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The Fight Over Seth MacFarlane Is a Study in Self-Confidence | The Nation

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Michelle Dean

Culture and the arts in America, sliced and diced.

The Fight Over Seth MacFarlane Is a Study in Self-Confidence


Seth MacFarlane speaks at the 85th Academy Awards. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

At Jezebel, Lindy West writes about what a lot of us have been feeling this week in the fallout from Seth MacFarlane’s Oscars hosting gig. I found this particularly apt:

I am tired of trying to have an intellectual discussion about dog-whistle sexism in a culture where prominent politicians are still trying to grasp what rape is, and in a world where little girls are shot in the head because they want to go to school. Asking people to think critically about some hacky jokes from a dancing cartoonist? You might as well wear a sandwich board that says, “Yell at Me With Bad Grammar.”

All week I have been having trouble focusing on one subject to write about here because of this particular factor. It is not that the culture doesn’t, on a regular basis, offer up some new thing to complain about and criticize. Just this week alone we had MacFarlane and friends, who were quickly joined by the non-exclusive list of: the growing furor over Sheryl Sandberg’s apparent audacity in wearing expensive shoes while being feminist in public; some bizarre new fixation the media has on hating Anne Hathaway; a weird Philip Roth graphic that implies that Philip Roth should win a Nobel—which, by the way, is an international prize—because American writers, overwhelmingly male in this sample, think so; Mike White mentioning that his wonderful, amazing HBO series Enlightened is about to be cancelled, in part because “men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t.”

Every once in awhile someone writes a frustrated post about how some particular incident of this ilk is not important enough to require commentary. Which always misses what seems to me the clearer point: each time something happens in culture that reminds us of what a sexist, racist, heteronormative, classist world we live in, the pieces complaining about it are never really about just that one incident. They are motivated by an accumulated frustration because these things happen over and over again, and very little ever changes about it. At a certain point, it feels like you’re just presenting evidence to an empty courtroom.

Come to think of it, Americans just seem to be at a point—call it a legacy of Bush, but it probably has roots in earlier eras—where evidence and proof are beyond the point. Which explains why, if you like Seth MacFarlane, you must defend his “Boobs” song to the death as light-hearted satire, even in the face of people pointing out that said “boobs” were often seen in the context of rape scenes. If you think Sheryl Sandberg is incorrect as to what will properly advance women in the workplace, the only thing to do is write a column accusing her of beginning “the war on moms,” even though she is herself a mother, which likely means something else is going on.

You could say that all of these are only trifling examples of media-driven controversies. But then consider how much and at what considerable length something like the drone campaign has been written about, without eliciting really much public outrage or even measured discussion.

I spend enough time trawling the archives of old newspapers to know that, in some sense, ‘twas ever thus; the uninformed have always have megaphones and things get simplified for mass consumption. But when you are a progressive type, and operate largely from the evidence, i.e., by simply counting the number of men consulted about what Roth “deserves” (28) and comparing it to the number of women (5) and concluding that yeah, something is not right here… it’s challenging to want to bother. You find yourself instead fantasizing about moving to a Hawaiian island and swimming with tortoises.

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Of course like everyone else I know that’s just what people who want to uphold inequalities want: they want to tire their opponents out. In the feminist world they call it gaslighting, which simply means that the quickest way to shut someone up is to tell them that their perceptions of reality are simply incorrect. It works pretty well on women particularly, in my experience. Because I admit, as for myself, someone who has had ample enough confirmation of her right to speak (here I’ve got a Nation blog, after all), it is a continual struggle to believe that even when a man declaims that a thing isn’t sexist that I have a right to trust my own internal compass on the matter instead.

I can’t speak to other social cleavages on that score, but I can only imagine it’s the same. There’s something about soaking in a culture that has, for so long, been about What Straight White Men Think, that induces a sort of regretfully tenacious self-doubt. And that’s not even to get into the hours and days and weeks of men piling on, in the age of the Internet, to tell you you should not have even spoken in the first place. We’re about to hear a ton, in connection with the Sheryl Sandberg book (which I haven’t read yet, and shall appear on March 10) about the need for women to be more confident in pursuing their ambitions. But it’s always seemed to me that the problem starts somewhere before the workplace, somewhere in the signals that men send to women, that, as Rebecca Solnit once put it, “this is not their world.“

The signals can be as small, of course, as simply trying to “win” an argument with women who took genuine offense at MacFarlane’s antics. Which brings me back to Lindy West. Obviously I share her “sexism” fatigue, at least this week. I admired the way she made no reference to any fear that she has been too quick to judge MacFarlane or the rest of it. I have no problem with her decision to allocate her energies elsewhere. But the end result of these fatigues will, necessarily, be that no matter how ambitious you are, no matter how much the sexism or racism at hand matters to you, yours is another mouth that is shut, while a man extemporizes about his views on “strippers and hos” in the background. In other words: it’d be nice to see a few men accept that they, too, are part of women’s confidence problems.

Hide the women and children! The sequestration is coming. Read Katrina vanden Heuvel’s analysis.

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