“The Orville” Reinforces My Hunch That Seth MacFarlane Should Stop Writing About Trans People Forever

Family Guy and The Cleveland Show creator Seth MacFarlane is responsible for some of the worst trans representation on TV, and he’s up to his old tricks on his new sci-fi comedy, The Orville. In the third episode, “About a Girl,” MacFarlane introduces a baby born to an all-male species of aliens that has the “wrong genitals” at birth; the episode revolves around the fight the parents have with the ship’s human crew, including the captain and doctor, to give the newborn surgery to “fix the problem” and “make the baby male.” It presents that idea that gender and sex are binary in humans and, in fact, universally binary in all species in every universe even in the distant future. MacFarlane seems to think he’s making a progressive point about gender, but it’s really another huge miss for him.

In the galaxy where The Orville takes place, there seems to be a universal concept of sexual dimorphism, where every species has the stereotype that males are bigger and stronger and females are smaller and weaker. This isn’t even true of most species on earth. Where did the Moclans get this idea? If they only have one gender, where did they get a concept of a gender binary? Why would they even need a word for male if everyone is male? Shouldn’t any baby, regardless of how it is born, be male if that’s the only gender this species has? This is not how anything works. Presenting gender this way as a universal constant determined by your genitals at birth isn’t just lazy, it’s dangerous. It leads to the biological essentialism that leads to transphobia, transmisogyny and violence against trans women by the men who sleep with them.

There are so many frustrating things about this episode even outside the half-baked gender binary world-building. It completely ignores the existence of intersex people who actually do undergo nonconsensual surgery on their genitals shortly after birth. It uses ominous music and editing when it talks about trans issues. It makes it all seem like trans people are so confusing that even in the far future when we have intergalactic unions, starship captains and doctors won’t know how to deal with or talk about us. It turns being trans into a plot point and source of conflict.

The Orville is leaning heavy on Star Trek, a show that often addressed social issues and pushed them forward; the original Star Trek had the first interracial kiss on televisionThe Orville instead decides to look at social issues and push them backwards. The tone of the show makes it even more confusing, as it has an air of self importance and intellectualism about it, but mixes that with a complete lack of understanding about the current cultural and political climate, and dick jokes.

“Seth MacFarlane was attempting to be a progressive ally with his latest Orville episode,” wrote Jessie Earl at The Advocate. “Yet, while he may have failed on the progressive side, he still was being an ally to the intersex and transgender community.”

While it’s true that the LGBT community often comes down way too hard on allies for their attempts at LGBT representation — and that community includes us here at this website a lot of the time — Seth MacFarlane might be one of the few who has officially exhausted any remote benefit of the doubt we could possibly summon. Don’t forget that MacFarlane is also a misogynist who told a series of disgusting rape jokes at the 2013 Oscars. You’d think after so many past failures, he might actually consult with GLAAD before taking another hack at a trans storyline.

Like… what exactly is Seth MacFarlane’s problem with trans people? Does he have a personal bet going with Ryan Murphy — the creator of terribly-treated-trans-characters like Unique from Glee, Liz Taylor from American Horror Story and so many trans women seeking surgery on Nip & Tuck — to see who can be more irresponsible, offensive and harmful in their depictions of trans people on television while congratulating themselves for portraying trans characters at all?

Throughout his career, MacFarlane has made a habit of turning trans women into jokes and objects of derision. Riese wrote about several of his attempts in her GLAAD-Award nominated piece about the history of trans women characters on American television.

One of the more infamous depictions of trans women on TV in recent years is Quagmire’s dad on Family Guy. His dad is a trans woman, who sleeps with Brian the dog, and when this dog finds out that she is a trans woman, he “vomits for a solid 60 seconds and screams in terror.”  Seth McFarlane described this portrayal as “probably the most sympathetic portrayal of a transsexual character that has ever been on television, dare I say.” When the LGBT community expressed deep loathing towards this episode, McFarlane responded with, “that surprised me. I don’t meet a lot of stupid homosexuals. They seem to be a pretty smart bunch. But it seemed that they were not picking up on the fact that it was a very sympathetic portrayal of a transsexual character.”

In his Family Guy spinoff, The Cleveland Show, when Cleveland finds out that a character named Auntie Momma is a trans woman and that his dad slept with her, he “vomits for about 45 seconds.” When Cleveland tells his dad that he slept with a trans woman, his dad also vomits for 45 seconds. MacFarlane repeatedly teaches his viewers that not only should they feel tricked if they sleep with a trans woman, but they should feel absolutely disgusted as well. This is exactly the attitude that gets trans women murdered.

Because it’s a show created by a popular and established showrunner on a broadcat network like Fox, The Orville has a wider reach than shows like TransparentSense8 and Doubt — the latter of which which got canned after only a few episodes at CBS and burned off on Friday nights after wide backlash — that have worked hard with actual trans people and activists to make sure they’re getting representation right. That makes it even more imperative that when shows like The Orville tackle trans issues, they do a good job. It’s especially important right now as the Trump administration rolls back protections for trans people, bans trans people from the military, and props up state legislatures that continue to try to keep trans people out of public facilities that match their gender identities and, in some cases, even prohibit them from gaining access to their vital records.

MacFarlane has proven he can’t be trusted to tell trans stories, in this or any galaxy.

Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

Mey has written 574 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. It makes me really mad that ABC convinced Adrianne Palicki it was a good idea to leave Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a spinoff show they should have known was never going to happen and now she’s on this garbage fire of a show instead.

  2. Time would be better spent reading Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn. The alien species in the book has three genders and the commentary on gender is really interesting. Considering the fact that there’s gender variance in animal species on earth, it’s ridiculous to think that alien life forms would be binary.

    • 30 Rock had a Cosby joke way ahead of the wave of public allegations too. It doesn’t make someone a hero to know about something and not stick their neck out beyond jokes. And even if it did, it wouldn’t cancel out a long history of transmisogyny as seen here from this piece of shit.

  3. I watched this episode and…ugh. Yeah. All of this. And it was doubly frustrating for me because the thing about loving Star Trek is that you love it so much that you can’t stop seeing all of the gigantic plotholes and missed opportunities. An episode of TNG did a very similar storyline–a gender-neutral race with sometimes female or male members who were shunned. (Yeah, the scenario is not much better). The outcome was also similarly bleak.

    The show is so uneven and it doesn’t actually know how to be progressive. There’s so much telling instead of showing. There are so many moments where a scene collects some steam, starts to go in a good direction, and then stops on a dime for a joke. And it’s never a joke that deserves that kind of attention. There were so many things Star Trek got wrong and if you are going to pretend to be its spiritual successor, you have to understand what to avoid. Also, maybe don’t hire Brannon Braga, the guy who was responsible for so many terrible things that became canon in Star Trek.

    It goes to show what I have to learn over and over again. Loving something isn’t enough to make it good. MacFarlane says he loves Star Trek. Well, good for you, dude. That doesn’t change the fact that your writers’ room is bad and you should feel bad.

  4. Thank you for the reporting, it’s sad to hear that he is still awful and doesn’t want to change. Glad I stopped watching his shows years ago. I don’t know how he keeps getting more opportunities to make TV shows. Even after a show get’s canceled another network usually picks it up(American Dad). I take he sings to them or something, because he usually sounds like a racist, and misogynistic pig(then again he’s on Fox and TBS).

  5. I am not a parent and have no desire to every be, so that may be why my take on this episode was a little different than most.
    Also, The Orville is the first Seth MacFarlane vehicle I have ever seen.

    Yes, this episode pissed me the eff off. But it was a Kobayashi Maru type of impossible situation. It did make me think and gave me some perspective on the horrible and inevitable outcome. The choice I saw the parents had were:
    1. conform the baby to your misogynist culture; or,
    2. subject your child to a life of ridicule and isolation or hate crime type death; or,
    3. not conform and never return to your home world again, still subjecting your child to a life of isolation.

    My impression was that the choice made was the best the parents could do under the circumstances for the child. But, I am not a parent, so I could be wrong.

    As to the stupid stereotypes on this show, I get the impression that MacFarlane is a permanent teenager and is making a living off of it.

    But Mey, you did not mention Alara, the petite little security chief who is physically the strongest of the biological characters on the show. A sad example of girl power done mostly for comedic effect, but it did make me chuckle once and a while.

  6. I realise I’m old and not American but I read your title and wondered why you wasted so many words. “Seth MacFarlane should stop writing.” There, fixed it.

    I might be in a (another) minority here but I just don’t find what he does funny, even when he’s not writing about sensitive issues and he writes badly about a lot of topics – things he seems to think are funny make me wish I believed in Hell so he could be dragged there sooner to be perfectly honest. But, oh well. I’ll just continue to avoid his writing and make note he is bad about how he writes about trans people too.

  7. I watched this episode when it came out with my dad, and we honestly couldn’t figure out what point was trying to be made. Was it commentary on intersex people? Was it an attempt at (cis) feminism? Was it about trans people? I honestly couldn’t figure it out. Therefore it didn’t bother me so much that it was slightly offensive to all involved, because it simply didn’t make sense.

    Also, I don’t think this show is trying to be the next Star Trek, Star Trek is being the next Star Trek. The Orville is more in the vein of Galaxy Quest. It’s not as good, but in my opinion, each episode is better than the last, and I am willing to give it a pass for this episode. I think they were taking a poorly created alien race and trying to take it to its logical humorous conclusion while making some point or another. It failed on many accounts, but I don’t think it was quite as directly offensive as you did. It just wasn’t well enough crafted. I don’t think they even knew what point they were trying to make, which is frustrating in its own right.

    If you want interesting breakthrough commentary on gender, watch Star Trek deep space nine. There is a functionally female character who is often referred to as male, who has relationships with men and women and it is all done with such careful care. In the 90s. Definitely a fascinating look at the world from that era and what they thought the future might look like.

    • where are you people every other day of the week when we write about enjoying something or even just note that a certain show or movie exists or recap a show with a mixed record of representation and everybody pounces on us for daring to acknowledge the existence of or experience positive feelings while watching / reading / listening to [pretty much anything] due to its assorted problematic elements

  8. I guess I kind of land along the spectrum of it being ham-handed, but trying to advocate for individual choice. The set-up of the species was disappointing (for all the reasons stated), and the trial wasn’t as strong as I’d have hoped (seemed to hinge a lot on “because we say so”). It was interesting that they “lost” and the conversion happened anyway. Tragic really. But not the normal “happy” ending you expect in shows like this.

    Given the suboptimal set-up, the follow-on was handled ok, I thought? As far as presenting the non-choices of the parents and the real fear of isolation and resultant unhappiness in a screwed up society.

    I’m not a Seth M. fan. I don’t like how much he makes casual misogyny and/or rape the punchline. I don’t like how he treats his female characters. I don’t like his male characters (see: Family Guy). He punches down too much, and I feel like if he means any of it ironically, it’s lost on the majority of his audience, particularly the cis, het, white males.

    I like space opera, though, and I am a fan of some of the other actors, so I’ve given Orville a shot. I wish I’d been able to watch this episode with a trans friend and discuss it. Overall I was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t sure why, and certainly can’t refute any of the things Mey is saying, or the impact they had on her while watching.

    I always ask myself lately if I can find redeeming qualities in problematic things. Or if imperfect conversations and representation are better than no representation (clearly good representation would be best). Like, I can see how this episode was made. We can see the machine that churns this out. And that they were proud of it. And why they were. And we can see how they could be better, and that they maybe have no desire to be so, or don’t realize they could be or should strive to be.

    I’m sorry this distressed you, Mey.

    • By which I mean, I’m sorry that the representation you deserve (that we all deserve to see) is still so rare, and that when it occurs it’s still so problematic. Thank you for taking the time to educate us.

  9. Thank you Mey. I for one will wholeheartedly take your word on what is or isn’t a problematic portrayal of trans people. I have no personal experience therefor I will not question your lived experiences. Just as I expect others to trust my lived experiences. I honestly do not know how you keep up the strength to write about and educate people on so many issues. I do appreciate it. Thank you.

  10. I’ve never thought about this. Thank you so much. I also don’t watch this show. I started to have problems with a lot of shows. Even the shows that call out the sexism, homophobia, transphobia, et cetera are usually featuring lazy writers. You can call it out, but not fix it? The Big Bang Theory is a great example of lazy writing.

    • Do u see the problem, though, in making a joke where the punchline is that a dog vomits over having had sex with a trans woman?

      Because in order for that joke to land, people have to Get It, and on a certain level, buy into it

      They had to see that, and then think “haha, the dog (!) is puking bc trans women are disgusting”

      Do you see why perpetuating that narrative – that trans women are disgusting – is bad and upsetting? Especially in a cartoon that, while marketed towards adults, is watched by a fuck ton of teenagers, people still formulating a world view?

      Like do u see why maybe the idea that THAT is fucked up isn’t a “waste of everyone’s time”

      ?

  11. I liked it, actually. The story was kind of incoherent, but a couple of the starting premises were: medical transition is easy and readily available, and performing surgery on children to make their genitals conform to societal expectations is bad. Like, that’s the kind of futuristic utopia I can get behind. Maybe I’m giving it too much benefit of the doubt, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be.

    Also, it’s a network sci-fi show with (sort of) a queer transmasculine character, which is neat. I liked the way they did Klyden disclosing being AFAB. And the purported queer people on Discovery have yet to actually be queer onscreen, so it’s beating actual Star Trek.

  12. Its interesting how the same cis white guys who found New Trek boring and unlike “real” Trek (when it’s actually exactly like original Trek would be if it was written now in terms of representative characters, seriously they’d be all over it if Michael was a man and/or white) loooooved the Orville and thought it was boundary pushing and progressive.

  13. Seth MacFarlane is a well known that Seth is a self-loathing closeted homosexual/bisexual, so of course he’s going to have major problems with the LGBT community, remember it is him that is in charge of his series, whatever he says goes – he’s head creator. He supports the LGBT from a distance, and it is hinted and known in Hollywood that he’s been with both men and women. He has a problem with the trans community because he doesn’t understand them. Not only does he go after the LGBT, he also seems to have a problem with race. And people overlook him, and let him do what he wants. He even knew about that Hollywood scandal (Harvey Weinstein) and didn’t say anything but now suddenly he’s speaking out? He’s a hypocrite. One day something he says will have a huge backlash. Apparently that man is invincible because nobody is calling him out. It can’t be just one person, it has to be more than one to call him out or he won’t get the message. His references just spread hate among the trans community. I was watching one of his recent episodes where he referenced the trans community again, and I saw so much hate comments below, and I just thought, he’s spreading hate and making people hate. He thinks he’s helping but he is not and the “Eww!” that was referenced when Seth’s character entered the tran bathroom just said it all.

  14. It is well known that Seth is a self-loathing closeted homosexual/bisexual, so of course he’s going to have major problems with the LGBT community, remember it is him that is in charge of his series, whatever he says goes – he’s head creator. He supports the LGBT from a distance, and it is hinted and known in Hollywood that he’s been with both men and women. He has a problem with the trans community because he doesn’t understand them. Not only does he go after the LGBT, he also seems to have a problem with race. And people overlook him, and let him do what he wants. He even knew about that Hollywood scandal (Harvey Weinstein) and didn’t say anything but now suddenly he’s speaking out? He’s a hypocrite. One day something he says will have a huge backlash. Apparently that man is invincible because nobody is calling him out. It can’t be just one person, it has to be more than one to call him out or he won’t get the message. His references just spread hate among the trans community. I was watching one of his recent episodes where he referenced the trans community again, and I saw so much hate comments below, and I just thought, he’s spreading hate and making people hate. He thinks he’s helping but he is not and the “Eww!” that was referenced when Seth’s character entered the tran bathroom just said it all.

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