We saw your boobs: For Shame!

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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I don’t watch Family Guy and I haven’t seen Ted (2012). But on account of Stan, and his weird family, I do consider myself a Seth MacFarlane enthusiast. I was thrilled when it was announced that he would host the Oscars, expecting that his anarchic and irreverent humor would clash pleasantly with the conservative Academy – and I don’t necessarily refer to the politics of its members.

So, how was it? Well, some of the musical numbers were boring (Chicago, Dreamgirls), even for a devoted musical fan such as me, although I did find the Miserables performance touching (I have not seen the film, nor do I intend to). I wasn’t all that impressed with Shirley Bassey either: for a 50-year tribute to Bond films, this was simply anti-climactic. Nor did I see the point of Streisand singing “The Way We Were”, to honor the late Marvin Hamlisch. There was also an overall uncertainty of tone throughout the ceremony, but this was more due to the splitting of awards among several movies, and although I was hoping Argo would win Best Picture, as it did, the “presence” of Michelle Obama threw me off (and not because of her politics either). The opening number took a little longer than it should have, but the tap-dancing trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth MacFarlane himself was fun, although Channing Tatum was decidedly less graceful than the lovely Theron in their dancing bit (“The Way You Look Tonight”, sung by MacFarlane).

Right. That leaves out the most crucial part. What a significant amount of commenters have termed the sexist, misogynistic focus of the show and of MacFarlane’s jokes (more on the subject here, here and here). Although this is not simply a question of liking or disliking the host’s brand of humor, let me come out and say it right away: the best parts of the ceremony were when MacFarlane was on screen, the sock-puppet Flight parody, the unsinkable Jennifer Lawrence winning her first Oscar and…”We saw your boobs” (that bit with the teddybear wasn’t bad either). “We saw your boobs” especially was hilarious, and catchy, and anyone paying attention would have immediately noticed that the reaction shots of the actresses mentioned (Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts and Jennifer Lawrence) were pre-recorded as part of the joke.

Did I like the song because I could care less about the way the film industry treats, views and depicts women? No, on the contrary. Apart from finding the song funny, I also felt it was deeply ironic. We live in a culture obsessed with nudity, women’s bodies, sexualized teenagers (or worse) and ubiquitous celebrities, and yet we complain when someone points that out? What did the song do, if not ridicule that obsession? The grandiose production of the number (complete with background dancers and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles) further stressed this. MacFarlane did not belittle the actresses’ performances, but rather provided a comment on the obsession of seeing (as a viewer) or being asked to shown (as a result of the viewers’ fixation?) one’s breasts for a part. I doubt that anyone, female or male, can honestly claim that nudity on film does not have a side-effect, forever detaching the mental image of the naked performer from the necessities of her or his part.

Which brings me to the second point I am trying to make. The double standard. To be completely honest, some of the articles cited above drove me mad, as a woman and as a feminist. Sexist attitudes towards women are more common and recur far more often than sexist attitudes towards men, but discrimination based on gender applies to both. Last year, I sat through an entire awards season and read a fair number of posts, articles and comments making various jokes about Michael Fassbender’s penis. This most definitely cost him a nomination for a Best Actor Academy Award, for his part in Steve McQueen’s brilliant Shame (2011) – didn’t I say that the Academy is conservative? We listened on and on, as George Clooney compared Fassbender’s penis to a golf club. I don’t remember anyone complaining back then about sexist attitudes, even though they reduced one of the bravest, most raw performances in recent memory to a playful mention of the actor’s genitalia. Was it OK because Fassbender seemed to laugh and shrug it off? Was it OK simply because the actor was well endowed? According to Chris Heath, “the main reason, if we’re being honest, is a simple one, and relates to the surreal, feverish totemization of penis size in our culture: People feel free to harp on about someone’s penis as though this is not insulting or inappropriate because, if that penis is sufficiently large, any reference to it is, by default, flattering”.

So, there’s the problem. Our culture will continue to be obsessed with breasts and penises, as long as sex keeps being marketed as a product. Actresses (actors too) will continue to pose in sexually tantalizing photographs, even the great ones (how is Jennifer Lawrence bending over a car in a photo shoot for Vanity Fair any different than Megan Fox bending over a car in Transformers?). I therefore refuse to be offended by a song that conveys an inconvenient truth. With the added bonus of making me laugh.

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