The Moral Violence Of Seth MacFarlane’s Jokes

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Michele Gazzolo offers her take on the Oscar host’s night of offensive jokes.

Seth MacFarlane. Until last night I had never seen him. He sang a passable song or two, and fit the tuxedo nicely. He reminded me of some boys I’d known in college who called each other Biff and Scooter. He reminded me of boys I’d known whose youth and privilege made them—from a distance—seem impermeable and callous. He reminded me of certain members of a social class who are quick to send members of another social class off to war and other thankless work. But that is the kind of thinking I would like to transcend.

I would like to transcend the kind of thinking that distances me from other people. These days, I am pretty much ready to love everyone. And I was ready to like Seth. I was ready to say: Hey, you’re darling. Good for you!

Until I heard the joke about Chris Brown and Rihanna hitting each other. I thought I was dreaming. Then a joke about Jodie Foster coming out, or not coming out. Then, like a long, expensive train wreck, the song about women exposing their breasts. Like a boy on a playground, he called out the name of each actress. We were treated to a glimpse of each of them, looking trapped and unhappy. At least one looked furious. And for the first time in years of watching the Oscars and harboring a sense of polite distance from the people in Hollywood who bring us the motion pictures, I felt a small bit of solidarity with the audience. I was squirming. The very same women who patiently modeled their dresses, manicures, hairdos, and jewelry as if teaching us what beauty is, who told the story of their diamonds and smiled generously as cameras flashed and we took in our fill: We saw those same women cringe in their seats and suddenly—borrowed diamonds or no diamonds—they didn’t look so lucky.

Later I came to learn the actresses’ faces were pre-taped acting like they were mad, when really they were…enjoying it? So I guess the joke is on me, friends. I guess I’m an easy mark.

I tried to debrief with my daughter in the car. “Oh, Mom,” she said impatiently, “He was making jokes to make people laugh at themselves.” In a moment of which I am not proud, I rolled my eyes at her. Disbelieving, I asked her to explain. She spoke to me as if I did not understand English. I found myself feeling queasy, like I was in some kind of time-travel machine. “These are people everyone feels like they have a connection with. So everyone feels like they can laugh at them.”

Really? I asked. I felt like a martian. I wanted to tell her to make her own dinner. Do you know what women do? I wanted to ask her. Do you know what most women do all day, for which they are rarely paid, and by which you and everyone benefits? To take it in a different direction, do you know that most violent crimes are committed by men, quite often the same men who like to tell stupid and mean-spirited jokes? This is not to say that women do not have their own style of cruelty, which I am sure was present in that glittering auditorium along with the diamonds. But to watch women and men in their Oscar best submit to this kind of
palaver is another way to endorse—and thus perpetuate—­the cultural habit of submitting to a norm that is trivializing of authenticity, and sorrow, and real love.

But it was not the hour for such a lecture. It was the hour at which I had to put the chicken on, finish a story, and feed the dogs. It was the hour at which my daughter would gracefully ascend the stairs like Betty “Princess” Anderson in Father Knows Best with a blithe “Gotta write that paper!” I would not stop her because it is not the time to start a revolution. Instead I will tie on my apron and hie myself to the kitchen like Jane Wyatt, and another day would pass not much different from the one before.

I found my mind wandering to a story I had recently read by a veteran who talked about the subtlety of moral violence.

I was watching a documentary about Iraq with a friend of mine (not a veteran). Midway through the piece, a short video clip was shown of two soldiers searching an Iraqi home. The footage was uneventful, boring even, capturing nothing but a bit of walking around and some chitchat between the Americans and the family. Then one of the soldiers, clad in body armor, sunglasses, and an automatic rifle, feeling in an amorous mood I suppose, leaned toward a young Iraqi man in the living room and gave him a hug. The Iraqi submitted with limp arms and an unenthusiastic smile. The soldier, maybe 19 or 20 years old, laughed. The other soldier laughed, too.

And that was it. The footage ended.

And so, he concludes, moral violence could be nothing more than a hug to which someone submits because they have no choice, because there is a difference in power. MacFarlane’s jokes were like that hug: endured. In either case, it would be difficult to leave the room.

Michele Gazzolo is a mother and writer living in southwest Michigan. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times Parent-lode blog, the Yale Journal of Medicine and the Humanities, and most often on her own blog, girlwalksin: http://girlwalksin.wordpress.com/

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