The Problem With the Oscars Is the Oscars
I knew before Seth MacFarlane was announced as the host of this year’s Academy Awards that I would not be watching the ceremony. If Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, two incredibly talented women whose shows 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation rank among my favorite of all time, couldn’t convince me to watch the Golden Globes, there’s no way MacFarlane, the creator of several shows I hate almost instinctually, could get me to tune in for the Globes’ stuffier, more overbearing sibling. But then a curious thing happened: a grinning, self-satisfied MacFarlane took to the stage and started singing about how great it was to be in a crowd with so many women whose breasts he’s seen, and the Academy Awards became more noticeably sexist than ever before. There’s been so much talk about these Academy Awards that one could be intimate with them without having watched, but, like a good cultural critic, I did. The end results were, to be kind, less than impressive.
It’s easy to be angry with the host of an awards show—read a few post-mortems on the James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosted ceremony of 2011, and you’d think the actors’ four-hour struggle to breathe was a deathblow against that which keeps society together. It’s one thing to be a bad host. The Academy Awards are a no-win proposition, especially in the era of Twitter and instantaneous, public feedback. MacFarlane’s performance went beyond bad, however. His opening number was tasteless even before he celebrated seeing Jodie Foster’s breasts in a simulated rape scene or Scarlett Johansson’s thanks to a very public phone hacking incident, and from there he dropped a number of one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place on a typical episode of Family Guy, but were out of touch with the usual decorum one expects from one of the most watched telecasts of the year. Objectification, pedophilia, abuse—in the hands of a skilled comic with an understanding of their audience, these subjects can and do inspire wicked pieces of performance art. When utilized by a hack whose most inspired bit involved having an animated baby mimic William Shatner’s boozy performance of “Rocket Man” in a lilting, queenish British accent, you get something along the lines of MacFarlane’s riff on Django Unchained: its rape and violence towards women make it a perfect date movie for Chris Brown and Rihanna, whom Brown famously abused.
Having read more than a few of the think-pieces that’ve cropped up since the conclusion of Sunday’s show, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of people in the world where a four-hour awards ceremony matters: those upset with the Academy and their chosen host, and those who think women should shut up and learn how to take a joke. I’m with the angry mob, and am actually taken aback that so many people on the internet need to have explained to them why, exactly, a 40-year-old white man probably shouldn’t use a nine-year-old girl as a prop for a joke about how George Clooney has sex with women much younger than he. Even were this a world where no nine-year-olds had ever been raped by adults, is there any permutation of that joke, any image that it inspires, that rises above the awkward laugh the assembled rich folks of Hollywood gave it?
That said, MacFarlane isn’t any more at fault for the material he used during the Academy Awards than he usually is for his use of gender, race, or sexual preference in Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show, or Ted. MacFarlane was hired not despite his humor, but because of it. TV studios and advertisers value the demographic a show like Family Guy courts, and the young, white, straight male audience most attracted to that show, when they’re not drunk or stoned and finding humor in that, make fun of things they don’t understand: women who won’t fuck them, men who fuck other men, and humans who aren’t white. These are the young people with the most disposable income, and, in hiring the reigning champion of dumb, monied, straight, white male entertainment to entertain them, the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences finally achieved what they failed at with the failed Franco/Hathaway tandem and Hugh Jackman’s earnest go at the proceedings: more people watching advertisements, thinking, Yeah, ScarJo’s boobs did look pretty good in that hacked selfie.
The Oscars themselves should be held accountable for the Oscars, but, naturally, the rage against the show will subside well before 2014. MacFarlane has already announced that he won’t be hosting next year’s Academy Awards ceremony, effectively sparring AMPAS any soul-searching or hand-wringing. A new year will bring a new host, and with him (because it’s not going to be a woman; not by herself) the show can return to normalcy, demeaning women and embarrassing the nerds behind the camera in its usual subtle way—inviting a fraternity of action movie stars to jokingly invite the tireless computer jockeys responsible for their superpowers to the stage where they’ll be whisked off by the theme from Jaws or placing emphasis on the dress a woman wears to the stage and not the performance that got her there.
Without MacFarlane, the Academy Awards can only attract a certain crowd. I’ve heard the show referred to as the gay Super Bowl before, and a large audience of people who claim to love movies seek to prove their worthiness by enduring the show from Best Foley Editing to Best Picture. Beyond that, there are the hate-watchers and those drawn to the covers of supermarket gossip rags, and though one audience loathes the Oscars and the other loves it, both watch because they are drawn to celebrity like insects to light. On a Sunday night when only a show about zombies and premium cable offerings that don’t depend on an immediately present audience dare run against it, the Academy Awards are a gargantuan bug zapper built to trap tourists mindlessly speeding past on the Interstate. Those in charge don’t care because they only want the largest possible audience to be on hand to witness the industry reward the year’s least-challenging challenging movie, with each successive Twitter post, Facebook status update, or amateur film critic’s blog post only adding to the cauchophony that make’s up Hollywood’s endless rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
In writing over a thousand words on the subject, I’m as guilty of noise pollution as the Redditor on r/mensrights taking his imagined humorless feminist enemy to task for not laughing uproariously at a lazy song and dance number by a man whose only contribution to society has been to continuously stoke the long-raging fire of Othered Shame. But I used to love the Oscars; during my formative years they served as a guidebook for films I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of, sitting in the dark at my local multiplex. It’s not inconceivable to me that some kid watching the show with his or her mother caught a snippet of The Master and was made curious by it. There is value in such cultural experience, but there’s also a risk inherent to a broadcast like Sunday night’s: the further codification of cultural binaries and our numbness to them. Better then to turn off the ceremony and turn on a good film; they can’t make bad awards shows without ‘em.