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Don’t Let Sean Penn’s Joke Distract You From All That Other White People Stuff At the Oscars

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February 23, 2015


The moment he paused the first time, after being handed the envelope with the name of Best Picture at this year’s Oscars,  I knew Sean Penn was heading towards a joke.  And then he paused again, in apparent disbelief, and finally delivered the line, “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card? Birdman!”


Predictably, the Internet, which is to say, social media trolls, instantly raised a stink, insisting that Penn had made an anti-immigrant and racist joke about Alejandro González Iñárritu.  They have also begun to insist that Iñárritu shot back at Penn with his impassioned words about immigrants .  


If things progress as I suspect they will, Penn will either have to leave for a desert island or issue a multi-page apology.


It isn’t just that I recognised Penn’s pregnant pause as yet another attempt to insert some drama into a ceremony that is the world’s most watched and yet most stunningly boring television event (I really suspect that all of us watching watch for the same reason I do, in the vain hope that this year, it will be different). It’s also that I recognised where his joke — and I knew instantly it was a joke — was coming from.  

This will be hard to understand if you’re the sort of person raised entirely on the pablum of Understanding Differences And Respecting Cultures, or the sort of person who has not yet learnt to tear away from all that, but bear with me: There is a world in which an Irish-Italian guy will look straight at his Mexican buddy and ask, “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” and actually mean it as a joke.  Love, even.  There is a world in which the Mexican guy will retort with a crack about the Irish-Italian’s lazy, cheating, Mafia uncle, or something.  And there will not be blood.


Mind you, there is a perfectly good chance I’m wrong, but I suspect not. As Molly Friedman points out, posting a lovely photo of the two men in their much younger days, Penn and Iñárritu have been friends for years (she has since posted about Iñárritu's response, and it turns out I'm right).  The joke may have been inopportune, but it was not racist — in my mind, not even bizarre, which is how Friedman describes it.  It’s the sort of joke you’d throw at your BFF as they walked into your home for a Saturday barbecue.  The trouble is, these days, even ordinary people can’t afford to crack jokes any more, as Justine Sacco knows too well.

So, no, I don’t think Penn was being racist, and I think trolls and and overly righteous commentators need to drop the screeds about racism.

If attention must be paid to this year’s usual slumber-fest, perhaps we might devote some to the kinds of nastiness inflicted by certain other white people.  

Take, for instance, Neil Patrick Harris admonishing Octavia Spencer, last year’s winner for her role in The Help, to keep an eye on the bag containing his Oscar predictions.

Let’s see: A white man tells a Black woman, one of maybe six in the audience, who was clearly squirming at his request, and who played the role of the maid in a film, to keep an eye on his stuff.


The same white guy also made a tasteless joke about Edward Snowden’s “treason,” seconds after a film about the man who told us about the National Security Agency spying on us won an Oscar for best documentary.

Then there was Patricia Arquette, who literally leaned forward and delivered what is now being widely praised as an “impassioned” speech about equal pay for women. In it, she said, ““To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation: we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and to fight for equal rights for women in America.”


Really, now, Patricia Arquette?  Only women who have embarked upon childbirth and people who pay taxes deserve rights of any sort?  Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has a piece on why her speech was really not all that and provides a sound economic analysis of the problems with it, and you can read, well, this piece about my breasts on why I think child-bearing is highly over-rated as a marker of, really, anything, leave alone as the right to have rights.


It now turns out that Arquette had not even begun in her quest to ensure that equal rights would come to women.  In an after-speech speech, she is reported to have said, “It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men who love women and all the gay people and people of color we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”


Arquette’s brand of white female liberal feminism, the sort that brings other liberal feminists like Meryl Streep to her feet in cheers, is the sort that will overtake this country should Hillary Rodham Clinton finally decide to run in 2016.  Women like Arquette and Clinton are the reasons why I plan on not being in the US at all in 2016; my anger at their myopic, ahistorical, and entirely condescending politics — don’t you people of colour and gays ever forget what we did for you — is likely to result in either an angry ulcer or a deep, long fit of depression for me.

But who will criticise Doogie Howser, who grew up to be that handsome gay boy next door, complete with a matching husband and adorable twins, even if he behaves condescendingly to a Black woman or offhandedly dismisses Snowden as a traitor? When they performed “Glory,” I quipped to my friends that this was the single largest number of Black people ever seen at the event.  Who will criticise the lovely white feminist, blazing in righteous anger and indignation and telling gays and people of colour (a lovely, politically correct term that, in this context, could barely disguise what she really meant, with all its historical valences: “coloured people”) that they needed to step up for white women?


The trolls will tweet, and the mean streets of Tumblr and Facebook will be red with the blood of righteous indignation.  Meanwhile, as Freddie deBoer points out in this smart take on liberal expansiveness, real forms of inequality will continue unabated.


It’s not that I have any particular interest in or great fondness for Penn and, look, really, at the end of this day and night, for all I know, everyone mentioned above is probably engaged in some giant and entirely non-metaphorical orgy of feeling and more at the Vanity Fair party or getting shit-faced drunk to take their minds off how boring everything really is.  


I suspect, with some sadness, that it will be easier to bury Sean Penn, always so quick to get into trouble, as the White Racist Dude.  That’s not a travesty because we are too quick to dismiss White Racist Dudes, or because there aren’t enough of them.  It’s just that when it comes to internet squalls, we continue, endlessly, to take our aim at easy and often misplaced targets.



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