Not All Layers of An Onion Are Equally Worth Peeling Back
Let's start with the tweet and get it right out there. Last night, The Onion tweeted this:
That, needless to say, was not a good idea. It was not a good idea for a lot of reasons. The simplistic version is "you don't call a 9 year old a cunt." That's pretty close to my more nuanced version too, but it helps to show your work to get to that conclusion because it is unfair to The Onion – to their intent and real target – to reduce the tweet to "The Onion called an amazing young girl a horrible word."
This is a bit rambling, but you already clicked "more", so strap in. I've got a lot to discuss.
A lot of people said that the joke was racist. My instinct, to be honest, is to disagree. It feels like this same joke could have been made about Tatum O'Neal or Anna Paquin or Dakota Fanning. Of course… it wasn't. It was made about Quvenzhané Wallis, in 2013, and we can't get around that. It has been said that being a straight white guy is the default / novice mode in the video game of life, so while I don't see racial intent in the tweet, I'm not prepared to give my own cultural experience the last word here. A LOT of black women are more than sure that the tweet is racist. It is complicated as hell to say something dirty about a 9 year old black girl and then shrug that the "black" part doesn't matter at all. That is a pretty solid distillation of white privilege right there: to be so sure of the purity of heart of your fellow white folks that you don't for a second consider what it is like to be a person of color witnessing the events unfold. I remain on the fence but I'm damn sure not confident enough to call anyone wrong for thinking the tweet was racist.
I do feel comfortable enough to say that the primary intent wasn't racist. It is pretty clear that the point of the joke wasn't about Wallis at all;* it was, instead, a satire of all of the horrible things routinely said about actresses – particularly, at the 2013 Oscars, Anne Hathaway.** Wallis was a perfect choice for the satire because she is – unless you are a horrible person – it is impossible to have a negative opinion about her. She's amazing. That's not the end of the story, though. Because while the vitriol directed at Hathaway – and the general curdled sexism that represents most of how actresses are talked about – is worthy of satire, the joke still falls flat. However ripe the real target was, the collateral damage was a 9-year-old girl. And the The Onion called her a cunt.
There are some defenses of the joke out there. Matt Kirshen reduces the joke to "calling the least cunty person imaginable, a cunt", which I think sells The Onion – and comedy – short. If that was the entirety of the intent of the joke, it is even less forgivable because there are no stakes. You can forgive him, somewhat, because he is British and in England you can call your mum a cunt at Christmas dinner and it isn't that big a deal. Dave Anthony goes full-throated in defense of the joke, arguing that the media-culture target was worthy, Wallis was the only decoy-target that would make the joke work and the collective anger is defensive lashing out. To me, Anthony is the defensive one. I've seen comics instinctively circle the wagons more than once – and I've been part of the circle myself. We don't like shackles. But … is this really the hill to die on? Perhaps it is silly that a single word is so powerful but you don't get to completely control the culture you are a part of. To think you can is childish. Friend-of-the-Hat Radley Balko spoke for a lot of people when he dismissed the tweet as just a (bad) joke, and not worthy of serious anger. But why? As Goethe said, "Nothing shows a man's character more than what he laughs at." Jokes are culture; culture gone awry is worth getting angry about.***
Choire Sicha probably got it right: it may not be possible to make a satirical joke about a 9 year old that won't blow up in your face. So the joke blew up in The Onion's face. The tweet was deleted (fine) and an apology was in order. And The Onion apologized. And it was a terrible (albeit predictable) apology. Here's the key phrase:
It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting… No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.
Let's get real: the tweet was entirely consistent with The Onion's commitment to parody and satire. It was not "masquerading" as satire. It was satire that fell flat because the intended target was buried by calling Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt so the humor was entirely lost. It was a significant, and important, failure of writing. To apologize like this is spineless. The Onion should have apologized for the distance between what was intended and what was delivered but stood up for the inherent risks of satire. The Onion should have apologized to Wallis but not for trying to take on a culture more pernicious and odious than the tweet.
It was predictable, though. The Onion isn't a bunch of smartasses in Madison anymore, owned and operated by its founding writers. It is an entertainment company owned by a investors who have no role in content creation. I'm sure the people who run The Onion aren't completely soulless when it comes to the value of comedy as art or satire as valuable political/sociocultural speech – but they have an investment to protect and the market demanded prostration and got it.
The world is better without that tweet in it but it isn't enough to just hit delete.
* See also, the shit that Seth MacFarlane is taking for 'sexualizing a child' because he used her name in a joke about how Clooney dates very young women. It was a Clooney joke. It needed someone who is currently too young, will someday be old enough and, at a too-young age will be too old again. There was nobody in the room in between the ages of Wallis and the too-old-for-the-joke Jennifer Lawrence. And scene. The big difference between this joke and The Onion's? "Cunt". It matters.
** I was going to include a link to a twitter search connecting "Anne Hathaway" and "cunt" but by now that search result is mostly people pointing out the same thing I am and queering the results. Know that last night, people were calling Ms. Hathaway a cunt earnestly and frequently. Maryann Johnson covers that aspect pretty well, while coming to a somewhat different conclusion than I do.
*** Of course, regarding Radley Balko and race, this is very worthwhile. Probably the issues he is dealing with ARE bigger than the ones I am complaining about.
Last 5 posts by Charles
- On Dying - April 6th, 2014
- Not All Layers of An Onion Are Equally Worth Peeling Back - February 26th, 2013
- Did someone mention consistency? - February 5th, 2013
- Is That A Mote In Your Dog's Eye? - April 17th, 2012
- Your Friday Afternoon Encourages You to Hang On - July 22nd, 2011