Stewie on Family Guy may be the gayest character on television, which is particularly interesting given the fact that he’s one year old.
For more than 300 episodes of the Fox animated series, the youngest Griffin has been not-so-subtly “coded gay,” a phrase used to describe characters who exhibit traits that hint at being homosexual, without explicitly acknowledging it.
“Explicitly acknowledging” is relative in the case of Stewie and Family Guy, however. This is a show that has had the smarmy toddler leering at men showering through a peephole, speaking at least once an episode in homoerotic innuendo, crushing on male celebrities, fangirling over musical theatre, and even self-referencing being “possibly homosexual.”
Here’s a compilation video of just some of those moments, for reference:
But on Sunday night, in a landmark episode airing without a commercial break (and guest starring Sir Ian McKellen, to boot), Stewie’s sexuality is finally “explicitly acknowledged.” Does he come out? Well, sort of. The result of the episode, ambiguous as it may be, is nonetheless fascinating. It’s not only one of the best episodes of Family Guy in a very long time, but also one of the most nuanced and edgy coming out episodes of a TV show we’ve seen.
Again, all centering around a 1-year-old.
Of course, Stewie’s age is part of the whole joke, and why his sexuality has been one of the riskier—and in payoff, funnier—running gags of the show. Here’s this toddler from a New England family who speaks in a British accent, with a heightened intelligence and bon vivant’s understanding of the world and culture, but who is, you know, still a toddler: petulant, vulnerable, and emotionally unevolved.
The episode, titled “Send in Stewie, Please,” takes place almost entirely in a therapy session necessitated after Stewie pushes a boy at school, Tyler, down the stairs. McKellen plays the therapist, Dr. Cecil Pritchfield, both the perfect foil for Stewie but also a catalyst for projection: the older gay British doctor with a younger boyfriend might just be who Stewie, if not necessarily aspires to be, eventually settles for becoming when he’s older.
Tuning into the episode knowing it is the Big One that addresses Stewie’s sexuality makes it all the more enjoyable. A ticker-tape of gay references and stereotypes fly by, and you’re more likely to catch them all.
Stewie breezes into the session, wishing the secretary, Barbara, luck on trying to secure Adele tickets: “You deserve them.” He channels his nerves through idle chit-chat about the office décor: “This is charming. It reminds of the therapist office Bethenny Frankel goes to on the Real Housewives of New York City. I hate her. She looks like a wooden doll you’d find in an Eastern European toy shop. [Hands on hips] Oh don’t act like you don’t know who she is. That doesn’t impress me. We live in the world. We all know who Bethenny Frankel is, like it or not.”
The conceit is telegraphed quickly: We’re about to hear a lot of super gay stuff from Stewie, before the big question is discussed. I mean, who has Stewie been all these years if not a bitchy queen?
This manifests itself especially when, after spotting a photo of Dr. Pritchfield and his younger partner, Stewie dissects every single detail about their relationship dynamic. He analyzes the pressure and insecurities thrust on them by gay elitism and shaming culture, and reduces them to every stereotype in a way that would be offensive if it weren’t all so painstakingly true and recognizable (at least to this gay viewer), down to the Ralph Lauren Purple Label dress shirts they bought at the outlet store to feign wealth while at a gay vacation destination.
It’s eviscerating, and revealing of the kind of judgment that can only come from within the gay community. Each new hyper-specific detail is a harsher truth than the one before. To keep up with this piece’s hyperbole, it is one of the gayest monologues we’ve seen on television—and thus one of the most satisfying. (Will any of what Stewie says in it mean anything to those outside the community?) Seth MacFarlane, it must be said, delivers a bravura voice acting performance.
But this is barely half the episode. We’re only on the verge of a breakthrough.
“You seem like a very lonely little boy,” Dr. Pritchfield says in response to the dressing down.
“Oh my god I am!” Stewie wails. “I’m so lonely!” For all the comedy derived from Stewie’s thinly veiled homosexuality over the years, it’s easy to forget him for what he is: ultimately, a tragic character.
Dr. Pritchfield attempts to get at the heart of the incident that brought Stewie to his office in the first place. Why did he push Tyler down the stairs? “It was an accident. Haven’t you ever seen Showgirls?” Stewie (fabulously) deflects. He did it, he explains, because he likes him.
And then, the doth-protest-too-much defensiveness: “And not like him, like him. I’m not gay. This whole thing isn’t because I’m gay. So calm down. I can already see you licking your chomps…If anything I’m less gay than I used to be…But do I think that Grant Gustin and I would make the most adorable Instagram couple? Yes, I do.”
He mentions fluidity. He says he’s confident in his heterosexuality. He mentions the anxiety he feels every day trying to fit in with other kids who don’t share his interests. He begins rapping from Hamilton, a musical he characterizes as “like Gilbert, but for Hispanics.” It’s a lot of rambling, leading to one major revelation.
Stewie comes out, yes. But not in the way you would expect.
At first, he feels freed. Then, exposed. “I want to remain what I’ve always been. Superior. Brilliant. Special…Nobody will ever know the real me.”
There’s a dance between child angst and the torture that comes from being afraid, not only of others knowing the real you, but of knowing yourself. It’s honestly more progressive than if Stewie had just come out.
The tragedy continues, sort of: Stewie goes back to a life of repression, still closeted, still performing a version of himself that he feels others will more readily accept than who he really is. But also…he’s a child! And this is a journey. The monumental moment here isn’t that Family Guy made a definitive statement about Stewie’s sexuality (it didn’t), but that it acknowledged that journey. And this is Family Guy! Who would have predicted this nuance, this meaningfulness?
Way back in 2009, MacFarlane revealed that the show had considered an episode in which Stewie comes out, essentially confirming that Stewie is indeed gay. “But we decided it’s better to keep it vague, which makes more sense because he’s a 1-year-old,” he told Playboy. “Ultimately, Stewie will be gay or a very unhappy repressed heterosexual. It also explains why he’s so hellbent on killing [his mother, Lois] and taking over the world: He has a lot of aggression, which comes from confusion and uncertainty about his orientation.”
The episode’s last image of Stewie hints at less confusion, and a little bit of pain and fear. It’s not played for laughs, either. Stewie, it gets better.
"Send in Stewie, Please" airs March 18 at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX.