“We Saw Your Misogyny”: The Oscars & Seth MacFarlane

February 27, 2013
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MacFarlane at the 2013 OscarsIt’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!)

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7 Responses to “ “We Saw Your Misogyny”: The Oscars & Seth MacFarlane ”

  1. Anne Helen Petersen on February 27, 2013 at 10:07 AM

    Great post, Erin. I’m excited to have these conversations with my students today — and to have had them as well over Twitter over the last few days. Teaching moment indeed.

  2. Lindsay Hogan on February 27, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    Excellent post, Erin. I couldn’t agree more that this is a particularly important moment for conversation and dialogue. This was something I was especially thinking amid the slew (sp?) of reports that ratings for this year’s Oscar broadcast were up 20% over last year (in 18-49, 3% overall), leading outlets like The Atlantic – who had some of the better critiques of the misogyny/racism/anti-semitism/homophobia in his schtick – to declare “Well, you win, MacFarlane,” as if that’s the end of it; as if the “ratings upgrade…among advertisers’ favorite people” deems any continued critique and/or calls for change completely pointless and futile.

    There are, of course, a number of ways to read the ratings bump (including critique of the ratings system itself), but even if one does take the ratings to mean that MacFarlane’s brand of humor “worked,” to use the NYT’s words, it illustrates an even greater opportunity (and need) to delve into conversations about the machinations of hegemony. So, thanks for taking the time to get such a conversation going here at Antenna!

    Oh, and p.s. here’s the link to that Atlantic piece, “Seth MacFarlane Is Oscar Ratings Gold” – http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/02/seth-macfarlane-oscar-ratings-2013/62503/.

  3. R. Colin Tait on February 27, 2013 at 11:59 AM

    Hi Erin, really like this piece, especially the call to examine, call out and talk about everyday misogyny. I say one place to start is the Huffington Post, which only masquerades as a liberal news aggregator, but mostly trades in exactly the hateful policing of women’s bodies that you speak about.

  4. Tim Anderson on February 27, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    I tink this post points to one of the most pernicious and despicable claims made in our culture: women are not funny. We all know the counter examples from Lucille Ball to Melissa McCarthy yet it still exists, particularly as part of the stand up world. The issue about someone not being able to “take a joke” is all too often followed by “just isn’t funny”. Women almost always suffer in this formulation because women’s bodies go through the daily scrutiny that allows a comic to leisurely talk about seeing someones breast in a movie. A similar dick joke at the oscars is unthinkable because that kind of scrutiny is both technically and culturally off limits. In other words, Male full frontal nudity is such a rare occurrence that you could make that joke on an annual basis on a Globally televised event and even if you could some producer would probably stop you from doing so, which I think is also the point of your post.

  5. Tim Anderson on February 27, 2013 at 8:04 PM

    Of course I meant to say ” you couldn’t make that joke”

  6. On the most recent Oscars | English 110 on February 28, 2013 at 1:03 AM

    […] For more: http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/02/27/we-saw-your-misogyny-the-oscars-seth-macfarlane/ […]

  7. Susan Lucy on February 28, 2013 at 4:18 PM

    Seth MacFarlane’s oscar hosting was textbook sexual harassment. These women had a business stake in the outcome of that night and were therefore held hostage to play along with their humiliation to be accepted in the workplace. This was all done during an international broadcast, while others laughed and cheered. Had they not had so much at stake they should / would have walked out. But that’s how sexual harassment works. You are held hostage by your harasser. Maybe next year women can just go to a business gathering without being humiliated. Maybe.The fact that no one, including major media outlets, will not call it out tells you something about the boys club being still firmly in place.