The semiotics of MarFarlane’s "boob song!"


Please bring back Walter and David/O'Hehir does it again: We are now in the seventh day of our Lord post-Seth MacFarlane’s “boob song.”

One week ago, the world’s emptiest fellow sang his famous song about boobs. Yesterday, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir tried to limn the semiotics of the highly complex affair.

You’ll rarely read a piece on any subject which is so thoroughly uncomprehending. In the past week, MacFarlane’s song and jokes have launched a thousand leaky ships, but O’Hehir’s may be most amusing.

O’Hehir never quite manages to grasp why people found MacFarlane’s song offensive, inappropriate and/or in bad taste. Straining to comprehend the flap, the gentleman starts like this:
O’HEHIR (3/2/13): Humor is a complicated phenomenon, and highly dependent on context, as Seth MacFarlane recently learned. The Oscar host’s much-discussed performance–and in particular his quasi-ironic opening musical number, “We Saw Your Boobs”–has inadvertently launched a cultural debate about several interlocking subjects, including sex and gender in Hollywood, whether p.c. attitudes are destroying humor, and the role of Twitter and other social media during major cultural events. That’s without even getting into the unresolvable and inherently subjective question of what’s funny and what’s not.

Nothing MacFarlane did, from the boob song to gags in dubious taste about women’s weight, domestic violence, Mel Gibson and John Wilkes Booth, pushed anywhere near the outer edges of the comedy envelope in a world that has already featured Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen. MacFarlane’s problem was about semiotics, setting and reception. He was a white guy in a nice suit doing old-fashioned song-and-dance numbers on the Oscars, and fairly or not he came across to many viewers as smugly reinforcing the male-centric power structures of Hollywood and society. (You can accuse those other comedians I mentioned of many things, but not of kissing up to power.) Some observers, like Pete Hammond of Deadline, have suggested that a double standard may be in play, and that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler could have cracked the same jokes, or worse, and not gotten any grief for it. That’s kind of true, but also misses the point. All humor has a subject and an object, and if Fey and Poehler tell those jokes they become different jokes with different meanings.
This opening presentation is just stupendously clueless. According to O’Hehir, McFarlane’s now-controversial song was actually “quasi-ironic.” In part, the negative reaction it has received is a matter of “semiotics!”

Before he is done with his piece, O’Hehir will ponder the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Hobbes as he reviews the complexities of the reaction to that quasi-ironic song. But for sheer absurdity—for pure untrammeled incomprehension—note again the comical way he ended his second paragraph:

Some observers…have suggested that a double standard may be in play, and that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler could have cracked the same jokes, or worse, and not gotten any grief for it. That’s kind of true, but also misses the point. All humor has a subject and an object, and if Fey and Poehler tell those jokes they become different jokes with different meanings.

Neptunically, O’Hehir imagines a world in which Tina Fey and Amy Poehler “cracked the same jokes.” He then speculates about what the reaction would be.

But as every human being must know, Fey and Poehler wouldn’t ever crack the same “jokes.” It’s impossible to imagine such an event occurring here on this planet.

O’Hehir doesn’t quite seem to know that. Instead, he tells us that, if they did crack those “jokes,” the jokes would take on different meaning. After which, he offers us this, letting us know he’s quite mad:
O’HEHIR (continuing directly): I’m not trying to answer the question of whether MacFarlane was a misogynistic goon sent to enforce the patriarchal order or a misunderstood satirist who fell victim to feminist groupthink. This is actually one of those cases when both things can be true; MacFarlane’s staunchest defenders and harshest critics have all made valid points about the competing signals being delivered on Oscar night. This points us back to the fact that comedy is one of the most poorly understood aspects of human behavior and psychology, and that it’s nearly impossible to explain what makes a joke funny, or what it’s actually “about.” To quote the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite online resources): “Almost every major figure in the history of philosophy has proposed a theory, but after 2,500 years of discussion there has been little consensus about what constitutes humor.”

If anything, I think MacFarlane’s Oscar-night performance was too clever by half, and resulted in a profound failure of messaging and symbolism...
If anything, MacFarlane’s performance was too clever! That said, what accounts for his “profound failure of messaging and symbolism?” Having studied the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, O’Hehir gives us a choice! According to O’Hehir, Seth MacFarlane actually is “a misunderstood satirist who fell victim to feminist groupthink.” On the other hand, he also was “a misogynistic goon sent to enforce the patriarchal order.”

This is actually one of those cases when both things can be true!

We don’t know if we’ve ever read a piece so transcendently uncomprehending. At heart, O’Hehir seems unable to understand why people found the boob song offensive and/or tasteless (or sexist or misogynistic). Because he’s completely color blind in this area, he offers us endless amusement as he flounders about—for example, in this passage:
O’HEHIR: Considering what we know about MacFarlane’s politics–he’s a liberal, an Obama donor, a supporter of LGBT rights, etc.—it’s unlikely that he actually intended to come off as a sexist boor who was belittling women. Indeed, it’s possible he intended quite the opposite–but as any grad student in literary theory could tell you, artistic intention isn’t that important. His shtick was fundamentally confusing: What kind of comedy was the boob song–juvenile and sexist mockery, or institutional parody? Or both at once? And who was its intended target? Worst of all, the confusion evidently struck many viewers, especially women, as profoundly unfunny.
O’Hehir knows what “any grad student in literary theory could tell you”—but he can’t quite figure out “what kind of comedy” the boob song actually was. Was it meant as institutional parody? O’Hehir isn’t sure. That said, O’Hehir thinks “it’s unlikely that MacFarlane actually intended to come off as a sexist boor who was belittling women.” He reaches that judgment after “considering what we know about MacFarlane’s politics”–specifically, after considering the fact that he supported Obama.

Really? How about considering what we know about MacFarlane’s comedy? Considering that, we would say it was highly likely that he would come off as a fellow who was belittling women, whatever he might have intended. O’Hehir researches 2500 years of philosophy but he apparently forgot to research MacFarlane’s career, deciding instead that he should examine the gentleman's voting record.

MacFarlane voted for Obama! And as we know, the sexist boors are all in the other tribe!

This is one of the least comprehending pieces we’ve ever read on any topic. Assuming O’Hehir is playing it straight and not simply puffing a powerful source, it represents a valuable document—a record of the complete inability of some men to comprehend sexual politics. Throughout the piece, O’Hehir never seems able to understand where this flap came from or what it concerned. At one point, he even says this:
O’HEHIR: It’s safe to assume the producers knew there might be some backlash against MacFarlane, given that every aspect of this obsessively dissected and psychoanalyzed media spectacle is guaranteed to provoke outrage from someone, somewhere. But no one could’ve been prepared for the tide of collective anger–largely although not exclusively female–that began to swell within the first minutes of last Sunday’s broadcast, and then crashed onto the beach the next morning in some of the most damning reviews of recent Oscar history.
Incredible, isn’t it? According to O’Hehir, no one could have predicted that MacFarlane’s “boob song” would produce that tide of anger! In fact, anyone with 2 IQ points to rub together could and would have foreseen that reaction—unless he’s completely unable to grasp the shape of sexual politics.

O’Hehir’s piece goes on and on; it never gets any less uncomprehending. (Don’t miss the part where he ruminates about the way “German audiences reportedly howled with laughter at newsreels of Nazi soldiers compelling rabbis to clean latrines with their beards.”) In fairness, O’Hehir has hardly been the only color-blind soul in the wake of MacFarlane’s performance. We’ll probably do one more post on this topic, a post which will examine the thinking of some major names in the comedy business and the great folk at The Onion, where someone decided to drop a C-bomb on a named 9-year-old child. (Penn Jillette ardently told Piers Morgan that they shouldn't have apologized for that.)

But good God! O’Hehir’s piece is an absolute keeper. It displays the way some people, even including some men, simply can’t comprehend the problem that arises when sexual insults are directed at women on worldwide TV—in this case, at named individual women who are attending their industry’s biggest annual event. For a display of total incomprehension, marvel at the following passage, in which O’Hehir refers to two aggressive critics of MacFarlane’s numb-nutted performance:
O’HEHIR: In an Op-Ed for the Advocate, Victoria A. Brownworth argues that critics like Lauzen and Davidson missed the entire point of “We Saw Your Boobs,” which was that, “in Hollywood, women—even when playing victims of violent crime—are reduced to the sum of their body parts, not the sum of their movie parts. But a man singing about ‘boobs’ just had to be bad and sexist and wrong. There couldn’t have been a satirical point being made.”

Brownworth is right that some Oscar viewers leapt right over the visible evidence toward ready conclusions–but in fact, I’m not inclined to believe that MacFarlane was actually making a stealth-feminist argument or that he was intentionally serving as hit man for Hollywood’s ruling male oligarchy. Furthermore, it doesn’t much matter, and the outraged response of so many people cannot simply be ascribed to humorlessness or incomprehension. In formal terms, the boob song was actually a different kind of humor entirely: It was a meta-joke, a parody of a bad Oscar musical number rooted in the comedy of incongruity, which is probably the most familiar variety. This too goes back to Aristotle, who observes that you can always get a laugh by setting up a conventional expectation and then delivering a twist.
This too goes back to Aristotle. But then, so does everything else.

Good God. If O’Hehir is right, Brownworth thought MacFarlane was trying to make a satirical point about the way women in Hollywood “are reduced to the sum of their body parts” when they appear in a movie. Needless to say, this absurd interpretation sends O’Hehir back to his encyclopedia, although he himself is “not inclined to believe that MacFarlane was actually making a stealth-feminist argument.”

That said, O’Hehir is able to see the actual nature of MacFarlane’s now-famous song. “In formal terms,” O’Hehir says, the boob song “was a meta-joke, a parody of a bad Oscar musical number rooted in the comedy of incongruity.”

Go ahead. Read O’Hehir’s full piece. As you do, ask yourself a powerful question:

Is democracy still possible in the Internet era? Can we the people think for ourselves in any manner at all? Or must we find a way to return to an earlier age, in which we boobs were handed a limited set of ideas by a ruling press corps elite?

Not too long ago, we were handed a very small set of ideas by Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley. Whatever their limitations, Cronkite and Brinkley weren’t bat-shit crazy, although they may have secretly known that we the people are.

Almost all politicians know that. O’Hehir has made this secret knowledge accessible to one and all.

Before and after: You be the judge:

In the days of Walter and David, we were handed Eliot's "Love Song." It starts in Italian! Click this.

In these days of fuller democratization, we get handed MacFarlane's "boob song." Can our new processes last?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Well, you managed to understand what he was saying. I felt like I was hit by a word avalanche and couldn't bring myself to was so awful. And preciously intellectual in that awful way that degrees in literature seem to induce

  3. Oh, good gracious! "In the seventh day of Our Lord post-Seth McFarlane," some blogger for an online magazine writes a completely silly post about the completely silly host of the completely silly Oscar show, and Somerby is compelled to write a completely silly post talking about how completely silly this is.

    Oh that all are problems were so monumental.

    1. Andrew O'Hehir was justifying his review of Oscar Night from the week before, defending himself with pompous incoherent pseudo-intellectual babble, and deserved a good take down.

  4. MacFarlane voted for Obama! And as we know, the sexist boors are all in the other tribe!

    Yep. This illustrates the adage:

    Conservatives think liberals are good people with wrong ideas. Liberals think conservatives are bad people with wrong ideas.

    1. This was bad O'Hehir, even for him, but I think Bob misses the point too in his rush to glom his usual take on to the subject. The pig O'Hehir is applying lipstick to is the state of contemporary humor, which has been on a road to hell sinse the likes of Andrew convinced themselves that "Animal House" was a masterpiece. No, Tina Fey might not of told such jokes, but Sarah Silverman would have and ladies and gentlemen, She is no Lenny Bruce. This goes beyond gender and hits a growing conflict of our times: some people have had it with the vulgarity and others seem to be just warming up: see "Movie 43" which O'Hiher didn't reveiw. These Oscars were an interesting, perhaps promising, "enough's enough" moment. But watch for Bill Maher to hail McFarline as a hero.

    2. I sure would like to meet the conservatives that think liberals are good people...I recall a lot of desires to murder or otherwise eliminate liberals as some sort of scourge destroying the nation

    3. You forgot when Rush Limbaugh said that Sandra Fluke was a extremely intelligent, accomplished young woman with a great future whose ideas were simply wrong?

    4. That;s a joke, right, Anon?

      February 29
      Limbaugh slams Fluke on his show, claiming that she is asking the government to subsidize her sex life. "What does that make her?" he asks. "It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex."

      March 1
      Amid a chorus of criticism, Limbaugh doubles down: "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I'll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

    5. I see that you are irony-challenged, Carol Ann.

  5. I thought the bit was a satirical takedown of some supposed snootiness of actresses, pointing out that contrary to their artistic presumptions we all know that they got where they are by using their sex and flaunting their bodies. Maybe the small germ of truth is what riled everyone up. In that sense, McFarlane's routine can be compared to Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondents' dinner back in the George W. Bush Administration. I think Colbert's performance was one of the funniest and brilliant examples of political satire I've ever experienced, but there was little laughter from the attendees and it received lukewarm at best reviews. The sarcasm had such an edge and was so truthful that Colbert was seen as insulting W and the stuffed shirt correspondents to their faces. Similarly, McFarlane was seen as rubbing it in on a night when the actresses were all gussied up in their designer duds, ready to be acclaimed by the artistic world that they really got there by "showing their boobs. Oh, and Aristotle said it was sexist as hell.

    1. I think saying that all actresses got there by flaunting their bodies and using their sex is pretty chauvinistic. You are stating that actors get there by talent and actresses by sex. Pretty dubious thinking and pretty awful.

    2. I agree with you and was just trying to reconstruct whatever thinking went into McFarlane's performance.

  6. I thought the "C-Bomb" joke was funny, and right up the Onion's alley. Whether it represents some breach of professional ethics is another question, one I can't assess. But the humor is there.

  7. McFarlane is "the world's emptiest fellow?"

    Because you didn't like his comedy song about actresses at the Oscar show? That's the standard?

    Everything points to TDH needing a vacation.

    1. The song wasn't comedy - it was plain insulting.
      If a serious actress doesn't show her tits, she won't get the part, because someone else will & most every well-funded non-kids movie needs at least 1 tits scene to be successful - the public demands it. So on top of that insult, we have the professional awards ceremony that has to gawk and leer over this sad fact, and pretend its funny. Beavis and Butthead rules our world. Titanic was the highest grossing film ever, but all Winslet means is a pair of tits? We consider Stanley Kubrick a genius, but all Kidman gets for 8 months filming filming with the genius is a plaque saying, "nice rack", & forget her other great roles like Dogville? Dumb, dumb, dumber.

      Google the Bechdel Test to see how fucked up & sexist the film industry is.

    2. And this all because of Seth MacFarlane? Or because of his song? Because MacFarlane didn't tear his hair and weep, he is the world's emptiest fellow?

      What were you expecting when you sat down to watch the Oscars? Have you ever seen a Hollywood awards show?

      Bob can judge a person's entire life after listening to one song-- John Lennon wrote this:

      Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl
      Than to be with another man
      You better keep your head, little girl
      Or you won't know where I am

      Was he the most evil fellow in the world?

    3. Pretty dumb to immaturely insult half your audience with your song - not evil, plainly stupid and juvenile. If you think the Jeselnik Offensive is funny, MacFarlane may be your guiding light. Put him on stupid late night Comedy Central where he can joke like Jeselnik about licking vomit off a girl's nipples or who can tell the most over-the-top joke about a girl shot to death by her famous athlete boyfriend.
      This does not belong at a major awards ceremony unless you think taking a shit on stage is "edgy". (Note - I've never seen MacFarlane - just know his song was in excruciatingly poor taste to host professional actresses on what should be a night to celebrate their work, not insult them for being a walking support structure for 2 tits for us to ogle.)

    4. But was MacFarlane's song as insulting or threatening as, say, a popular Beatles song?

      If not, then what are you complaining about?

    5. First, the Beatle song wasn't sung for Jodie Foster after being stalked - it was a general song release.
      It wasn't picked to lead off International Women's Day, or it'd be as bizarre & insulting as choosing Sting's "Every Breath You Take", a song Sting describes as sinister despite adoring fans who think it's sweet.
      In any case, you go out of your way to miss the point. #FAIL

  8. I'm more impresses that O'HehIr found the lost section on comedy from Aristotle's Poetics.

  9. I think you have all really missed the point, I saw satire. I am a staunch equalitist and a believer in pc idea's. all I saw was a parody, it parodied Hollywood and humans expectation of nudity and how many ppl po seem to be taken more seriously for being nude, how uch of a joke it is that we all get excited about seeing boobs and finally a joke on the worlds view of sexuality, like a song about boobs or boobs themselves are bad but the never ending violence of ppl is ok. Stop and look at this with a calm mind, it is easy to get carried away but o logical thought can truly be undertaken with a closed emotional mind. Perhaps you will see it for what it is a mockery of ideals and no woemen

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