Reaction to The Onion’s offensive tweet reveals the boundaries of comedy
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 3, 2013 17:03
While actors and actresses were waltzing down the Red Carpet Sunday, Feb. 24, The Onion was learning an important lesson: pick on someone your own size.
The faux news organization’s Twitter account sent the ever-watchful World Wide Web into a rage on Oscar Sunday when Oscar-nominated actress Quvenzhané Wallis became a target. A now-deleted tweet read, “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a c**t, right? #Oscars2013.”
Oh, by the way: Quvenzhané Wallis is 9 years old.
As a generation and as a society, we don’t often reach our boundaries and deny we even have them, arrogantly claiming there is nothing you can’t joke about. We like shock value, and we defend everything as falling under free speech. There’s a famous saying by George Carlin about comedy: “I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke.” Like Carlin, many people believe that as long as the joke has an exaggeration, it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. Sexuality, rape, murder, etc. – it’s fine to joke about.
Or is it? Because public reaction to the tweet says otherwise.
The Onion’s mission is to make people laugh while testing the limits of what offends people. From Armageddon to starving children, it toes the line but rarely crosses it.
This is one of those rare exceptions.
Many want to make the argument that this falls under that category of exaggeration because no matter how many people found her posing to be overdramatic, nobody’s annoyance is that strong to warrant that kind of response.
Those who are on The Onion’s side aren’t necessarily on The Onion’s side, though; they’re on the side of the joke. What the joke’s author meant but failed to properly execute was a critique of the ridiculousness of media coverage and the mainstream gossip bloggers, the people who explicitly tear down a celebrity and in his or her place leave scathing, discriminatory commentary. The joke meant to emulate the style of those like Perez Hilton, who has become a celebrity based on nothing more than undeserved and immature attacks. The people standing up for the organization are the ones saying everyone else didn’t get the joke or people are too sensitive.
But the joke also has to be funny, and whether you like The Onion or not or understand what the joke was trying to do or not, there is nothing funny about calling a 9-year-old a c**t.
It’s a strong word that packs a punch, and despite the fact it is seemingly becoming more prevalent and slightly less taboo, it still holds all the same connotations. That does not change how very powerful and insulting it is. That is the point of using it: it’s not to satirize the work of the already offensive but to insult somebody in the most misogynistic and sexualized way – to refer to that person as weak. Even if that is not the intention, who is going to know the difference?
Certainly not a 9-year-old girl smiling for the cameras and showing off her puppy-dog purse.
Are children the only people off limits? Comedian Daniel Tosh lit a fire under many over the summer when controversial jokes about rape got out of hand at Los Angeles’ Laugh Factory. After a female audience member heckled him that rape is never funny, Tosh reportedly said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now?” Comedians and fans stuck up for him, but most people did not.
But like the present situation, it brought up whether or not comedy should have limits. The Onion even apologized for the tweet via an official Facebook post (albeit awkward and very out of character for the organization), which perhaps speaks more than the actual public reaction. If anything, this should set a precedent and other organizations – satirical or not – gauge exactly the kind of reaction this caused. We are more sensitive of a society than we’d like to believe, and that’s probably a good thing.