened. However, I find that there are more glaring examples of what is affecting our children. Have you heard the Katy Perry song "Last Friday Night"? 

There's a stranger in my bed,
There's a pounding my head
Glitter all over the room
Pink flamingos in the pool
I smell like a minibar
DJ's passed out in the yard
Barbies on the barbeque

This a hickie or a bruise?
Pictures of last night
Ended up online
I'm screwed
Oh well
It's a blacked out blur
But I'm pretty sure it ruled
Damn


According to Katy Perry, possibly getting beaten and having a stranger in your bed "rules." No wonder boys think these girls are fair game. 

CasperLehner
CasperLehner

These conclusions lack any real base other than simple untested opinion that are contradictory to real evidence. Children are not all the same simply because they are exposed to information or stresses. They are a combination of their genetic predispositions and moral structures established as they grow. They are essentially psychopaths waiting for moral programming and running purely on chemicals and hormones. The real factor involved here is the lack of discipline and understanding of consequences. Cause and effect. This was something that corporal punishment was very good at establishing. Unfortunately, people believed that they could come up with a better methodology and when it failed to produce better people, they simply stuck with it rather than reverting back to something that worked or testing a new hypothesis.

There should be no sympathy given to these kids. They made a choice and should be treated accordingly. If people had enforced the reality of cause and effect on them at an earlier age, this most likely could have been avoided.

skatergirlnyc1
skatergirlnyc1

Based on most of these comments, it seems that the point of the article was missed.  This article was not about imposing blame it was illustrating how the Family Guy generation is desensitized because they are over exposed to satire and violence that makes light of very serious issues. Children and teenager see this and think that it is ok to be as despicable as what they see on television.

SA
SA

These are some bold conclusions to make on an investigation that starts and stops with "...my 16-year-old daughter tells me." 

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

" But those Steubenville kids are not so different from kids across America. Before we condemn them, let’s remember they could be our children."

And if they were ' our children ' , you wouldn't allocate blame ?

Do the crime , do the time .

nomoreilluminati
nomoreilluminati

The truth is, whether you believe in God or not, or a Higher Power, your secret life will eventually be exposed.  This is the order of human nature.  A politician, a teenager, an adulterous affair, stealing money from a company you work for, or getting speeding tickets everyday...eventually, the hammer comes down, because thier are laws in our society that are set in place...even negative talk about others online...it will all come back on you.  The only way out is humility, to say, you know, I was wrong, I made a mistake.  I heard from the lawyer of the mother of the 16 yr old, and he said, she never wanted or intended for it to go this far.  From the beginning, she was just looking for an apology for the way her daughter was treated, and it took court and a verdict for this to come forth.  That is sickening.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oou9PqFprJo&feature=endscreen&NR=1

bpobnnn
bpobnnn

I feel like this article paints a portrait in which parents are not involved in a child's life. No matter what 'influences' a child has from a TV show, parents (or even school?) should ALWAYS re-enforce what rape is and that it's NOT okay. I watch the Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, and some other shows that probably wouldn't be the best shows for children to watch. But from a young age, I knew that rape is/was not okay. And if you're saying that the kids are now receiving mixed messages, maybe that's the reason TV shows have ratings and that parents should have control over what they're children watch. 

And, honestly, I WOULD condemn them even if they were my own children. Rape is rape. There's no way they're parents could've believed they were innocent, and you have to be fair in the justice system. 

DavidViviPowell
DavidViviPowell

To link a rape with Family Guy is an utter dis-service to the issue and middle American scaremongering. A similar link was made with Eminem many years ago, a link which was similarly irresponsible.

Young men have a huge number of influences on their lives which may be said to be a contributory factor to their behaviour. This said, for every rapist, there are millions of teenagers acting in an entirely natural and law abiding way. I would estimate that amongst that group many are Family Guy fans.

The depiction of women in society is also a complex issue and I'd suggest that female role models are also analysed for the way in which they presentthaelves and their sexuality.

All in all, this is a contemptable piece of journalistic work.

semicolin14
semicolin14

Okay, I agree with this article to an extent. My only problem is the fact that it, once again, takes attention off of the rapists. How many more excuses can we make for these gentlemen? Yes, Family Guy and other shows may be crude, but they often feature themes of women's empowerment as well as the themes that you mention. What needs to happen is people need to stop making excuses (which I feel this article does) and start punishing rapists (regardless of their age, social status, etc.) more severely to deter this kind of behavior. What kind of message is the legal system sending to these boys when drug possession can ultimately leave them with a 15-year prison sentence, but raping a girl only results in a one year sentence?

nomoreilluminati
nomoreilluminati

"As the case heads for its next phase, questions are stirring from Steubenville and beyond as to whether Saccoccia did what was right in the days that followed the assault of a 16-year-old-girl after one of his team's games, as well as who he was trying to help, how he used his power to help them, and whether he broke the law."  Alexander Abad-Santos, the Atlantic Wire.  This is not about a tv show the Family Guy.  This is about leadership and law enforcement in a town, one town, not the entire US of America, that turned thier backs on a victim of violence.  You would be responding differently if this had been your sister, mother or daughter.

ronajrny
ronajrny

Let me say from the start that any kind of sex that is not absolutely consented to by a competent adult is wrong in my opinion. The fact that it happened and that the witnesses did not stop it is where things get a little less absolute. Any of the young people who tried to intervene in this, given the status, brutality and presumed intoxication of the participants would have likely led to the beating of the would be rescuer. Some people just don't have a do or die constitution and that is OK. Teenagers have been drinking and doing stupid, tragic things all throughout history. It does not mean that what they do is right or legal, it just means that it happens. It does not happen due to bad parenting necessarily. When these things are brought to the attention of any adult, they should be investigated and appropriately handled, not treated as "just kids being kids". Just because most of these things never make it past the remorse and horror of the next day does not mean that they are not happening all over our nation multiple times daily. With any luck at all, with the attention this case has garnered, more victims will feel empowered to come forward. Maybe even some would-be assailants will think twice before they victimize and ruin a young womans (or any womans) present and future. Rape or sexual assault, the semantics do not matter much. The final definition of the acts in this crime is ruin.

nomoreilluminati
nomoreilluminati

"One of the lessons of life is we have to take care of each other, and we have to try to help people and we have to do what's right," DeWine is quoted as saying in a CNN report Tuesday. "And there were precious few people that night that were doing what was right."   Hope your spending time with your children tongiht and that the internet/cell phone/tv/movie/gaming networks are not raising your children.  They may not like you finding out what they're doing or who they're with, but it could save you a hefy lawyer bill and jail time late...and I don't think Paul Ryan is going to be blamed for lack of parenting skills.

flintstriker
flintstriker

This is why Family Guy should have a restricted rating. It's not for all ages.

thesauros
thesauros

It's been so great to finally get away from stifling Christianity and it's moralizing. Now we're free to choose our own way. 

thesauros-store.blogspot.com

mtenenbaum26
mtenenbaum26

@ ibtlius: Good thing you're here bro... It's about time heterosexual males stood up for their rights that have been so trampled upon by old hags everywhere throughout history!  

Seriously though, ibtlius' soul-crushing stupidity aside, as the author of this article, what else can you expect?  You're playing the role of the stereotypical humorless out-of-touch feminist just as well as ibtlius is playing the role of that stereotypical painfully moronic dude who thinks women that wear short skirts at night kind of deserve to be raped.  As a raging feminist myself, I'm loathe to make a "she was asking for it" joke, especially in this context, (although I just did it anyway. sue me.) but seriously, an article blaming Family Guy, even a tiny bit and however indirectly, for creating rapey teenage boys is just inviting a bunch of idiots to comment, because it's dumb. Instead of reacting to the part of the article about teenagers and rape, people are just going to react to the fact that you're criticizing their favorite TV show.  But they shouldn't just react because you said something critical about a show they like, they should react because the argument you're making is frustrating and ineffective and exhausting. How many times throughout history have we been over this, in some form or another? Despite the fact that it's filled with poop jokes, (<3) Family Guy actually appeals to an intelligent audience.  Does Seth MacFarlane really need to publicly confirm that he thinks rape is bad?

It's satire.  He didn't invent it. It's not his fault if teenagers or adults don't understand it.  He's not responsible for explaining why rape is wrong to teenagers, and he's not irresponsible because he expects people to understand the difference between laughing at the Aquaman scene and laughing at an actual rape in progress.  But SOMEONE is responsible for explaining the issue to teenagers so they do understand the difference.  I just don't know why you're putting that responsibility on Seth MacFarlane, of all people.  Jesus. That's not his job.  

Rape jokes are a tricky issue in general, and that's the point you're trying to make, I think, and it's a legitimate one.  Tricky, but not unilaterally offensive just because they offend you, or me, and not universally acceptable because critics of rape jokes are "feminist hags with no sense of humor" (Ugh.) You're absolutely not wrong that lots of teenagers (and adults) probably missed the point of the Aquaman scene (you did) and routinely miss the point of Family Guy in general.  And you're not even wrong that that's potentially a bad thing.   But I think the bigger problem is that maybe some teenagers (and adults!) aren't actually clear on what constitutes rape, and they're too afraid or ashamed to ask for clarification because they'll get their heads bitten off.  And that's not helping anyone, anywhere, at all. I think this article does a good job of addressing the issue, and although it's about college students, it's applicable to people of all ages: http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/30/when-will-men-say-something/?iid=op-main-lead