A Note to Lindy West: You’re Not Helping

Humor: A Public Scourge?Poor Lindy West.

No, no. It’s just that as much as I sympathize with feminist issues, her whine—along with the rest of society’s apparent shock and horror—about Seth MacFarlane’s performance as host of the Oscars just doesn’t sit right.

West’s rant at Jezebel, titled, “Sexism Fatigue: When Seth MacFarlane Is a Complete Ass and You Don’t Even Notice”, is the sort of thing that really doesn’t help anyone or anything:

A strange thing happened on Sunday night when I watched Seth MacFarlane joke that Zero Dark Thirty is a movie about how bitches be naggin’, and listened to him croon about how lovely Jodie Foster’s naked boobs looked mid-simulated-gang-rape. I felt…nothing. Just nothing. Nothing beyond exhaustion and an extreme desire for wine, anyway. I wasn’t happy about it, but compared to what I was expecting from MacFarlane, it was a yawn. Compared to the sheer volume of hate and misogyny I filter every day for my job, it was a sneeze.

So I wrote happy jokes about other stuff instead. I bowed out, essentially. And I was thrilled to read and disseminate smart takedowns of MacFarlane’s primetime misogyny on Monday morning, letting other people do the heavy lifting that I was too fatigued to engage with. Because this fatigue—it’s really something.

My struggle as a feminist and a critic isn’t to contain my outrage—it’s to remind myself to feel anything at all.

This fatigue is self-induced. There’s no other way to put it: You’re doing it to yourself, Lindy!

Peter Griffin, by Seth MacFarlaneFirst, let us recall what makes MacFarlane famous. He is the creator of The Family Guy, an animated television series with all the will to offend as The Simpsons before it, and a dissociative identity disorder about its regard for refinement and subtlety; some of the jokes are sublime, and others are baboon feces chucked at the camera because people laugh at flying, spattering poo.

Ms. West, do you recall “The Banned Episode”, a.k.a. “The Jew Episode”, officially, “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein”? FOX censors didn’t like the episode, so it premiered on DVD and later arose in syndication. Their underlying problem with the episode was the mere idea of jokes about Judaism. They had no concern with the vice shown Catholics, but God help him who makes a joke about Jewish people. As MacFarlane explained once upon a time, the jokes weren’t really about Jews, but stupid people. You know, idiots like, oh, say, Peter Griffin?

Raw humor of this style is supposed to be unsettling, alarming, or even shocking. So let us start with that: Is “I Need a Jew” a critique of Jews and women, or a satirization of the stupidity needed to maintain such outlooks?

The answer is clear, and not simply because Seth MacFarlane says so. Rather, it is apparent to everyone but FOX censors, and maybe a few panic lobbies that need to keep people believing the next Holocaust of the Jews is just around the corner.

Family Guy Diamonds advertFor FOX censors, it’s a matter of context. For whatever reasons, their sense of context flies out the window whenever the question is a joke about Jewish people. Such as the bit about diamonds; did the censors agree with MacFarlane that women should be prostitutes for their male mates? No, they just understood the joke about diamond commercials, shadowplay in cinema—you know, like in the loathsome medieval adventure Flesh + Blood?—and bling-for-bang exchanges within established relationships. Their main concern was how much flak they would get for a blowjob joke; the FG team had to fight for every frame of the woman’s descent.

Nor, of course, did the FOX censors have too much problem wrapping their heads around domestic violence when Peter shoved his wife down the basement stairs after confirming that she wasn’t pregnant. This was surreal joke, without much of a point other than to reiterate what a moron Peter Griffin actually is.

And therein lies the key: If you think Peter Griffin is somehow admirable, then the whole of Family Guy humor comes crashing down. If you understand the context, the jokes usually work just fine. Nobody’s perfect, but context is all the difference between open hatred and merely missing the target with a joke.

But that’s a cartoon. What does all this have to do with MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars? Well, in truth, I didn’t bother watching because it doesn’t matter what face the Academy puts out to serve as a flak jacket for one of the nation’s most useless rituals.

However, I recall that MacFarlane once did a spot for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, dressed up as a Newport yachter and cracking a joke about some celebrity du jour—Paris Hilton, I think—being a grasshopper. One could easily construe, in a contextual vacuum, MacFarlane’s misogyny. How dare he ridicule a bold and shameless woman whose only crime is to act like a human! But, knowing MacFarlane’s humor as one would from actually paying attention to his work, the more likely explanation is a meta-commentary on social commentary about celebrity, role models, and expectations.

So I would ask you: Is it remotely possible that there exists a real context other than the one you insist upon?

MacFarlane’s controversial approach, or even that shown by The Onion’s hit against nine year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, need not specifically reflect some phantom misogyny. Rather, it’s a matter of taking surreal humor too far. The absurdity of calling a young starlet “kind of a cunt” was simply a bridge too far for most people, who reacted to the idea that someone just called a little girl a cunt instead of shaking their head at a failure of opportunism. “Yeah, but she’s kind of a cunt,” is not exactly an unfamiliar consideration in the question of awards. And there are versions for men, too: “Yeah, but he’s kind of a dick/prick/asshole/&c.”

And, yes, it would be nice to make this particular insult—a dismissal born of neurotic habit—gender-neutral, but the marketplace clearly isn’t ready for that.

What’s that about the marketplace? What does the audience have to do with it? Well, it seems a simple enough question: If safe, comfortable celebrity is what you’re looking for in an Oscars host, why on Earth would you hire Seth MacFarlane?

To put it simply, I AM TIRED OF TRYING TO EXPLAIN THIS SHIT TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. Especially “jokes” like MacFarlane’s, which, to the layperson’s ear, barely register above microaggressions (if the kind of people who see no problem whatsoever with “We Saw Your Boobs” were the kind of people who used the term “microaggressions”). I am tired of trying to have an intellectual discussion about dog-whistle sexism in a culture where prominent politicians are still trying to grasp what rape is, and in a world where little girls are shot in the head because they want to go to school. Asking people to think critically about some hacky jokes from a dancing cartoonist? You might as well wear a sandwich board that says, “Yell at Me With Bad Grammar.”

I am tired of being called a shrieking harridan for pointing out inequalities so tangible and blatant that they are regularly codified into law. I am tired of being told to provide documentation of inequality in the comments sections of a website where a staff of smart women documents inequality as fast as our fingers can move. Like, you might as well write me a note on a banana peel demanding that I prove to you that bananas exist. I am tired of being asked to “cite sources” proving that sexism is real (that RAPE is real, even!), because there is no way to concisely cite decades and decades of rigorous academia. Allow me to point at the fucking library. We can’t cite “everything,” and our challengers know that. It’s an insulting diversionary tactic, it’s an attempt to drag us all backwards, and fuck it. Do your own research like the rest of the grown-ups.

Because, of course, Lindy, only your context is sufficient. Still, though, accepting that you are the arbiter of all perception, context, and intention, I might still offer you a piece of advice.

The War of the Sexes is not split into two mythical sides. Rather, it is a fragmented, nasty tangle of sentiment, comprehension, and confusion. There are, of course, the avatars: The Noble Woman, to the one, and the Evil Oppresssive Man, to the other. But for the male side of the equation, allow me, please, to explain something that, frankly, I’m tired of trying to explain to people who don’t want to hear it.

Among men, there are two sympathetic groups you’re alienating. One is that amorphous collection of males from all walks of society who don’t understand the issues, don’t want to understand the issues, would like to conduct themselves reasonably well in society, and would someone please explain the rules to them without sounding like a chattering rabbit on cocaine? The other is composed of those of us who, for various reasons* choose to ignore the demands of some among our female neighbors that we stay the hell out of it.

With the first group, your monodimensional self-pity plays very poorly, as it tends to reinforce what those men hear from so many of their brothers. The shrieking harridan, indeed.

With the second, though, such pathetic whining is viewed as counterproductive. That is to say, when you provide such a distinctive example for the Rush Limbaughs of the world to denounce as “feminazis”, you’re not helping anyone. It is often very hard to make the case to our fellow men that the misogynists of society are actually misogynists. Because the two main groups we communicate that to are the outright misogynists—who believe themselves somehow noble—and the confused fence-sitters who are much more willing to accept simplistic arguments about shrieking harridans than untangle the Gordian rats’ nests of sociopolitical subtlety.

You cannot definitively establish another’s context in such stark contrast to his body of work. It’s not that the jokes weren’t risky, or that they all should have flown true. But in comedy, sometimes a bomb is just a bomb. Citing widespread superficiality does not much help your case, either. Even your own citation of The Atlantic has a basic grasp of the problem:

From there, the jokes just got more and more… well, what’s the word? Calling them offensive gives them too much power, which isn’t to say that black people shouldn’t have felt uncomfortable about MacFarlane pretending to mix up Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy, or that half the population needn’t have squirmed when MacFarlane called Zero Dark Thirty’s plotline an example of “a woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go.” What the jokes were, really, was stupid, boring, and empty: humor that relied less on its own patently sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. content than on admiration for or disgust with the host’s willingness to deliver it. So much of comedy is about the shock of recognition, of seeing some previously unacknowledged truth suddenly acknowledged, but the only recognition MacFarlane offered was that some people say dumb things about other peoples’ gender/racial/sexual identities. Which, of course, should not be shocking at all.

As you might note, Spencer Kornhaber’s critique only reinforces your stupid desire to turn comedic banality into something shocking.

And you can say what you want about that. Anyone paying attention to the War of the Sexes knows there’s a lot askew in our society. But for those who already disdain the marketplace for its insipid taste and judgment, it seems far too convenient to let the marketplace define the terms of critique. Even Kornholer Kornhaber—see what I did there? using a bland, stupid joke to break up the rhythm and stir the atmosphere a little bit?—buys into the marketplace outlook:

It shouldn’t be hard to come up with a sensible position on this. Everything, including punchlines about the Jews cutting non-Jews out of Hollywood, snickers about women faking the flu to lose weight, and cracks that there’s no need to try to understand what Salma Hayek’s saying because she’s so hot, is “OK.” It’s a free country, etc. But that doesn’t mean those jokes aren’t hurtful, obvious, or dumb. It doesn’t mean they don’t make the world a worse place. Humor, after all, can be an incredible weapon for social progress, but it can also be regressive: The more we pass off old stereotypes, rooted in hate, as normal—as MacFarlane did again and again last night—the longer those stereotypes, and their ability to harm people, will be in place. If only Captain Kirk had told us whether we’ll have moved past this nonsense by the 23rd century.

Teaching alien women to love ....Should I try the joke about if only Captain Kirk had taught us how to bring the love to extraterrestrial women? Or would the meta-humor of joking about Kirk’s inherent sexism being used as an avatar of civility and equality be too complex, and therefore sexist for reducing women to sex objects?

Or maybe I should try for the more obvious and relevant: To the one, people are now talking about sexism, so score a point for MacFarlane even if he must endure the slings and arrows for starting the conversation. To the other, the discussion is taking place within the context of market value, so score that as a point against, because if only the Kornhabers and Wests of the world would tell us how to have a responsible discussion of these issues, we might move past this nonsense by the twenty-third century.

The moral of your story, Lindy, is simple enough: Don’t challenge the marketplace. It is too sacred to challenge. Unless, of course, you challenge it our way.

The shrieking harridan is a mythical beast invented by frightened, impotent men in a desperate attempt to hold back the reality of the human experience. Why you should choose to dress up in some myth like this is beyond me. But I don’t care how tired you are of this long fight; that’s yours to deal with. There is only one acceptable outcome, and you’re stifling progress with such self-centered mewling about how tired you are of your own damn perspective. And that’s everyone’s problem to deal with.

Yes, really.

Note the lyrics: “Lois makes me take the rap, ’cause our checkbook looks like crap. Since I can’t give her a slap, I need a Jew.”

It’s not just around the corner, though it might be three blocks into the next town, just across the county line, if you take the right on Ford, and then the second left onto Coughlin, where you’ll find it biding its time in a lovely colonial revival on the corner with an immaculate lawn.

* For instance, we know that the other side won’t play along, so if we stay out of it, women will lose. And for some of us, that has visceral, proximal value. How do we answer our daughters, then? I stayed out of it and let your humanity be degraded because I’m a man, and therefore have no say, is not a proper outlook. Even you, Ms. West, can figure that one out.

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