Monday, February 25, 2013

On The Onion and offence

Update: The Onion has posted an apology, which I believe is genuine. I still think the original tweet was brilliant satire, but there's no doubt they'd have had a much stronger position if the tweet had used the name of an actor who's definitely old enough to understand the joke that's being told with their name in it.

Original post:

There's not much way I'm going to get through this without quoting, and using, some pretty strong language - so if that's a problem for you, turn away now.

The facts: during the Oscar broadcast last night, the following Tweet was posted by The Onion.

I didn't know who Quvenzhané Wallis is, so for anyone interested here's her Wikipedia article; the short version is that she's a nine-year-old nominated for Best Actress for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Now, some people have taken issue with The Onion's tweet. Personally I think it's top-tier satire, biting and uncomfortable and hilarious, but a lot of reaction on Twitter seems to be centred around the fact that people have forgotten that The Onion is a comedy site. The root of the problem is that people have assumed that The Onion means everything it ever says.

Remember how hard we all collectively laughed when North Korea made that mistake? Do they believe The Onion's other Oscar night coverage, that Kathryn Bigelow really wore Osama bin Laden's blood-stained clothes to the ceremony and Daniel Day Lewis really thinks that Abraham Lincoln deserved to die?

The offensive nature of this tweet seems to be in three parts: firstly that it's criticism levelled at someone who doesn't deserve it; secondly that it's directed at a child; and finally that it's used the word "cunt". The problem with those first two points is twofold, but recognising that also requires you to understand who, exactly, the Onion was actually satirizing with their tweet. It seems pretty clear to me that the tweet was a response to the kind of snide, spiteful gossip that goes on whenever there's a red-carpet event; reporters and style columnists ganging up on people more famous and rich than themselves to pick apart their every flaw by way of slagging off their miscalculated eveningwear. The entertainment press is built on a foundation of criticising people who don't deserve it, and also focuses uncomfortable attention on children (a lot of whom aren't famous in their own right, but are stalked because of their association with a famous parent).

The Onion, in response to this fairly widely accepted practice, tweeted a similarly unfounded and non-specific but excessively profane complaint about someone that nobody in their right mind could believe. It's so over the top and baseless that surely anybody with two brain cells to rub together can see that there is no way it could be a genuine opinion. Apparently not.

But that brings us to point 3 on the "reasons to get pissy about a website calling someone a cunt" - the word "cunt" itself. If they'd called her a bitch or a skank or any one of a dozen other baseless profanities, it's much more likely that it could be read as a genuine opinion. But the heart of a lot of The Onion's satire is taking things to the extreme, being deliberately provocative. By calling this nine-year-old the worst thing they could possibly think of, they were trying to point out the broader undercurrent of aggressive jealousy and baseless judgement that makes up a depressingly high percentage of Oscar coverage.

Could they have made their point with a less offensive word, or directed at an older actor? Possibly, but it's hard to imagine it would have had the same impact as the one they did make. My only concern at the content of the tweet is that it would get back to Quvenzhané, she's not old enough to understand the satirical meaning and it affects her negatively. Making a child the subject of the tweet this way is uncomfortably close to the celebrity-child fixation of the media outlets being satirized.

The Onion has removed the original tweet and, as far as I know, have not followed up with an explanation or apology, so I'm ascribing intent to their original post based on my own perspective. I'm hoping that they do provide the reasoning behind it, because the worst thing that could come from this is a shut-down of the conversation.

Whoever had control of The Onion's Twitter account last night could genuinely have some kind of vendetta against a nine-year-old. But I doubt it.

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