Teenage female characters are the most common victims of sexual jokes on broadcast TV shows, claims a study by the Parents Television Council report released on July 9.
The study relied on a definition of sexual exploitation defined by the United Nations as "involving abuse of a position of vulnerability, power, or trust for sexual purposes including profiting financially, socially or politically." It examined a 238 shows that aired during four weeks in 2011 and 2012, according to CBS News. The shows spanned a broad range of humor; some target family audiences like Glee while others are more adult-oriented like Family Guy. The report "found a third of the episodes included content that 'rose to the level of sexual exploitation' of females."
Teenage females, however, were even more likely to be targeted than adult females at a rate of 43% versus 33%.
Fox's Family Guy was one of the TV shows most highly criticized by the report. The show often uses teenage daughter, Meg Griffin, as the butt of sexual jokes about women. One incident that the study cited was a quote from an episode that aired in May 2012, in which an announcer says referring to Meg, "This girl is perfect if you want to buy a sex slave, but don't want to spend sex slave money." This example is hardly unique to the show's humor.
The difficulty is in distinguishing which jokes are appropriate and which should not be made into laughing matters. According to Reverend Delman Coates, a member of the PTC board, "young people are having difficulty managing the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate sexual conduct." It is no surprise that people, especially young people, are affected by the media. Everything from body image, to violence, we are conditioned by what is presented to us on TV. The messages conveyed by TV shows and the media are one exacerbating factor, if not a cause of the youth's distorted perceptions about appropriate sexual behavior.
"An industry that attracts billions of ad dollars meant to influence buying habits must acknowledge that it has an impact on viewers, especially youngsters," said PTC President Tim Winter, according to CBS News.
According to Jezebel, Winter confessed that it is bad that he laughed at these types of jokes. But he is hardly alone; TV shows like Family Guy elicit a complex reaction from viewers, as many laugh but feel both entertained and uneasy. We find jokes funny because they are grounded in something — whether a stereotype or popular culture. Is it possible for TV shows to present jokes as harmless entertainment, or are they actually perpetuating the stereotypes and beliefs that they mimic?
"At what point in time is it OK to laugh at sexual trafficking or rape?" asked Winter. Given the fact that issues of sexual violence, harassment, and trafficking are real issues that women around the world endure, can these subjects ever really be laughing matters at all?
While some audiences take offense to shows like Family Guy, the series have amassed a devoted fan base over the course of its 12 running seasons who embrace the humor, though often crass and crude. Family Guy, similar to shows like South Park, has become notorious for pushing the boundaries of comedy. At some point or another, the storyline has essentially targeted every demographic known to man. African Americans, Asians and homosexuals join females as some of the most common butts of jokes.
Does the fact that Family Guy targets all groups rather than one make the humor acceptable? Some would argue that it does. TV is a source of entertainment. Family Guy is not viciously mocking certain racial, ethnic and social groups with the intent of causing harm to them. At the same time, however, it is hard to deny that in engaging with stereotypes, we are perpetuating them or at the very least, keeping them alive.
Television is here to stay and so are the subjects that TV shows often treat. It is crucial to separate what may be mocked on TV from what is acceptable behavior in real life, and the reality is that many people struggle to do so. Whether or not you believe that physical violence, verbal harassment, or exploitation can ever be fodder for comedy, we must understand that that is the nature of the entertainment business. Those who are made uncomfortable from such pointed humor should turn off the station, but all must distinguish the often-fine line between TV humor and acceptable behavior.