Family Guy’s Lieutenant Joseph “Joe” Swanson is over-zealous, fearless, full of bravado, short tempered, and operates by the book. He is also a capable police officer who does not get around via a patrol car. Instead, a wheelchair is his main mode of transportation.
Joe is wildly enthusiastic and has developed massive upper-body strength. He does everything his co-characters do (and more), including water skiing, sledding, roller skating, choreographing local musicals, driving, and—in one episode—climbing a street lamp. Joe’s catch phrases include the Steven Seagal-esque “Let's do it!, Get Some!” and “Bring it on!” He loves macho action and martial arts films.
These are just a few of the reasons why America loves Joe. His popularity is due in part to the fact that Joe is a welcome departure from the all-too-common portrayal of disabled people on television as bitter, helpless, and fighting to overcome huge obstacles inherent in their disabilities. Family Guy not only moves well beyond this stereotype but actually goes on to have fun with Joe’s disability.
Joe is a breakthrough. His plotlines are hilarious, and his character portrays disabled people as being far from perfect. Even the manner in which he became paralyzed is not exempt from humor: On Christmas Eve in 1989, as Joe investigates a robbery at an orphanage, he ends up battling a Grinch on the orphanage rooftop. During the fisticuffs, he slides on a roller skate, falls off the roof, and injures his spine.
Joe is never left out of the show’s twisted and politically incorrect brand of humor. Instead, his treatment is equal to that of other characters—he is included in the ribbing, just the way the others are made fun of. In fact, when Joe corrects another character who mistakes his physical disability for mental incapacity, the character accuses Joe of “just splitting hairs.”
In another episode, while marooned on a desert island for months, another Family Guy character eats Joe’s legs, claiming that Joe doesn’t need them anyway. When the men are rescued, Joe gets leg transplants, but still can’t walk because the donor was also handicapped.
It is no wonder that Joe has become one of television’s most beloved disabled characters, animated or otherwise. And until more disabled people hit the airwaves, there’s every indication that Joe’s popularity will continue to skyrocket. In his case, animated fiction is far better than media-driven “fact.”