Monday, February 25, 2013

Funny or not, The Onion's Quvenzhané Wallis tweet was effective satire that reflected back at us.

That so many were so outraged this morning is precisely the point.  Satire at its best highlights the lesser parts of society, using amplification to reflect it back at us and make us take notice of our own behavior.  Those decrying The Onion, a satirical newspaper, for running an offensive tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis are possibly missing the point.  Obviously this wasn't someone online expressing an honest opinion about how they felt about a nine year old actress celebrating her first Oscar nomination.     It wasn't Rex Reed calling Melissa McCarthy a hippo or Brett Easton Ellis whining that Kathryn Bigelow wouldn't be considered a great director if she wasn't a hot white woman who made manly war pictures (essay).  This was an intentionally offensive, knowingly disruptive statement intended to provoke outrage and offense sent out by a technically 'fictional' twitter avatar.  Sadly, it wouldn't have been as shocking if an even slightly older woman had been called a "cunt".  Because we do *that* all the time.

Oh we're fancier about it and we use nicer language.  But we call women 'cunts' all the time.  We do it when we complain that Anne Hathaway just annoys us for no good reason, or that she earns our ire because she's just too damn energetic or just wants "it" too badly.  We do it when we obsess endlessly about Michelle Obama's new bangs or her bare arms.  We do it when we ignore Angelina Jolie's humanitarian work and still see only 'that bitch' who stole Jennifer Aniston's man.  We do it whenever we turn any slight disagreement between two females into a 'feud' and/or 'cat fight' or when Jessica Chastain has to publicly declare that she really isn't feuding with Jennifer Lawrence based purely on fabricated gossip.  We do it when we obsess more about Jennifer Lawrence's success as a red carpet fashion princess than as a twice-Oscar nominated (and now Oscar-winning) actress. We do it when we express our alleged outrage at The Onion and then immediately click on a slideshow of the various dresses that the actresses wore in order to snark or pointlessly compare.  

We do it when we lionize female stupidity and then decry that women made to be vain or stupid are considered role models (essay).  We do it when we treat every accomplishment of every would-be successful woman as merely a prelude to the ultimate accomplishment that is childbearing. The message is clear: Women of accomplishment deserve our scorn rather than our admiration, and the only thing that should really be admired about a woman are her looks, her fashion sense, and/or her ability to be a mom. Those decrying the fact that Wallis is a nine year old African American child only open themselves up to the fact that it would apparently be okay to call her a cunt if she were a 21-year old white lady.    Those saying that Wallis's feelings may have been hurt are A) missing that she was merely a vessel for satire and not a target of criticism and B) she likely never would have found out about it had the outrage machine not charged in full force putting it to the front pages of the online news all day long.  

Thanks to the outrage machine, a snarky satirical tweet about Ms. Wallis is now taking precedent over her Oscar nomination and/or her snagging the lead role in the new remake of Annie.  Go ahead, Google her name and tell me what pops up first.  Thanks to we the offended, Wallis is no longer a promising new actress but a damsel-in-distress in need of protecting from the scary men who would call her mean names. The good news is that maybe this will all possibly (hopefully) lead into a moment or two of self-reflection among the allegedly offended.  The tweet in question was offensive precisely because it was directed at someone who was viewed in the eyes of society as a complete innocent.  So the next question is why it is more acceptable to body-snark or arbitrarily criticize women who happen to be older than nine years old?  

Why is it acceptable to fill our twitter feeds or Facebook pages with arbitrary snark about famous women, often based on their fashion choices, opinions of their level of  attractiveness,  or even merely the fact that they seem to like being successful just as long as those women are of a certain age?  What exactly is the right age to be called a cunt in public, be it overtly or through insinuation? What exactly is the right age to start being judged on their attractiveness or fashion choices? If you go by the tabloids, which routinely critique the styling of Suri Cruise and Shiloh Pitt, it would seem that anyone older than two months is fair game.  The hope is that the alleged outrage over The Onion's offense will cause people to think twice when Quvenzhané Wallis gets old enough to get the "Gabby  Douglas treatment".  Maybe we won't turn on her and criticize her hair or her ambition or her arbitrary fashion choices.  Maybe we'll just judge her on her work as opposed to imaginary standards that women, and only women, have to be subjected to.   

The good news is that The Onion, perhaps unintentionally, got people talking in a roundabout way regarding how we judge women in the public eye.  Maybe more people will see the irony in the coming days.  Maybe we'll realize that we went from snarking on the likes of Anne Hathaway only to be *outraged* when that same level of snark was directed at a young child, minus the filter of polite discourse.  Hopefully it will be a little less appropriate to make fun of Honey Boo Boo (what exactly did she ever do to you?).  Because what The Onion apologized for is what we as a society do all the time, be it through reality shows, gossip magazines, infotainment, and the general emphasis on beauty and fashion or brains and talent.  They just cut out the politeness and went for the throat.  Maybe it failed because so few got the joke and merely took it at face value.  But if it got people talking about how we talk about women and if that conversation continues, then The Onion will have provided a public service.  

The Onion arguably took the fall for our national misogyny.  Maybe they really are the satire we need, rather than the kind we think want.  So belittle and criticize The Onion because it can take it.  Because it may have just done a mitzvah.  The Onion, by cutting through the niceties, has created what has the potential to be a teachable moment. For the fault lies not in The Onion, but in ourselves. 

Scott Mendelson


LaMont said...

Amen! I'm exhausted and angry at how otherwise sensible people went lockstep with the anti-comedy, anti-satire brigade last night. *They were not calling her a cunt*, and anyone who thinks otherwise is touched in the head. The joke is on society that allows us to actually disparage people in such a way - and patently absurd to think that one would call baby Q such a thing. Quevenzhane Wallis was not the butt of the joke, she was not targeted personally at all. The joke was on us, and of course we didn't freaking get it. Embarrassed to be a liberal today.

Kyle Leaman said...

Is it fair to equate, "complain that Anne Hathaway just annoys us for no good reason, or that she earns our ire because she's just too damn energetic or just wants "it" too badly. We do it when we obsess endlessly about Michelle Obama's new bangs or her bare arms"
with calling someone the C word?

I honestly am not well versed in all the connotations of the C word, but I don't think it can be equated to such mundane things as people obsessing with Michelle's new bangs or her bare arms. It really feels like a stretch here.

"The message is clear: Women of accomplishment deserve our scorn rather than our admiration, and the only thing that should really be admired about a woman are her looks, her fashion sense, and/or her ability to be a mom."

This feels like a stretch here too Scott. Honestly, it feels like you are taking a complex issue with many dynamics (celebrity and hollywood culture, social media, feminism, gender identity, etc.) and boiling it down to something personal. I don't understand how the above sends the clear message that women of accomplishment deserve our scorn rather than our admiration. The Oscars are not just an awards show that celebrates achievement, that is certainly a part of it (albeit a small one). The whole thing is a public propaganda commercial for the entertainment industry and for the individual entertainers themselves. We know it, they know it; that's part of the reason the whole show (and Hollywood itself) is the event is so big. I try to to avoid vain commenting myself, but I'm not above the occasional, "Yeeks, that dress is terrible" or "Wow, she's just stunning in that dress". I think those things for the men as well. Yet, I don't think in any way it sends the messages you are implying.

Sighs4l said...

I get your point - really I do. But a couple of things.

1) If a certain portly conservative blowhard or a certain long-haired shock jock, both in the business of getting ratings, had put out this tweet, would your reaction be the same? The Onion gets no pass from me because of their business model.

2) I think you are giving paragraphs of space more credit for societal comment from that snarky little tweet than it deserves. The Onion is in the business of shock and humor. I think the intent was no more than that.

3) If this had had the effect you posit they wanted and everyone just raised their eyebrows and said "Ayup, misogyny is bad, mmm-kay?", I'd still be upset about this. You can probably write on the coarsening of the culture better than I can, but Ye Godz, can we not hurl epithets at little kids?

4) I really hate that word. Seriously.Hate.That.Word. Perhaps we'll be a little farther along when the C-word is as unacceptable to use as the N-word.

The Onion has apologized with, as far as I saw, no attempt to justify the 'satire'.

max said...

Do you care to comment on Seth McFarlane's material? "We Saw Your Boobs"? or the extend riff on Jews in Hollywood? I tend to give comics an immense amount of leeway as I see comedy as a sort of sacred space, but I thought it was pretty darn funny. The Onion tweet I thought was a pretty spot-on throw-away.

7DaiseAWeek said...

Let me start by saying that I'm a fan of comedy and taking it "too far" but I am going to be brief here for a variety of reasons.

"Maybe it failed because so few got the joke and merely took it at face value."

Or maybe the joke wasn't funny because the ends do not justify the means. Satire is tricky business regardless of the subject and (as evidenced by the fact that many adults were upset) Ms. Wallis could grow up to be a perfectly intelligent, confident woman and still find the tweet offensive. I want to be clear that I am neither for nor against the tweet but I understand both views towards it and how it could be viewed as either a justifiable critique of our society and "too far". I apologize for basing part of my argument on a personal point but I think that your view might lose sight of the fact these are real people but what if someone tweeted something like this about your daughter when she is 9? What if she was upset? Would you tell her that it is just a critique of our society? Would she understand? Maybe your daughter will grow to be an absurdly mature 9 year-old but I think that questions like those are the basis for the ire.

On an unrelated note, Sherlock is (IMO) better than Elementary. I think that Sherlock would be even better with a female Watson but that would complicate the first episode of season two.

David Klein said...

I'm not sure how your point about the Oscars being an industry-wide commercials is related to Scott making this "personal."

More importantly, you might be getting hung up on the word or Wallis' age rather than the general message here. If nine is "too young" where is this arbitrary age line? Who determines what's too old? Isn't it better to treat all women with a modicum of respect that only adolescents are entitled to? I think that's part of Scott's point here. That maybe ripping Renee Zellweger's facial... enhancements isn't so far removed from calling an unprovoked nine year old a terrible word. They're of the same ilk.

Julian Cheslow said...

It seems to me if the Onion did try to justify it people would call the apology insincere

Dave Anthony said...

It was funny and it was good satire.


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