Throughout the early 2000's, in the era of the post-Leslie Nielsen parody cycle and Fear Factor, I occasionally watched as Seth MacFarlane's animated Fox series Family Guy sacrificed actual jokes for shock value, and any semblance of wit for easy pop reference. During that period, while the Scary Movie and “________” Movie franchises were launched, the target audience for American comedies was successfully trained into a Pavlovian response that seemed to hinge on mere pop culture reference. The joke was dead; or, rather, reduced to the mere mention of Paris Hilton.
Ted 2 begins with the marriage of the titular bear (voiced by MacFarlane) to his new bride Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth). The narrative arc of the film involves Ted and his best friend John (Mark Wahlberg) embarking on a hapless, stoned journey to prove Ted's personhood and evade the toy manufacturing accusers who want to mass-market sentient Ted bears. And, there's a budding romance plotline between John and Ted's legal counsel, Sam L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried). Absent of any engaging momentum, the film allows space to ponder the most important question about MacFarlane's brand of humor: is this a satire?
Somewhere along their journey, Ted is getting high while watching the iconic Kunte Kinte whipping scene from the late-70's TV mini-series Roots. In a moment of epiphany, Ted remarks on Kunte Kinte's struggle as the sounds of the whipping man are heard in the background: "that's just like me!" This is, perhaps, the sharpest moment of satire in all of Ted 2, nailing the absurd cries of "reverse-racism" from certain sectors of the privileged, white, male middle-class. Of course, you have to read Ted as a white, middle class, Peter Griffin-like male--not a stuffed, brown bear without a penis--in order to make this reading work. This may seem like a needless point to make, but hiding behind the thin, protective walls of anthropomorphic characterizations is one of MacFarlane's favorite tricks, and I think his audience buys it.
Unfortunately, for every moment of MacFarlane's truly risky, satirical jabs there are innumerable examples in Ted 2 that compromise any chance the film has at having its satirical cake and eating it too. This manifests itself not only in the way the film wears a fetishized preoccupation with black bodies and voices on its sleeve, but in the way it transforms that same fetishizing attitude into a lens for objectifying, eroticizing, and ridiculing everything it encounters; and, not in a lazy way, but with the near-sociopathic organization that Ted discovers in John’s pornography files in the film. Again, Ted 2 is somewhat aware of itself, and does play at clever, subversive satire, particularly when it comes to another of MacFarlane's fetish objects, Busby Berekley-era musical numbers, which we find parodied in the opening credit sequence. There is no punch-line in this peppy, parodic segment, but rather in the juxtaposition of the Raging Bull-inspired depiction of Ted's married life that follows, where he and Tammy argue over bills and Ted's lack of a penis. If it's MacFarlane's mission to call out the false icons of wholesome, American entertainment (or the American Western with A Million Ways to Die in the West), marked by his choice to filter his crude comedic voice through that most American of symbols, the Teddy Bear, then has he succeeded?
Also, did I mention that the bear doesn't have a penis? The satirical thesis statement of Ted 2 is as follows: "Americans don't give a shit about anything," which MacFarlane may finally prove to be true with this film, on a 4th of July opening weekend, nonetheless. But, the real preoccupation at the heart of Ted 2 is the phallus (make no bones about it). Furthermore, Ted 2 fails as a satire not solely because much of it is unfunny, but because of timing. For instance, the recent 40th anniversary of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" may put audiences in the mind of thinking about Ted 2 through the lens of "castration anxiety." In Mulvey's critique (which is no doubt complicated by an unforeseeable cinema future that produces a sexist, dick-less teddy bear franchise) Ted 2 reads as a "complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object, or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous." In a film noir, the fetish object may be a femme fatale, or in a Busby Berkeley a wholesome young starlet. In Ted 2, MacFarlane draws the world as one castration anxiety fetish after another, with the film's action culminating in one of the meccas of masculine anxiety, Comic-Con.
But Ted 2 suffers from bad timing in other ways that are achingly obvious. Seeing Ted 2 only days after the racism-fueled acts of violence in Charleston and the subsequent debates about recognizing the Confederate flag, and the further racist arson of multiple black churches in the South, MacFarlane’s glibly “post-racist” humor is not only embarrassing, but carries a feeling of fueling those fires. It doesn't take film theory to understand that the other people in the theatre aren't laughing at MacFarlane's clever satirizing of white, male supremacy, sexism and homophobia. They're laughing at the racism, sexism, and homophobia; at the fetishized black man, which now carries for them the same consequence of laughing at a reference to Paris Hilton, or ISIS, or selfie sticks.