There’s much in life that I’ve learned to shrug off, if only to preserve my sanity – or, at the very least, my blood pressure (being a humorless feminist is, after all, hard on the arteries). When I was a teenager, I had more stamina, more fight: I’d argue openly (and not civilly) with the high school English teacher who said that Richardson’s Pamela was “a great love story;” I’d tell the jocks who bullied the gay boy in gym class that if they wanted to beat someone up for being effeminate, they could take me outside and “go to town on an actual woman, since that’s what y’all hate so fucking much.”
I’ve gotten older, and I’m tired. I watch elected officials oh-so-sagely define “legitimate rape” (as opposed to, say, “cheap imitation rape”) and my anger becomes an atomic blast detonated under the ocean: a thunderous swell swallowed by the current. Every time I check my bank balance before getting groceries, I get a gut punch of a reminder that a man in my position still earns more on the dollar. But I can’t afford to take a leave of absence so I can storm Capitol Hill. So I tell myself that quick gestures like promoting a post about rape in the military, or signing a petition demanding that Congress reinstate the Violence Against Women Act aren’t inconsequentially tiny; they’re examples of “everyday activism.”
But once I’ve clicked “like” or “share,” I’ve already returned to my insular world of workaday worries. Until I settled in on Oscar night to root for my favorite actress, Jennifer Lawrence—who has, in her brief career, invigorated the woman warrior archetype with quiet grace and vulnerability; who won for playing a character who refused to be slut-shamed (“There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy,” she rails. “But I like that, just like all the other parts of myself.”)—and was, instead, subjected to an assault of misogyny insidiously disguised as satire, a supposedly edgy take on the old awards show shuck and jive.
My Facebook feed, by and large, exploded in righteous—and when I say righteous, I mean Old Testament righteous, Samuel L. Jackson launching into Eziekel 25:17 righteous—indignation. However, as soon as I re-posted Buzzfeed’s “Nine Sexist Things That Have Already Happened at the Oscars,” a few blasts from the past used the comment thread to tell me, in essence, that I needed to lighten up. The “We Saw Your Boobs” song was, like, totally Meta, a commentary on what everyone expected of host Seth MacFarlane, an auteur of fart jokes, a bard of boob humor. And weren’t these actresses complicit in their own exploitation when they doffed their tops on screen? After all, we don’t see the menfolk resort to stripping down (except, of course, for the immaculately muscled chests of our action heroes). These women gave up the goodies, so why is it so wrong to point that out in via an Old Hollywood style song and dance routine that names—and by extension, shames—them in front of their peers?
The problem is not that “We Saw Your Boobs” points out any double standard regarding male and female nudity on screen (since it doesn’t); the problem is that the whole bit is nastily judgmental. And the problem isn’t just with the song itself; the problem is with everything the song encapsulates about our culture. When Michael Fassbender goes “full monty” in Shame, he is praised for his bravery, not to mention the size of his (not so) little Fassbender. When Lena Dunham tosses caution—and her skirt—to the wind in Girls, critics say that she’s inflicting an unwarranted, even delusional narcissism upon the viewing public.
Before you say that Shame is an apple, and Girls is an orange (or, better yet, a pear), consider this: Both works use their protagonists’ sexual masochism to exemplify their social isolation and emotional immaturity; this necessitates a kind of nudity that isn’t always enticing, or even titillating. Like most things, we can only analyze or appreciate cinematic nudity in context: Despite what their mention in MacFarlane’s ditty would suggest, Jodie Foster’s bared breasts in The Accused are far from Girls Gone Wild. As Katie McDonough points out in her succinctly named Salon piece, “‘We Saw Your Boobs’ celebrates rape on film.”
“Four of the films MacFarlane crooned about featured nudity during or immediately following violent depictions of rape and sexual assault, stripped of their context and played for laughs. Scarlett Johansson found herself on the list because of a real-life violation: Her nude photos were stolen from her phone and leaked online. Oh, your privacy was invaded and your breasts were splashed across the Internet against your will? That is hilarious!”
The song isn’t just patently unfunny (at least to anyone who’s celebrated their fifth-grade graduation); it reduces these characters to sexual playthings in the moments when their bodily autonomy is taken from them. And while it’s easy to say what the host of schlocky, overstuffed awards ceremony that’s more about fashion than craft says on stage doesn’t matter, the thoughts he’s articulating do dictate the ways we live; they reflect ways that women are treated and the ways that treatment stifles our lives.
So, yes, dear family friend who didn’t actually watch the Oscars but felt the need to leave a comment about the first amendment on my wall, Seth MacFarlane has every right to crack wise about the weight of a young singer who has received every honor someone in her field could hope for; he has every right to hypothesize about when a nine-year-old girl will reach her sexual expiration date; he has every right to reduce the Herculean efforts of the CIA analyst who lead us to the architect of the greatest mass murder on American soil to a “bitches be naggin’” joke. Nobody is going to throw him in a gulag. But we have every right— every responsibility—to call him out on how destructive he is.
His routine tells me that, as an overweight woman, I will never be judged on my accomplishments; I could win the Pulitzer, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I would always be my dress size. It tells my three-year-old goddaughter that her body’s power resides not in all the cartwheels she can do or how fast she can tumble: Her worth is determined by who finds her fuckable. It tells my friends who care about their work not to bother, because passion and intensity, while admirable—even sexy—in men, is burn-the-witch terrifying in women.
In her piece “Sexism Fatigue,” Lindy West articulates how what happened at the Oscars is both a drop in the ocean and a hammer-strike of a rising tide. “I’m not a feminist by choice,” she writes. “I’m a feminist because this is the world. And if my fatigue sounds defeatist, it isn’t. It’s the opposite. It’s an internal rallying cry that reminds me how bad things are.” When a teenage girl is shot in the head for going to school; when a woman exerting her legal right to control her own fate is subjected to a medically unnecessary, purely punitive trans-vaginal ultrasound; when a gaggle of legislators who must not have passed eighth grade biology hold hearings about the morality of contraception (as opposed to say, the morality of poverty or mass shootings), MacFarlane’s remarks aren’t just shtick.
Yet the backlash to his performance, and the backlash to the backlash, can be powerfully constructive, or at least illuminating. As Irin Carmon points out, “Everyday slights and institutional discrimination are hard to point out on your own. Watching them on a screen or finding them in a tweet helps make them visible.” They’re not just visible, they’re glaringly apparent, and we can’t afford to be tired anymore.