Last night was Hollywood’s annual orgy of self-congratulation previously known as The Academy Awards but now rebranded as the fewer-characters-on-Twitter, Oscars. I tuned in to watch (and snark) as has been my wont since I was old enough to say, “No Best Picture for Bugsy Malone? It totally got robbed!”
The Oscars are usually hokey but enjoyable, with moments for applause, appreciation, Schadenfreude, and some serious eye-rolling. Last night’s show, however, was anything but enjoyable. It was more like enduring a three-and-a-half-hour colonoscopy broadcast live from the Dobly Theater and interrupted by occasional odd musical numbers from “Chicago.” (“I know: We’ll do a tribute to Hollywood musicals…that totally ignores the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals! And then, halfway through, let’s just abandon that and give ‘em a half-assed 50th anniversary of James Bond party!”)
Seth MacFarlane played host, and the rationale was that the “Family Guy” and “Ted” creator would bring an edgy sensibility to capture a younger demographic for the ratings-lagging Oscars telecast. I’m not familiar with MacFarlane’s work but was ready to be introduced. After all, I’m a pretty irreverent person with a great love of biting, uncomfortable humor. In fact, humor does its job when it makes us uncomfortable. Like Artaud’s Theater of Pain, but with a laugh track, it strips away our bourgeois trappings and offers us a full-length, three-way, Macy’s dressing room mirror of bitter truth. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know,” it seems to whisper with a smile.
But as the evening progressed and I kept waiting to laugh, I found myself going from bewildered to annoyed to uncomfortable with Hollywood’s apparent lack of self-awareness. There are no three-way mirrors in Hollywood, it would seem.
Great humor is great because it moves the conversation into new territory by exposing hypocrisy and vanity. It calls “bullshit.” Think of George Carlin and American culture. Lenny Bruce and sex. Richard Pryor and race. Bill Hicks and religion. Sarah Silverman and the taboo topic.
And I suppose this was my problem with Seth MacFarlane as a host: It didn’t move the conversation into new territory. It wasn’t funny. It was simply a parade of the same old, tired, sexist, racist, homophobic, fat-chick jokes devoid of the clever or subversive being presented as if they were “hip” and “edgy.” In the immortal words of “Spinal Tap” (a truly funny movie) “There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
I kept thinking of what Sarah Silverman could’ve done with a musical boob-rant number. How, perhaps, she could’ve managed to put Hollywood’s notoriously misogynistic culture on trial…while also singing a funny song about boobs.
Because that’s the big missed joke, isn’t it? The fact that in Hollywood, women are only sexualized and objectified: That they are often the understanding wife/girlfriend/mom/sister or the kidnap/torture/abuse victim. It’s why we have movies in which action heroes who are well into their seventies are paired with women half their age. That women are regularly asked to strip down for roles as if their body of work is literally about the work of their bodies—bodies subjected to all sorts of scrutiny. That the best actress and supporting actress Oscar-winning roles reveal a huge number of prostitutes among them (including last night’s win for Anne Hathaway’s Fantine). That roles for women of color are even harder to come by. That last year was the first time a woman has ever won Best Director in the Academy’s eighty-five-year history.
“Kathryn Bigelow was nominated for Zero Dark Thirty until the Academy realized that we’d already had a female Best Director this decade. Good luck in 2023, Kathryn.”
The problem is, MacFarlane and the Oscars weren’t in on that joke. They were part of the problem, rather than being a cheeky, possibly course-correcting, outrageously funny part of a (hopeful) solution. Please see: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes.
“We Saw Your Boobs” could’ve actually been that amazing zinger if MacFarlane had segued with a dramatic key change into “We Saw Your Penis” and then name-checked the roughly five dudes who’ve done full frontal in movies, paused for a moment to let that sink in, then blithely launched back into the boob song wearing a big goofy grin of intentional denial, thereby illustrating the tip of the iceberg of the problem that exists for women in Hollywood. Yeah, I’d-a done a slow clap for that.
Of course, today, there are the usual, “Learn how to take a joke!” comments about objectors being humorless and uptight.
But how about this? Learn how to MAKE a joke. Learn how to craft intelligent, searing, mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting jokes—especially if you’re going to have the platform of the Academy Awards in which to do it. You want to make people uncomfortable? Great, go for the jugular. Make a joke about the unintended irony of having the “Jaws” theme—from a movie about a special effects shark—being used to silence the visual effects award winners who were making a pointed political comment about Hollywood’s callous treatment of the visual effects industry. Surely, there could’ve been a “This just in: the Jaws theme has just filed for Chapter 11 protection. From now on, lengthy speeches will be cut off by the strains of the movie themes from Norma Rae and Reds.” Couldn’t somebody backstage have penned a quick one on that situation? But I guess it’s just easier to make a tired joke about Jews running Hollywood.
By the time we got to The Onion’s controversial, appallingly insensitive tweet about nine-year-old Quvenzhané. Wallis, the night had taken on a Grand Guignol, Night of the Living Frat Party atmosphere.
I’m a huge fan of The Onion because, much like The Daily Show, they actually do represent cutting-edge, smart humor. But I’d argue that a joke that’s built on calling a kid a c**t isn’t the smartest, best joke in your arsenal. Rather, it’s a lazy, gross, cheap shot at the expense of a nine-year-old girl. But it seemed to encapsulate and symbolize in only eighty-two characters the easy-breezy misogyny of the evening that no one thought, hey, you know what? Maybe this isn’t the joke to make about a talented fourth grader with a puppy purse who is the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. Maybe we should call well-respected, nice-guy Stephen Spielberg a c**t as a joke instead*?
But somehow, I doubt they would.
*For the record, I am not suggesting you call anybody that. At least not anybody that you don’t want to have punch you in all of your faces.