Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seth MacFarlane: An Oscar Host who is Harmful to Comedy and the Public’s Health

This week’s post for Pop Health was co-written by Beth Grampetro, MPH, CHES. Beth has been working in college health promotion for 7 years and her interests include feminism online and in popular culture. You can follow her on twitter @bethg24

The role of society is important in public health.  Health is not just influenced by individual decisions and behaviors.  It is also influenced by our interactions with the world around us- our communities, our families, our workplaces, our schools, entertainment, celebrities, and the media.  These interactions can have a very strong influence (good or bad) on the public’s health.

With that in mind, we were horrified to witness host Seth MacFarlane’s monologue and ongoing commentary during Sunday night’s Oscars.  According to Nielsen ratings, approximately 40.3 million viewers tuned in to the Oscar telecast.  This broad audience watched MacFarlane, a widely known celebrity, make jokes about domestic violence, female actresses’ bodies, and various forms of discrimination.

In the opening number, MacFarlane sang a song entitled “We Saw Your Boobs”, about the scenes in various movies where actresses in the audience had appeared topless. While it has been reported that the actresses were in on the joke, it is nonetheless disturbing that this number passed muster- especially given that several of the scenes he referenced were from movies where the actresses he named portrayed rape victims.

Other jokes included a reference to Jennifer Aniston’s past as a stripper, a congratulatory statement about how great all the actresses who “gave themselves the flu” to lose weight looked in their dresses, and a comment about how Latino actors (in this case Javier Bardem, Salma Hayek, and Penelope Cruz) have difficult-to-understand accents “but we don’t care because they’re so attractive.”

MacFarlane also tried some jokes that had men as their targets but still managed to get mud on a few women in the process. He joked that Rex Reed was going to review Adele’s performance (a reference to Reed’s recent movie review in which he called Melissa McCarthy a “hippo”) and made a joke about 9-year-old nominee Quvenzhané Wallis dating George Clooney. Some defenders of MacFarlane’s performance argued that these jokes were meant to be about the men in question, but ignored the fact that they were made at the expense of women and girls.

The Oscars are billed as “Hollywood’s Biggest Night”, and it’s incredibly disappointing to see what is the biggest event for the entertainment industry turned into the worst office party in history, complete with a leering coworker who’s creating a hostile environment.  If MacFarlane succeeded at anything, it was reminding women that they’re expected to always be thin, be pretty, and be willing to shut up and take it, lest they spoil the whole evening.

There is evidence to show that (unfortunately) these types of jokes and messages that devalue women are believed and internalized within our communities.  For example, a 2009 study by the Boston Public Health Commission found that over half of teens surveyed blamed the singer Rihanna after she was beaten by her boyfriend Chris Brown.  In addition, research shows that a mere 3-5 minutes of listening to, or engaging in, fat talk can lead some women to feel bad about their appearance and experience heightened levels of body dissatisfaction.

Research also tells us that these internalized messages and social norms are correlated with serious public health outcomes.  For example, the CDC outlines the risk factors for sexual violence perpetration.  Under society level factors we find (among others):

Societal norms that support sexual violence
Societal norms that support male superiority and sexual entitlement
Societal norms that maintain women's inferiority and sexual submissiveness
Weak laws and policies related to gender equity

So the issue is much bigger than if Seth MacFarlane was funny or made a good Oscar host.  The issue is about the quality of the role models we choose to represent our communities and the messages they send.  These messages can have a broad and long lasting influence on public health.  We hope the Academy will choose wisely next year.

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