My message to Seth MacFarlane and Lisa Lampanelli fans: Cracking sexist or racist jokes is not the same as satirizing them
Every so often, when tussling over issues of pop culture and society, you just want to hand people a dictionary.
Perhaps then folks would stop trying to explain away sexism, stereotypes and prejudice as satire.
That impulse struck me most recently while navigating the Twitterverse during Sunday’ Oscars ceremony, where Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane brought the jokes which have turned him into a Pied Piper for young male viewers – cracking wise about how 9-year-old nominee Quvenzhane Wallis was just a few years too young for George Clooney and devoting a huge musical number to all the topless scenes leading actresses have appeared in.
Pop culture savvy types railed against those who would call such comedy sexist, insisting that MacFarlane was lampooning those ideas. My pal Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter, who I respect immensely, seemed to sum up that point of view in his review:
“In fact, MacFarlane was relatively tame if you know anything at all about his canon, and he was respectful through and through,” Tim wrote. “As a guy who can actually sing and has recorded a successful album (fueling more jealousy and backlash from his detractors), his pick was more spot-on than anyone gave the Academy credit for.”
But here’s the problem: Cracking sexist jokes isn’t the same thing as satirizing them.
Dictionary.com defines “satire” as: “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.”
As song like “We Saw Your Boobs,” which had a joke about Jodie Foster exposing her breasts during a rape scene in The Accused, wasn’t really lampooning Hollywood’s penchant for exposing actresses in ways male actors aren’t; it was celebrating it.
This idea rose in a different way last week when comic Lisa Lampanelli tweeted a picture with Lena Dunham, creator of HBO’s Girls, calling her my “ni--a.” Lampanelli insisted she meant it as a compliment, but even Dunham didn’t see it that way, tweeting “That's not a word I would EVER use. Its implications are beyond my comprehension. I was made supremely uncomfortable by it.”
Lampanelli is another comic who pretends to be subverting racism and stereotypes when she’s actually wallowing in them. Telling straight-up racist jokes with an ironic smile – a sample: “What do you call a black woman who has had seven abortions? A crime fighter.” – doesn’t absolve the destructive force of the stereotype.
What is does is encourage people to think indulging such awful stuff is actually ok.
As I note in my book Race-Baiter, we have often come to think of stereotypes as hideous things, because we know racism and sexism is horrific. But stereotypes are often seductive – they explain the world and strange people in easy-to-understand ways.
So comics who can make sexism and racism sound funny, charming and naughty, often get away with cracking the kind of jokes which would otherwise be rejected by sharp audiences (I fell prey to the same stuff Sunday, tweeting approval of a joke which found Halle Berry saying the name of a controversial character, Pussy Galore, in the introduction to the show’s James Bond tribute.)
As this writer from Jezebel points out, our entertainment and social fabric is so drenched in this stuff that it is wearying trying to reject it all.
Male actors in TV and film are regularly cast as romantic partners with women who are eight, 10 or 15 years younger (it almost never happens in reverse.) Even the best TV shows on television relegate any actors of color they cast to supportive sidekick roles which rarely get much screen time (still waiting for Tyreese to do something interesting on The Walking Dead; shows such as Mad Men, Girls and Game of Thrones seem like lost causes.)
Here’s a few easy ways to judge between ridicule and rolling in it all. Is the character expressing the prejudice or sexism presented as an admirable figure or a buffoon? Are the ideas condemned in the joke or celebrated as saucy irreverence? Is the audience encouraged to reject the stereotype or embrace it?
Nobody wants to be a killjoy. And I love comics such as Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, Bill Maher and Louis C.K. who constantly walk the line of deflating stereotypes and indulging them (sometimes landing on the wrong side of that equation, to be sure.)
But it’s the 21 Century, so it’s time for our public discourse to grow up a little. And Hollywood’s penchant for exposing and objectifying female performers isn’t naughty or fun; it’s sad and worthy of challenge.
Otherwise, we’re just letting our pop culture lead us back into ideas we thought we had overcome years ago.