At first, I thought the only mildly interesting thing about Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at the Academy Awards, via satellite, was that it required her co-presenter, Jack Nicholson, to be on his best behavior. He seemed a little nervous in her virtual presence, actually, like he was afraid he might blurt out something inappropriate with her looming over him like that.
Otherwise, it was just our first lady in a shimmery evening dress saying, in effect, “Woohoo, movie industry” — just as Laura Bush had done when she appeared in a short video, “What Do the Movies Mean To You?” shown at the Oscars in 2002. (“Giant,” Mrs. Bush said the movies meant to her, in an on-message reference to the 1956 film with Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson, about a Texas rancher turned oilman.)
The current FLOTUS popped in and announced that the last statue of the night, for best picture, was going to “Argo,” then diplomatically behaved like she was thrilled to bits about this, though from what she told Jimmy Fallon, she’d been rooting for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Her remarks were an unbroken string of cliche’s — yes, she actually said, “They made us laugh. They made us weep…” And by the standards of the evening, her Naeem Khan gown was downright demure.
Nevertheless, her not-very-exciting appearance was a late-night venti mocha for some conservatives. Breitbart.com called it “an unprecedented cultural power grab by the Obamas,” and Rush Limbaugh, complaining that she had used the members of the military who appeared with her as props, said her appearance evoked the “Dear leader” of a totalitarian state: “She looked much more bigger than — bigger than life,” he sputtered, and “in one bite could have swallowed the whole room.” (Fear of being eaten alive by a powerful woman means what again?)
If you’ve any doubts that not a few on the right are obsessed with her body, glance at the comments appended to any story about her on any news site. Yet not all of the criticism was in that vein; a few progressives worried protectively that on the heels of her “Evolution of Mom Dancing” success, the first lady was rapidly approaching overexposure. And from somewhere to the left of “Argo” director Ben Affleck, David Denby argued in the New Yorker that “the notion of an officially crowned winner about a C.I.A. rescue operation in Iran makes me just as queasy as the suggestion, in “Zero Dark Thirty,” that torture played a (small) role in the elimination of Osama bin Laden.” Which I’m pretty sure explains why Jessica Chastain was robbed.
It was the leering and the all-out-of-proportion anger that Michelle Obama’s appearance evoked, however, that was so in sync with the misogynistic tenor of the evening. In fact, the juvenile “We Saw Your Boobs” number in the opening Oscars sequence was the perfect kick-off to an evening in which, as Buzzfeed noted in a post headlined “Nine Sexist Things that Happened at the Oscars,” host Seth MacFarlane made a joke about domestic violence, and congratulated women in the audience for vomiting themselves into shape for the occasion by “giving themselves the flu.”
Yes, I get that some of this was supposedly self-mocking from MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy,” who I liked just fine as long as he was dancing. When he said 9-year-old Quvenzhane’ Wallis will soon be too old for George Clooney, it’s definitely wasn’t Wallis he was mocking.
But Rihanna going back to a guy who physical abused her is too real to be funny, and MacFarlane’s joke that there would be an orgy later at Nicholson’s — whose earlier address is where Roman Polanski did once rape a girl — wasn’t a reason to smile, either.
The night needed no book-end to match the boob tune with which it began, but got one anyway, in a tweet from the humor site, the Onion, which somehow thought to direct the slur many women find most offensive at 9-year-old Wallis. It was soon deleted, and later apologized for, but the message had already been received — throughout the evening.
Now, unfortunately, I won’t be able to discuss any of this in the feminist “Lean In” consciousness-raising circle I’m so looking forward to joining, because it doesn’t have a happy ending yet, so I might get written off as one of the “flakes,” who the “Lean In” author, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, warns we mustn’t let in.
But on the sunny side she wants us to look on, it really was, as Michelle Obama said in her canned remarks, quite a year for the movies. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln batted down generations of male historians who’d treated our 16th president’s wife much less sympathetically than Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” did. The (alas, not-so-sunny) “The Invisible War,” about sexual assault in the U.S. military, where women are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than injured by the enemy, managed to get nominated in the ‘best documentary’ category. And I happen to love that the heroine of the brilliant but snubbed “Zero Dark Thirty” found bin Laden for us mostly by being a massive pain in the derriere.
Seth, what you call “every woman’s innate inability to never ever let anything go,” I call knowing when not to back down. It may even be what Sandberg, who’s already been annoying lots of us with a book that isn’t even out yet, calls “leaning in.”