It’s only through sheer fortuitous timing that the week I read a book on feminism, Seth MacFarlane goes on national television to offend a zillion people with uninspired jokes about actresses’ boobs. And since I’ve been presented with such a timely opportunity to discuss gender as it’s portrayed in modern society, let’s conduct a big of a thought exercise—looking at Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance through the lens of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman.
Throughout her book’s 300-odd pages, Moran eschews characterizations of feminism that rely on lofty terminology or soul-searching investigations of social mores. Her own definition on the subject essentially boils down to two key tenets: 1) An environment of equality is one in which, quite simply, “everyone is being polite to each other” and 2) When one is unsure whether or not they’ve been presented with a bit of sexism—or, as Moran sometimes puts it, a bit of ”total fucking bullshit—one must simply ask oneself: “Are the men doing it?” That’s it, feminism deconstructed.
Putting MacFarlane’s routine through Moran’s Sexism Test No. 1, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Sunday’s Oscars bit—quite specifically the joke about nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis and George Clooney—wasn’t polite. Not by a long shot. In fact, over the course of the evening, MacFarlane inadvertently touched on numerous elements of lingering sexual inequality: domestic violence, women being defined by their appearance (and weight), and young girls being sexualized by older men. Almost his entire shtick revolved around the notion that sexism is funny, which is pretty impolite.
But it was a comedy routine, whether you found it funny or not, just as Family Guy, and South Park, and Tosh.O are crude and ambitiously offensive comedy shows, whether you find them funny or not. Within the context of comedy—a field that celebrates not only crossing the line, but then turning around and shitting on it—MacFarlane’s biggest crime wasn’t offending women, but offending them without simultaneously making them laugh.
So what of the second point? Are the men doing it? Well, yes and no. If the question is “Did a man hosting an awards show choose to mock men and stereotypes of men?” then the answer is a resounding no. Other than inadvertently calling George Clooney a pedophile—and a few envelope-pushing jokes about race—MacFarlane’s bit definitely had a theme, and the theme was ladies. But if the question is “If a man hosting an awards show had done a routine that mocked men and preyed upon male-based stereotypes, would men have found it funny?” then the answer is “Yes, probably.” A “We Saw Your Junk” song would have faced minimal backlash—btw, someone actually made one—and the fact that MacFarlane included Javier Bardem in his “can’t understand ‘em, but at least they’re beautiful” Selma Hayek joke went largely unnoticed. So are the men doing it? Technically no, but also…kind of?
It’s this ambivalence—this “Well, it was definitely offensive, but was it sexist? And also do I care?”—that I think defines the state of modern feminism. Most women wouldn’t argue that despite having come a long way—we can vote, own land and still technically have the right to evict our unborn children—women still have a long way to go. We don’t make as much money as men, we’re barely a blip in the management of corporate America, and some dudes in Africa are still bizarrely obsessed with cutting off our clitorises (clitori?).
So yes, when examined in the grand scheme of things, sexism is obviously still a problem, a big one. But I find there’s a bit of a disconnect when it comes to assessing the less-flagrant examples of The Lingering Patriarchy: things like douchey comments, wolf whistles, offensive humor, six-inch heels, face lifts, and the bizarre and completely inaccurate perception that a woman cannot be a freewheeling moody bitch unless it’s her “time of the month.” Women who might otherwise consider themselves natural champions of gender equality—in the equal pay/abortion rights/”I’d like to keep my clitoris, thanks” sense—find themselves exhausted by the notion of constantly assessing these other, smaller offenses through the lens of feminism. Especially because so many of us are successful, and would rather spend our waking hours kicking ass, not dwelling on the societal ramifications of a construction worker’s catcalls.
Moran alludes to this apathy in HTBAW, and credits—at least in part—women’s misconception that the battle against gender inequality has already been won, or won enough. And while I think there’s some truth in that, I also think it’s a rather optimistic assumption. The truth is, we know the battle hasn’t been won, any more than humanity has managed to prevail over corruption or greed or poverty or hunger. The truth is there are only so many hours in the day to dwell on the fact that humans by and large suck at valuing other humans, and at some point a girl’s gotta prioritize. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure if harping on a few off-color jokes in a comedian’s awards show gig is really the way to wage war against inequality.
How to Be a Woman is A+. A+++. Caitlin Moran is honest and brash and hilarious, and doesn’t hesitate to scoff at the very knee-jerk wariness of feminism that I’m describing above. (She would also be the first point to out that without the valiant efforts of women before me, I’d have neither the right nor the platform to write 1,000+ words about how much I’m exhausted by feminine kvetching.) But by highlighting the myriad ludicrous obligations to which women are beholden—aesthetic, emotional and societal—Moran also inadvertently points out another one. As the 21st century byproduct of decades of equal rights battles, are we as females required to continue fighting the good fight? Do we need to be openly and aggressively offended by sexist humor? Do we need to mentor young women, or participate in task forces focused on women in the workplace? Should we march up to every asshole construction worker and say “Excuse me sir, but as an empowered female, I am offended by your attempts to subjugate me and reduce me to the sum of my physical parts!” Do successful women need to actively raise up other women, or is the mere act of being a successful women, of living comfortably and confidently in one’s own skin, feminist enough? I’m not sure. Because as Gloria Steinem once said, “a feminist is [simply] anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” And as Seth MacFarlane once said: “We saw your boobs.”