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A Female Film Executive Defends Seth MacFarlane's Oscars Performance (Guest Column)

Here is my reductive, simplistic, (and, I attest, probably to others' dismay) decidedly feminist take on the dead-horse topic that is Seth MacFarlane's performance at the Oscars:

Don't shoot the messenger.

I will try to not even get into the very basic argument that MacFarlane delivered exactly what I would expect after having seen Ted, Family Guy and other performances he has given over the years. I don't know if you guys have heard of Ted, but it's the No. 1-grossing original, R-rated comedy ever. I would imagine some of you have seen it. I also would argue it's far more crude, foul-mouthed and bawdy than his performance Sunday night, and incredibly successful for it. I happen to be a fan of both the movie and MacFarlane, but his brand of humor is undoubtedly divisive and, apparently, far more palatable when delivered from an animated or CGI character. When it comes from the man himself, it's an outrage. 

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Perhaps it's simply the platform that was the problem. Sexist, homophobic and racist humor has been lauded in many other forms -- from the animated show Seth has helmed (hey, remember the Emmy-nominated “Down's Syndrome Girl” song?) to the popular Broadway show The Book of Mormon -- without anyone batting an eye, or at least not demonstrating anywhere near the levels of rage seen in the past few days. But the Academy Awards are a place where we have come to accept the status quo with an unflinching safety net. The telecast frequently responds to any sort of political or social commentary from presenters or winners by respectfully playing them off stage. It's not a place to push boundaries, even if they point to a much more serious issue. Keep it light, polite and opinion-free.

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But, what really gets to me in many of the responses and comments I've read about the Oscars is something I would label "blind feminism." People who didn't even watch the Awards show, or who only watched the now-infamous "boob song" and turned it off, are slamming MacFarlane's performance as though the few articles focusing on his female-focused or racially charged jokes are enough of a recap to make a decision about his entire performance. He's a white man in a white-male-driven industry, and everyone now says he is a misogynist -- so it must be true. While some no doubt will stick with that assessment, let's take a moment and address some of the jokes MacFarlane made that weren't even mentioned in these articles, namely, those that involved white men. Take, for instance, the joke he made about fellow celeb Mel Gibson. MacFarlane quipped, regarding Django Unchained and its use of the N-word, "I'm told the screenplay was loosely based on Mel Gibson's voicemails." To which the audience responded with loud boos. MacFarlane's reaction: "Oh, so you guys are on his side?"

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And here's where we get into the thick of it. Comedians have long held the incredibly challenging task of holding a mirror up to society and forcing us to confront the truths we would collectively rather sweep under the rug. I, for one, laughed heartily at Sunday night's award show, and probably for one fundamental reason: As a female executive in the movie business, I felt that MacFarlane's jokes were grounded in very serious truths. Watching the "blatant sexism" of his performance doesn't even hold a candle to what I have witnessed on a day-to-day basis in this field. This is a business in which actors are regularly judged for their financial value, not for their creative merits. I have sat through development meetings in which actresses older than 34 are cast aside as "too old," those who have had babies or families come with "baggage" and whether or not they are willing to get nude on film plays into their chances of getting an offer; these same traits are not deal-breakers in their male counterparts, or even mentioned, for that matter. I have had debates with co-workers in which I had to explain why a female character shouldn't be topless when it has nothing to do with the plot or character arc. I continuously joke that I have only ever won the Oscar pool when I successfully don my "80-year-old white guy hat" in order to make my selections. And, whether we'd like to admit it or not, awards ceremonies generally have seemed to favor actresses who have had some form of nudity in their films. Let's recall the 2008 Yahoo Movies feature cleverly entitled "Get Naked, Win Oscar," featuring 24 actresses whose nudity coincided with a golden statuette.     

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Bonus points seemingly are given to actresses for extreme weight loss or other physical transformations, especially unhealthy ones. Anne Hathaway has spent the past four months of the campaign promoting her extraordinarily harmful "lettuce diet" to shed those last 20 pounds, as though her weight prior to that would somehow have distracted from her performance. Vulture, Jezebel and other websites chastised MacFarlane for his joke about actresses giving themselves the flu to look thin on Oscar night, even suggesting that young women watching the telecast would be negatively influenced by the joke. But I would wager that these statements are far more damaging to young women when they come from the actresses themselves. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis got similar media attention for their respective weight loss in Black Swan, a film with a huge female audience. While I realize these actresses lost weight to play particular characters, the conversations we are left with are not about the pressures placed on ballet dancers or the trauma of 19th century prostitutes. The ones featured in every headline are for more terrifying: "Seriously, how good did she look in that dress?" Between the media and the awards shows, we send the message to young girls that slimming down is the only way to get attention. And yet, we tear down Seth MacFarlane for making jokes about this sad reality of our celebrity-driven culture?

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And how about a controversy that has by comparison gotten very little attention in the wake of the awards, involving this year's best picture winner -- a universally celebrated movie, further contributing to the continuous white-washing of the box office. Ben Affleck, a white guy from Boston, portrays Tony Mendez, a little-known Latino agent responsible for a highly successful operation. Mendez himself later was quoted as "not considering himself Hispanic," a statement that likely will thwart any further conversation on the subject. But this instance, regardless of Mendez's personal beliefs, is representative of a much larger issue in the industry. I would imagine that in Affleck's creative involvement in the picture, somewhere along the way he was told that he would have to star in it in order to get the right amount of financing and exposure for the film. Whether it was his decision or not, these are demands made by studios every day, as non-Caucasian actors rarely have enough value in the marketplace to drive the box office. So when a story is plucked from history that centers on a Latino figure, he is quickly replaced by an actor who can drive sales, and thus continues the vicious cycle of not having enough roles given to actors of any ethnic or cultural minority. Similarly, no actress outside of Angelina Jolie can really drive presales for a film, so the industry continues to look to their male counterparts as the "key" component of casting a film, and thus women in the industry are the perpetual afterthought in the success of a picture.

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Let us also not forget that the Academy Awards is a produced event. MacFarlane's jokes were not the off-the-cuff ramblings of a politician unclear on the definition of rape. This was scripted, crafted and approved banter (courtesy of the many credited writers, including MacFarlane, and two producers of this year's telecast) based off of the very material the host was given to roast: the Academy itself. As the articles in Vulture and the like have astutely pointed out, the Academy is made up of 77 percent men. Is this a subject that comes under fire after a Billy Crystal-hosted event? Not really, because like every other quiet demonstration of the status quo, no one would feel compelled to address it. Here we finally have a crude, uninhibited comedian willing to push the envelope of a historically safe event, supported by the producers and other artists who worked on the material, and we cry foul at his honesty. And while I realize some will tell me that MacFarlane is still responsible for the problem, even if he is only the tip of the iceberg, I would ask the following:  If we can't turn to boundary-pushing comedians to address these issues, who will? Any actress who brings up the misogyny of the Academy likely will be black-listed (I fear the same if my own writing comes to light). If MacFarlane had cast his subversive humor aside and tried to address it as a serious social commentary, he too would be played off the stage. Humor is one of the few tools performers have to call attention to the most taboo subject matter, and I would imagine that's one of the reasons many comedians get into the business in the first place.

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While I might sound jaded, and have certainly spent four years in a job that keeps me surrounded by white men over 40, I don't feel that I am. In fact, every time I express even the slightest opinion that is given due consideration by my male colleagues, it feels like a small victory (particularly if said opinion addresses their views toward women). The industry is changing for the better, even if at a snail's pace. It's true that only nine of the statuettes given this year went to women, which is intricately linked with the underlying problem: Women in many crew positions are not seen as having the same talents as their male counterparts. It goes back again to the vicious cycle: How can you get enough experience as a woman in the industry if you are never hired for the job over a man with the same skills? That said, this year's Sundance Film Festival featured a record number of female directors. Eight of the 16 films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition were directed by women. Yes, half! The U.S. Documentary Competition featured an equal gender split as well. It was kind of a huge deal, and sadly, didn't get a fraction of the press that MacFarlane did.

I maintain that the industry will change when we continue to have conversations about the lack of equality inherent to the film business. The Academy is a long-standing relic of a time when white men made all the decisions and young actresses were plucked from obscurity and given studio deals, only to then be puppeted into dressing a certain way, behaving a certain way and even showing a certain number on the scale. But to me, pointing the finger at a comedian who merely calls attention to these problems in the industry undermines the fight. Seth MacFarlane has given us something to talk about. Why is it that women are celebrated for losing weight and going topless while actors like Denzel Washington and Daniel Day-Lewis stand on the ground of the craft? Shouldn't that be a conversation, rather than who was the worst dressed? This year, that is finally what happened.

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While not wholly successful, and I agree that MacFarlane occasionally went for the broad, pandering joke (i.e. Chastain's character in Zero Dark Thirty as a typical woman who "can't let anything go") rather than the specific ("Up next, the cast of Prometheus explains... what exactly was going on there"), I celebrate his performance for giving us something to talk about. For making us groan and grumble and call attention to an industry that is perpetually stuck in 1939. For kicking off Jezebel's request for an "internal rallying cry that reminds me how bad things are. If you pay attention to and comment on everyday inequalities -- immense and tiny -- if you let all of it filter through you and you hop around and eyeroll and groan and drive your boyfriend crazy because he just wants to watch The IT Crowd but you need to talk about what Pat Robertson said today, this is what happens." We need to think about the movies that we pay for, the magazines we buy, the snarky BuzzFeed articles that continuously feed back into the celebrity-obsessed, woman-slamming culture. I too am guilty. It's not just Seth. I have to remember to turn my brain off when I see that article the piques my nonfeminist curiosity: Did Hathaway wear that dress because Amanda Seyfried was going to wear something similar?? Has Sandra Bullock gotten work done??? (Thankfully, I also have Jennifer Lawrence on my side to help keep the outlandishness of the media in check). Plus, for sheer entertainment value, MacFarlane delivered in a way that hasn't been seen in years at the Oscars. I mean, c'mon ... you guys remember Hathaway and James Franco, right?

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I, too, root for an Amy Poehler-Tina Fey pairing in the years to come -- or how about Queen Latifah, who reminded me again of her endless class and humor on Sunday night? In the meantime, I will take the edgy material over yet another telecast that tries to bury the deeply ingrained sexism and racism that has been built into the empire of the film business. It's a tiring, frustrating and seemingly endless fight, but let's not make a villain out of those who call attention to it.  While the title of this endless op-ed might feature a degree of hyperbole, I do believe that, for better or for worse, MacFarlane's many jaw-dropping quips only aided the feminist efforts toward revolution in this industry.

Sincerely,

A Female Development Executive