Why Regina Hall’s Oscar Joke is Bad for Kids
And How to Turn it Into Something Good
I love watching the Oscars, particularly the red carpet. Or at least I used to before I started watching them with my daughter. I can’t help but wonder how she’s being influenced as women parade by in dresses that seem to be missing a middle; necklines plunging below the belly button and breasts pushed up unnaturally high. I’m not a prude, I swear. I fully believe women should be able to wear whatever they choose, and like men, go topless if they want, without commentary from people like me. But that’s the point, the sheer ubiquity of those sexualizing gowns makes it seem like it isn’t really a choice; that despite the endless talent those women possess, there is enormous pressure to, first and foremost, be hot. That is the message my daughter and yours get all over the media.
Sunday night though, I was struck (horrified really) by something different. As host Regina Hall–someone I usually find hilarious–began calling up attendees for 'random' COVID swabbing to be performed with her tongue, we were all in on the joke. She’d introduced herself as single already and it was clear she only wanted eligible bachelors up on stage. I was laughing until suddenly I wasn’t. As Timothee Chalamet, Bradley Cooper, Simu Liu, and Tyler Perry shifted in place, laughing and trying to seem relaxed, their discomfort stirred in me an all-too-familiar feeling. It was that feeling most women experience when they’re being objectified and feel humiliated, but to protest is to seem overly sensitive or humorless so they giggle instead.
“Wow,” I said to my husband. “Can you imagine if the tables were turned and it was a man calling all these women up on stage…I mean in the age of #metoo?” Then before Hall led the men off the stage, she performed a “COVID pat down” on the next presenters, Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin, groping them all over. “Oh my god, did Regina Hall just sexually harass a whole bunch of men?” I asked my husband.
I doubt the targeted actors had agreed to go along with this prank beforehand, but even if they had, here’s why I think it was in poor taste. We’re working hard as a culture to stamp out sexual harassment and teach our children that it isn’t funny or acceptable. Gender-based harassment, especially of teenage girls and young women is normalized; justified as part of growing up. Yet research shows it has a long-term impact on education, mental health, and economic life, and sets them up for further sexual harassment or worse. As a clinical psychologist, this research is confirmed by what I hear from girls in my practice about the pain arising from feeling disrespected and violated as a result of persistent exposure to everyday sexism.
But it isn’t just girls and women who are harassed. Boys and men are too. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime and 40% of boys in grades 7-12 have experienced sexual harassment. And being male comes with additional challenges because of social attitudes and stereotypes about men and masculinity. There’s a major misconception that guys are supposed to enjoy harassment, and always want sex, however it comes to them. Because of this, most men report staying silent about harassment because they’re afraid they’ll be mocked or dismissed.
The Oscars started out so strong, so woman-centered. I was glad my daughter would witness three female hosts – Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Hall. When Schumer quipped, "This year, the Academy hired three women to host because it's cheaper than hiring one man," the audience cracked up and so did my family. We cheered as the first Afro-Latina and openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose, won for Best Supporting Actress. And if it weren’t for the gratuitous violence, I might’ve thought it ended on a similar note with Jada Pinkett Smith’s husband, Will Smith, feeling empathy for her after Chris Rock referred to her as GI Jane because of her nearly bald head due to alopecia. Femininity requires women sport long hair and “take a joke.” Maybe the undercurrent at the Oscars reflects the battle being fought outside the Dolby Theatre: The good ol’ boys (or in this case women) who believe #metoo has gone too far and we just can’t take a joke versus those who want to eradicate sexual harassment.
I get the joke, I do. And I would’ve been far more horrified had a male host been calling unsuspecting women up on a national stage to date and fondle them. These constant infringements are just too pervasive to find funny anymore. Maybe Hall was trying to demonstrate how absurd sexism is by reversing the players, and I can appreciate it from that perspective. But imagining the message it was sending to kids everywhere, I couldn’t laugh.
My daughter left for a marathon sleepover before Hall’s shenanigans but I plan to show her the clip when she gets home. These are the teachable moments I look for to create awareness and engage in cultural critique with her. I want her to have the language for everyday sexism I didn’t. She loves comedy. If she laughs, I’ll ask her to tell me what she finds funny. Then I’ll ask her to imagine the genders reversed. Eventually, I’ll give her my thoughts, that things can be simultaneously funny and not okay to perpetuate. And then maybe we’ll discuss which dress necklines we liked best and why.