Shocked! Shocked! At the Tawdry Oscars!
That dirty host! All those side boobs! And so much false outrage!
While I can think of few broadcasts more tedious than the Oscars, the reaction to that annual display always offers a telling glimpse into the zeitgeist. This year the post-party debriefs are saying that we really don't like ourselves very much.
I wish I could claim that I refuse to watch the Oscars because it only encourages them, but truth be told it just bores me. Still, there's no escaping the Twitterati -- did you know Anne Hathaway's bullet-boob dress earned its own Twitter handle within seconds of her hitting the red carpet? And the tsunami of post-awards ranting made it clear that most people are unclear on the point of the annual marketing festival.
All awards schemes are nothing but marketing campaigns designed to promote an industry and profit the administrator. This is true of every contest from little literary mags that stay afloat on the application fees of would-be published poets to the Academy of Motion Picture blah blah, which earns millions by licensing broadcasters to televise the event.
So the sturm und drang from critics calling Seth MacFarlane sexist, racist, and juvenile are puzzling. Have they not seen Hollywood productions? Pornography with heavy lashings of misogyny is what they're selling, which made the host's approach seem right on the money. Ditto the Oscars ceremony itself and the whole red carpet foofarah with grotesque dresses that lead to terms like "side boob" and jokes like Hathaway being dubbed Les Nipperables. It's sexist. Juvenile. Crude.
Flesh for sale
MacFarlane's dumb "We Saw Your Boobs" caught this just right. Particularly when he laid bare the long list of movies in which Kate Winslet gets bare. I've long thought that what passes for serious art films in Hollywood are little more than soft core porn -- courtesy of cable, it's now true of television too. (HBO is something of a running joke for this, and I swear the Game of Thrones producers are deliberately playing it for laughs.)
As he sang, I realized I'd seen most of those films and blanked out most of those scenes -- particularly those from arty actress Winslet. MacFarlane made me realize things are worse than I thought! As the parody of the boobs song, "We Saw Your Junk," makes clear, both sexes get in on the act. But what I've always noticed and found irritating is the pretentious bleating of actresses who argue that they only got nekkid if it served the story. They did not do "gratuitous nudity" they would insist emphatically to anyone who would listen.
Well, as the delightfully blunt Jennifer Lawrence might say: bullshit. They do it for money and additional fame -- this is their business. Halle Berry famously agreed to do a titflash in some film I don't even remember -- Swordfish (2001) -- for an additional $500,000. I remember the incident because I read a profile of the actress that reported her fellow actors had whooped and applauded her doing the shot, and one male actor declared they were worth every penny. Her breasts that is. The writer intended it as a show of on-set support for her "bravery," but it struck me more as a show of cynical camaraderie. These actors understood exactly what they are -- commodities -- and they cheered her for negotiating a better price on the product.
That's the deal they make: they earn fat wads of cash in exchange for being used, abused, and often dehumanized in a variety of ways. That's fine for them because they aren't really people – they're more like human holographs, just a representation of a person. We have no idea who they are personally and privately. What we see publicly is a construct, a persona crafted by an actor. I think the imagery they produce, and the values attached, are far more worrisome for those of us who consume this sort of entertainment than for the actors.
Game of drones
I was pretty sure we all knew the game celebrities play until I saw a flurry of self-righteous commentary about Sunday's Oscar show. Critics, whose job used to be pulling back the curtain on the wizard of Oz, seemed to be intent on reinforcing the Hollywood illusion.
Who do they think they're kidding? In a sexist, juvenile industry why would the show designed to market it be any different? But the outrage is so loud -- and rings so false -- that I assume most scribes behind those politically-correct rants are just trying to distance themselves from the reality of what they like to watch. (Personally, I'm a Game of Thrones fan -- no shame!)
I suspect Seth MacFarlane's biggest offense -- aside from not being funny -- was that the show didn't pander to the sort of people who like to project their fantasies onto Hollywood. Although by all accounts it was a ratings winner.
Certainly The Onion misjudged how many people want to maintain their illusions when it (drunk?) tweeted that nine-year-old nominee Quvenzhane Wallis was kind of a c**t. As she's a child, most of us would agree that she made no conscious choice to become a commodity. But as MacFarlane did something similar, working the kid into a joke about George Clooney's penchant for dating much younger women, perhaps the equation really is as simple as Oscar nominee = object?
It's not like this is a secret. Sociologists have written much about how celebrities function the way deities do -- as a focus for stories that set standards for social behaviour. That explains the enthusiasm for the tabloids and reality TV, and why so many people have opinions about the (alleged) behaviour of people they've never met. Gossipmonger Lainey Lui, the hardworking Vancouver blogger who runs laineygossip.com, doesn't just understand what her audience wants -- mean-spirited commentary that casts some of the privileged stars as uber-villains -- she discusses it openly, including in a TEDx talk.
The Greeks told tales pitting Aphrodite, Hera, and Athene against each other in a bid for a golden apple. Our media tells tales pitting saccharine fake Anne Hathaway against the supposedly natural Jennifer Lawrence in a bid for golden statues. Hathaway annoys people with over-scripted behaviour that reminds us all that she is part of a magnificent morality play. Current darling Lawrence is the opposite. She's a startlingly talented young actress who has decided to perform what I'm calling the Voice of the Disgruntled Mob as her public persona. And I'm sure it's a decision. It would be hard to watch her astounding performance in Winter's Bone (2010) and doubt she has the chops to do this.
Lawrence is being celebrated for her graceful recovery after falling on the way to pick up her Best Actress Oscar, but I think her performance at the post-award presser is far more interesting. She gave the assembled media the finger -- literally. Then she mocked the dimwits to their faces for asking stoopid questions. One unwary fool asked if the 22-year-old wasn't worried she had "peaked too soon?" She shot him a look of incredulity and then threw her arm up in exasperation, "Well, NOW I am. God!" Could she explain how she tripped? "What do you mean what happened? Look at my dress!" How did she prepare for the Oscars? "I showered."
She's getting rave reviews for injecting some "reality" into this cynical farce, but I think this is skilled improv inspired partly by the ideas found in The Hunger Games, which made her a star. She's channeling Katniss, and her defiance. While Hathaway comes off false by playing along with the creepy way we both fawn over and abuse celebrities, which is satirized in the dystopic novel, Lawrence says what we're all thinking.
Aside from being a brilliant response, it made me hope Lawrence has actually learned how to use a bow and arrow and will be carting it into her next presser. But it also struck me as a sort of justification for us to keep watching this imaginary world. Bread and circuses are more engaging when they're "real," or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. Lawrence's performance makes us all feel a little less guilty for watching.
To market, to market
What I suspect has really angered so many people about the latest Oscar extravaganza is that it rubbed everyone's noses in what we're really celebrating -- and it doesn't reflect well on the us. While this could be said of most awards and the ceremonies attached, the Oscars are a particularly nasty piece of marketing, for a particularly nasty industry. And I have a hunch that its nastiness is what amuses the majority of people, who in another era would be watching public hangings or lion v. Christian showdowns.
So I'm not surprised MacFarlane's ugly display earned unusually high ratings; he understands his audience. But that will be an unpleasant pill to swallow for those who like indulging in unsavoury entertainment while kidding themselves about what they're watching.
Then again, what do I know? I didn't watch the Oscars; I just watched the mob.