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.