As you may have heard, The Onion called Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt on Twitter Sunday night:
They deleted it about an hour after posting, but by that point they were in deep shit. The story has been picked up by many news outlets, including the Associated Press, and it’s probably not going to die within the next 24 hours, which in internet time is quite long. As of this writing (just after midnight on Sunday), various Twitter users are very upset about it, and not in the meaningless, irony-swaddled ways I’m used to.
My Twitter feed is predominantly white and caustic, so I didn’t notice the tweet until roughly thirty minutes after it went up. Frankly, when I did, I didn’t understand the fuss. To me, it was a not particularly funny attempt to create a shadow world in which someone no one openly dislikes is actually a giant asshole. The Onion relies on that gimmick fairly often — I remember a years-old interview in which one of the publication’s main writers argued that it was easier to write about President Clinton than President Bush because the former suggested an untold life, whereas Bush was always more up front about his opinions and beliefs. I didn’t really understand how anyone could take a comment from The Onion fully seriously, and I rejected any statement that simply chastised them for hurling an awful slur at a young girl. Because, in my mind, there was more to it than that.
I was wrong to look past the criticism, though, because I was ignoring an important racial and social context for the comment. (I do mean “ignoring,” not “ignorant of,” because I know the history and just didn’t come to it first.) The best explanation I’ve seen came in a few tweets from the very upset @prisonculture, an activist attempting to fight the United States’ prison culture and “eradicate youth incarceration.” Here they are in paragraph form:
I’m going to say a few words because they need to be said. Quvenzhané Wallis is a black girl-child living in America and you need to know what this means. Black girls are more likely to be survivors of sexual abuse and assault than ANY OTHER GROUP in AMERICA. Do you hear me? Black girls are the fastest growing group in the juvenile justice system. DO YOU HEAR ME? Black girls have inherited a legacy where they were considered UNRAPABLE by anyone but particularly white men. DO YOU HEAR ME? We were considered UNRAPABLE because we were supposedly so promiscuous that we COULD NOT BE RAPED. Sexualized misogyny is ROTE for us. When you call at 9 year old black child a CUNT, you aren’t doing so in a vacuum. You are doing it as part of a historical legacy of sexual subjugation, violence, and terror. DO YOU HEAR ME? KNOW YOUR GODDAMN HISTORY and its current effects. DO YOU HEAR ME? Enough with this. Enough. I am going 2 say this: if you are a black man (in particular), you have an F’ing responsibility NOT to be on the list of ppl claiming that this is harmless satire. STAND THE F UP for this black CHILD. I can’t believe that there’s a question that you might not. My brothers. Stand with us against this racialized misogyny because it is the right thing but also because we stand with you against racist brutality directed at you. Because we march with you against Stop and Frisk. Because we have stood with you ALWAYS. JEZEBEL, SAPPHIRE, HO, BITCH, JEZEBEL, SAPPHIRE, HO, BITCH, JEZEBEL, SAPPHIRE, HO, BITCH, ANYTHING EXCEPT OUR NAME…
These are experiences that I will never and could never have, and having them explained and reaffirmed is valuable. I do my best to be a thoughtful, respectful citizen of the world, but I’m also a white man who grew up in a very comfortable home and went to private schools his whole life. My best efforts will rarely be enough. I hope I have the humility to listen to people when they tell me I’ve fucked up.
Nevertheless, I think the perspective of The Onion writer — who, let’s face it, is my surrogate in this story — matters here. In the immediate aftermath of the tweet, I exchanged some thoughts with my friend and basketball-writing peer Ethan Strauss, who explained what I had really only gestured to in my thoughts. Quvenzhané Wallis wasn’t the target of the joke, but the easiest way of demonstrating the cognitive dissonance required to rip pretty much every other actress (and especially Anne Hathaway) in contention for an award while lavishing praise upon the child competing against them. As Matt Pearce of the LA Times tweeted, there’s an atmosphere of harassment surrounding all female actresses. The Onion joke could have been meant to note that — to suggest that many zing-minded live-tweeters were one step removed from calling a little girl a cunt. This is the world we know — one where the need to make a joke and express an opinion often bulldozes basic decency. The larger point was about normalized misogyny. And if a joke about demeaning a nine-year-old girl seems offensive and ridiculous and moronic, it’s because the practice is all those things when it’s applied to grown women, or even a not-so-grown one like 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence.
I don’t think this context excuses any offense that people took from the joke, but it does help explain how it happened in the first place. Malice was not intended; if anything, it was a consciously over-the-top attempt at feminist criticism. (Whether or not feminist criticism can employ the word “cunt” at all is a separate issue — I tend to think that it can when used properly.) In expressing this sentiment, the writer ignorantly ventured into a cruel and unjust history. And now a lot of people are yelling at each other.
I don’t disapprove of that anger — it’s a natural, legitimate reaction. Once we get past that raw emotion, though, both sides deserve to be taken seriously even as one (the side of the offended) carries the more significant moral authority. If we want to have the serious conversation on race (or any divisive topic, really) that our elected leaders only ever seem willing to gesture to — or, conversely, that we continually prove we’re not capable of having — then we need to listen and argue in good faith, rather than assuming the worst of anyone without similar experiences. The goal here should be to trade information, to discuss, to create better habits and routines.
I concede that the onus of effort here is on those who ignore a history of subjugation. I just want to communicate that explaining the perspective of the aggrieving party often has a broader conciliatory purpose. It can even be an invitation to say more.
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