Did Seth MacFarlane Celebrate Rape on Film?

I blundered across a Salon article by Katie McDonough in which she claims that Seth MacFarlane’s now infamous song “We Saw Your Boobs” celebrates rape on film. While the piece is not really philosophical, it did get me thinking about matters of both ethics and aesthetics, especially about humor and ethics.

Long ago when I was a graduate student one of my friends told the following joke:

Q: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

A: “That’s not funny.”

The point of the joke was, of course, to make a statement about the infamous lack of humor often attributed to feminists. On the one hand, it certainly makes sense that feminists would be serious—after all, they are concerned with such serious and humorless matters as oppression, misogyny, and sexism. It also makes sense that they would regard certain jokes as being far from humorous and, perhaps, even as morally wrong.

On the other hand, there is the view that such seriousness and rejection of humor is a defect of character. That is, it is a flaw to take oneself and one’s causes so seriously that humor is not tolerated. There is also the concern that the assessment of something as not being funny might not be a matter of aesthetic assessment but a moral condemnation.

One reason that my friend’s joke stuck in my mind is because my friend was slowly dying of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma when he told it. As might be imagined, it does not get much more serious than death, yet he was able to tell jokes—even jokes about himself and his oncoming death.

In general terms, the main concern seems to be about the ethics of humor—that is, when is something not funny because of its actual (or alleged) connection to what is morally wrong, serious, or otherwise apparently unsuitable for humor? This, of course, brings me to the matter of MacFarlane.

While I missed MacFarlane’s performance, I did catch clips of it that made the news and saw some of the infamous song.  As might be imagined, I thought of it as the sort of thing one would expect from the Family Guy guy. McDonough, however, sees something sinister lurking behind MacFarlane’s foolishness.

McDonough notes that “four of the films MacFarlane crooned about featured nudity during or immediately following violent depictions of rape and sexual assault, stripped of their context and played for laughs Scarlett Johansson found herself on the list because of a real-life violation: Her nude photos were stolen from her phone and leaked online.”

McDonough then spends the remainder of the article describing, in some detail, the scenes from the four movies. As she claims, these scenes typically involve rapes and the “boobs” shown are often made-up to look battered and beaten.

McDonough quotes Roger Ebert’s review of The Accused to make her view clear: “Verbal sexual harassment, whether crudely in a saloon back room or subtly in an everyday situation, is a form of violence — one that leaves no visible marks but can make its victims feel unable to move freely and casually in society. It is a form of imprisonment.”

In the case of Scarlett Johansson, she did not appear nude in a movie—rather nude photos of her were stolen and leaked. In response to the incident, Johansson said, “I don’t want to be a victim and say, ‘Oh, well’ and just hide my head in shame. Somebody stole something from me… It’s sick. I don’t want people like that to slide.”

As such, McDonough’s seems to be claiming that MacFarlane is celebrating rape on film because he mentions four films in which the nude scenes are connected to rape. She also seems to suggest that MacFarlane’s mentioning of Johansson is also a form of verbal sexual harassment.

I agree with Ebert, but there is the question of whether or not MacFarlane was engaged in immoral behavior of the sort attributed to him. That is, was he celebrating rape on film and engaged in verbal sexual harassment?

On the face of it, he did mention the four films and he did mention Johansson. Presumably he was aware of the content of the films, but elected to mention them anyway. However, there is the question of whether or not mentioning the films is, in fact, celebrating rape on film.

The term “celebrate” would seem to entail a rather strong endorsement and to claim that MacFarlane was celebrating rape on film would seem to require more than the fact that he mentioned films in which rape occurs. While he could be accused of being somewhat insensitive for including the films, it could also be claimed that he included them not because they involved rape but because they involved nudity. After all, he had an entire song about boobs and needed enough material for the song. Presumably, he also wanted to include as many of the actresses as possible and hence needed to use whatever nude scenes were available to sing about.

He does not, of course, actually endorse rape or attacking women in the song—it is, it seems, a foolish song about seeing boobs intended to be the sort of humor that he does and this is a far cry from celebrating rape. After all, if he sung about films showing boobs that happened to include a war, he would hardly be celebrating war.

It could, of course, be claimed that by singing about seeing boobs he is engaged in verbal sexual harassment. This raises the question about what counts as harassment. On the face of it, one general condition for sexual harassment would seem to be that the target regard herself as being sexually harassed (of course, there can be exceptions). In the case of the song, the specific women did not seem to take it as harassment (the reaction shots were apparently pre-filmed).

It could be replied that while the specific women might not have been harassed, it was harassing to anyone who felt harassed by it. However, feeling harassed does not seem to be a sufficient condition—after all, a person could feel harassed by something that is not harassment at all. This is, obviously enough, analogous to something be offensive. While what offends a person can be regarded as offensive (that is, it does offend the person) it is rather another matter to claim that it is offensive (in the sense that it has qualities that should be regarded as offensive). Naturally, it would be a bad idea to take feeling harassed (or offended) as a sufficient condition since any absurd thing could make a specific person feel harassed (or offended).

There is also the matter of intent. While a person could offend or harass without intending to do so, moral culpability generally requires that the person intended to harass or offend. In the case of MacFarlane, he probably intended to offend but did not intend to celebrate rape on film.

As such, I am inclined to believe that MacFarlane was not celebrating rape on film and thus I would not regard his song as morally reprehensible in this regard. There is, of course, the aesthetic question of whether it was funny or not, but this requires developing an account of humor rather than addressing the ethics of the matter. Naturally, I have not resolved the question of whether or not something can be immoral or serious yet still funny.

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11 Comments.

  1. Mike, what the distinction is, is between humour that is offensive and humour that is violating.

    Seth MacFarlane’s song was violating. He was exposing the women and ridiculing them for their exposure. The laughs were in the violation. It’s the kind of humour bullies find funny – the humour of power. I don’t think Seth would like it if intimate photos of him leaked out on the internet, and women were ridiculing him for seeing his penis.

    And Mike, you really should have said “change” a light bulb…your other choice of wording could have an unintended interpretation.

  2. David Keith Johnson

    I look forward to your development of the category “funny” in philosophical terms. Henri Bergson comes to mind, but when I think of his work, Le Rire, I believe it was an analysis of the elements of presentations that commonly evoke laughter in people generally. If I recall, the element of alienation – of moral and psychological distance between the laugher and the object of humor – was critical, and could speak to your post’s inquiry. I recall meeting a lady at the Riverdale Ethical Culture Society meeting house who spoke to me with concern about a song, Springtime for Hitler, she had heard about. If she was not a survivor of the camps herself, she was closely related to someone who was. I tried to explain that the song was written by a Jewish comedian, intending to lampoon people’s attitudes toward the Holocaust, but my explanation fell flat in her ears, and we can guess why.Then I recall Moliere being thrust into the Bastille after the production of one of his masterpieces, Tartuffe, and we are presented with the role of the comic poet as social critic, arguably key to any social progress we as a species may have achieved over the millenia.

  3. The proper answers are…

    A2: You can’t fit any feminists into a light bulb, even if they did want to screw in one.

    A3: All of them. They’d rather screw in a light bulb than a penis.

    Here’s Jimmy Carr exploring that very issue: http://youtu.be/Rzb_p1mRW1M. I think it an observable fact that the serious can be made funny.

    Of course this is a double whammy by Carr because he’s earning a living from doing the jokes as he explores them. But as he points out the measure of offence is as much by the perceiver of offence as the offender.

    But then again the joke once out there doesn’t discrimnate between the intentions of the tellers who pass it on. I’ve heard jokes that are funny, but seem sinister when told by someone who seems particularly hateful. It’s not always easy for the audience to figure out the personal character of the comedian.

    And then here’s Martin Rowson on satire and the topic of offence: http://www.richarddawkins.net/news_articles/2012/12/7/martin-rowson. And he includes comment on the French humour

    Rowson: “There are people crying out to be offended.” It would seem rude not to oblige.

    Rowson’s guide as to who he’s prepared to offend seems most reasonable. But funny is funny. Whenever there’s a tragedy the text message jokes come flooding in, so we cringe and laugh at the same time. I suppose it’s like being a religious scientist.

  4. JMRC,

    The “screw” part is part of the joke. Also, that is what my friend, Jared, actually said.

  5. David Keith Johnson,

    The Springtime for Hitler song is an excellent example. As you said, a person could certainly take offense at such a song, even though the intent is to be satirical and to mock the Nazis, etc.

  6. There’s the French writer, Michel Houellebecq, who specializes in saying things that are politically incorrect and I find them very funny, although I would not say them myself and I don’t even think them myself or maybe I do think them myself.

    I guess the humor in Houellebecq comes from playing on the difference between what I think that I think (generally politically correct) and what I think (at times).

  7. swallerstein,

    Houellebecq, has been in trouble (and in court) for what characters in his books have said. What he’s ridiculing is a kind of misanthropic and absurd “political correctness” – something really superficial. The French cultural elites pretend to be really “right on” – for the sake of a soupçon of 60s hip. In reality their rudderless conservative consumers – who ape and devour American and British culture and fashion while producing nothing themselves.

    Houellebecq was not responsible for the riots in 2005, those who put him on trial were. A quote I remember from one of the rioters, “we want to speak to Sarkozy’s men”..no mention of Houellebecq.

  8. Christopher Harris

    This is a thing outside of Tumblr?

    Look, it is absolutely true that the filming of the song was before the actual event. The women (who opted into portraying the rape scenes with the exception of Johansson)knew they were going to do a rape scene; they knew they were going to act that part. If it’s bad for someone to call attention to the scene, then it’s just as bad, if not worse, to actually consent to portraying the scene.

    But this leaves Johansson out. Surely her nudes were leaded against her will; she did not want those pictures to be put on the internet. The guy who did so is an asshole, no doubt. But you have to keep in mind, the song was recorded before hand. Johansson had to have consented to her mention in the song. (If you don’t believe me, notice the difference in attire of the women mentioned. From something as simple as a different hair style, to something as obvious as an entirely different outfit.)

    If we are to blame Seth for singing a song written for him as an exaggeration of what gets exaggerated (which his comedy is known for), then we ought to blame the actresses involved in the scenes themselves, and especially the ones who agreed to being in the song.

  9. Christopher Harris,

    Excellent points. As you note, the women consented to be in the movies and also consented to participate in the song. Like you said, the “reaction shots” were shot before the song was presented.

    If the women are victims of Seth, they are also victims of themselves.

  10. I don’t know what “celebrating rape on film” means. I feel like its doing that old job of standing in for “relating to *thing* in a way I disapprove of, but can’t describe.”

    Because I mean, taken even slightly literally, “celebrating rape on film…” imagine an actress receiving an award for portraying the victim of a sexual assault. Wouldn’t that be celebrating rape on film?

    There are lots of different ways to relate to a cinematic scene about sexual violence. And there’s a gap between an actor or actress and the characters they depict. You can relate completely differently to Anna, an actress, than you relate to Barbara, the character Anna is depicting. McFarlane wasn’t going, “woo! Women got raped!” because, uh, they didn’t. Characters did, and he was adopting a crude attitude towards the actresses who depicted those characters.

    Which doesn’t make it less crude! And even though the women in question appear to have consented to being addressed in this manner, that doesn’t inherently remove all ethical concerns!

    Anyways… just my usual worries about the use of emotionally influential language that doesn’t seem to have actual content.

    As for McFarlane himself…

    Had his song been delivered by Brian the Dog, in a scene where the academy had ill advisedly allowed Brian to reach a microphone while he was flipping out with excitement from being around all his favorite actors and while he was drunkenly trying to keep a half consumed martini from spilling while he rambled inappropriately into a microphone… it would have been awesome. Because in that context the joke would have been that in spite of how cultured and sophisticated Hollywood pretends to be, underneath it all is a seething morass of prurient trash. But because McFarlane delivered it in person, instead of operating as parodic critique in which an exaggerated caricature purported to reveal the nastiness underneath the seemingly professional venue, it instead operated as an actual EXPRESSION of that nastiness.

    At least that’s how I took it. And like the phrase “celebrating rape on film,” the difference comes down to the gap between an actor and the character the actor portrays. McFarlane offered a sexist perspective that would have been humorous from a parodic character (in a very bitter sort of way), but which wasn’t funny coming from an actual person, because it gave an impression of endorsing or reveling in the sexism, instead of critiquing it ironically.

    I suppose other people’s mileage may vary.

  11. It’s the kind of humour bullies find funny – the humour of power.

    I find that I have a much higher tolerance for “sick” jokes from people like Sadowitz, who seem to be miserable, self-loathing and misanthropic, than MacFarlane and Carr, who radiate self-satisfaction. The former invite one to laugh at their baseness and the latter at their cleverness. I cannot tell if there is a moral distinction here or merely an aesthetic one.

    Anyway, the most obvious problem with MacFarlane is that he is less amusing than Being and Time.

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