by Laura K. Garrison
Less than 24 hours after the Oscars on Sunday night, the internet was blowing up with controversy over the jokes made by host Seth MacFarlane. Everyone with an opinion and a Starbucks WiFi connection had tweeted, blogged, and/or commented on the performance, and while reviews were mixed, a particularly loud faction determined that MacFarlane had been inappropriately sexist and racist and was therefore to be blamed for the perpetuation of the racism and sexism that unfortunately still permeate our society. To the former part of this assessment, I say thank you for your opinion but I disagree; to the second, that’s seems quite a legacy to force upon a single comedian and satirist.
|So, he’s a guy who looks like he’s a good guy but is actually
not a good guy… but underneath might be a good guy?
I’ve seen episodes of all three of MacFarlane’s animated adult cartoons: the popular Family Guy, its spinoff The Cleveland Show, and the less popular but still seminal American Dad!. Growing up with a younger brother, I’m used to and can enjoy the “13-year-old-boy humor” of MacFarlane, but I can also appreciate and respect where others do not. Before I make my case, I would like to sincerely acknowledge that everyone has the right to be offended by, to be uncomfortable with, and to not like what they saw on Sunday, but I maintain that this does not automatically make it any more socially unacceptable. I think MacFarlane has an important message embedded in his humor, one that was lost in translation on the feminists with their proverbial panties in a bunch.
When Seth MacFarlane was announced as host of the Oscars this year, everyone, with the exception of those living under a rock, should have had some idea of what to expect. MacFarlane is enough of a household name with a trademark brand of button-pushing comedy that I find it impossible to believe anyone is that shocked over his performance. The Academy has struggled in recent years to hit upon a presenter that can keep up the energy during what can otherwise be a god-awful long show. If we know anything about Hollywood, I think it’s clear that MacFarlane’s selection was meant to bait controversy as well as draw a larger male audience to the show. The numbers are in, and it appears MacFarlane succeeded on both fronts (sorry, haters). If you know anything about MacFarlane’s personal views, you would know that he supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, gives money to the Democratic Party, is a staunch defender of gay rights, has expressed his support for the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, advocates for the legalization of marijuana, and is a professed atheist. In short, he is a political and social liberal with an open mind. This is in stark contrast to his performance on stage Sunday night. Why? Because MacFarlane works in satire, using irony to mock the often unsavory world in which we live. Just as Stephen Colbert sits at his desk and espouses right-wing conservative talking points, MacFarlane’s characters present to us the inherent racism and sexism of our society through nonsensical comedy. We are more able to stomach Colbert’s satire because the twinkle in his eye assures us he’s really a liberal wearing Bill O’Reilly’s suit; it’s easier to be offended by MacFarlane’s dark humor because he hides behind his animation. MacFarlane is not trying to indoctrinate or desensitize us to, and certainly not perpetuate, racism or sexism, he wants us to watch, relate, and painfully realize that we are all sometimes guilty of these horrible realities though we don’t mean to be. He wants us to be conscious of how our actions affect others and make changes to eliminate these behaviors.
|Seth MacFarlane sang and danced, accompanied by
JGL and Daniel Radcliffe
Perhaps you think I’ve spent too much time dwelling on MacFarlane, giving him too much credit for his base humor. But I’d argue MacFarlane knew exactly what he was doing on that stage. For years, the Academy, and Hollywood in general, has been a white-washed all-boys club. In the twenty-first century this remains a serious problem, one that is getting more and more attention. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several young women here at Barnard with a passion for acting and/or filmmaking with the courage and conviction to change this disturbing trend. Though he may have approached it from an unsophisticated angle, Seth MacFarlane brought to light the whiteness and maleness of the motion picture industry. When he embarrassed breast-baring actresses in his song “We Saw Your Boobs,” we started thinking about the fact that actresses are more likely to appear nude in a film than actors. When he called out Salma Hayek, Penélope Cruz, and Javier Bardem as being unintelligible because of their accents, he showed us how they are forced to play the token minority at award shows by highlighting the lack of diversity in the Hollywood elite. When he joked that actresses feigned illness to fit into their dresses, he called attention to the ridiculous standards to which we hold both celebrities and ourselves. Though you may be offended, this is the first time these terrible parts of our pop culture are being questioned after the Oscars, rather than the usual who-wore-what and who-took-who-home.
But the responsibility to defeat this problem also falls on us. You can argue MacFarlane was sexist for constantly commenting on beauty and sex appeal, but in the days after we pour over tabloids and tune into Joan Rivers’ (BC ’54) Fashion Police to judge who looked best/worst/absolutely abominable. We read Perez Hilton to know who hooked up and partied hard, silently judging from the anonymous screens of our laptops. Before we accuse MacFarlane of being the incarnation of all evil, perhaps we should analyze our own behavior and realize that all too often we are guilty of the very same sins we hoist upon him. If his jokes made you uncomfortable, it’s because that’s how you’re supposed to feel: you’re a human being with a soul realizing the sad truth behind black humor. You can either choose to silence his voice by invoking political correctness or listen to his message and enjoy the best kind of comedy, one that provokes deeper thought.
I understand that not everyone is going to agree with me and I accept that; let’s agree to disagree. However, applying undeserved labels on Seth McFarlane is only hurting movements to end racism and sexism. We have much bigger fish to fry (actual displays of hatred and bigotry, discriminative voting laws, unbroken glass ceilings, wage gaps) than complain about the off-color jokes from the creator of an offensive television show. It’s important that we remove the PC pressure we place on artists and entertainers, even if we find their message to be uncouth. Sometimes a joke is just a joke, and it’s fine if you don’t like it or don’t think it’s funny. But if I do, don’t shame me into taking responsibility for legacies I didn’t create or support. The diversity of thought and opinion is what make our country such an interesting (and sometimes frustrating) place to live. I’d rather go through life being occasionally offended than never being challenged by a differing viewpoint.
Finally, in continually harping about harmless “sexist” jokes, feminists are proving MacFarlane’s Zero Dark Thirty joke: women do never let anything go. Sorry if that horrified you, but it was one of my favorite moments of the evening, because in my life, it’s a stereotype that often rings true as one of my character flaws. Acknowledging this is not a weakness. It’s okay to admit that men and women aren’t made equally, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be treated equally. Likewise, not all women were offended by what was said, and that doesn’t make us any less of a woman, any less a believer in equality. This equality means we’re going to have to take jokes or criticisms “like a man,” rather than blame the limits placed upon our gender. If you ever find yourself lost in a car with Seth MacFarlane, I hope you make him pull over and ask for directions, because every woman should know how to take it, but more importantly how to dish it.
Laura is a sophomore at Barnard and Managing Editor of The Nine Ways of Knowing