There has been a lot of fallout from the 2013 Oscars ceremony, namely from the jokes presented by the host, Seth MacFarlane. The articles written in the days after seem to fall on one of two sides: that the ceremony was sexist and racist, or that MacFarlane was hilarious and people needed to lighten up.
There’s serious problems with both of these arguments, but a piece that particularly struck me was Victoria Brownworth’s Op-Ed for Advocate.com, in which she argued that the jokes were a dismantling of the Hollywood hyper-sexed system. She asks if those calling the jokes sexist and racist were watching the same show as her, to which I have to reply to her, “are you talking about the same Seth MacFarlane?”
Yes, Mr. MacFarlane does advocate for marriage equality and against domestic violence, but I fail to see how in the 21st century it’s even slightly “impressive for a straight male” to do these things. Are we not in an era where being anti-beating your significant other is somehow unique and worthy of praise? It’s a moral standard to advocate for those who are taken advantage of. Yeah, I get it, it’s still somehow acceptable to nominate Chris Brown for Grammys, but by and large society looks down upon abusers. It’s not special to do so.
I’m extremely hesitant to even consider the idea that Seth MacFarlane doesn’t have serious issues with women and respect and equality given his track record for presenting what he considers to be an ideal role for women in his shows. I’m not talking about blatantly sexist characters (like Peter Griffin and pretty much any other strong male character in any one of his shows) – those are clearly not written to be identifiable and indeed we are supposed to laugh at their stupidity. For example, consider Family Guy S2E8, “I Am Peter, Hear Me Roar.” Peter makes a sexist joke and is forced to attend sexual harassment sensitivity class, where they take away all of his “positive” masculine traits and replace them with emotionally sensitive “feminine” ones. This is perceived by his wife, Lois, as a negative – she wants her man to act like a man while she acts like a woman. The dilemma comes to a head when Lois and the feminist lawyer who sent Peter to the class get in a fight over choice feminism and wrestle, inspiring Peter to become aroused and be a man again. The feminists are portrayed extremely negatively – they demean housewives and hate men – whereas Lois, the “feminine” woman comes to the rescue of traditional gender roles to say it’s more feminist to choose to stay home and have a chauvinist for a husband.
Choice feminism is a topic that literally can encompass entire books, so I won’t go in to it other than to say I have friends who’s job is to be a full-time mom (or dad) and that it is in fact, work. My issue is with the tone with which MacFarlane approaches feminism and empowered women in the first place, which is my major issue with the Oscars.
I got in a facebook disagreement (I know, I know) with someone on the issue because I said the jokes weren’t funny and he fell back onto the “humor is subjective and who are you to decree what is and is not funny/acceptable humor” argument that literally comes up in 100% of all arguments about subject matter of comedy routines, and that’s not what I was trying to argue at all. The problem is not boob jokes (though it’s pretty tasteless to include scenes of graphic rape, especially when the film is based on actual real-life accounts), or anorexia jokes, or even jokes poking fun at the future sexuality of a nine year old girl (ugh). The problem out and out is tone, it’s the execution and the reliance on the idea that “if you don’t laugh at this, the problem is you and it’s you we’re really laughing at” that’s the problem with MacFarlane’s brand of “humor.” It’s bullying. Amy Davidson for The New Yorker really hits it dead-on, “Getting Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts to pre-record looks of mortification didn’t help, either. (…) It just seemed like a way for MacFarlane to make fun of viewers for being prudish and not ‘getting it.’ (See, the cool girls think that it’s funny!).”
In an industry where women struggle to be treated with the same respect as men, where to be willing to do a nude scene can be viewed as a make-or-break career decision, having a song where the tone is, “you did this incredibly personal work for your art and ultimately it’s still for our sexual amusement” is really gross. It’s faux-edginess, it’s offensive for the sake of offensive without any counter-culture goals at all and you’re lying to yourself if you think otherwise. Seth MacFarlane is not a champion of women’s empowerment or acknowledging the problems actresses uniquely face compared to actors in Hollywood, he’s paid huge sums of money to continue to get cheap, exploitative laughs, and is seemingly eager to do so.
I’m not here to be the morality police and say “certain things aren’t okay to joke about” because context and tone is really everything. However, we need to be honest with ourselves: the Oscars were an embarrassment. People who were offended had a right to be so and “comedians” aren’t immune from criticism just by the nature of their art. Seth MacFarlane may believe he has nothing to apologize for, which is fine, because it’s not like we didn’t already know what kind of a person he was in the first place.