In a recent episode of Fox comedy hit “Family Guy,” a passing joke has led to a heap of trouble. The character of Chris, voiced by Seth Green, went on a date with his crush Ellen. Ellen happened to have Down Syndrome.
In this small scene, the character of Ellen states that her mother is the former governor of Alaska. No name was mentioned, but every conscious human on the planet knows that the former governor of Alaska and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave birth to a son, Trig, a few months before the 2008 election began who was prenatally diagnosed with Down Syndrome.
Palin is not afraid of a war of words and this time was no exception. The next day, she responded on her Facebook (side note; way to go Sarah, nice social networking skills) to the episode calling the comment, “another kick in the gut.” She goes on to quote her eldest daughter Bristol, who said, “When you’re the son or daughter of a public figure, you have to develop thick skin. My siblings and I all have that, but insults directed at our youngest brother hurt too much for us to remain silent.”
When dealing with the portrayal of special needs people on film and television, you walk a fine line. It can come across as empowering or defacing. The best route is to have honest roles. Characters like Carla Tate from “The Other Sister” played by Juliette Lewis and Claire Danes as autistic “Temple Grandin” show that the real story, the good and bad, is the best story.
Another issue in this kind of plot is actors. When casting the question arises as to whether to cast an actor to play a disabled character or a disabled person to play a character? “Glee” producers got slack from Performers with Disabilities, a part of the Screen Actors Guild, for casting an able-bodied actor in the part of a paraplegic. In the case of “Family Guy,” the actress voicing Ellen is Andrea Fay Friedman, a woman living with Down Syndrome.
In a statement released by the actress after Palin “posted” her response, she said, “In my family we think laughing is good. My parents raised me to have a sense of humor and to live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.” Point Friedman? I think so.
What this comes down to it, this is about Sarah Palin, not Trig Palin. This joke, which is literally eight words long, is pointed at Sarah. It’s a pop culture reference more than anything. Also, Friedman and Bristol Palin make a great point. Bristol talks about having thick skin and Andrea speaks of the importance of a sense of humor. The combination of these traits make anyone, not only those with special needs, but everyone a better functioning member of society at least mentally.
Whichever side you agree with, hopefully everyone can agree this is a small thing blown way out of proportion to get everyone talking about Sarah Palin. And we fell for it…