Girls, Remember Who You Are And What You’re Good For: The Oscars Take-Away

I’m fast losing my good humor around the Seth MacFarlane Oscar hosting debacle. The conversation is still raging around the internet, with writers contributing pieces like this and commenters responding with brilliant analysis like this,

Yes! We finally have a winner! In the Most Absurd Feigned Outrage Over Something Seth MacFarlane Said category, this article runs away with the top prize!Jesus Harold Christ, Salon. Get a [expletive deleted] hold of yourself. Quit jerking off to invented Oscars controversy and get back to work.

So I’m going to go on record with why I’m still disgusted and why I’m still hurt and upset for actresses who were especially targeted for categorization, objectification and derision.

Americans seem to think that this debate rests of whether or not they personally found Seth MacFarlane to be funny. There are times when personal opinion should not drive our reaction to a cultural event and this is one of them. Those who found MacFarlane’s material funny but refuse to admit that they were entertained at the expense of actresses on the biggest and most important night for professionals in their industry have some waking up to do.

I have seen too many arguments that the Oscars are just a puff piece and that this is just a tempest in a teapot. This is an ignorant assessment. Hollywood films are America’s biggest cultural export and film is a multi-billion dollar industry. An Oscar nomination has huge economic consequences for actors, technicians, writers and studios. There are also secondary and tertiary industries and micro-economies that revolve around this pageant of celebrity and cinema. The economic stakes around this show are high and important to thousands.

The 2013 Oscars telecast was a teaching moment for women in the industry, or should I say, a moment when women in the industry got schooled, which is a different thing.  The Oscars schooled uppity Hollywood women about their place, which is to be hot bodies to ogle. The takeaway, reinforced in joke after joke after joke was, “Girls, remember what you are, and what you’re good for.”

One of the first skits of the night set the theme. One of the most well-respected women in the industry, Sally Field, winds up in a clinch with a frat boy sitcom writer. Play along, Sally. This smarmy twit should be paying you your propers, but we thought it would be much funnier if he stuck his tongue down your throat. You know, just to remind everyone that that’s what you girls really want.

So gross.

Next up, let’s welcome nine year-old first-time nominee Quvenhané Wallis by calling her out as a future lust interest for an old white man. Do I really have to get all women’s studies here and point out the history of old white men owning young women of color that this joke harkens to? You have to be numb to historical resonances not to feel the sting of that joke in your gut. Wake up, people. The Onion’s ghastly tweet about her has sparked outrage and prompted apologists to justify it. Scott Mendelson is so confused he conflates fashion critique with misogyny. Dude. Fashion is an art form. So is film. Art and criticism go together like peanut butter and jelly. Putting your comedy all over the body of a 9-year old girl is not a related issue.

The infamous “We Saw Your Boobs” number was not made any less sexist by sticking the Gay Men’s Chorus behind it. If anything, the men’s choir just reinforced male solidarity against female power. My first reaction to the song was that it just wasn’t funny. It fell flat. The joke went on way too long.  Then I noticed that ABC had pre-recorded actresses Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts’ reaction shots. They were wearing different gowns, so the fakery wasn’t hard to detect. I began to think about the ways the women in the Academy were being asked to be “good sports” and play along with their own humiliation. Then I got really angry.

The fact that the nudity in the films represented by these actresses was related to sexual abuse, torture and terrorization of female bodies did not matter to MacFarlane and his writers, for whom naked breasts are apparently always about arousing hetero male sexual desire. The whole number was a leering mockery of the actresses who had bared their breasts in order to bring powerful, memorable characters to life. The stories they were telling didn’t matter, the song said.  What mattered was that … heh, heh, we got to see yer boobs!! Jodie Foster, Charlize Theron, and Halle Berry all have Best Actres Academy Awards for roles that required them to take off their shirts. It is simply unconscionable for the Academy to recognize their contribution as artists and then humiliate them for the same body of work (pun intended) years later. I will not forgive this.

I have not heard one defense of this show that didn’t come down to “I thought it was great, so there must be something wrong with you” or “Guess you just don’t have a sense of humor, honey” or “What did you expect from Seth MacFarlane?” (I didn’t expect anything from him: I didn’t know who he was before the telecast and I consider him a spokesman for the movie industry’s sexist, misogynist attitudes. As such, he did his job impeccably well). Personal opinion is not a defense. Attacking someone’s humor is not an adequate defense. One woman wrote to me to say that she’s a rape survivor and SHE thought it was funny, so I should basically shut up. I am sorry that happened to her but there’s no connection. This is about humiliating actresses for doing their job. Unless you’re an actress who has bared her breasts for a serious film role, having been subjected to sexual violence isn’t a free pass to excuse this night of b****-slapping of women in the industry. Saying that a writer’s known reputation for offensive sexism should make the Oscars script acceptable is not a defense. There was a systematic and hostile attempt made the other night to belittle, degrade, correct and dominate a group of highly accomplished, impressive American artists based on their gender on the most important professional night of the year in their industry.  Whether it made you laugh or not does is not the point. The point is that this is intolerable hostility toward women.