If Oscars are a feminist call to arms, blame Hollywood, not Seth McFarlane

    As a feminist, I was surprised by some of the reactions to host Seth MacFarlane’s jokes at the Oscars. If it starts a healthy coversation about sexism, I’m game. But the problem is the larger institutional sexism of Hollywood, not the jokes made by this year’s Oscars host.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    As a feminist, I was surprised by some of the reactions to host Seth MacFarlane’s jokes at the Oscars.

    I generally feel pretty separate from the buzz around Hollywood. I don’t have time to watch many movies, and when I do have time, I gravitate to more independent films. I know almost nothing about celebrities’ personal lives. At a red carpet cocktail party at my neighbor’s house Sunday, I was the one who kept asking, “Who’s that?”

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    Finally, in an effort to sound knowledgeable, I asked the group about the one scandalous thing I’d heard: “Can you believe what happened to Anne Hathaway at the Golden Globes? That photographer took a shot under her dress?” Everyone looked at me like I was milking a cow. Anne Hathaway was to blame, they said. Female movie stars need to put on their underwear.

    Afterward, I forced my husband to watch the first hour of the Oscars with me so I could read the jokes and reactions on Twitter (the only reason I watch any award show, ever). I was laughing at Seth MacFarlane’s jokes, but my fellow tweeters were not. I kept seeing the word “sexist” popping up all over the place, and I furrowed my brow. As a pretty devoted feminist, I couldn’t understand what they were seeing that I was not.

    The Oscars, or any media coverage for that matter, is fair game for discussions about sexism. But the complaints around Seth MacFarlane’s jokes seemed to be the wrong discussion. It’s the larger institutional sexism of Hollywood that’s the problem, not the jokes made by this year’s host.

    When actors and actresses accept their awards and thank “The Academy,” we’re all reminded of the rich and powerful men behind the scenes, whose vision of Oscar-worthy art remains largely undefined. Besides, how many female Hollywood directors can we name? If one of them is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, try again. (No offense to Sophia Coppola — but she has a lot to overcome to be judged solely on her merits.)

    Showcasing women’s bodies has always been a problem in Hollywood. The most sexist thing I saw on the Oscars was the montage of James Bond movies. This is what Hollywood wants to celebrate? Women with spread legs and names like Pussy Galore?

    So when Seth MacFarlane sang “We saw your boobs,” it didn’t feel minimizing to me. We see nudity all the time in Hollywood — women’s nudity. It would be hilarious if the Oscars host sang “We saw your penis!” But he couldn’t, because it would be a really short song.

    It’s been clear for decades that women in Hollywood are encouraged to lose more and more weight, fit into tighter and tighter clothes, in order to be considered at the top of their game artistically. Reporters spend a tremendous time talking about their clothes and hair and jewelry rather than their talent. And actresses have long spoken up about the problem of age in Hollywood; as they get older, the roles they’re offered get narrower and narrower. The same doesn’t happen for men.

    So if Seth MacFarlane’s jokes start a healthy discussion about sexism, I’m game. Maybe seeing how great Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were as hosts at The Golden Globes convinced us that women deserve more attention. Or maybe because we now have a black president we’re ready to see women in positions of power as well.

    There are plenty of places where sexism exists in American culture, starting with our own presumptions. We assume that women’s purpose on television and in film is to be pretty and titillating, not to convey the complexities of human experience. We assume that women’s art is ancillary to the more “universal” human condition, most often expressed by men. In the workplace, we think that women are too emotional to have positions of authority; and in religious institutions, that women have a weaker moral compass.

    I don’t think Seth MacFarlane’s jokes were the sexist thing about the Oscars, possibly because I see how destructive the larger institutional sexism has been for years. But hopefully something good can come out this conversation. Let the Oscars serve as our call to arms — thick, well-fed arms — so that we really begin to tackle some of the negative assumptions and behaviors that prevent women from experiencing equality — in Hollywood and beyond.

    Jana Llewellyn is a writer and editor who works at a monthly magazine in Philadelphia. She blogs at AnAttitudeAdjustment.com.

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