Last night at the Oscars, Seth MacFarlane stirred up a hornet’s nest when he sang a song called “We Saw Your Boobs” that was either written for the occasion or well-adapted to it, because it noted enthusiastically for the record that a number of the actresses in the audience at this or former ceremonies had appeared topless in films. I don’t recall his even saying that he appreciated it, but one gets the sense that he did. This has led to a predictable firestorm today over whether the song was permissible satire or a grievous insult to womankind. Feminists, with whom I generally agree, have largely taken the latter position; I take the former. (Other groups who might complain, like religious fundamentalists, probably didn’t watch the Oscars or at any rate would not admit it. Or maybe they’re writing about this today as well; I don’t know and don’t plan to check.)
This blog’s commenters are overwhelmingly male — one of the things about it that I’d fix if I could, but not at the cost of extensive self-censorship — so this is probably not the best place for me to publish this essay. I’m pretty sure that I’m going to end up defending the feminist critics of Sean MacFarlane’s song, with whom I disagree here, before the libertarian males around here are done with it. Nevertheless, this is the forum I have, so here we go.
Here are twelve facts or arguments, some multi-part, to consider before condemning MacFarlane’s song:
(1) Successful actresses generally appear topless in at least some films over the course of their career.
(2) This may be because they want to do so out of feminist pride, etc. (e.g. Lena Dunham) — or it may not.
(3) It may be because they want to do so out of career considerations, because there is a lot of public demand (usually but not entirely from men) for them to do so.
(4) Much of demand for actresses to do this seems to derive from the fact that men like looking at attractive women’s breasts. Some of this may derive from some darker desire for humiliation of women.
(5) Some of these topless shots may occur despite that women would really prefer not to do them, but they are pressured by agents, directors, etc. to do so as the “price of success in the industry.”
(6) We have normalized a situation where topless shots are generally a “price of success” for actresses, especially early in their careers (Streep in Silkwood?) or to retain their relevance and prove there ability to attract a male audience as they age (Helen Hunt in The Sessions?) As a society, we generally accept this without discussing it.
(7) Nevertheless, it violates social norms outside of the industry and may facilitate activities like “sexting” photos among minors.
(8) McFarlane’s song included at least three hints that it was stirring the pot and forcing us to confront our hypocrisy rather than celebrating misogyny:
(a) the reference to Jennifer Lawrence *not* having appeared topless in a film (followed by a spliced in “reaction shot” of her celebrating this),
(b) the other (also spliced in from other awards shows) “reaction shots” of other actresses (notably Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron) that demonstrated the potential for what the industry considers to be a perfectly reasonable expectation among actresses to be humiliated when the fact is noted, and
(c) that he chose a gay men’s chorus — rather than, say, fraternities from UCLA and USC — to back him up for the latter part of the song, the central point of which is to divorce the observation of this cultural practice from pure sexual desire on the part of the observer (that is, it’s a male gaze, but it’s not THE male gaze).
(9) So now we as a culture talking about it. It provoked some righteous indignation — and good for that, if it’s honestly expressed. But critics have to resolve the hypocrisy of the fact that this goes on all the time, that men (and some women) man sexually gratify themselves while viewing or recalling these images (which, by the way, is much of why the aforementioned market exists), and resolve it.
(10) One possible resolution of this is to say “it’s not such a big deal that any of these women should be ashamed of it” (because McFarlane used satire here to propose the notion that it *is* something shameful and embarrassing in part to give us the opportunity to reject it) but that it *can* lead to humiliation (cue Naomi Watts’s face) so we have to figure out how to deal with it fairly. (Note that the song is, if anything celebratory, though that could be a pose.) One such resolution is:
(a) actresses should go into this with eyes wide open, realizing (as if they don’t) that topless shots lead to the prospect that someone may someday sing a song like this (though those targeted in this song are all enormously successful),
(b) and by “singing a song like this,” I mean it as a symbol for masturbating to these images of actresses, in case anyone reading this is not clear on the concept,
(c) those asking or pressuring actresses to do nude scenes should not treat it as “just another part of acting” due to this prospect, and
(d) as with any other aspect of sexuality (and the sex trade, of which this and its male counterparts are part, in a way), one way we can at least reduce A LOT OF the harm without smashing skull-first into the First Amendment is to say that, as a first approximation, informed decisions on the part of women to do this should not be considered to be embarrassing or humiliating, but as part of the craft, and causing or impelling women to do this against their will (as happens to the character portrayed by Irene Cara in the original “Fame” — and I hope not Irene Cara the actress herself) should be considered extremely rotten and those who do this — and it’s not so uncommon — should be treated as pariahs.
(11) Finally, to take on the example of Jodie Foster in “The Accused,” I can imagine that for some (generally male) viewers, the context of her topless shot in a circumstance of her rape was extra exciting as opposed to a mood-killer. I don’t like those sorts of guys and try to steer my daughters away from them. But let’s bear in mind:
(a) Jodie Foster is an actress. She was not actually being raped in that scene. The audience knew that and could enjoy the presence of her breasts, if it did, in that context. It would have been entirely different, to at least most men, if it were a real-life video of a rape. Not only would it not be erotic (as I *don’t* think many men found that scene and others such as the one with Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry” to be), but I wouldn’t watch it unless I were a prosecutor or a juror or maybe trying to psych myself up to beat the hell out of a rapist.
(b) Foster (like Hunt, like Swank, like Cara) *consented*, with what we can presume was a sophisticated view of the consequences, to being filmed topless in that scene. Her agent was in on it; her lawyer probably reviewed the contract regarding it; the writer, director, cinematographer, and camera operators intended it to appear that way. Everyone involved knew that this was to be the film in which people finally saw former child star Jodie Foster’s breasts. So while it was a *depiction* of rape, most viewers had good reason to think that it was not an act of humiliation or coercion. MacFarlane knows this as well. He did not sing this song to sneak-photographed Kate Middleton or to a stripped-bare real-life rape victim. Partly, it wouldn’t have been funny; more to the point, it would have completely undone the satirical message.
(c) Therefore the song was not glorifying or undermining the horror of rape. It does raise the problem that women’s breasts are often shown in situations involving violence rather than ones that, even if they represent women who didn’t expect or want to be seen, are still erotic (as part of the storyline — an example that comes to mind, given her role in “The Accused” is Kelly McGillis as the Amish woman in “Witness.” By the way, neither these images of Cara or McGillis — which I had intended to pixellate as needed — showed up on Google.)
(12) On behalf of men — not all men, but I’ll bet a good majority of those who were viewing this “Super Bowl for Women” — I’d like some credit for having thought out at least a rudimentary version of this argument even before the song was done (though learning that the reaction shots were from elsewhere clinched the argument for me) and that painting us as misogynist for both enjoying the song and respecting it as satire is unfair.
I sort of think that this is a good conversation for us to have as a society, in the wake of this song — but the people who disagree about it have to decide to communicate over it first. That won’t happen by itself — hence this (linkable) essay.