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The We Saw Your Boobs backlash: just how ‘degrading’ was Seth MacFarlane’s Oscars song?

Charlize Theron feigning her displeasure at Seth MacFarlane's song
Charlize Theron feigning her displeasure at MacFarlane's song

Seth MacFarlane snapped into a salute as the final flourish of the orchestra faded. Everything seemed to be going to plan. He’d just finished rattling through a perky, marching comedy number called We Saw Your Boobs, detailing all of the times when actresses present at the ceremony had gone topless in films.

“Meryl Streep, we saw your boobs in Silkwood,” MacFarlane sang. “Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive…” The camera had cut to Watts herself; she had looked like she was quite enjoying We Saw Your Boobs, but her face crumpled into a picture of bafflement and hurt.

Angelina Jolie, we saw your boobs in Gia,” he went on. “It made us feel excited and aliiiiive!” As MacFarlane sang “Charlize Theron, we saw your boobs in Monster,” the camera threw to Theron who slumped to the right and put her hand to her temple. She looked livid.

The sequence was not all it seemed. Theron and Watts were in on the joke. If anything, their thoroughly believable looks of shock were a tribute to their craft. This opening blast of the 85th Academy Awards in February 2013 was all supposed to be a big meta-joke about how much controversy MacFarlane was predicted to have brought on the movies’ most sacred night.

In the Dolby Theatre, We Saw Your Boobs seemed to go down well; there were a few big laughs, and if the whole thing went on slightly too long then it was, at least, standing in a grand Oscars tradition. Jennifer Lawrence – who gave the camera a little fist-pump as MacFarlane sang that nobody had seen her boobs – was a fan too. “I loved the boob song,” she said backstage. “I thought he was great. I thought he was hilarious.”

But outside of the room, those looks of excruciating embarrassment were a fair assessment of how MacFarlane’s gig went down. Fairly quickly, it became obvious that this was an Oscars low point to compare with the very worst ever: more ill-conceived than Rob Lowe honking a Disney-themed version of Proud Mary with Snow White in 1989; more nauseating than James Corden and Rebel Wilson turning up in their Cats costumes in 2020; more bluntly insulting than John Travolta mangling Idina Menzel’s name into Adele Dazeem in 2014. It might not have been The Slap, but it wasn’t far off. The Oscars had turned to MacFarlane in an attempt to make itself feel less stuffy. In return, he gave them a firestorm.

At the start, the idea was that MacFarlane was seeing the worst possible version of his own hosting gig: William Shatner reprised his role as Captain Kirk on a big screen in the Dolby Theatre, warning MacFarlane that he’d seen how the ceremony was going to play out from his vantage point in the 23rd century. Kirk then showed him how horribly it was all going to go. Theron and Watt prerecorded their reactions; rather than being livid, Theron appeared with MacFarlane on stage to dance with Channing Tatum immediately after the We Saw Your Boobs clip.

But that set of air-quotes fell away quickly, and MacFarlane followed with a string of gags which set teeth on edge. Nine-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis was welcomed with this: “To give you an idea of how young she is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too old for [George] Clooney.”

Seth MacFarlane with William Shatner at the 2013 Academy Awards
Seth MacFarlane with William Shatner at the 2013 Academy Awards - WireImage

Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner Zero Dark Thirty was “a triumph and also a celebration of every woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go”. Presenters Jennifer Lopez and ex-Chippendale Channing Tatum were introduced thus: “Of our next two presenters, at least one is honest about being a former exotic dancer.”

Ironic sexism wasn’t the only minefield MacFarlane decided to run into. In a skit where the foul-mouthed anthropomorphic stuffed bear Ted, voiced by MacFarlane and the star of a new TV show, riffed with his film co-star Mark Wahlberg about how he intended to keep his career going. “I was born Theodore Shapiro, and I would like to donate to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever,” Ted said.

Salma Hayek’s introduction riffed on Latin actors apparently being hard for Anglophones to understand. “We have finally reached the point in the ceremony,” MacFarlane said, “where either Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek comes on stage and we have no idea what they’re saying but we don’t care because they’re so attractive.” Django Unchained was “the story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who’s been subjected to unthinkable violence – or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, ‘a date movie.’”

Naomi Watts, seen during MacFarlane's rendition of We Saw Your Boobs
Naomi Watts, seen during MacFarlane's rendition of We Saw Your Boobs

In the internet circles that idolised MacFarlane, it went down well, and in the room the only boos came for cracks about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination – “I would argue that the actor who got most inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth” – was met with boos, as was a reference to the script for Django Unchained being “loosely based on Mel Gibson’s voicemails”. Outside of that, less so.

“Among the women I’ve talked to today I would say I haven’t heard from any who thought it was in good taste,” Crash producer Cathy Schulman told the New York Times. Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, said “the whole world saw them honouring men and mocking women”. California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, who led the Legislative Women’s Caucus, wrote in a letter to Academy president Hawk Koch that We Saw Your Boobs “reduced our finest female actresses to caricatures and stereotypes, degrading women as a whole and the filmmaking industry itself”.

While tweeting in defence of Anne Hathaway’s Best Supporting Actress twee acceptance speech – “It came true!” – Girls writer Lena Dunham contrasted Hathaway with MacFarlane. “Let’s save our bad attitudes for the ones who aren’t advancing the cause,” she wrote. “The ‘ones who aren’t advancing the cause’ I mentioned aren’t always, or mostly, women. Case in point: I saw your boobs.”

Jennifer Lawrence, who called We Saw Your Boobs 'hilarious'
Jennifer Lawrence, who called We Saw Your Boobs 'hilarious'

A few days after the ceremony, Jane Fonda blogged about her night at the Oscars. “What I really didn’t like was the song and dance number about seeing actresses’ boobs,” she wrote. “I agree with someone who said, if they want to stoop to that, why not list all the penises we’ve seen? Better yet, remember that this is a telecast seen around the world watched by families with their children and to many this is neither appropriate or funny. I also didn’t like the remark made about Quvenzhane and Clooney, or the stuff out of Ted’s mouth and all the comments about what women do to get thin for their dresses. Waaaay too much stuff about women and bodies, as though that’s what defines us.”

The Ted skit was similarly unwelcome. “While we have come to expect inappropriate ‘Jews control Hollywood’ jokes from Seth MacFarlane, what he did at the Oscars was offensive and not remotely funny,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. “It only reinforces stereotypes which legitimise anti-Semitism. It is sad and disheartening that the Oscars awards show sought to use anti-Jewish stereotypes for laughs.” Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center was deeply unimpressed too. “The Oscars are transmitted to every corner of the globe even to such places where such hateful myths are believed as fact,” he said in a statement. “Every comedian is entitled to wide latitude, but no one should get a free pass for helping to promote anti-Semitism.”

This shouldn’t really have come as any surprise; it was almost what the Oscars wanted. For years, the producers had bounced between hosts trying to find someone who wasn’t too boring, or too odd, or too old, or Billy Crystal. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin had been competent if underwhelming in 2010, then in 2011, Anne Hathaway was paired with James Franco for one of the strangest double-acts Hollywood can have lumped together. She was peppy and excited; he seemed to be barely concentrating on what was going on. Together, they made for a black hole of anti-chemistry. Crystal acquitted himself well in 2012, but it was his ninth time hosting.

The whole thing felt like it needed some fresh blood, especially when even the Golden Globes was making the Oscars look lame. Ricky Gervais had turned that awards do on its head as its first ever host in 2010, and his extended roast of Hollywood’s finest had gone down so well he’d been invited back the next two years.

Irreverence, bad taste and laying into celebrities was in. So Chicago and Hairspray producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were in charge of the ceremony, and turned to Seth MacFarlane, then riding the crest of his Family Guy popularity. MacFarlane seemed like a perfect mix of Old Hollywood schmaltz and New TV smarts: he’d just made a big band album, Music Is Better Than Words, which earned two Grammy nominations; and he had the ear of frat boys across America. They’d get a guy who could give it a little edge, but who also wanted to duet with Barbra Streisand. Everyone would be happy.

And that, briefly, was what MacFarlane was aiming for. He’d planned some “very tame, old-style song and dance” to open the show, something Billy Crystal or 2009 host Hugh Jackman would have done. Then he thought about what commentators had been saying about him in the run-up to the ceremony, and thought again.

“I’ve never mentioned this, but that gag came about because I read a lot of the press,” MacFarlane told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast in 2019. “You should never read your own press, but I read a lot of press leading up to the Oscars and it was a lot of really angry, foaming-at-the-mouth kind of stuff. It got to the point where I had to comment on it in some way.”

The new angle was to go more Family Guy, but to add enough meta-levels to We Saw Your Boobs to get away with it. But Shatner’s cameo didn’t help much. The intense backlash against MacFarlane’s hosting, and particularly the accusations of misogyny against him, was too loud for the Academy to ignore. “If the Oscars are about anything, they’re about creative freedom,” the Academy said in a statement. “We think the show’s producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and host Seth MacFarlane, did a great job and we hope our worldwide audience found the show entertaining.”

Seth MacFarlane backstage at the Academy Awards
Seth MacFarlane backstage at the Academy Awards - Getty

Zadan and Meron insisted they didn’t regret We Saw Your Boobs. “You hire Seth MacFarlane, you want something to be cutting edge and irreverent,” Zadan told the New York Times.

At the time MacFarlane brazened out the criticism with a mixture of what-am-I-like shrugging – the next day he tweeted a picture of him holding his cat, with the caption, “My cat said the show went well” – and a gleeful sort of relief. When asked on Twitter whether he’d be back for the next Oscars, he was clear. “No way,” he tweeted. “Lotta fun to have done it, though.”

More recently, though, a certain prickliness has crept into MacFarlane’s retelling. “It’s this idea of creating an alternate Oscars that was exactly what they were afraid would happen,” MacFarlane told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast in 2019. The idea was that despite the length of the segment – and a fairly straightforwardly homophobic aside where MacFarlane made it clear he wasn’t part of the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus he’d just performed with – the frame around We Saw Your Boobs made it all fine. “That’s what gets forgotten,” MacFarlane said ruefully. “They always forget context.”

But in the event, it looked a lot more like MacFarlane was having his cake and eating it. The problem, in his view, had been that the whole show was being watched by people who were waiting for it to fail. “It’s so easy to s___ on the Oscars because you don’t have to read the news, you don’t have to know history, you don’t have to do any work,” MacFarlane said to Maron. “You just have to sit down, watch, and tweet. That’s all you gotta do. You see a lot more outrage about the Oscars than harmful legislation.”

And at the end of it all, the ratings went up – three per cent overall, and 11 per cent among the 18 to 49 age demographic that the Oscars had so badly wanted to reach. With a decade’s distance, it looks like the very last act of the deliberately outrageous frat boy comedy which South Park and Family Guy had made exciting, but which had curdled into dross like the gross-out Movie 43. That film, which also featured MacFarlane and was released four weeks before the ceremony, is now considered one of the worst ever made and the revulsion which met both it and MacFarlane’s Oscars gig suggested a weariness with smirking provocateurs.

Still, there was a chance that MacFarlane might have gone back for more. “I got asked back the year after I hosted, I guess because the numbers went up,” MacFarlane told Maron. “Part of me wanted to say yes, but I realised the only reason I’d be saying yes is to kind of show up the detractors. That’s not a good enough reason to put in that kind of work.”