“In respect of character ….The second thing to aim at is propriety.” (Aristotle, The Poetics, II.XV)
pro-pri-e-ty (/prəˈprīətē/) n. The state or quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.
It is without question the hardest concept that I have to cover every semester with my undergrads. But it is a key concept, so I can’t fudge it or skip it. According to Aristotle, the key to a character becoming relatable for the audience, is found in that character’s possession of four qualities: moral goodness, truth, consistency, and propriety. And I admit, up to now, I have always struggled to find a way to help the grandchildren of the Sexual Revolution understand the meaning of “propriety.” They have a knee-jerk reaction against the broad proscription of anything, as if all social norms are a kind of fascist arbitrariness. We always stumble over Aristotle’s own illustration of propriety: “There is a kind of manly valor that would be unseemly in a woman.” How dare anyone claim that women don’t have valor!?! (“Well, that’s not really what he’s say—“…“HOW DARE YOU!?!”….“Sigh.”) This past semester, we spent half an hour just trying to come up with behaviors that everyone in the class would admit were taboo. We gave up.
So, I always put in a lot of pre-class thought, to finding examples of inappropriate behavior that would detach an audience from a character or group of characters. Until now. Now, I can just show them clips from the 2013 Oscar telecast.
Having spent much of my adult life working in the often very crass world of show business, I probably would have asserted that a bunch of self-important Hollywood actors gathered together to fawn over each other’s “brilliance” were somehow beyond insulting. But I was wrong. Sitting so prettily in their tuxes, gowns and jewels, they deserved better than what they got from this year’s host, Seth MacFarlane. Even if they are mostly ridiculous so much of the time, this was still their big night and it was nasty to see MacFarlane degrade himself and them in front of the whole world.
Most of what MacFarlane brought to the table was inappropriate.
I get that the principle joke of the evening for Seth MacFarlane was that he is known to be, well, kind of a pig, and so he was supposed to be making everybody shake in their boots at what depths of tastelessness he might unleash on Hollywood’s night of nights. But the promise of the daring, bawdy, irreverent comic is that he is going to speak truth to power – or ridiculousness, in Hollywood’s case – in a way that will be brilliantly hilarious. But MacFarlane never delivered humor in all the adolescent boob, sexy nun, Jew, and Nazi jokes. He wasn’t half as funny as my three year old nephew who sometimes comes in the room and says “Poopie” just to get a rise out of the grown-ups. I guess you kind of have to be three for that one to work.
The reason “Poopie” from a three year old is funny, and “Nazi!” from a thirty-five year old is not has to do with the relationship of maturity to propriety. Adults are supposed to have more sense than children. Adults are supposed to have some respect for other’s feelings and sensibilities. Adults are supposed to have better judgment. MacFarlane spent most of Sunday night wanting us all to glory with him in his bad judgment, lack of sense, and disrespect. It wasn’t funny. It was rancid.
It could be that MacFarlane really isn’t that bright. After all, real comedy takes a lot of intelligence. You have to be smarter than the audience to surprise them. There is nothing smart about dressing up like a pre-Vatican Two nun and swinging from the ceiling. Or using some gay men – in a musical mockery of the naked breasts of several of the actresses right in front of you.
And about that “We Saw Your Boobs” number…. It was inappropriate to ridicule those actresses by name in the presence of their friends, colleagues and fans. It wasn’t “all in good fun.’ It was mean and cheap. Even if their acting choices were questionable, they didn’t have ridicule coming – especially from such a one as McFarlane – and particularly on such a night as that. It was inappropriate.
Hopefully MacFarlane – and Hollywood with him – learned the lesson Sunday night that crass humor is devastatingly like charm which ceases to be charming once you become aware of it. Just going for the crass doesn’t make any bit funny.
So much of the evening was tastelessness with no reward. MacFarlane’s joke about the assassination of Lincoln was probably the most gross of his many improprieties. And then, when the audience gasped at the joke, MacFarlane sneered and questioned the notion that 150 years is still too short a gap before you can safely crack jokes about the murder of a great president. Yes, Seth, for the record, 150 years is still too short a time to yuck over ‘John Wilkes Booth getting inside Lincoln’s head.’ Time has nothing to do with it, you big idiot. It is inappropriate to laugh over that still haunting tragedy, and it is inappropriate to ridicule people who don’t want to laugh at it with you. It’s inappropriate.
Then, there was the introduction of Christopher Plummer which featured someone dressed like a Nazi running in just like it was in The Sound of Music. But it wasn’t played for laughs in The Sound of Music, was it? I remember my father banning Hogan’s Heroes in our house when we were little with the grim note, “There was nothing funny about the Nazis.”
People should never “lighten up” and try to find things to laugh at in the Third Reich. The death camps and Mengel’s experiments and Himmler’s torturing SS should never be fodder for anybody’s stupid party entertainment. It’s inappropriate.
There was a lot of dumb stuff at the Oscars this year: Argo winning Best Picture but barely anything else; the “tribute” to three recent musicals including a lonnnnnnnng valentine to Chicago (?); the description of the draggy, over-rated Amour as “a movie which taught us the meaning of love” even though that movie’s culmination is a love that smothers the beloved with a pillow; the use of the Jaws music to drown out awardees who were taking too long. And I’m not even going to critique some of the dumb actor acceptance speeches. They are, after all, people who should not speak without having a writer hand them the words first. All of these were inappropriate in different ways.
And then there was the big finish with Best Picture Oscar being doled out by the wife of our nation’s Chief Executive. She was a modern day Marie Antoinette, dressed like a Queen and flanked by a zombie-like, grinning, honor guard of service-people all of whom had clearly been told, “DON’T LOOK AT THE CAMERA!!!!!!”
Everybody in the room I was in started yelling out, “What the hell was that?” at the spectacle of Her Royal Chicago-Wayness graciously condescending to confer Best Picture on Argo.
I’ll tell you what it was. It was inappropriate. Mrs. Obama is not our queen. She does not preside over our cultural life. She has nothing to do with Hollywood or the Oscars, except for the fact that the industry funded so much of her husband’s campaigns. Icky and creepy and fawning and fatuous and, well, inappropriate.
As a freshman in philosophy, I learned the indisputable first principle that the only thing of which a person cannot be convinced is a self-evident truth. Propriety is like that. You either see it, or you don’t depending on your maturity and respect for others. A lot of us were horrified by the impropriety of Oscar night 2013. I think even most of the industry saw it too. The hard truth for the industry to absorb here is the standard of Aristotle’s Poetics as regards the key relatability quotient which is propriety. You are losing the global audience, Hollywood. Part of the reason why is because your glamour has all turned to a thin veneer of prettiness over your depths of depravity and disdain for the people out there to whom you are selling.
Grow up, already. Please.