Tuesday, February 26, 2013


                           Did Jennifer Lawrence trip, or is she mourning the death of humor?

"We saw your boobs!”*  “The only guy who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.”  “It’ll be sixteen years before Quvenzhane Wallis is too old for Clooney.” Other targets included Jews, Latinos, gays and rape victims.  With these and other tasteless and misgynistic bon mots did Seth MacFarlane regale the billion or so people watching the Oscar presentations the other night, prompting a backlash in both directions:  The Onion tried to get into the spirit of the evening by saying of Ms. Wallis, “that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c**t, right?” But most people who have offered commentary, in the press or on the social media, expressed indignation, even outrage, at the whole unseemly spectacle.  Perhaps the most eloquent criticism was the look of disgust on Charlize Theron’s face when MacFarlane exulted in having glimpsed her breasts onscreen. (It’s possible, however, that this moment was pre-recorded, which interestingly complicates Theron’s take on the joke.)  It’s kind of surprising that when Jennifer Lawrence tripped over her dress on the way to the podium, there weren’t at least isolated peals of mirth.

            I have a particular interest in this cultural moment because, as it happens, I’m teaching a course at NYU this semester in bad taste and misogyny.  That’s not how it’s labelled, of course; its title is “English Literature in the Earlier 17th Century,” but as it happens, the years between the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 and the Puritan takeover of the country in 1642 saw the birth and flowering of an esthetic of bad taste and contempt for women, a kind of wholesale reaction against the decorum of conventional thought and image that had governed the world of letters until then.

            Consider this epigram by Sir John Suckling, who, in his short lifetime served as James I’s secretary of state, invented the civilized game of cribbage, and was a trusted advisor to James’ son and successor Charles I:

            Love is the fart
            Of every heart.
            It pains a man when ‘tis kept close
            And others doth offend, when ‘tis let loose.

            The first fart joke of the early modern era!  Aside from the literary merits of this ditty (at best it’s clever, though it tops any of MacFarlane’s sallies hands down), it served as an announcement that a new kind of joke was permissible.  The body and all its various sounds, sights, smells, and secretions was no longer off-limits to poets – particularly the female body.  Where the previous generation of sonneteers (Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Phillip Sidney, Shakespeare) dwelt on their mistresses’ golden hair, alabaster foreheads and coral lips, John Donne wrote avidly of his mistress undressing before him, saluting “the hairy diadem which on you doth grow” and begging her to “License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below.”   But women were just disposable toys to the misogynistic Donne, who will “swear / No where / Lives a woman true and fair.”  In his poem “The Indifferent,”  he views female constancy as a vice, asking those few women who still practice such abberant behavior, “Will it not serve your turn to do as did your mothers?”  Low blow!  In one of what he problematically called his “Holy Sonnets,” Donne (who was not only a priest but Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral), entertains a fantasy of being raped by God:  “O’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new. . . . for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”  Suversive enough for ya?

            In the light of this rather short-lived fad (when the Puritans seized control, decorum returned, sharpened to a razor’s edge that resulted in the beheading of Charles I), the gross-out humor of our own time, and its vast appeal, may be more explicable. Perhaps it started with Bill Osco’s 1980 film Gross Out, whose premise was that a woman threatens to withold her children’s inheritance unless they produce a movie so disgusting it makes her vomit. It caught on. To millions, it’s funny to watch Cameron Diaz rub semen into her hair in There’s Something About Mary.  The food fights and fart jokes of Animal House are hilarious not only to frat boys but to much wider audiences as well. Judd Apatow’s This is 40 is a gross-out movie for the mildly middle-aged.  Beavis and Butthead speak for themselves.

The precondition for the esthetic of bad taste, I think, is an ironic outlook on life – the outlook of Seinfeld’s cast, of Chris Rock, of the Farrelly Brothers.  Irony turns everything on its head, so that a joke, or a movie, or a routine such as MacFarlane’s can be so bad it’s good, outrageousness for its own sake is worthwhile, airing in public what used to be private is nothing but liberating.  The more literate apologists for all this cite the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “grotesque body” – the body we all have and used to deny or attempt to ignore, a hairy, squelchy bag of flesh enclosing sacs of urine, feces, semen, mucus, pus and snot.  Such, seen from the reductive, grossly physical point of view, is your body and mine, John Belushi’s and Elizabeth Bennet’s.  Even George Orwell, though he never grossed anybody out, provided a rationale in his essay “The Art of Donald McGill” for pictorial obscenity:  “It is the voice of the belly protesting agains the soul,” he wrote. 

So was Seth MacFarlane’s the voice of the belly?  Perhaps he’d like to put himself in the august company of Rabelais and Donne.  But it’s one thing to smash the icons of a repressive, prudish society in the name of freedom, and another to pick on nine-year-olds.  In truth, are there any icons left?  Lincoln, maybe.  But except for one (big) Oscar, Spielberg’s reverent epic was largely ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

*This has already inspired a parody titled "We Saw Your Junk," at http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/02/we-saw-your-junk-a-boob-song-parody.html

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