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“Men with physical disabilities are marginalized and stigmatized in American society.” This is the first line written by Thomas Gerschick and Stephen Miller in their chapter titled “Coming to Terms”. And for Joe Swanson, a character in the popular cartoon show “Family Guy”, this hits close to home. For those unfamiliar, “Family Guy” focuses on a crazy family pictured here. 

The husband named Peter Griffin, wife named Lois, and three kids named Chris, Meg, and Stewie live in a Rhode Island home on Spooner Street. They get into all sorts of crazy shenanigans but them aside, ever since I started watching, my favorite character has always been Joe. This deep voiced and friendly neighborhood cop, that also happens to be paraplegic, consistently struggles with his physically impaired identity. This, in part, is because of the inconsiderate and sometimes plain mean people around him. In fact, many jokes on this show directly make fun of his disability. Here, for example. Poor Joe…

Coincidentally, this character reflects some of the things that Gerschick and Miller had to say about the relationships between men, disability, and masculinity. According to these anthropologists for disabled men, because of societal stereotypes, “being recognized as masculine is especially difficult, if not impossible.” And in Joe’s case, this proves to be especially true. Countless times, he is shown to be in need of care from his wife, Bonnie. Others in the show, including his friends Peter, Quagmire, and Cleveland, repeatedly make fun of him for this and portray him as useless. Multiple times, he has relationship troubles with Bonnie with the inability to sexually pleasure her being the issue of contention. As Gershick and Miller have established, Joe’s “hegemonic masculinity” is being endlessly challenged. Many times he reacts violently and harshly when his masculinity is questioned, shouting loudly, and shooting his gun. In these times, in the logic of these authors, he could be described as someone in the state of “reliance”, where he “internalizes” hypermasculine ideals and acts with those in mind.

However, what is lovable about this character is that ultimately, he always disproves the stereotypes of disabled men being “weak, pitiful, passive, and dependent”. And often times, he does so not with internalized social expectations of masculinity but with grace. A prime example is the episode of when Joe and Bonnie were fighting about Joe’s disability, thus a perceived of the lack of masculinity, hindering their love and they were close to divorce. Joe recalls when he he first met Bonnie when she was a stripper in a police bust of a strip club, a time when he was still able to walk. She gave him a lap dance. To make things right, Peter took the initiative to plan to have both Bonnie and Joe go to the same strip club that day to recreate such a romantic scene. But when he gets there, instead of having her give him another lap dance, he gave her a lap dance instead using his hands to maneuver his legs. I would say that Joe is in a state of “rejection” at this point. He refuses the social expectations of masculinity and able-bodiedness and instead, developed his own masculine and disabled identity by doing a lap dance which is normally seen as feminine but is masculine to him in that he is assertively trying to fix his marriage. And it works. They go home together afterwards.

Instances like these happen time after time again to Joe. And this leads me to believe that his depiction is relatable to the “Coming to Terms” article. He constantly goes through both physical and emotional hardships and reacts in ways that are consistent with the patterns of literally coming to terms with his disability and living on. And that is what he does each and every time. Say what you want but Joe Swanson is inspiring to me. I’m not going to say that he ever gets to live happily ever after. But he is challenged with societal challenges that attempt to invalidate and debilitate his very being, his very identity. Disabled. Male. Husband. Person. But through utter defiance and a strong will, he is able to live on, defy these restrictive and problematic notions, and ultimately overcome.

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