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the banality of the responses to seth macfarlane and the 2013 oscars

let's be clear: i love the atlantic. i read it on line regularly, i follow a number of their contributors and editorial staff on twitter because i value their insights. i have it in my list of permanent links on the side of this blog. but, like everyone, they occasionally just get things wrong. like their commentary on seth macfarlane's job hosting the oscars last night, which alternates between backhanded compliments [he wasn't the worst host ever] and outright castigation for racism, sexism and homophobia. every letter in that article seems to lead inexorably from the previous to one conclusion: the staff are too blinded by their political convictions to  see what was actually going on.

here's their summary of the performance:

It shouldn't be hard to come up with a sensible position on this. Everything, including punchlines about the Jews cutting non-Jews out of Hollywood, snickers about women faking the flu to lose weight, and cracks that there's no need to try to understand what Salma Hayek's saying because she's so hot, is "OK." It's a free country, etc. But that doesn't mean those jokes aren't hurtful, obvious, or dumb. It doesn't mean they don't make the world a worse place. Humor, after all, can be an incredible weapon for social progress, but it can also be regressive: The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal—as MacFarlane did again and again last night—the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place.

let's start with the first sentence of that paragraph, which is pretty galling. immediately, it establishes everyone who disagrees with the writer as being insensible. so much for the ideal of not using language to silence people or discount their opinions. audre lorde's famous quote that "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" seems appropriate. if you're using the same rhetorical tools of exclusion that have always been used to silence dissenting voices, you end up looking a lot like the people who have always been in control of public discourse. [i think i just moved from audre lourde to "animal farm" there.]

but we can pretend that, rather than an angry rant from an offended viewer trying to establish those who disagree with them as inferior in a fundamental way, this is an invitation to debate. after all, there is no getting around the fact that macfarlane said some pretty shocking things that likely had pretty much everyone squirming at one point or another and the author does hit on some key ones. so i'll take up that challenge, despite my inherent lack of sense. 

- "punchlines about jews cutting non-jews out of hollywood": i'll admit that i didn't find this bit funny, but more because it didn't seem to touch on things happening now in hollywood the way other parts did. however, for those who saw the movie "ted", or even the trailer for the movie "ted", the point is that we tolerate the risible statements that come out of his mouth because he's an adorable stuffed teddy bear. animated shows have gained standing among adults by using this device to push the envelope of what can be said on television. the joke isn't about jews vs non-jews. it's about how an audience creates different rules about what can and can't be said based on the speaker. 

- "snickers about women faking the flu to lose weight": forty years ago, that would have been a horrible thing to say. because forty years ago, if you wanted to have a star's body you just had to take reasonably good care of yourself and work out what clothes flattered your figure. these days, deliberately contracting the flu to lose weight [which was what he actually implied, not that anyone was faking] would be one of the healthier things that starlets do to their bodies to emulate the skeletal frames that are plastered over magazines and movie screens. women do horrible, dangerous things to their bodies in order to work in hollywood and many do so without question, passively validating the mechanisms of their own oppression in order to prop up a system whose rules are clear. it would be wonderful to hear someone get up and make a serious statement about this, but that isn't going to happen and so the one method open to put the topic up for conversation is to make it seem like a joke. it's not a joke, even if the wording is [to me] funny. and i don't think that macfarlane meant for the deeper implication to be lost on the audience in the room or around the world. 

- "there's no need to try to understand what salma hayek's saying because she's so hot": there's a bit of a convenient edit there in order to make that line seem purely sexist. in fact, macfarlane said that nobody cared that they couldn't understand hayek [who was the actual presenter], penelope cruz or javier bardem because they all looked so good. very sneaky use of language again. but even if the comment were about hayek alone, the point is not that it is ok that her english shortcomings are ignored because she's looked, the point is that people in hollywood act as if it's ok, because appearances are what is valued. i actually found this interesting, because it is a long-standing trend in hollywood that "exotic" stars are used for animalistic sex appeal, humour value, villainousness or some combination of all three. macfarlane, being an unabashed fan of old hollywood, would certainly be aware of this. and the message i got from the joke was not that it was ok to treat people this way, but exactly the opposite. it reminds the people in the room that they have specious grounds to feel like the best in the world at anything and it reminds viewers at home that they should keep their admiration for the american business of film in check. 

the article's author also criticises macfarlane for being homophobic, because of a nervous assertion [to william shatner] that he wasn't part of the gay men's choir he performed with on stage. that would be kind of a crass statement, if it weren't for the fact that seth macfarlane's sexuality has been the subject of more speculation than any male star outside of tom cruise and anderson cooper. he is constantly hounded for being an attractive, perpetually single, well-groomed young man with a passionate love for musicals and a strong belief in gay rights. in context, he's simply playing to a rumour that everyone's already heard. all those who have criticised him for this remark have conveniently left the all-too-public debate about his sexual orientation [and his refusal to speak about his sexual orientation] and his previous statements in support of gay rights by the wayside. i don't know whether that's a legitimate ignorance borne of a passionate knee-jerk reaction to the face value of what he said or a deliberate exclusion because it conflicts with the image that writers [and it's more than one- the atlantic piece is positively even-handed compared to what appeared on the new yorker's site] are trying to craft of macfarlane as an immature, lowest-common-denominator shill who was trying to get some cheap laughs by making fun of gay people.

and, finally, no analysis of last night's show or the reaction to it would be complete without a nod to supposedly the evening's sexist nadir- the song and dance number about actresses who've bared their breasts for the camera. this piece is already long, so i'll put this as succinctly as i can: 

any industry that rewards women for using their sexuality while allowing men to reap the same or better while keeping themselves clothed is sexist. [the number would have been a hell of a lot shorter if they'd tried "we saw your schlong" as a theme.]

any industry that evaluates a woman's ability to participate in its workforce on the basis of what she looks like without clothing is sexist. 

any industry in which women broker choice jobs with offers to show their tits is sexist. [the actresses mentioned in the song are all a-list celebrities.]

talking about it is not sexist. 

once again, it seems that those who reacted so passionately against the number were missing one of the key elements of its humour: that it was presenting subjects that were off-limits at an industry gala by appearing to treat them with levity. and for those who were crying that the actresses mentioned in the song looked furious, take a moment and look at the footage again. they are all in different outfits, sitting in different places, surrounded by different people than they were at the oscars. those reactions were part of the tape, not a real-time reaction. 

the article in "the atlantic" starts out by with the assertion that macfarlane's jokes "may have been meant to provoke, but provoke what?" the question is meant to be rhetorical, with the answer being that relying on the tropes of sexism, racism and homophobia aren't provocative at all, but it's predicated on the assumption that macfarlane's lines were to be taken at face value and, as someone who's watched a lot of comedy of all stripes, i'd reply that there's rarely a time when comedians are so straightforward. [i will go out on a limb here and say that i suspect a lot of the most outraged viewers were actually following the show on twitter and only watched the most controversial bits afterward.]

pointing out the shallowness and prejudices of hollywood might not be breaking new ground, but i haven't seen anyone carry it as far as seth macfarlane did, especially not at the event where the elite gather to pat each other on their perfectly toned backs. macfarlane walked the same line that ricky gervais did two years ago at the golden globes, snapping with precision at hollywood's hand while still managing to remove the treat that it proffered. he also helped remind those in the broader audience that the night's beautiful spectacle glossed over a lot of ugliness that's built into the american film industry and we shouldn't simply accept the former without considering the latter. 

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