It’s the moment I wait for every semester–when something happens in popular culture and opens up an opportunity to reaffirm with my students, friends, and family why the work that media scholars do matters. This semester, it arose courtesy of 2013 Oscars host Seth MacFarlane.
I’ll be honest: I watched the Oscars live on Sunday, and though I found MacFarlane spectacularly unfunny, didn’t find a whole lot to be offended over. So imagine my surprise upon waking up to a Facebook news feed full of proclamations that the host was not only unfunny, but misogynist and racist, to boot (In my defense, I appear to have missed several of the most egregious displays of sexism and racism while chatting with fellow partygoers and/or noshing). There’s a lot of excellent reporting and analysis out there, so I won’t spend my space here recapping it (Two of my favorite pieces include this one from The New Yorker, and this from The Atlantic). Throughout the day, I not only learned about the moments I’d missed, but entered into online discussions with folks far and wide about the controversy, and by mid-afternoon, came across several instances of backlash in which people defended MacFarlane’s right to make the jokes he wants to make, and accusations that those upset by the ordeal were overreacting.
For my money, Margaret Lyons’ Vulture piece offers the best response to this particular counter-critique:
Jeez, the song was a joke! Can’t you take a joke? Yes, I can take a joke. I can take a bunch! A thousand, 10,000, maybe even more! But after 30 or so years, this stuff doesn’t feel like joking. It’s dehumanizing and humiliating, and as if every single one of those jokes is an ostensibly gentler way of saying, “I don’t think you belong here.” All those little instances add up, grain of sand by grain of sand until I’m stranded in a desert of every “tits or GTFO” joke I’ve ever tried to ignore.
Lyons’ argument offers the jumping-off point for this post. I’m not here to make any grand claims about whether MacFarlane was funny or within his rights as a comedian. I’m not even here to argue that his jokes were sexist or racist, appropriate or inappropriate (Though I welcome thoughtful arguments on all sides in the comments, or as another Antenna post entirely!). I’m here to make a plea that before we each go to our separate corners, carefully guarding and maintaining our own position on the controversy, we open ourselves up to the opportunity to interrogate what happened and consider what it reveals about comedy, about Hollywood, about society. I would argue that MacFarlane is not so much the problem as a symptom. There’s a lot that’s problematic about Hollywood’s treatment of women, and it neither begins nor ends with MacFarlane OR the Oscars. But if we stop identifying the symptoms, we stop thinking about the problem. So let’s seize the moment and have conversations about these issues. They’re incredibly complex, but absolutely worth taking seriously and unpacking.
Hegemony is pernicious because it relies on invisibility. The system can only be maintained by convincing everyone that the way things are is the way they should be–that our beliefs, our existing social structures structures, our interactions are normal, and thus not worth interrogating. Even for those of us personally and professionally committed to challenging ideological structures, normalization proves a difficult force to escape. I confess that at the party I attended, a colleague said, “Man! Does he think that by telling all the women how nice they look, he can get away with murder?” and I failed to see the brilliant critique that comment articulated. Most of the time, most of us walk around without seeing the ideologies which guide our lives as constructed.
And that’s why moments when the machinations of hegemony are laid bare are so powerful. For a few days after MacFarlane’s hosting gig, discourse has opened up around questions of patriarchy and the media’s role in perpetuating misogyny. These moments when some of us are thinking, “Wait a minute…there’s something wrong here” and some are saying, “Oh come on. It’s fine. It’s normal” provide us with an opportunity to have conversations about the things we take for granted. Take to Facebook, to Twitter, to the classroom, to coffee klatsches and have the conversation.
I admit that I didn’t necessarily expect this semester’s opportunity to unpack the relationship between media and ideology to come in the form of an awards show. But I am spectacularly grateful that it did, and for the chance to open essential dialogue about these issues with my students, colleagues, friends, and family. (And you! Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments!)