Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
More than a week after the Academy Awards, the buzz continues -- not about the movies or the actors, but about the ceremony's alleged offenses against womanhood. On Friday, actress Jamie Lee Curtis weighed in, writing for the Huffington Post that the show was "disturbing."
Let me compound the outrage by saying that the offended seem intent on validating one joke the Oscars didn't feature: "How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" "That's not funny!"
Most of the outcry has been directed at host Seth MacFarlane. There's no question that he was provocative. His opening act featured a song called "We Saw Your Boobs," listing various actresses' topless moments. He took a swipe at the abusive relationship between entertainers Rihanna and Chris Brown, and joked that 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis was so young it would be another 16 years before she was too old for George Clooney.
But before we convict MacFarlane of misogyny, a few points are in order. First, the comedian is an equal opportunity offender. His presentation included a jab at the Christian right, a skit lampooning the notion of Jewish-controlled Hollywood, and a one-liner about the shooting of Abraham Lincoln.
Second, MacFarlane's humor was arguably not embracing sexism but skewering it. Indeed, "We Saw Your Boobs" was meant to be a demonstration -- beamed in from the future -- of how MacFarlane had ruined the Oscars. The comedian was making fun of himself, of piggish male attitudes, and of Hollywood's warped treatment of female sexuality.
New York magazine writer Margaret Lyons has decried MacFarlane's jokes, the "boob song" in particular, as a "celebration of the straight white male gaze." That's particularly ludicrous considering that he performed the song with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles -- and that the head writer for the Oscars is a gay man, Bruce Vilanch.
I thought the joke about Rihanna and Chris Brown was edgy but funny (unless you believe this successful woman is such a helpless victim that she bears no responsibility for choosing to stand by her thuggish man). The joke about Wallis and Clooney, far from sexualizing a young girl as some have claimed, clearly poked fun at middle-aged Hollywood men who date much younger women.
Women's problems in Hollywood are real. Young actresses, much more than their male peers, are too often cast in roles that reduce them to sex objects. There are still far too few female writers, directors -- and protagonists. But there's been real progress as well. Writing in The Advocate, the gay and lesbian newsmagazine, journalist Victoria Brownsworth hails this year's Oscars as the best ever, for showcasing older actresses such as Meryl Streep and Sally Field and female-centered works such as "Brave," the winner for Best Animated Picture.
It's also worth noting that men, and their body parts, are hardly shielded from demeaning humor in our supposedly patriarchal culture. Last year, actor Michael Fassbender's full frontal nudity in the movie "Shame" was the subject of so many jokes that he even discussed the reaction in an interview with GQ magazine. Jokes about male rape in prison can be heard on late-night television shows. Humor depicting men as dumb, inept and sex-obsessed is routine. No one complains about the fact that the girl-power message of "Brave" is regrettably accompanied by the buffoonish portrayal of nearly all the male characters.
Sexist humor cuts both ways -- and there's nothing more sexist than the idea that women should be protected by special taboos. Victimhood is not powerful.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.