If you missed The Onion‘s Oscar night tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis…well, I can’t sugarcoat it. They called the nine-year-old Best Actress nominee a c*nt.
Okay, not exactly. Except for the part where they totally did.
As you’ve likely heard, the backlash was swift and unyielding: @TheOnion was reported for abusive language. The handle got unfollowed (and probably followed) in droves. The tweet came down and screenshots went up. Writers piled on, from Bitch to The Atlantic to…hell, if McCall’s has a Twitter handle they probably posted about it, too. Helpful dictionary affiicianados came from all corners of the Earth to define “joke” and “satire.”
And the next day (February 25), The Onion itself joined to chatter and apologized. ”No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire,” CEO Steve Hannah wrote. But it was satire, many insisted. And to apologize, several former Onion staffers said, was just one more nail in the coffin of creative freedom at the one-time gold standard for online satire.
I suppose Hannah’s apology would speak to restricting creative freedom if there had been one iota of creativity involved in the first place. Let’s be honest: this tweet was some jackass saying aloud, “What would be the most outrageous thing an idiot could say about the sweetest, least likely target?” Answering that isn’t creativity. It’s my two-year-old toddler getting laughs when she gave my husband a menacing look upon being asked to spell “Dad’ and replied “D-E-A-D.” Shock value and dumb luck.
What was done to Ms. Wallis has once again raised the question: is anything off-limits when it comes to satire?
True satire, as in satire that is intentional and aimed at someone with privilege or power? No – in that case everyone is fair game. But is it satire when you shoot first and aim second? No, it’s not. And when you fail to “punch up,” as they say, not only is it not satire, it’s lazy.
And in this case, the I-called-it-satire-because-satire-is-what-my-employers-do approach was compounded by some writer’s extraordinarily privileged lens. Of course, choosing a sexually-charged word is no big deal to someone who’s never been called it. Choosing a sexually-charged word is not a deal-breaker when you’re not one among a population for whom “personhood” has been too-frequently boiled down to body parts and utility, not personality and intelligence. To be super-blunt, if you’re a white guy, “c*nt” may offend you or it may not, but it will never have the ugly legacy for you that it does for a woman of color.
And white chicks, it’s just not the same for us, either. While all women are sometimes reduced to body part and sex toys, white women in America have had more years of more chances to also be people. I had a college professor tell me once, “When you’re a white woman, you’re a woman first. When you’re a black woman, you’re black.”
I can’t fault the writer for having that lens – I’m a white, educated, 35-year-old female who has always lived in the middle class. Privilege is sort of my thing. But just because I see why you leaped before looking doesn’t mean I don’t get to respond with a resounding, “Smooth move, Ex Lax.” And satire doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry.
So it wasn’t annoyed Twitter-types or radicals or hypersensitive wusses who played the race card about the c*nt tweet (DIBS ON ‘C*NT TWEET’ FOR THE NAME OF MY PUNK BAND!), it was the person who tweeted it in the first place. And may the law of the land continue to let that writer or anybody else tweet “c*nt” at anyone, at anytime. But don’t bullshit us and say it was satire. Say “I was trying to be shocking, and I was a c*nt about it.” Or say nothing at all and just live with it.
Either way, rock on, Ms. Wallis. And I loooooooove your purse.