I WASN’T going to write about Seth MacFarlane’s execrable performance at the Oscars last weekend, I really wasn’t.
When I first heard the now notorious “We Saw Your Boobs” song, which listed famous breasts exposed on the silver screen, including one flashed when Jodie Foster’s character in The Accused was being gang-raped on a pinball machine, I thought I won’t rise to the bait this time. I’d only be giving MacFarlane the oxygen of publicity. In any case, I touched on sexism only last week and I suspect there’s a finite public appetite for uppity besoms getting wound up about the way their gender is treated.
But then I allowed myself one little outraged tweet and the response changed my mind. One particular reply, from someone whose opinion I respect, suggested that, if I objected to the performance, I’d obviously missed the joke.
Because the song was set in context (the context being William Shatner, dressed as Captain Kirk, coming back from the future to tell MacFarlane if he didn’t change his act he would be judged the worst Oscar host ever) it was not sexism, but a satire on sexism, she explained. Even though it effectively reduced a roomful of talented actresses to their mammary glands it challenged rather than endorsed the way men look at women.
Now, I’m an open-minded sort of a person, so I did give this viewpoint some consideration. Could the repetition of a sexist joke by a man whose stock-in-trade is sexist jokes (see Family Guy and Ted) be considered satirical just because it was delivered in a knowing fashion? Well, would Nick Griffin blacking up and singing something racist be less offensive if it was set in context and branded “self-parody”? And does satire – which is supposed to undercut prevailing value systems – work if what it delivers is essentially a minute and a half of exactly the kind of glorification of tit shots it pretends to be sending up? (Those struggling for an answer might wish to reference the next day’s Sun, which provided a helpful pictorial guide to the aforementioned scenes). Certainly many Hollywood actresses, including Jane Fonda, didn’t think so.
Even if you overlook the fact that MacFarlane is on record as saying he likes picking on minorities and that the rest of the show was in much the same vein, but with a dash of racism and homophobia and a gag about domestic violence thrown in for good measure, there’s something discomfiting about the notion that just because we’re told a boobs joke is actually trenchant social commentary we should be compelled to laugh along with it.
And that’s the problem with so much comedy at the moment – it’s impossible to tell whether it’s busting or reinforcing stereotypes and prejudice. The boundaries which started to blur with Ali G, Little Britain and The Office have completely disappeared.
When Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother sleeps with and discards a succession of beautiful women, are we supposed to laugh with him or at him? It, and programmes like it, promote messages about women that would have been frowned at 20 years ago, but because they are supposedly doused in irony and endorsed by the female characters, we are exhorted to view them as acceptable.
Perhaps, when Lib Dem peer Lord Rennard allegedly propositioned a succession of party workers, he wasn’t being an objectionable sleazebag, but merely satirising one. Maybe those involved should have laughed along instead of fleeing in tears as one researcher reportedly did.
I’m not serious, of course. Even if Rennard did sexually harass ten women, and he denies all the claims, who would suggest such a thing? Yet, last week, plenty of people, some of them female, implied the women should lighten up. Rod Liddle said they should learn to brush off such advances, former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown’s spin doctor Jo Phillips said perhaps they should “toughen up a bit”, and John Major’s former press secretary Sheila Gunn said women should understand the “culture” of Westminster and find ways of “coping with that sort of inappropriate behaviour”. Perhaps those involved also should have been flattered about allegedly being referred to as Rennard’s “red hot babes”.
That’s the 21st-century way, isn’t it? Not to defend discrimination, but to make women feel they’re lacking in humour or balls if they don’t play along with it; to encourage them to collude in it, as some girls do when they use words like “bitches” and “hoes” because if they don’t they’re not part of the prevailing culture. Comedy like MacFarlane’s tries to convince us sexism is old hat. We can sing songs about women flashing their boobs, it says, because everyone knows we don’t mean it, when in fact what the three male producers were doing was celebrating their own hilarious laddishness. Misogyny is not confined to a particular sphere or another era, it’s all-pervasive, as a glimpse at @everydaysexism, which last week highlighted a T-shirt sold by Amazon which read “Keep Calm and Rape It”, demonstrates. It’s in the adverts which show a mother single-handedly organising Christmas, all male-shortlists for awards, and in football writers railing against the cash invested in the female game.
Sometimes it masquerades as something more acceptable, such as a comedy sketch or a competitive environment which we are expected to steel ourselves against, but we shouldn’t shy away from calling it out for fear of being seen as po-faced or namby-pamby. Because those who convince us they are mocking sexism, when in fact they are revelling in it, are performing the ultimate sleight of hand: they are making us complicit in our own subordination. «