I hadn’t planned on writing about this (I have a couple of podcasts that need editing and that will go up later this week), but two people have already asked me about this story. So, here goes.
I don’t think an apology was necessary. But I have to qualify that by saying I’m also not offended very easily. Furthermore, I am squeamish about the idea that offensive speech crafted in the name of entertainment requires an apology.
Both of these points are major understatements, as any faithful reader of this site knows.
If someone doesn’t like what The Onion posts, the solution is to unfollow The Onion. Problem solved. I’ve certainly done that with more than a few people, especially when entertainers I like consistently get snarky and political.
The trouble that The Onion has is that much of their core fanbase consists of people who are sensitive to certain topics. The Onion gets comfortable being crude or even mean-spirited in some contexts, and their core audience loves it. Stories that touch on issues of gender, race, sexuality, and so on, are acceptable to incorporate into their comedy, so long as the stories seem to emanate from a place that is consistent with the core beliefs of the primary audience.
So, the writers get a false sense of security about their humor in some cases. But, when that humor happens to target the “wrong” public figure or group, their people turn on them.
My take is this: The reason the tweet is funny is precisely because it’s ironic. Quvenzhane Wallis is a charming, sweet little girl who is quite obviously not a “cunt.” It seems to me that the point of the tweet was to contrast the underlying insult with someone who is the farthest thing from that. Furthermore, it lampoons the petty, catty nature of Hollywood and entertainment in general.
I think the only ways to take offense at it are:
1. You object to the use of that word “cunt” in every case, which I think is probably part of the backlash, and you particularly object to it when used in connection with a child. I can’t really argue against this if that’s your belief. There’s no disputing that word is rude, and it was definitely used. Personally, as always, I think context and intent matter a lot more than whether a particular word is a “bad” word.
2. You think that this tweet reflects a sincere belief that this little girl is a bad person. It seems to me that that conclusion is insane, unless you’ve missed the point of the joke entirely.
It’s also worth pointing out that it’s much more difficult to flesh out nuance or motivation in a tweet than it is to do so in a fully-formed article or video. But that’s the line that Onion walks. If they don’t want to risk backlash from their fans, confused or not, the writers should stick to hammering hayseeds and Republicans (and hayseed Republicans). Their core demo (urban, hip) will never take them to task over that.