Opinion

Seth MacFarlane's Oscar jokes were bad, but they're just part of a bigger problem

We can carp all we want about Seth MacFarlane’s arguably misogynstic, racist, and anti-Semitic language, but his Oscars ceremony was just business as usual. It was a reflection of the same forms of misogyny, racism, and lack of diversity that plague Hollywood and its films generally.

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    Host of the Academy Awards ceremony, Seth MacFarlane, peforms during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Feb. 24 in Los Angeles. Op-ed contributor Katherine Lanpher writes: 'The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should take the heat for selecting this host and this kind of ceremony, but the industry should take the heat for too often excluding and poorly portraying women and people of color in its films.'
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I’ve absorbed all the reports and reviews of the Oscars, but I can’t help myself: I have a fantasy about host Seth MacFarlane.

It does not involve any part of my anatomy.

Jane Fonda was on stage Sunday night to present the award for best director, but in my rewrite of the Oscars, she turns to Mr. MacFarlane and whacks him with the latest report from the Women’s Media Center, which Ms. Fonda founded with Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan.

Their annual survey on the status of women in media gathers statistics both depressing and uplifting. On Sunday morning political chat shows, for instance, women still only make up about 14 percent of those interviewed. On the other hand, the number of women who are television news directors rose to nearly 30 percent. Nearly at the tipping point there, gals!

The 2013 report came out on Friday, little noticed in the noisy hubbub leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday. I wish Kristin Chenowith had been handed that report before ABC gave her the microphone for her red carpet interviews.

Imagine how her interview with, say, Jennifer Garner, could have gone. Instead of asking what designer she was wearing (Gucci), Ms. Chenowith might have asked: “Did you know that even though women account for 51 percent of the movie-going audience, we accounted for only 33 percent of all characters in top-grossing films?’’

And instead of asking Hugh Jackman if she weighed more than an Oscar, Chenowith might have informed him that since 1950 male film characters have outnumbered females 2:1, but that women were more likely to have sexually explicit scenes.

Hugh, after all, is far more likely to hum something from “Les Miz” than to sing the juvenile ditty “We saw your boobs!” – the title of MacFarlane’s opening number on Oscar night.

And then there’s the study that shows girls as young as six are beginning to think of themselves as sex objects. Don’t know where they would get that idea once a nine-year-old is told on national television how many years she needs before she’s too old to date George Clooney – MacFarlane’s reference to nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress nominee for her role in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

We can carp all we want about Seth MacFarlane’s arguably misogynstic, racist, and anti-Semitic language, but his Oscars ceremony was just business as usual. It was a reflection of the same forms of misogyny, racism, and lack of diversity that plague Hollywood and its films in general. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should take the heat for selecting this host and this kind of ceremony, but the industry should take the heat for too often excluding and poorly portraying women and people of color in its films.

ABC promoted Sunday’s awards ceremony as a bro-show: “Finally, An Oscars the guys can enjoy!” But you have to wonder which “guys” are ok with a joking inference to an alleged rape at a Hollywood home or about the ability of Latina and Latino actors to speak clearly. I wouldn’t insult the men in my life like that.

True, the ceremony pulled 11 percent higher ratings than the ones most recently before it, including in that all-important demographic of viewers ages 18 to 49. But people also slow down to look at a car accident.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, the words and numbers involved with how Hollywood portrays and treats women and minorities. Language that belittles or objectifies comes as little surprise considering how few women or people of color have strong, leading roles. For instance, consider these statistics from a 2012 survey of the Academy by the Los Angeles Times: 94 percent of members are Caucasian, 77 percent are male, and the median age is 62. About 2 percent are African-American, and less than 2 percent are Latino.

The only way to fight the so-called jokes we saw on Sunday night, the only way to change the words of Hollywood, is to change the numbers. Seth MacFarlane has said he won’t be hosting the Oscars again, but the Academy should still think about its future. If they call Jane’s people, I’m sure she can get the Academy a copy of the 2013 Women’s Media Center report. 

Katherine Lanpher is a senior seminar leader at The OpEd Project and a freelance journalist in New York.

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