Humor and apologies...

2013-02-25 15:32

The Onion recently did something they have, so far as I know, never done before in their entire history. They apologized. Specifically, they apologized for a tweet in which they called a nine-year-old girl a “cunt”. Well, okay, that does sort of merit an apology, but I think commentary on this is missing something important.

I’m about to write something which may look like I’m saying the tweet was okay. It wasn’t. But I think that a real understanding of why this is the only time the Onion has ever apologized, I need to explain why someone might make that mistake, and that means talking about why sometimes it is appropriate for humorists to say things that would otherwise be decidedly inappropriate.

Humor is allowed to do things which would be otherwise “inappropriate”. Humor is where you can say things that are horrible, and sick, and sometimes mean, and there is a sort of exception to the rules for this. This is not a new thing; the trope where the court jester can mock the king is not entirely fictional. Humor is allowed to violate boundaries, and to break taboos. The Onion produces headlines like “SIDS Found to be Result of Bad Parents Who Could Have Done Something”.

So, to understand how this happened, you have to understand: Humorists are generally starting out with the awareness that they are allowed to violate boundaries. They know that they can do things like do a TV news spot entitled “Sony Releases New Stupid Piece Of Shit That Doesn’t Fucking Work” which are littered with profanity. They can make fun of religions, and disabled people. And not only can, but should, because part of the role of satire in our society is that it is one of the few things which can speak truth to power.

And that’s what’s wrong with this one; while I think it’s pretty clear that the intended target of the remark’s social commentary is reporting on Hollywood and actresses, the obvious target is a nine-year-old. A nine-year-old who is female, dark-skinned, and has a name that people can’t pronounce because it’s not sufficiently commonplace. In short, a person who is in many significant ways very far from “power”.

As commentary on the nature of reporting about celebrities, and the atrocious way female actors are treated and commented on by the news industry (look at the shit they said about Anne Hathaway last night!), this is biting and incisive. But the nine-year-old is unacceptable collateral damage. She doesn’t need that kind of crap. She doesn’t need it piled on all the crap she’s already going to get from racists, sexists, and anyone else who happens to think she looks like an easy target.

That said, consider why The Onion’s writer didn’t use, oh, say, Anne Hathaway in the tweet. They didn’t say it about Anne Hathaway, because no one would have been able to tell it was probably intended as satire. Because people really do say nasty stuff about an actress for not gleefully discussing all the ways in which she tries to stay skinny enough to get roles without dying from her body cannibalizing its own organs. They couldn’t say it about an adult actress, because saying stuff like this about an adult actress isn’t out of bounds to begin with. Saying it about a little kid was almost certainly intended to point out how shitty it is that people feel comfortable talking that way about adults.

It’s an error in judgment, but it’s not a completely insane one. And I think the best thing we can do about it is, instead of freaking out about how The Onion went too far by attacking a little kid, freak out about how no one seems to think that saying the same things about adult women is not going too far. Yes, The Onion owed Quvenzhané Wallis an apology. Entertainment reporting as an industry owes basically the entire female half of the acting profession apologies. I’m guessing that won’t happen.

Peter Seebach




  1. Well said. There’s one other difference between saying those things about adult actresses and child actresses. Adult actresses who go to Hollywood to make their fortune almost certainly are aware of the hateful things the media say, and may be aware that even worse things get said and done out of public view. Children can’t be expected to have made informed decisions.

    That said, when women in Hollywood are objectified—usually with their consent—there is collateral damage in the objectification of women everywhere. (Indeed, the same is true of the objectification of men, but nowhere near to the same degree.)

    Hollywood is inherently about appearances because movies are just images and sound. You can’t have a 60-year-old, 200 pound black woman convincingly play an anorexic white teenager. (Well, you might, if Meryl Streep were 200 lbs and black…) And “beautiful on the inside” is hard (but not impossible) to convey with just flashing lights and sound. So it’s understandable that Hollywood casting is superficial and often crass. But that doesn’t mean reporters and fans need to be similarly shallow and crass.

    Dave Leppik · 2013-02-25 16:27 · #