Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Jennifer Lawrence Didn't Have to Show Her Boobs, and Why Seth MacFarlane is Still an Asshole

Just look at this smug little bastard.

Seth MacFarlane, creator of The Family Guy and and a number of other cartoons I haven't seen, recently hosted The Oscars. I didn't watch them, but I did catch a few highlights, notably, the "boobs" song, where Seth Macfarlane sings a song that lists all the hollywood actresses in the room who have exposed their breasts in a movie. Notably among the many people that Macfarlane pissed off was Jane Fonda.

This is what Fonda had to say:

"What I really didn't like was the song and dance number about seeing actresses boobs. I agree with someone who said, 'If they want to stoop to that, why not list all the penises we've seen?' Better yet, remember that this is a telecast seen around the world watched by families with their children and to many this is neither appropriate or funny," Fonda wrote. "I also didn’t like the remark made about [Quvenzhane Wallis and George Clooney], or the stuff out of Ted's mouth and all the comments about what women do to get thin for their dresses. Way too much stuff about women and bodies, as though that's what defines us."

The Clooney joke she refers to is one where Macfarlane says, “To give you an idea of how young she is, it’ll be about 16 years before she’s too old for Clooney.”

If you want to hear the rest of his monologue or the highlights, I'm sure you can find them elsewhere, but this pretty much characterizes the tone. But lets just say sexualizing little girls just scratches the surface.

Not everyone responded the same way to MacFarlane's humor. Jennifer Lawrence, who received the Best Actress Oscar said, "I loved the boob song," and that she found MacFarlane "hilarious."  But I don't think Lawrence is any less a feminist than Fonda for feeling this way. 

MacFarlane's humor is irreverence for irreverence's sake, a kind of humor that Fonda's generation doesn't tend to understand. It's also very dependent on context to work. It's not satire. Its irony exists sheerly in the fact of the unacceptability of its premise.

Sarah Silverman is a good example of someone who knows how to make this kind of comedy work. I've never cared for her stand-up--a litany of deliberate irreverent statements that seem to me to be essentially the same joke with the same intention told over and over. But in her show, The Sarah Silverman Program, her comedy has the context that it needs. It's funny not just because of Sarah Silverman's irreverence, but because The Sarah Silverman character in The Sarah Silverman Program doesn't know she's an asshole. The audience understands that her character is fundamentally broken. In one way or another, the other characters in the show, like her nerdy gay neighbors, or a as she calls them, "gaybors" come across as both clueless and endearing, irreverent out of a fundamental ignorance of the dynamics of human behavior, but no one is more clueless than Silverman's character.

Occasionally the show will veer into satire, as in the episode where Silverman "adopts" a homeless person as if they were some kind of Guatemalan infant refugee, but generally it goes for straight irreverence for irreverence's sake, and does it well. 

So Lawrence, at 22, probably grew up with The Family Guy and South Park and any number of other examples of this kind of humor. It's humor in that post-modern context--we're supposed to know that they know that they're being wrong on purpose. 

Which doesn't make Seth MacFarlane any less of an asshole.

We live in a country where breasts are objects of sexuality and implied intimacy. So when an actor decides for one reason or another to expose her breasts in a film, it's no easy decision. Once they do, whether they like it or not, their image is instantly recontextualized. If you do a Google image search of a popular actor with the word "boobs" attached you're likely to find pictures of them topless or nude, either stills or video from a film, or photoshopped inventions. And even the kids that Fonda believes are too innocent to hear the "boobs"song have likely discovered this fact at an age she probably wouldn't approve of.  

And this fact and assumption is reflected in the "boobs" song.  As has been mentioned in many places on the web already, some of the women who showed their boobs did so in the context of rape scenes. But that's not what the song is about. It's about that 12 year old boy feeling of glee at having seen an adult woman's boobs.

During MacFarlane's "boobs" song, the camera turned to each actor's response as their name is mentioned, and MacFarlane says, "we've seen your boobs." He sings this with the LA Gay Men's Chorus to give credence to the idea that he's only just kidding, see? Look! Gay people. Gay People, the signifier of liberality, an indicator that his intentions are innocent of all malice.

But as the camera focuses on each woman's response, they are forced into a position well known to women in our culture, the position of having to be "good sports" no matter how they feel about what's being said about them. If they don't at least pretend, they're going to seem oversensitive or worse, "bad sports."And in some cases, the strain isn't so ambiguous. 

Edit: Apparently these responses were taped earlier with permission from the actors involved. The actor's may well have felt compelled to participate in order to be "good sports." At any rate, this makes the song no less a debasement.

 There's no way to know how difficult the decision might have been to do a nude scene in a movie, and reducing this decision to "we saw your boobs' only emphasizes its consequence--that they no longer own those images, that those images can be completely divorced of their original context and the actors have no control over this. 

This is a decision that Lawrence hasn't had to make.

 With her fist pump when she was mentioned as someone who hadn't "shown their boobs," came the implication, no matter how light-hearted, that just maybe she'd dodged a bullet. Who knows how she would have reacted if she was one of the targets of the song. Maybe she wouldn't have cared. But still, her reaction was an acknowledgement of  the song's underlying sexism. In a way she was going along with what we were all to assume was the intention of its humor. But it's hard to have it both ways. There's a fine line between pretend sexism and just plain old sexism. 

Fonda's take is from that original generation of feminists whose statement, to many in Lawrence's generation, might be considered humorless, and worse, to have missed the point. There are plenty of other contemporary women who share Fonda's opinion, but because she fails to acknowledge or "get"  MacFarlane's school of irreverent humor, it's easy for others to dismiss her. But I think Fonda is right. 

Does that make Jennifer Lawrence wrong? Yes. It does. Despite what Fonda may lack in her understanding of post-modern irony, Fonda has more first hand experience with the worst aspects of sexism. Lawrence is the recipient of the advantages that Fonda had to fight for as an actor in Hollywood in the sixties at the height of the feminist movement. Because of actresses like Fonda, Lawrence has more choices, and one of those choices included the choice not to show her boobs.

But I do feel that Lawrence is a positive role model. The Hunger Games not only was a hugely successful fantasy adventure film with a young female protagonist, but it was one that didn't explicitly sexualize its protagonist. This wasn't Angela Jolie's sexy, skin-tight outfitted Lara Croft. The posters that promoted The Hunger Games weren't about Lawrence's body.While Lawrence is riding the crest of this wave, she's not the cause of it, which isn't to say that she's not its best representative. She's been vocally resistant to body conscious Hollywood, and the roles she's both chosen and been offered have been roles that women simply weren't given in the past. Even 10 years ago, Lawrence would have been the love interest for the male protagonist in someone else's movie. So far she's avoided that. Even in her recent romantic comedy The Silver Lining Playbook she holds equal footing and equal billing with her costar. And she got an Oscar for it. And she didn't have to show her boobs.


  1. I just wanted to point out that the responses of the actresses to the boob song were all pre-recorded, so they all agreed to be part of the skit and were not "forced" into that position. (You can tell because their hair and clothes are different from what they actually wore to the Oscars.) So that "strain" you see was staged for laughs. I guess you can still argue Good Sport vs Bad Sport, but it seems like the actresses who wanted to be a part of the skit were shown, and the others were not. I understand what you're saying, though.

  2. I didn't notice that! But the "good sport" idea still applies. At some point they were asked and they may have felt compelled to agree.