Complicity

I’m angry tonight.

I’ve written about the Oscar debacle and I’m still confounded, consterned, and yes, complicit. I’ll get to complicit in a bit, but I want to talk about comedy and social justice and how yes, they can actually exist in the same world at the same time.

Comedy serves a lot of purposes-it can be used to call out truth to power as satire often does. It can attack up the ladder at offenses done to humanity. It can be low and crass and immature and relieve pressure off of our constrained behaviors and it can also be dark and difficult (gallows humor) alleviating pain from those who have suffered it.

It can also be used to mock and hurt others on purpose.

How we use comedy says things about us as a culture. So looking at the Oscars, and the resulting anger and then the resulting resulting dismissal of anger (mostly in comments on the articles), what does that say about us that we are having all this anger and anger at the anger at the kind of humor gracing the Oscar stage this year.

First off, lemme say this:

I can understand that a joke can have all the components of being funny in a technical sense. The structure, tone, rhythm, delivery hit the mark, so yes it can invoke a laugh. But I can also see that that MacFarlane’s jokes were punching down, not up, were passive aggressive not assertive satire, were lazy instead of creative, and mocking rather than actual skewering of the machine behind the troubles the joke should be calling out.

I like offensive/blue/irreverent/edgy comedy and am happy to defend it so long as it is punching up. Boobs is a funny word, so are most curse words and scatalogical phrases. It’s funny, for about 10 seconds to see someone singing a song about boobs or wangs. It’s also about eight years of age in terms of it’s maturity and looking at the “meta” of his set up, that he was doing the jokes but then not doing them…like, even more of a passive aggressive dig.

But, given that several of the breasts we saw in the films referenced were part of rape or abuse scenes (but hey! We saw that tit!). If, and this is a gracious “if” on my part, he was trying to skewer a world in which breasts is what women are remembered for in film, rather than for their achievements….he failed miserably with his satire.

I can think of a number of ways to do that song that would have skewered all the producers and stockholders of the film industry for supporting that. He didn’t do that though. And for me even beyond the blatant racism, sexism, and homophobia (not to mention anti semitism) it’s a huge insult to all of us who study and work on comedy.

There are loads of ways to call out the sexism, or racism, or all manner of things that Hollywood is all guilty of without punching down at actresses who wind up having to show boob in movies. The song could have been aimed quite differently, but still using the word boob, while calling out the dynamics that bring women into situations where they can win Oscars but still wind up having to drop shirt.

Considering how many of the boobs in that song were revealed in sexual violence it bothered me.

Ultimately, comedians can do what they want and they run the risk of negative reaction (and effects on their paycheck) if they haven’t sculpted the jokes for success. There will always be a market for nasty humor, humor that hides knives, humor that mocks, humor that contains loads of aggression for those underneath. And luckily there will be a market for humor that aims those arrows up at the people in power calling out truth like the jester, tilting truth and tropes on their ear and surprising people.

I feel that MacFarlane is the former and that if he was aiming for true satiric work pushing at the foibles of Hollywood’s powerbase, he didn’t hit that mark. Folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert? Pohler and Fey? Molly Ivans? Bill Hicks? Yeah, they punch up, and hard. Punching down is just bullshit.

There is a lot to make fun about Hollywood. But this was a missed opportunity.

It’s gone on, the commentary including a beautiful piece by Lindy West about sexism fatigue, and hating the ongoing work that feminists feel have to be done (and other social justice folks) being called humorless for not finding rape funny, being fearful of pushing too hard, having to explain over and over and over again…ah, forget it, that kind of thing. And here, in an excellent article at Role/Reboot by Seth D. Michaels about the gender politics at play in Seth MacFarlane’s work.

The song, the reaction shots, and MacFarlane’s general attitude are all based on a commonplace and awful trope: that sex is a contest, and that men win and women lose when sex or nudity happens. It’s an archaic, prudish, creepy concept that derives from twisted notions about female purity and women-as-property.

And of course when one links this on one’s FB page, it’s likely that someone will tell you (in so many words) that you just aren’t getting it.

And I DO get it that’s the thing. I understand why the joke works! And the reason it works IS WRONG! For TONS of historical, cultural, and gendered reasons.

And to point it out is to be a bitchy humorless drudge. But what does giggling and and being nice get you? Approval of men who think Seth MacFarlane is awesome?

This brings us to complicity and my sadness tonight realizing I had the opportunity to do something much bolder with a theater festival then I had the courage to do.

For six years I was either the sole or co-producer of The Ladies Are Funny Festival, a comedy festival devoted to supporting women comedians in Austin and beyond. It was a fine and fair festival but it ran into a touch of problems early on when my coproducer and I were noted in an interview as saying women played differently then did men. And other things that offended the men in the comedy community so much that there was an online forum kerfuffle of very large proportion and a dismissal of the festival by many men in the community.

And I played pretty nice. And I shouldn’t have. It was bullshit and awful and I felt hurt and angry. It was quite divisive and I did my usual conflict resolution thing and glossed it over rather than stand really fucking firm. Let’s talk family of origin issues some other time, but I can take a failure bow for that one.

I mean, there are comedy groups for Latinos, Arab Americans, African Americans, LGBT folk and so forth and so on. And each year in the press I was asked, “Why? Why a ladies comedy festival.” And I crafted very politically correct answers when I should have just quoted Joss Whedon;

“Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
A: Because you’re still asking me that question.”

So tonight, on behalf of all the female comedians that I probably didn’t support or defend as much as I should have, on behalf of all the actresses that have had to put their boobs out on screen when they’d rather not have, and on behalf of a future society in which boobs aren’t a marker of “good” or “bad” but just pleasure and amazingness, I say that I’m sorry for not being more of a fucking humorless bitch in defense of good “punching up” comedy, of feminism, and in defense of not backing down to be nice just because the men around me got uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable a lot because of sexism. It’s ok if men are too, when we point it out. We’ll all live, and perhaps we’ll live more equally.

And I’ll still be one of the funniest women, you’ll ever meet.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Complicity

  1. Julie, thanks for your thoughts here.

    It has been amazing to see how many folks just don’t see the level of insensitivity of that song. I, too, think the word “boobs” has great comedic value. And he could have made the joke and then gotten out–but it seemed to me like he used the construct (William Shatner looking back from the future telling him how MacFarlane had flopped as Oscars host for being so offensive) to just BE offensive.

    That he named so many specific women, all great actresses and professionals, many of whom were actually THERE in front of him seemed especially dehumanizing. It eased my discomfort to see Jennifer Lawrence respond with humor, but she was the only one who didn’t get “exposed” because she hasn’t done a nude scene. I thought Charlize Theron looked like she wanted to shoot MacFarlane.

    The whole thing was, as you say, lazy and passive aggressive. And outrage-inducing. Again, thanks for putting your reactions out there. Hold firm.

  2. edotwoods

    This was great. The part about “you just don’t get it” is so spot on. The thing about “You just don’t get it” is that it moves the responsibility for the funny from the comedian to the audience. And if you do that then the audience should get the credit for the jokes that hit, too, but nobody ever seems to say that.

  3. Fed_Up

    And the saddest part about that whole debacle is that MacFarlane probably even congratulated himself on being a *sensitive* guy because he presented the whole thing in the wider context of “This is a rotten way to do the Oscars.” But if he were a truly sensitive guy, he would realize that all he was really doing was compounding the very real attitude that women, even when striving to create Art, are still nothing more than boob-providers for drooling juveniles.

  4. Pingback: Race and Feminism. Mirrors and Shadows. | Julie Gillis

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