Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, even someone who believes in “rape shoes” and accuses Katie Price of being “Vichy France” can have moments of feminist glory. I thought this when reading Caitlin Moran’s latest Times column, which is on the subject of Seth MacFarlane’s 2013 Oscars misogyny-fest. In it, she looks at all the excuses that are trotted out for “ironic bigotry; faux misogyny; pretend racism; satirical homophobia” and calls bullshit on the claim that white, male, heterosexual comedians are merely “acknowledging the historical elephant in the room”:
Here’s the problem: in all these instances, the comedians were not acknowledging an elephant that wandered into the room – they brought it into the room. All artists start with an empty page, or a silence – and this is what they wanted to talk about. Over and over.
As Moran points out, there is no need for men to remind women that sexism used to exist and hey, just in case you’ve forgotten, this is what it looked and felt like. What’s so offensive about the whole thing isn’t just that these men are still being sexist, but that they’re using such a self-congratulatory argument to get themselves off the hook: “look, I was only parodying what people used to do to you for real”. If I’m honest, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if one day some clever-clever rapist were to claim he was merely performing a slapstick satire of the days when men used to have sex with women without their consent (it’s hardly his fault if his victim was too unsophisticated to realise it was all a postmodern joke).
Two days after reading Moran’s piece, I happened upon the Oscar ceremony producers’ defence of MacFarlane’s performance. According to one of them, Neil Meron,
People have complained for years and years that the Oscars were becoming irrelevant. And I think what we did this year is to really make them part of the cultural conversation, and I think that’s the important part that people will take away.
When asked about the infamous “We saw your boobs” song, Meron’s co-producer, Craig Zadan, had this to say:
It was not about the women that were mentioned, the song was about [MacFarlane] being a bad host and him being a juvenile, which was why he was a bad host.
To which Meron added this deep, meaningful observation: “we live in a society that is not very conscious of satire any more – they’re very serious”. Cultural conversation … self-referentiality … contemporary need to be conscious of satire …. To use Moran’s words, once you cut through the crap all this really means is “laugh, bitch”.
So anyhow, that’s the Oscars. But what about if you go into a bar that’s been recently redecorated and the walls are covered with retro adverts for underage sex workers (including “young black runaway slave girl seeks plantation master” and “busty Asian schoolgirl”)? If this was a friend’s house, obviously you’d run as fast as your legs could carry you, but this is a public space, which means … Well, apparently all it means is you’re getting a bit of help should there be any unwelcome lulls in your “cultural conversation”. Or as the owners of the bar put it:
While the intention was to be provocative, we refute any suggestion that [the images] are fabricated, sexist, racist or violent.
We are pleased that the artwork has opened a debate about the issues it addresses, and whilst certainly challenging, people must realise that history can’t be airbrushed.
That’s right, women of colour: history can’t be airbrushed. Much as you’d love to go around pretending slavery, racism and sexual abuse never, ever happened (because hey, it’s not as though anyone’s prejudiced nowadays), there comes a time when you, too, need to be brought face to face with the cold, hard realities of The Past. And luckily, there’s a bar in Leamington Spa where the proprietors are happy to jolt you out of your complacency (all in return for the price of a lukewarm lager). Aren’t you the lucky ones. Without men such as Steve Smith, owner of the Moo bar, you might have drifted through life without ever being properly “challenged” by the harsh realities of real sexism and racism via the handy medium of postmodern ironic pseudo-pretend sexism and racism. Imagine what a loss that would be!
Well, all I have to say is this: I am clearly unsophisticated and incapable of appreciating the complex, provocative art of the modern-day bigot. I don’t think the privileged should get to decide when and where sexism and racism become mere “cultural conversation” prompts. This space has to be shared by everyone. If you know you’re making others feel unwelcome, perhaps the problem still lies with you.