Another year, another Academy Awards ceremony, another reason for bloggers and journalists to vent their spleen at the hosting skills of whatever so-and-so has been given the task of coordinating a sycophantic display of millionaires gifting other millionaires with golden statuettes. Whether it was Billy Crystal’s ninth appearance as Master of Ceremonies in 2012 – generally considered at least one too many – or James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s chemistry-vacuum in 2011, hosting can be a thankless job (Though the latter did prompt one of the best gags at last year’s Golden Globes from Tina Fey: “Anne Hathaway, you gave a stunning performance in Les Miserables. I have not seen someone so totally alone and abandoned like that since you were onstage with James Franco at the Oscars”.).
Few, however, have incurred as much wrath in recent years as Seth MacFarlane’s 2013 stint. Articles by the likes of Amy Davidson and Margaret Lyons of the New Yorker and Vulture respectively have slammed MacFarlane for his ‘hostile, ugly, sexist’ monologue and introductions. A recurring target of criticism was the brief, pre-recorded musical number ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ – made with the participation (or ‘collusion’, depending on whose side you are on) of Naomi Watts, Jennifer Lawrence and Charlize Theron. In this catchy show tune, typical of MacFarlane’s wildly popular Family Guy, he lists various female thespians to have bared all over their careers.
Other lines which have been deemed misogynistic were a reference to 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis having “16 years before she’s too old for [George] Clooney”, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained being “the story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who’s been subjected to unspeakable violence, or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie” and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, “a celebration of every women’s innate ability to never, ever let anything go”. And yet, in the aftermath of what was an unusually balanced but nonetheless predictable ceremony, is it possible these commentators are overreacting? Or missing the point?
Let’s take a look at those contentious points again in order. The 90 second ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ number was not performed live on the night, but presented as part of a larger sketch with William Shatner in Captain Kirk getup, in which the former Star Trek actor forecasts MacFarlane being declared ‘Worst Oscar Host Ever’. The very reason for such impending bad publicity, the skit implied, was song-and-dance pieces like ‘We Saw Your Boobs’. One must ask the question, precisely who are audiences supposed to laugh *at* here? Is it the actresses, including the aforementioned Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts, or is it MacFarlane himself, so clueless and offensive a host he winds up recorded as the worst in the ceremony’s history? Thigh-slapping at the notion of seeing Halle Berry’s breasts may be some people’s cup of tea, but not many. In the tradition of the comedy of embarrassment from both sides of the Atlantic (think The Office, I’m Alan Partridge, Curb Your Enthusiasm), it’s MacFarlane who is made to look the fool here.
Similarly, who was the butt of the Quvenzhané Wallis/George Clooney gag? Was it Wallis, whom the press has tirelessly (and deservedly) reminded us is the youngest ever Best Actress nominee? Of course not. This was a gag at the expense of the silver fox Clooney, a 51 year old currently dating Stacy Keibler, a woman 18 years his junior, and the third high-profile relationship he’s had since 2007. The Chris Brown joke was more offensive in its datedness than any kind of misogyny. It has now been four years since Brown irrevocably damaged, if not destroyed, his public image by assaulting his then (and now) girlfriend Rihanna. True, domestic violence is a sensitive issue, but is it inherently sexist? Equal rights charity Parity claimed in a 2010 report that over 40% of domestic violence victims were male. True, Parity is a United Kingdom-based organisation as opposed to an American one, but the facts still stand. Would a joke about TV presenter Ryan Haddon, arrested for domestic battery of her then-husband Christian Slater in 2003, be inherently misandrist? It is doubtful.
And as for the Zero Dark Thirty joke? Please. Zero Dark Thirty is about a woman, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) who, in the male-dominated world of the CIA, led the successful hunt for the world’s most wanted man. It is precisely her innate ability to never let anything go that brings the film to its dénouement. It terms of misogyny, saying women can hold a grudge is about as tame as can be. Compare it to Drew Carey’s wonderful gag in his stand up comedy routine: ‘I was having a political argument with a lady who said, “If women ran the world, there would be no war.” Sure, nobody would start a fight for no reason if women ran the world. It would be like, “Hi, this is England. How come we’re being invaded?” “Oh, I think you know…”.’ This is humour on perhaps the most universal subject of all – human relationships. Would people prefer a gag about the supposed tendency of women to be pushovers?
One overlapping feature of Davidson and Lyons’ articles was a rather perplexing reference indeed, in which both appeared to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find even more misogyny at the awards. MacFarlane’s alter ego Ted – lead of a 2012 film which earned over half a billion dollars globally – appeared with co-star Mark Wahlberg begging to be let into the ‘big post-Oscars Hollywood orgy’, before being informed it will take place at ‘Jack Nicholson’s house’. Immediately after mentioning this rather soft gag, both Davidson and Lyons make reference to the sexual assault in March 1977 of 13-year-old Samantha Geimer by 43-year-old Roman Polanski, an assault which happened to take place in Jack Nicholson’s then home. Yet where is the evidence that this gag was intended to evoke such an infamous event? There is no evidence. More than likely Nicholson’s name was given as he is the most Oscar-nominated male actor of all time, who has presented the Best Picture Oscar eight times, and is an acting and voting member of the Academy, not to mention someone with an esteemed reputation as a lady killer. Simply, this comes across as a cheap and lousy way of discrediting MacFarlane by associating him with a horrendous crime.
And at the end of the day, Seth MacFarlane earns his living from comedy – and quite the living, with a net worth of over $100 million. He is not a public representative, elected by voters to conduct himself in a manner that offends as little people as possible. He is a comedian. As another comedian, Paul Provenza, host of comedian panel show The Green Room, once put it, “we’re saying some shit that, if some politician or judge said, they’d be in prison for it or they’d lose a job for it or whatever, but we’re having fun with it and we’re actually communicating.” Viewers can object to his remarks if they wish, but in the words of Rowan Atkinson, “the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended”.