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Seth MacFarlane’s sexist performance may turn out to be beneficial

Flickr/ABC-Craig Sjodin

Seth MacFarlane took a whirl hosting the 85th Academy Awards last Sunday night and, depending on whom you asked, either hit a comedic home run (if you’re a “Family Guy” fan) or struck out completely (if you aren’t). Despite his hit-or-miss performance, MacFarlane did what he arguably does best: provoke.

Quips about domestic abuse, underage girls, strippers and boobs were all part of MacFarlane’s self-proclaimed “one and done” attempt at hosting the Oscars. Some jokes were funny, some weren’t. Some were offensive, some weren’t. Most jokes were confrontational, although to call them “shocking” would be erroneous. This is the man that gave us hit TV shows like “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” and last summer’s sidesplitting film “Ted.” Clearly, “finesse” is not exactly the word one would use to describe MacFarlane’s brand of humor.

At this point, the critical consensus is that MacFarlane’s performance was partly subpar because of the juvenile sexism that was so prevalent in the act. From an opening number in which he cheekily proclaimed that he and the audience have seen various actresses’ breasts to a quip about George Clooney and underage women, MacFarlane fanned the feminist flames throughout the night. It was, in short, an inarguably sexist and distasteful performance. Whether it was a funny, sexist and distasteful performance is an entirely different matter. What matters most though are the discussions and reflections about feminism and sexism in Hollywood that arose from the polarizing performance.

“That Oscar host must have done something really bad,” grandmothers across the world probably retorted, and yes, Seth MacFarlane did go above and beyond what is appropriate, respectful and even suitable for the glitzy event. What MacFarlane did do correctly, however, is provoke a meaningful discussion about sexism in Hollywood and what’s being done about it.

Hollywood isn’t exactly known for decent representations of women, so for an Oscar host to cause this much controversy is startling. While depictions of women on screen and stage get ample print, the behind-the-scenes gender disparity gets relatively ignored. MacFarlane’s jokes, however, apply to women working behind-the-scenes in Hollywood just as much as those in front of the camera.

According to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women of the top 250 domestic grossing films, women account for 9 percent of directors, 15 percent of writers, 20 percent of editors, 2 percent of cinematographs, and 25 percent of producers in 2012. About 28 percent of films employed  only one woman or none whatsoever in any of the above crediting roles. A true boy’s club, indeed.

Although the picture is not quite as obvious as, say, men sitting in a conference room tossing out applications because of an applicant’s gender, this is what ends up happening in a place like Hollywood, where gender binaries and institutionalized sexism have been entrenched in the sun-soaked atmosphere since the industry’s beginning.

The thing to understand, however, is that it is the industry that fosters this attitude; it is not individual men that foster this attitude in the industry. Men make up the pegs in the board, of course, but this is an institutionalized problem that can only be solved at an industry level. In short, this issue cannot be fixed by talking to one studio head, although that’s a start.

“The really horrible things about [misogyny in Hollywood] is that it’s not something you can change,” said “Eureka” co-executive producer Amy Berg to the Chicago Tribune. “I tried that. It’s just something that’s ingrained in people.”

This is an issue that has become inherent in an industry, which makes it remarkably difficult to tackle.

“This is a very complex issue,” Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, told The Wrap. “I don’t think the industry will change on its own.”

This “complex issue,” however, will not simply disappear over time. It is much too firmly ingrained in Hollywood’s genetic makeup for that, and, much like adaptation; any hope of change necessitates evolution, a famously sluggish process.

The first and most crucial step is building awareness that this problem even exists.

Awareness would be key, and there needs to be some recognition that it’s problematic,” Lauzen said. “I think any sustained and significant change will have to come from some kind of external intervention.”

This kind of “external intervention” can only come about from awareness and recognition, which is exactly what MacFarlane raised with his sexist performance Sunday night. If Lauzen’s theory that discussion and awareness are two key elements in bridging Hollywood’s gender gap is true, then, like it or not, MacFarlane, by reigniting this discussion, might be women in Hollywood’s unlikely antihero.

Emily Merlino is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at eamerlin@student.umass.edu.

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