Yeah, so this was a thing tonight. (Via The AP.)
A tweet from The Onion about the 9-year-old star of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is drawing criticism for being tasteless, even amid the constant social media satire of the Oscars.
The satirical newspaper called Quvenzhane (kwuh-VEHN’-juh-nay) Wallis an expletive intended to denigrate women. The joke was meant to parody how beloved Quvenzhane is, but many thought the language inappropriate for discussing a child.
The Onion deleted the tweet about an hour after it was posted. Still, that was enough time to create a firestorm online with many saying the remark crossed a line.
Salon.com has preserved the now deleted Tweet here. But in order to discuss the joke and why it didn’t work, I’m going to have to write it out here.
Please don’t get angry. I’m just the messenger.
Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quenzhane Wallis is kind of a cunt, right? #Oscars2013
Oh! My! God! That’s so awful! Why would anyone say that about a nine-year old girl? What the hell were you thinking Onion?
And that slides us into part one of my little thesis.
Part One: Just What The Hell was The Onion Thinking?
Let’s be perfectly honest. We, as a society, hate celebrities.
Don’t give me that look, it’s true.
We hate them because they’re better looking, successful, etc. Mostly we hate them because we are not them.
Mostly, this is undeserved because most celebrities are famous due to years of hard work at their craft. (For the moment, I’m choosing to slide past the celebrities who are famous for appearing on reality shows and turning their lives into performance art. I’m talking about Actors and Writers and Directors who actually work for a living.) But that doesn’t stop people from ripping on them all the time. (Seriously, go to any internet discussion board where a young actress is being discussed and invariably, someone with start calling said actress an “Ugly Cow”. The subtext of said name calling being “Why won’t she have sex with me?”.) It’s not a particularly attractive side of human nature. But it exists.
Knowing this, I’ll bet you anything that what was going through the head of whoever was manning The Onion’s Twitter feed at that moment was “Gee. Wouldn’t it be funny if we said something mean about a celebrity who absolutely did not deserve it?” A strong enough premise for a joke.
Part Two: What went wrong?
Clearly, the problem lies in the word “Cunt”. There is no way to morally defend the use of that word on a nine-year old girl.
I can however, kind of defend the word on a technical level.
I saw someone on Twitter, (I forgot your handle, sorry.) say that the joke would have worked better if The Onion had called the child a Diva.
And when I read that, my first thought was “No, it’s too soft of a word phonetically”.
Let me explain.
When I was but a wee baron of a boy, I remember seeing Mel Brooks being interviewed by Tom Synder. And he was talking about a sketch he had written for the old “Your Show of Shows” in the fifties about a caveman living in Central Park. And Brooks quoted the following except from it. (Warning, I couldn’t find the clip on YouTube so I’m doing this from memory from about 35 years ago so bear with me.)
How do you live?
What is there to hunt in the park?
Brooks went on to explain how the joke only worked with Buick because of the hard K sound at the end of the work. This is, of course known as the Comedy K.
Now “Cunt” while admitting that it’s a very vulgar word, also has a hard C and T sounds which while not being the actual Comedy K is in that neighborhood.
Also, the fact that it’s such a terrible and vulgar word and that the presumed target is so undeserving, should in theory, give the line an extra transgressive kick. (Accent on the words, “In Theory”)
(Quick sidebar, if you believe that you shouldn’t use vulgar language in comedy, may I respectfully refer you to the careers of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks. Also, more germane to our present conversation, the Prudence/Bob scene in Christopher Durang’s “Beyond Therapy”.)
Except no one notices the context of the joke because, Holy Crap! You just called a nine-year old girl a horrible name!
The thing that makes the joke work technically is the same thing that kills it.
If this had been the premise of a video piece, then The Onion could have shown all these ridiculous reasons why someone could call her that name. And make the joke not about her but the stupid and vapid people who called her the name in the first place.
But without that extra material, you are left with one sentence that verbally abuses a nine-year old.
Welcome to the wonderful world of comedy writing.
If it were easy, your uncle who tells those bad knock-knock jokes at Thanksgiving would be working on staff at “The Big Bang Theory”.
The sad fact is that writing comedy is like juggling dynamite. Occasionally, you’re going to drop a stick and it’s going to blow up in your face.
The Onion works at the bleeding edge of comedy and goes more often into places, other comic websites dare not step. (For Pete’s sakes, they did a video piece tonight on Kathryn Bigelow wearing to the Oscars the Blood soaked rags Osama Bin Laden were killed in!) But they are fallible and occasionally fuck up. They have deleted the tweet in question and I am certain that an apology is forthcoming.
And I get why a solid chunk of the internet is in an uproar, the last couple of years have been soaked with rampant misogyny. Hell, we have a GOP right-wing that acts like it’s been bitten by a radioactive August Strindberg. The jackass antics of Rush Limbaugh alone should have been enough to make The Onion nervous about breaking out the C word. And unlike Limbaugh, they know how comedy works.
I am saying that if The Onion does apologize, we shouldn’t hold a grudge. Comedy, as Steve Martin once said, is not pretty. And it’s not like they have a history of being he-man woman haters. (As opposed to the aforementioned Rush.)
But seriously, Onion? You guys do need to apologize.
For pete’s sakes, you called a nine year old girl a cunt!
T’ain’t funny, McGee!
UPDATE: 2-25-13 The Onion apologized.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Crossposted at the Daily Kos.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Corrected the spelling of Ms. Wallis first name in the title. H/T to mumtaznepal at the Kos for pointing it out.