Sexism, class society and the Oscars

The following article is based on a talk given by Monica Moorehead, a WW managing editor and WWP Secretariat member, at a March 1 Workers World Party forum in New York City. To hear her talk, go to youtube.com/workersworld.

Capitalism, as an economic system, permeates every aspect of social thought and behavior from the top down. Culture — whether it’s movies, TV, the internet, music, sports and more — plays a central role under capitalism. It is a powerful reinforcement of all forms of inequality for the benefit of the 1% — the ruling class that owns the means of production, including the media, at the expense of providing for human needs.

Just as there is a military-industrial complex and prison-industrial complex, so too there is a cultural-industrial complex. It reflects the Marxist view that the ideas of any time are the ideas of the ruling class. Culture in the U.S. is impacted by reactionary attitudes and behavior — racism, sexism, homophobia and pro-war views. Any time there is a progressive idea or character portrayed by an actor or written in a screenplay, it is the exception, not the norm.

Award shows for movies, TV, music and other forms of entertainment are a microcosm of all the ills in class society.

By far, the oldest, most prestigious and popular of these shows is the Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars ceremony. This year’s Feb. 24 broadcast, which was the 85th annual show, was viewed by reportedly 40-plus million viewers inside the U.S. and 1 billion people worldwide. These astounding numbers are due to the fact that movies can easily be streamed via the internet on computers and TV in many languages; that’s cheaper than going to a multiplex theater.

To help put this year’s ceremony into perspective, a 2011 study, “Under the Academy: Oscar Voters Overwhelmingly White, Male,” reported that of the more than 5,700 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94 percent are white and 77 percent are male. Only 2 percent are Black and less than 2 percent are Latino/a. According to the Writers Guild of America, women made up a mere 17 percent of employed writers in 2011. A San Diego State University study stated that in 2011 women made up 18 percent and 9 percent of the Academy’s producer and director branches, respectively. (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 19, 2012) There is nothing to suggest that these appalling numbers have fundamentally changed over the past year.

The institutionalized racism, sexism and pro-war sentiment, which permeate the Academy and the entire U..S. movie industry, were under close scrutiny during the Feb. 24 ceremony. For instance, the anti-Iran film, “Argo,” won the best picture Oscar. Iranian actors, directors and movie critics have condemned the Academy for giving this award honoring the fictitious enactment of a U.S. movie crew helping U.S. hostages escape from Iran during its revolutionary upheaval in 1979. Three years ago, “The Hurt Locker,” a pro-war film on Iraq, won the best picture award. Ironically, Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director, was the first woman to win the best director Oscar in Academy history.

Once again, actors of color were barely visible in the nominations for best actors. There were two Black actors, Denzel Washington and 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis; the other 18 nominees were white. Wallis is the youngest actor to be nominated for an Oscar in a lead role. None of the Black actors in the anti-slavery film, “Django Unchained,” were nominated — not Jamie Foxx, who played Django, nor Kerry Washington nor Samuel L. Jackson, all superb actors. The only actor nominated for the film was Christoph Waltz, who is white. This is another example of how characters that Black actors portray in movies are viewed as incidental rather than central to the plot.

Unbridled sexism

The sexism at the Oscars was both covert and overt. During the “In Memoriam” segment, an annual tribute to those in the movie industry who died over the past year, one serious omission was that of Lupe Ontiveros; this received major publicity. Born in Texas and of Mexican descent, Ontiveros had been an actor for 35 years. One of her most recognizable movies was the 1997 film, “Selena,” which starred Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the popular Tejano singer shot to death by Ontiveros’ character.

It was only after the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts sent a letter of protest to the Academy about Ontiveros’ omission that her name was added to the “In Memoriam” section on the Oscar website.

Ontiveros’ family responded, “We believe the Academy’s glaring omission displayed an indifference to the Latino community and made a statement about the lack of regard for Latino talent in film. It was also a missed opportunity by the Academy to reach out to the millions of Latino movie fans, who go to the movies at a higher rate than any other group in the U.S.” (Fox News Latino, Feb. 27)

Ontiveros had publicly denounced the movie industry’s forcing her to play the stereotypical role of a “maid” more than 300 times in films. It is a similar situation that African-American actor Hattie McDaniel faced during her career, especially when she was the first African American to win an Oscar for playing “Mammy” in the 1939 pro-slavery film, “Gone with the Wind.”

Seth MacFarlane, a white actor and writer of the animated series “Family Guy,” was chosen by Academy President Hawk Koch and Academy Executive Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to host the Oscar show. In the opening segment, William Shatner, of “Star Trek” fame, satirically told MacFarlane that he would be the worst Oscar host ever. That prediction came to fruition as the next three and a half hours proved.

MacFarlane performed a song called “We Saw Your Boobs,” accompanied by the Los Angeles gay men’s chorus. The over-the-top misogynistic number uttered the names of famous women actors who had appeared nude or semi-nude in various film roles, including in gang rape scenes in “The Accused” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” In a five-minute song, MacFarlane promoted sexual exploitation and violence, including gang rape. He even mentioned one actor whose nude photos, unbeknownst to her, had been made public. To add insult to injury, he made an anti-gay reference when he stated that he wasn’t a member of the gay chorus.

He also made a glib remark about domestic violence involving the much-publicized incident that occurred several years ago between Black singers Rihanna and Chris Brown.

MacFarlane also made sexist and racist comments about Spanish-speaking actors Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz when he said, “We have no idea what they’re saying, but we don’t care, cause they’re so attractive.” McFarland then introduced Hayek as an Oscar presenter.

MacFarlane even offended 9-year-old Wallis when he said, “To give you an idea how young she is, it’ll be another 16 years before she’s too old for [actor George] Clooney.”

MacFarlane, as the voice of “Ted,” an offensive animated teddy bear character he created in a movie with the same name, once again made a not-so-subtle, insulting reference to director Roman Polanski’s real-life rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Polanski, who admitted to this violent act, fled the country to avoid trial and prosecution. Ted commented that he wanted to attend an orgy at actor Jack Nicholson’s house, where the 1977 rape reportedly took place. Ted also made anti-Semitic statements, saying it’s important to have a Jewish name because Jews “dominate” Hollywood.

Millions of women and men have condemned MacFarlane’s horrific behavior on Twitter and other social media.

The Oscars extravaganza — where what a woman is wearing is more important than art or substance — is an extension of patriarchal class society in its objectification and deep exploitation of women. Women are portrayed as mere body parts and not as full human beings, no matter their age.

Take the rag publication, The Onion, which reached an all-time low when it referred to 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in a tweet as a “c- -t,” the most degrading name for any woman, much less a child. There was so much outrage protesting the attack on Wallis that The Onion had to immediately take down the tweet and apologize. The public should demand that The Onion be shut down permanently.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, leaders of the California Legislature’s Women’s Caucus, sent a protest letter to Academy President Koch, asking him to publicly disassociate himself from MacFarlane’s remarks, which they say “crossed the line from humor to misogyny.” Koch has not yet responded to their demand. (Associated Press, Feb. 26) Lowenthal and Jackson’s actions are admirable but do not go far enough.

How heartening it would have been if women in the movie industry, in front of and behind the camera, formed a united front and held a press conference or a picket line at the Academy headquarters to denounce MacFarlane and the Academy president and producers for the deplorable behavior at the Oscars ceremony.

Millions of women here and around the world would have applauded this action. That it didn’t happen indicates the broader reality that social movements, including those for women’s rights — despite any modest gains — are still on the defensive and still too dependent on the Democratic Party. They are still looking to President Barack Obama to push back racism, sexism and anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer bigotry. This is a pipe dream.

Building an independent working-class movement led by the most class-conscious activists is the only way to beat back reaction, whether it’s emanating from Wall Street, the White House or even the powers-that-be in the Academy.