Here are the premises of some of Seth MacFarlane’s jokes during last night’s Oscar ceremony: People from other countries are often hard to understand. Black people, even movie stars, all look alike. Jewish people run Hollywood. Naggy women just can’t let stuff go. Women will often make themselves sick in order to be thin. You can ogle the nude scenes of even our most respected and awarded female actors. And even nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis is a future George Clooney conquest. Meanwhile, after the show, whoever was writing The Onion’s Twitter feed thought it’d be funny to satirically call that nine-year-old the name that most of us would politely refer to as “the c-bomb.”
We know, we know — pushing the envelope and joking about taboo subject matter and getting a rise out of the square, the “politically correct,” and those with sticks in the orifice of your choice is exactly the purpose of gags like these, and by getting offended, we’re missing the point. There has already been plenty of virtual ink spilled today addressing that argument, so we’ll bypass it for now. What we find interesting, and a little encouraging, about last night’s strain of sexist/racist/xenophobic humor was that so many people made it clear, quickly and virulently, that they weren’t having it.
It’s easy to catalog the offenses of emcee MacFarlane (and hey, look, we did), but this much must be said in MacFarlane’s semi-defense: we got exactly the show we were expecting from the Family Guy creator. You don’t hire that guy and then drop your jaw in disbelief when somebody shows up in a Nazi uniform. The question that remains is, why did the show’s producers think that was the right guy for an Oscar telecast?
The answer: ratings. The Oscar audience traditionally skews towards older viewers and women, so MacFarlane’s hire was to lure young men (the ads explicitly billed it as “an Oscars the guys can enjoy,” opening with the none-too-subtle image of Cameron Diaz and J-Lo with butts to audience). This strategy might have worked; early ratings indicate the show’s best numbers since 2007 (though the quantity of hit Best Picture nominees is always a factor in those numbers as well).
And MacFarlane delivered exactly the kind of smirking, “I refuse to be PC!” roastmaster jokes he’d been hired for. Many were offensive. Some were inexplicable. A few were actually funny. But nearly all were colored by the kind of Exclusively Straight White Male perspective that, in an awards ceremony (and industry) suspiciously lacking in work and recognition for anyone who’s not a Straight White Male, came off as alternately clueless, bullying, and ugly. And after three hours of that, The Onion upped the ante.
But what was refreshing about the whole debacle was how many people took to Twitter and other social media to call bullshit, and to push back. Maybe we don’t follow enough Family Guy fans (and that’s no accident, believe you me), but the online consensus seemed to indicate that MacFarlane’s schtick wasn’t going over, and as the show wore on (and on… and on) it seemed like he knew it, too. But nothing he said or did earned the ire The Onion did with their ill-advised Wallis tweet; by the time your film editor heard about it and went to their Twitter page to investigate, it had already been removed. (They apologized this morning.)
Though MacFarlane works primarily in television and The Onion began in print, both are creatures of the Internet; Family Guy’s return from the dead was precipitated in no small part by online fans, and most of us read The Onion virtually (with a considerable push from Twitter and Facebook). If the Academy’s engagement of MacFarlane was a transparently naked attempt to grab a young, web-savvy audience (a few years late, as is so often the case), and The Onion’s Oscar tweets tried to piggyback the tone MacFarlane had established, there is perhaps some poetic justice in the fact that Twitter’s roars of objection and rejection were so loud. They tried to do something for the “Internet generation,” and that generation was the first to reject it.