Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Only Comments on This Seth MacFarlane Oscar Controversy

I didn't watch the Oscars this year. I don't care much about them anymore, and even if I did, I wouldn't be interested in watching four hours of Seth MacFarlane's tired lounge singer shtick. Based on the commentary I'm seeing, I'm glad I didn't.

Less than a week later, and I'm still seeing commentary after commentary on MacFarlane's (and the show's) apparently misogynistic tone and the various reactions to it. Lots of people are disgusted, some of them to the point of incoherence. A lot of the disgusted people have had a lot of very good points to make. Some people have mounted a defense of MacFarlane (and the show), but they've all been pretty lame.

Like I said, I didn't watch it, so I can't really comment on his performance. But I do have some thoughts on what the reaction has been, and I want to do what everyone else has been doing and share them.

If you've ever watched any of MacFarlane's TV shows, you pretty much knew what to expect. Some singing, some pop culture references, and lots of sexism. Family Guy is one of the most misogynistic shows I've ever seen; look at the way Meg is featured: the one younger female character he's got, and since he and his writers can't imagine anything with real humor value happening to a woman that doesn't involve getting punched in the mouth, he instead makes her an object of scorn. Her one defining trait is that everyone hates her and refuses to treat her like an actual person. MacFarlane honestly comes across, through his program, as a guy who fears women and strikes back at them by pretending his humor is supposed to be satirical. He's one of those "equal opportunity offender" types, who's supposed to be edgy and free from serious criticism because he supposedly doesn't have a specific target. You see this bullshit a lot on the internet, where people think they're being smart and ruggedly individual by pointing out that everything's as bad as everything else and everyone's position is equally whatever.

I honestly tend to hate those people. It's a shrug; an abdication of the responsibility of having an opinion, a point of view, a political position, or an ideology. The people who deal in this have a tendency to act like it's a bold stance to take, but it's not. It's not sophisticated; it's cowardly. Having an opinion and stating it is risky; taking the moral low ground is lazy.

And the idea that MacFarlane is neutral is a bullshit lie designed to shame anyone who criticizes Family Guy's blatant misogyny, its weird racism directed most often at Asians, and its predilection for making fun of the handicapped. Seth MacFarlane is an able-bodied white man and he's disseminating an able-bodied white man's point of view, and by offending "everybody" because everyone's as bad as everyone else, he's basically just reinforcing the status quo. How can you be an edgy comedian when all you're doing is reinforcing the status quo by showing the bros who watch your show how right they are to be woman-fearing racists?

So, honestly, with MacFarlane you know what you're getting: a toothless lounge act too afraid to shake anything up and clinging to a misogyny that isn't just repellent, it's childish and outdated.

(Again, I didn't watch the Oscars, but I want to say that as far as misogyny on the show goes, the producers share a lot of the blame. Don't let them off the hook by focusing on MacFarlane exclusively. He was probably given a lot of that material, and at no point did anyone say "Maybe doing a song about boobs isn't the classiest thing we could open our show with, and it might be a little creepy to boil down the harrowing, dramatic rape scene in Boys Don't Cry to 'Hey, Hilary Swank has nice tits!'")

What I'm seeing a lot of in the defense commentary are these: "Hey, it was supposed to be offensive, it's Seth MacFarlane!" "It's satire!" "Well, the ratings were up and Seth MacFarlane makes a lot of money, so someone likes it!" Those are all just... just so fucking lame. They're so fucking stupid. Those are stupid, stupid things to say.

First, on the subject of offensive humor: we don't all have to be cool with it. I don't care if it's "supposed" to be offensive or not. If something offends someone, it offends someone, and they're allowed to say it without having to endure accusations of humorlessness. Misogynistic humor undermines women, and I really hate how as a society we've somehow made women feel that if they don't laugh at misogyny or rape jokes ("Hey, it's just a joke.") they're being humorless or uncool or not in on it. Who wants to be in on shitty jokes they're offended or feel undermined by? Do you know how many fat jokes I've heard in my life? ALL OF THEM. Am I supposed to laugh at fat jokes I find mean-spirited just so people will think I don't mind being made fun of? Fuck you; I do mind it. And I get to say so. If that makes me uncool, I'll live with being uncool.

Second, on the whole satire thing... satire makes a point. MacFarlane has no points to make. He never has. To the extent that Family Guy was ever a satire, no one really got it, and now--like most shows that are on this long--it just plays up to the stereotypes that the audience likes and reinforces their prejudices. It's not artful and it's not satirical. It's another lame dodge, as if MacFarlane knowing a joke is offensive when he makes it somehow excuses him from making an offensive joke, as though he thinks he's doing a parody of offensive humor. Look, just because you're ironic and self-aware and know something is offensive, that doesn't automatically make what you say funny. It's cowardly; you get to make the joke, but not own the joke. And promising to insult "everyone" doesn't make it okay to indulge your stereotypes and disguise them under the word "joke."

Sorry, but I don't think jokes about domestic abuse are hilarious. Seth MacFarlane knowing it's offensive, or saying it's meant to be offensive, doesn't make it any less offensive. Or any more funny than it already isn't.

There is far too much of this specific thing online. Just this morning, I read what was apparently meant to be a satirical piece on about how Shailene Woodley isn't hot enough to play Mary Jane Watson in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I was disgusted by it; I ended up reading the article twice trying to figure out if it was meant to be satire or not; the tone was too exact and didn't really engage in any biting satire. Just look at the comments: almost no one seems to get that it's supposed to be a satire, because the whole thing simply mimics the entitled sexism that many fanboys engage in without any irony. It's not satire, it's just reinforcing prejudices that, while incredibly fucking stupid, are very real. The author, at best, completely miscommunicated his intent. But that doesn't make it less offensive.

And also on the "it's just a joke" front, what does making a joke that undermines the accomplishments and achievements of women say about the person that makes it?

Third, the whole "he's popular so you're wrong" thing... so the fuck what? Who cares if he's popular? Justin Bieber is popular, that doesn't make him "good" on a completely objective level. And Seth MacFarlane's securing of the lowest common bro-denominator doesn't make him objectively "funny." Pointing to someone's popularity as proof of quality is ridiculously meaningless. It's more accurate to say that he's lazily writing lazy jokes about racism and sexism that lazily pretend to deconstruct racism and sexism in a way that's hilarious and non-threatening to racists and sexists. He knows his audience. He's smart about who he plays to.

And you know what? I'll admit that at times he's genuinely funny. I've laughed at his shows before. It's not 100% garbage. That's what makes him such a disappointment: he's not totally untalented, he just has shitty taste and confuses prejudice with edge and the ability to offend with satire. He can be funny (even if he'll never be personable), but he's just so goddamn LAZY about it. Writing the umpteenth joke about how Asians are bad drivers and deaf people talk weird is just easier than actually challenging anyone.

So, if you like Seth MacFarlane, fine. I don't assume that you're a racist or a misogynist if you do. Humor is subjective. Being offended is subjective. But Seth MacFarlane's shtick while hosting the Oscars isn't automatically unoffensive just because he's smart enough to know better or doesn't really mean it. Anyone offended by it doesn't deserve to be invalidated because they can't take a joke.

The only thing subtle about making sexist jokes is how subtly they reinforce gender-based stereotypes. And they don't do that any less just because they're jokes.


M. D. Jackson said...

I'm glad you made the point that MacFarlane wasn't alone in this. It's not like he came up with the Oscar telecast on his own in his basement. Lots of people were involved -- Industry people. It wasn't just the boys sniggering into a video camera. This was reviewed, sanctioned and vetted before the broadcast so a whole lot more people than MacFarlane thought it was okay.

I did see the telecast (except for the opening sketch which I looked at online lated because I wanted to see William Shatner playing Captain Kirk, even if it was just for laughs) and honestly I didn't think it warranted all the blovating that it has received, especially not the kind that singles out MacFarlane as the bad guy.

Roger Owen Green said...

Oh, McFarlane was funny occasionally - I DID watch it all the way through. When he introduced Meryl Streep, he said, "Here's someone who needs no introduction," and didn't.

But it's true that there were over-the-line shots.

The ratings were up because there were so many nominations for Best Picture that actual people SAW.

phoniexflames said...

I think the weirdest thing about MacFarlane is realizing how much of himself is present in his characters and projects. For example, he IS actually Brian and Quagmire from Family Guy. And seeing "Ted" really, really hammered home the point that the guy will die alone, never having looked at himself.

Christ, I don't think I've ever felt more uncomfortable watching a movie, because it was really like looking at someone's mind and manifesto. If you ever get a chance, see it and see if you can't notice all the weird things that MacFarlane seems to say about how he views himself and the world and what he thinks are "functional" relationships. I don't know how to describe it, but for me, it's the weird feeling you get watching a Katherine Heigl-produced romantic comedy. You get a really, really good look into these people's minds, and you just feel... pity. Real, actual, uncomfortable pity.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

You didn't watch the show and you hit the nail pretty much on the head. Helen Hunt was often featured in the reverse shots of MacFarlane performing from the stage and she was just radiating her quiet hatred for him. I know she has a reputation for being humorless in general, so maybe it wasn't specific to MacFarlane, but it was kind of great. And in her Oscar clip for The Sessions it featured the scene where she says the line about John Hawkes's character never seeing female genitalia and seeming frightened of it. A subtle dig at MacFarlane? I'd like to think so.

S. Element said...

I've gotta say that this take on the '"equal opportunity offender" types':

It's a shrug; an abdication of the responsibility of having an opinion, a point of view, a political position, or an ideology. The people who deal in this have a tendency to act like it's a bold stance to take, but it's not. It's not sophisticated; it's cowardly. Having an opinion and stating it is risky; taking the moral low ground is lazy.

It makes a hell of a lot of sense to me. Well said.