Just really quickly, because I’m sure we’re all a bit Oscar-ed out.
It is inevitable isn’t it? That moment when you’ve posted your umpteenth comment on Twitter about someone being sexist as opposed to funny and you get called a humourless feminist. “Oh good,” I thought to myself last night when the tweet zinged back at me through cyber space, “I guess I must be a humourless fun-sucker after all. Thanks random internet guy for filling me in”. But here’s the thing. I like Family Guy. I meant to get to the cinema to see Ted. I wanted to like Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar’s hosting effort. But he just made it too damn hard.
I don’t want to talk about why what Seth MacFarlane said was sexist. I think that’s been robustly covered here and here and here and a number of other places, including Buzzfeed’s excellent go to guide to the sexist bits. I want to talk about what makes me draw a distinction between this sexist humour and the humour he employs in other arenas, like with Family Guy.
The Academy Awards are an industry celebration. We’re all invited because famous people are famous, and we like to watch them being famous. But the bottom line is, these people are getting together with their peers and honouring the best (or the most popular, or the one with the best marketing campaign/narrative) but voting vagaries aside, these awards are about peers showing respect for each other. And they happen in the real world. The Oscars might be packed full of sugary-sweet confection, unattainable riches and gobsmacking beauty, but they are still about real people doing and saying real things.
Seth MacFarlane isn’t a character. We’re not supposed to be laughing AT him. We’re supposed to be laughing with him. Which means when he implies Jennifer Aniston is a stripper, or makes a joke about domestic violence referring to an actual victim of domestic violence, he is talking about real people in real situations. He is asking us to laugh at them, not with them. Because being a victim of domestic violence isn’t funny. Having someone call you a stripper with all the implications that carries about women’s ownership of their own bodies isn’t funny. It’s also really not funny to joke about a man in his fifties dating a girl who’s yet to turn 10. But MacFarlane did it anyway, because he likes to be “edgy”.
Fuck edgy. It’s not edgy to be a misogynist. And I won’t laugh alongside you when you reduce women’s work into a song about getting to see their tits. And no, I don’t agree that making it meta by having it in a bit about how MacFarlane bombed as an Oscars host, forces my complaint about its sexism to become part of the larger joke. Sure, if you think women in Hollywood is a larger joke, then I guess this works. But otherwise it’s just a smokescreen for some pretty insulting crap.
Family Guy is full of such hideously flawed characters who are full of bile, stupidity and offensiveness that the un-reality of the narrative makes it possible to enjoy. We are laughing AT Peter Griffin, not with him. He’s never in on the joke. Neither are any of the others. They don’t get it when the joke’s on them, and so as an audience we are doing something that is essential to good offensive comedy. We’re not identifying with anyone who is making, or on the receiving end of the joke. We’re outside that world, and because it is a fiction, and because the characters are so horrendous, we’re able to laugh.
The Simpsons, full of flawed but relatable characters, never pushes the envelope as far, because the concept won’t work when people are invested in the characters.
The Oscars, full of real people, working in their real jobs, is not an imagined world. And so the jokes should reflect that. They should show respect for the hard work and talent of the women in the room, as well as the men. They shouldn’t rely on lazy racist tropes. They shouldn’t include riffs on domestic violence.
Seth MacFarlane wanted us to laugh with him, at the women of Hollywood. At least Ricky Gervais wanted us to laugh with him at everyone.