So I did watch The Oscars until 10 pm last night (but then I was tired and went to sleep), so I saw a lot of what people all over have been up in arms about regarding Seth McFarlane’s performance as the host (in particular the “Boobs” opening number), and I’ve been thinking a lot about the reaction, both in the context of conversations about gender in popular culture and media and in the context of the people that I know, who objected.
Here’s the thing: I read the number (in the moment, when I actually watched it) both in terms of its irony and the whole “meta-ness” of it. In terms of the irony, what I saw was this: A woman has to show her boobs (generally) in order to win an Oscar and to be taken “seriously.” It’s all very Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume I, in its taking pleasure in transgression, isn’t it? It’s all so much more “serious” if one violates the “conventions.” Speaking the unspeakable, violating the norms of femininity by asserting one’s sexuality, blah. Is that Seth McFarlane being a misogynist for pointing that out? I don’t think so. I think that women actors going topless in films is the equivalent of the disability narrative for male stars – Forrest Gump, Rain Man, Sling Blade, etc – basically, if you play a “retard” you are an Oscar contender, if you are a D00d. Except you can’t sing a song about disabled D00ds, because it’s wrong to make fun of disabilities. In that regard, the number was sexist/misogynist, as it is ok to sing about boobs and it’s not ok to sing about “retards.” So, ok, I get the charges against McFarlane (and the producers of the show) there.
But then there is the “meta” quality of what that number was. The number pointed out the ways in which such a number was “wrong,” while at the same time it pointed out that women in Hollywood, by Hollywood’s standards – not by the standards of McFarlane or the Oscars or the producers – must agree to be objects first in order to gain recognition. Play a rape victim, play a hooker, play an abused woman, play a nazi, but you’d better play them naked, or you don’t get the Oscar – unless, of course, you’re Jennifer Lawrence, because Jennifer Lawrence is cool and “post”boobs (much like Obama is post-racial). Basically, the “academy” appears to agree, that the “brave” role for an actress is to show her tits, and it’s not exactly the case that a guy has to (or even should – see Michael Fassbender last year) show his junk (with the exception of Harvey Keitel) in order to prove that he is worthy of recognition.
The question is, does irony and metacritical comedy save the day? I don’t know. But perhaps what those of us who watched saw wasn’t, actually, ham-fisted misogyny. Perhaps it has a lot more in common with the postfeminist Girls – which makes many of us uncomfortable, but which people recognize, in spite of that, as “smart.”
I’m willing to acknowledge that (maybe) there is a problem with a guy (McFarlane) using that kind of irony, as opposed to a woman using it (Dunham, but also, let’s note, Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, too, for those ladies aren’t strangers to sexist jokes). Beyond the individual celebrity personalities, I’m willing to acknowledge that the “post” tendency to supplant politics with irony as if the two are the same is problematic. I’ve read my Frederic Jameson. But.
When I watched that “boobs” number, or when I watched McFarlane take that shot at George Clooney for dating young women, I didn’t see those moments as (primarily) misogynistic. I saw those moments as McFarlane biting the hand that fed him – as calling out Hollywood on its inherent misogyny, on the misogyny that rules the movie industry, and on calling out the d00ds (like Clooney) on their fucked up privilege. Seriously: explain to me why it’s “brave” for a woman to show her tits in a film, why that is “Oscar-worthy,” while it’s “beefcake” and “cheap” for Channing Tatum or Matthew McConaughey to play male strippers? Is it really more feminist not to point out the boobs and how women actors are valued more when they show them than when they don’t?
Note: I’m not saying that McFarlane’s oeuvre is not misogynistic or sexist or at the very least offensive.
But. I do think that it might be worse that a woman has to show her tits to be taken “seriously” as an actor. I do think that it might be worse that the attacks on McFarlane seem not to recognize the ways in which the film industry values tits and ass, even when it comes to “serious” roles for women, as if those are the most “courageous” roles that women can play.
I’m not saying I’m not uncomfortable with the current discourse about the potential roles for women right now. I am. And of course misogyny is a problem for me, as I’m a woman, and I don’t like a culture of hating women. But is Seth McFarlane a devil to me? No.