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Writing a critique of Seth MacFarlane’s duties as Oscar host on the website of The New Yorker this morning, Amy Davidson found herself defending Chris Brown. At least sort of. “Relationships are complicated,” she wrote in the midst of a stern rebuke of MacFarlane’s Chris Brown/Rhianna joke, “and it may take a woman more than one attempt to leave her accuser…if any woman who goes back is told that she has forfeited sympathy and can be written off with mockery…then we’ll end up with more dead women.” There is a lot to unpack here.
MacFarlane’s joke is a straight line to “more dead women”? He is somehow “writ[ing] her off with mockery”? Mockery is something to be criticized in a comedy routine? Perhaps more than anything, Davidson’s argument is astounding in that she appears to be coming out in support of the Chris Brown/Rhianna relationship, standing behind their desire to be together, and withholding judgment on the validity of their union — after all, “relationships are complicated.” Isn’t that a more problematic stance than MacFarlane’s joke that “a man fighting to get back his woman, who has been subjected to unthinkable violence” is that couple’s idea of “a date movie”?
Such was the fervor on the internet today to be the first and the loudest condemning Seth MacFarlane’s job hosting the Oscars that writers often found themselves making somewhat tortured, hateful, or simply inaccurate statements. Tom Shales, writing at The Chicago Sun Times, described MacFarlane as “a squirrelly little ham whose forte is producing dirty cartoons for television.” That’s hardly an open-minded description of an entertainer, and one that I personally find offensive as a relatively squirrelly-looking fan of cartoons. Later on in his piece, Shales did offer that there was one bright spot in the telecast: a 70-year-old woman singing a 40-year-old song (Barbara Streisand’s admittedly well-done tribute to deceased composer Marvin Hamlisch, singing “The Way We Were”). That gives you a pretty good idea of Shales’ demographic; perhaps if Ozzie and Harriet could have been delivered to the stage by a time-machine, Shales would have been satisfied?
In a much-passed-around piece from The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber decries the “banality of Seth MacFarlane’s sexism and racism” in its headline, a nod to Hannah Arendt’s description of “the banality of evil” in the execution of the Holocaust by the Nazis. This is, again, perhaps a bit hyperbolic. Despite its headline, Kornhaber’s piece actually spends more time trashing previous telecasts or the non-MacFarlane portions of Sunday’s (the musical tributes, especially). In the end, there are only three concrete examples from a three-hour-plus broadcast of MacFarlane’s “sexism and racism” — the “We Saw Your Boobs” song, which is a particular focus or anger for the online commetariat, another joke about Zero Dark Thirty being about “a woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go,” and a joke about mixing up Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy.
As it a focus of criticism around the internet, let’s dig in a bit on the boobs song (a phrase I never expected to write). The premise of the bit was that it was exactly the sort of thing people expected from MacFarlane — boorish and dumb and sexist. It went on for under two minutes and was explicitly called out as being a terrible bad idea before it began. Almost every actress mentioned in the song participated, via a pre-taped reaction (although some, like The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, mistook the acting in those reactions for real life in an error later corrected in his column). It was dumb and silly, sure. But was it a hostile act towards women? Was it the end of civilization? One wonders if a song called “We Saw Your Butts” about men would provoke the same uproar. Obviously, the women in question knew that they are naked in some films in their past, as does everyone connected to the internet. As Brody pointed out in his piece, none of the films MacFarlane named are bad — although some of the actresses on his list have been naked in far less reputable films which he left unmentioned. Acknowledging that fact via a jokey song seems short of the threshold for chauvinist hostility.
More than anything, though, this single-minded fixation on a few jokes of MacFarlane’s willfully ignores that he presided over what may have been the classiest Oscars in recent memory. We had movie stars waltzing in flowing gowns, deft soft-shoe by men in tuxedos, music popularized by Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire sung underneath a twinkling canopy of falling stars. If that’s not Hollywood glamour, I don’t know what is. Sure, it was overlong. It was also one of the most elegant shows in my memory, and a joy to watch.
Does this millionaire need my help? No, of course not. He is sleeping soundly tonight on a proverbial, or perhaps literal, pile of money. Maybe he brings it out to soothe himself when he’s feeling low. Still, it seems to me that we want The Oscars to be more irreverent, not less. We want to encourage the testing of boundaries by our entertainers. Otherwise, the show will be even more boring. After the reaction today, that’s probably what we’re all in for next year. Thanks a lot, everybody.
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