John Safran: Misogynist Until Proven Otherwise

A few nights ago at the Standard, I found myself agreeing with a friend (Zoe, who else?) on the topic of John Safran’s Race Relations (you can watch the whole episode on the ABC website here). Despite my railing, it seems audiences love his personal-essay-on-screen style. Audiences are daft. For example, why do the opening credits imply that the show is going to help us with race relations, but the show itself focuses exclusively on Safran’s experience. Where are the Hindus, dammit?

Nonetheless, this is not the shows fatal flaw. No, the problem with Race Relations is that we have no idea what the man is thinking.

Safran, as many will know, has a very distinctive voice. A weedy twang that we’ve become accustomed to, whether interrupting the indignant stuttering of Father Bob on Triple J or in his previous incarnations versus God, racing around the world or hosting a music jamboree. It is somewhat ironic then, that most of what we’ve heard so far on Race Relations is Safran’s seemingly ironic musings on retro books about intermarriage. Episode Four was no different. The show opens with Safran holding up a book, and explaining its thesis: Asian women are more marriageable as they age better and stay attractive longer. Presumably, that’s ironic right? Presumably we’re supposed to laugh a bit and think, but of course race doesnt’ really have anything to do with longevity of attraction.

Safran then goes about asking four of his ex-girlfriends if they could request their mothers to make out with him, to see how well attraction ages. Logical, I know. Already in the series, Safran has run around like a naughty little boy stealing panties of ex-girlfriends so that he can sniff them blindfolded. He’s also already asked and procured a make out session with an Aryan woman in Anne Franks’ attic. With that in mind, we come to the living rooms of four mothers with their daughters, three of whom end up making out with John Safran on air. Like with most of the series, it’s essentially one sketch where the punchline is “it’s for research, right!”

The first woman hesitates, but agrees in the end. The next seems to consent a little more readily. The third’s reaction isn’t shown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the last mother, a traditionally dressed non-English speaking Japanese woman declines a kiss on the the mouth, but compromises with a kiss on the cheek.

We’ll never know how many women Safran approached, or how that third woman responded. What we can be sure of is that it’s totally unfair to be asked to kiss a documentary maker, and a former friend of your daughter while the cameras are rolling. Noone wants to be uncooperative, let their daughter down, or indeed, seem uncool on the television.

Now I’m not saying Safran and his team wouldn’t have respected the explicitly stated wishes of anyone they film. They probably did. The bigger issue is that which is less explicit. Did those women feel like props? Do they have partners who might have problems with it? Were they were given time to think about the request? How did the ex-girlfriend who completely freaked out mid-kiss deal with it afterwards? Do any of them regret it?

All this comes back to that problem I raised earlier: Safran’s lack of editorial voice. See, when you ask a rhetorical question like “do Asian women stay attractive longer?”, you also need to equip your audience with an easy and obvious answer. Aside from the one-sketch-ness of it, Safran fails to deliver thoughts on the matter outside “Yes! Definitely prefer the older Asian woman!”. In doing so, Safran fails to convince us that he’s thought about what he’s doing: a unsettling trait when what you’re doing is treating awkward sex acts with the same offhandedness as a lab experiment.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “John Safran: Misogynist Until Proven Otherwise

  1. You seem to have identified a few issues but none of them have much to do with misogyny.

    If Safran manipulates an event so that someone is pressured into doing something, is that indicative of a systemic oppression of women in particular? Isn’t objectification a likely result of documenting any subject regardless of gender?

    Especially when we talk about relationships I think there is a major difference between identifying a female victim and identifying structural oppression against women. For example, if you give a guy your number and he doesn’t call back, is it because he is generally insensitive or because he feels that women IN PARTICULAR aren’t worth caring about?

    Also, what is your problem with the supposed lack of editorial voice? Do you think there is a definitive answer to the question ‘do Asian women stay attractive longer?’ It seemed pretty clear that Safran felt a special thrill with the Japanese lady but isn’t it right to leave this as a subjective attraction?

    This all comes down to identifying the value of Safran’s work. Is Race Relations only valuable if Safran provides a definitive answer to the issues he raises? I don’t think so.

    In my view, Safran presents a narrative propelled by ‘scientific stunts’ that will utimately lead to more questions than answers. (Thus his point that the tidiness of the ‘social science’ in the books he cites don’t account for the messy reality of human emotions.) The value is in asking the questions.

  2. Bhakthi

    Brad,

    I do see your point, and of course, if you weren’t pulling the stunts Safran was, the questions on their own are worth considering. But when your techniques, for lack of a better word, are so questionable, it is necessary to justify them.

    With the not returning a call example: there’s a difference between the actions of individuals and something that is meant to constitute “daring” public broadcasting. Again I say, it is impossible to ignore the coercive circumstances in which those four women were asked to kiss a man who in these circumstances, had the audiences sympathy and the privilege that goes with that. They could either submit to his joke, or they could disappoint. It made me uncomfortable, and not in a good way.

    • I don’t think it’s a simple case of “the man has privilege and we hate the women who doesn’t submit to his requests”.

      Sure we sympathise with Safran in a sense, but that particular episode also goes out of the way to show that Safran is a bit of a douchebag, albeit a heartbroken douchebag. Hence, the final sequence where Safran attempts an ambush interview with his ex-girlfriend but leaves humiliated. Who has the audience’s sympathy? It’s not one way or the other.

      In an earlier episode, Safran takes a girl to Europe and then presses her to kiss him. The show jokingly acknowledges that she was pressured into snogging him. The editors allow the woman to voice her concerns. I think there’s something to be said for Safran exposing some of the artifice of the situations.

      Anyway, with the latest episode, the women were obviously well within their rights to reject Safran. I also think that if they had said no that the audience would not have judged them for it.

      I’m not saying that I’m not also a little uncomfortable with Safran’s stunts. But I don’t think “misogyny” is an appropriate description of what is going on.

      • Bhakthi

        Exposing artifice and JS’ douchebaggery still doesn’t compensate for the fact that there were LOLs (awkward ones) associated with the objectification of women. It’s not even clearly ironic! Which wouldn’t absolve it, but I’m still confused.

        It’s really hard for me to articulate why I’m so antsy about this, because, more than anything, I get a sexist vibe from Safran. Maybe misogyny isn’t the right word. Of course, that’s the problem with calling your blog Misogynist/Not Misogynist.

  3. Capt'n Nich

    “Where are the Hindus, dammit?” is going to be the title of my autobiography.

  4. Sara

    Nice blog.

    I also get a sexist vibe from Safran. And if those scenes with his past girlfriends’ mothers were actually authentic I’d say this would definitely be problematic.

    But I find all his “ooh I’m going to test out some hypothesis” scenes incredibly contrived – I even doubt that half of the girls shown are even his past-girlfriends, let alone the older women being his real-girlfriends’-mothers.

    I just don’t believe it. Those poor women. It wouldn’t be ethical.

  5. Nicky

    I don’t find Safran sexist at all and i reckon those mothers were totally up for snogging him. maybe he asked a lot of woman but the three that did it were quite relaxed and even giggling.
    i asked my my ma and she said there was no way she would do it with him. However she didn’t say she wouldn’t do it with someone else – ‘in the name of research’
    the whole program is completely self indulgent but im quite happy to be a voyeur. at first i didn’t really believe all those good looking jewish girls were his ex-girlfriends BUT over the years a number of my girl friends have commented on how much ‘they love him’ so he definitely has something that charms the ladyz.

  6. Brixley here,

    I find Safran’s show to be informative and entertaining or “infotaining”. I tried to steal my ex-lady friends’ undergarments but unfortunatedly in my hast I pilfered the clean pairs and hence only know that I prefer naturale fabrics over synthetiques.

    G.O. Brixley

  7. Thomas A. Fairman

    I know this is hella out-of-date, but all in all, Race Relations was… Well… Just not that good. I didn’t mind it as the start, but by mid-way through, I just didn’t care if I missed it. It had no strength, it had no bite – really, it was just introspective ramblings by Safran interspersed by a ‘wacky’ stunt to make you think “ol’ Safran’s still got it!” Unfortunately I think his zenith was Music Jamboree. After that, it’s sadly been a slow and steady decline.

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