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Seth MacFarlane: we saw him boob, that’s all

The Oscars host’s jokes may have been crass, but the over-the-top reaction to his performance was far worse.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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While trying to pick over the hysterical reaction to Oscars night, it’s customary to announce that at least nobody died. Sadly, this year, such an announcement is not possible. Because if you haven’t heard by now, host Seth MacFarlane’s routine died a mighty death. The Anti-Defamation League declared it ‘offensive and not even remotely funny’. Some critics, meanwhile, have been divided over whether it was ‘a festival of misogyny’ or ‘a great, steaming misogynist turd’ of a show. The New Yorker panned MacFarlane himself as a ‘creepy imitator’ after a ‘hostile, ugly, sexist night.’

Trying to host a overblown and self-congratulatory extravaganza such as the Oscars is a notoriously tricky gig: it has done for the likes of David Letterman and (more recently) arthouse starlets such as James Franco. The host has to preside over more than five hours’ worth of celebration of the biggest egos on the planet, in front of the world’s second-biggest TV audience, without sounding smug or offensive.

MacFarlane’s take on this delicate and nuanced role, therefore, wasn’t so much an epic fail as a frankly magisterial one. He opened the show with a song and dance number called ‘We Saw Your Boobs’, where he listed the names of various actresses in the audience who had, well, bared their boobs and, helpfully, the film in which they did so. He mocked the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles for being ‘gay’. He asked Daniel Day Lewis, winner of Best Actor for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, whether he had attempted to emancipate black actor Don Cheadle in the parking lot. He said that Django Unchained, aside from being inspired by Mel Gibson’s abusive voicemails, was ‘the story of a man fighting to get back his woman who has been subjected to unthinkable violence. Or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a date movie.’ Another skit, featuring the bear from Macfarlane’s own movie, Ted, suggested that Hollywood was controlled by Zionist Jews.

Hollywood, as Toby Young famously recounted in his memoir, How To Lose Friends and Alienate People, is the sort of place where you can be admonished for asking a gay, Jewish actor whether he is gay and Jewish. By the time MacFarlane got booed for cracking a joke about Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth (‘150 years and it’s still too soon, huh?’), he might have gauged that his particular brand of humour was not going down well. It was every excruciating best-man speech you’ve ever sat through, relayed on the biggest stage in the world, spread over five hours.

That MacFarlane was going to shock was not altogether shocking. As creator of the cartoon series Family Guy, he carefully crafted a show which sat between the cultural cleverness of The Simpsons and the ‘take no prisoners’ offensiveness of South Park and watched it ride a wave of notoriety on the back of innumerable cancellations and censorship.

Last year, Macfarlane hit the big screen with the similarly toned Ted. It was once remarked that Woody Allen’s success was built on providing a middlebrow, everyman’s view of an intellectual; MacFarlane, as much a student of showbiz as Allen, is very much the middlebrow perception of an edgy comedian. He was drafted in as host to up the Academy Awards’ viewing figures among a younger demographic, and he duly did so.

Yet MacFarlane’s crimes, it seems, are much worse than simply being smug and lazy, or even simply sucking. Nor could it simply be concluded that the Hollywood establishment had made a chronic misjudgement in attempting to lance its often off-putting vainglorious pomposity on Oscar night by reaching out to the clown prince of the cheap snark. What’s more striking is that this backlash is not being led by fawning celeb gossip mags reflecting the bruised egos of self-important Hollywood liberals. Instead, it is being led by commentators from apparently serious liberal publications on the hunt for signs of MacFarlane’s seeming pathological hatred of minorities. More importantly, those who laughed along – or even simply didn’t express their outrage loudly enough – are all implicated in the guilt.

MacFarlane’s song about the actresses in the audience showing their breasts is not merely crass and childish, apparently, but one which ‘celebrates rape on film’. Similarly, in joking about Chris Brown and Rihanna’s soap opera of a relationship, it seems MacFarlane did not just violate one of the modern commandments of discussing their controversial relationship – which is to emphasise just how bestial and frighteningly black Chris Brown is – but actively endorsed, perhaps even promoted, domestic violence.

Yet these were mere minor transgressions compared to what was the cardinal sin of Oscar night 2013: jokes about Quvenzhané Wallis. The nine-year-old star of acclaimed drama Beasts of the Southern Wild was the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee and, behaving with all the sweet enthusiasm of a nine-year-old girl allowed to dress up and go to the biggest awards show around, was the adorable icon of the evening. So much so that venerable satirical website, the Onion couldn’t resist undercutting the schmaltz with a bit of rough-hewn bathos: ‘everyone seems afraid to say it’, ran a tweet following a close-up of the famous kid punching the air with excitement, ‘but that Quvenzhané Wallis seems kind of a cunt, right?’. Following the predictable Twitterstorm, the Onion‘s CEO issued a swift apology for a ‘crude and offensive’ lapse: but this hasn’t stopped several liberal commentators holding it, and MacFarlane (for another, separate, Wallis-related joke), responsible for everything from the rape of underage girls to racism itself.

Of course, what lurks behind this anger and outrage on all sides is an unspoken and much more objectionable assumption: that we, the masses in the audience, are little more than unthinking dupes vulnerable to the messages of the all-powerful Hollywood machine. Ironically, in fact, in turning to a performer as inexperienced and divisive as MacFarlane, the Hollywood establishment was revealing its desperation to engage a younger, multimedia-savvy demographic that it barely understands, let alone controls. More worryingly for today, however, is that in what many generally regard as a fairly bland year for serious filmmaking, it is the supposedly liberal critics who are calling for more inoffensive conformity from the conservative stalwarts of Tinsel Town.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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