Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but The Onion is kind of a cunt, right?
For anyone who’s missed the controversy surrounding the satirical publication, it began over an Oscar-related tweet that called the nine-year-old star of Beasts of Southern Wild a cunt. Within an hour, the tweet was deleted, but by then of course millions of The Onion’s followers had already seen it, and many had retweeted it. People like Wendell Pierce and many others criticized the paper, and the next morning its CEO issued an apology for the tweet.
Now, I should say that I don’t think the joke was very good: It was crude and simple and basically relied on the shock value of calling a little girl the c-word, so I can see why many found it offensive. But I also think the ideas behind the joke—that Quvenzhané Wallis is so adorable and beloved BUT that Hollywood often turns quickly and cruelly on child stars—-are perfect subjects for The Onion’s brand of satire. The product wasn’t good, but the thought behind it was fine.
And a lot of the criticism was, frankly, hysterical. Pierce called it “an abhorrent verbal attack of a child,” which it only was if you completely ignore the source and take it literally. One blogger accused the paper of racism since “Dakota Fanning never had this,” which doesn’t even begin to make sense.* Others called for the writer to be fired.
*Also, I’m sure people call Dakota Fanning horrible things every day.
I certainly sympathize with the urge to defend such a young girl, but it’s worth remembering that the subject of a joke is not the same as the target of one. The Onion has used young girls (and strong language) as the subject before, and it’s worked brilliantly. This is because the articles weren’t mocking those girls, but using our perceptions of them to mock someone else. Given The Onion’s long history of satire, that’s clearly what they were going for here.*
*This is also what Seth MacFarlane’s joke about Wallis—that “it’ll be 16 years before she’s too old for Clooney”—did, since the real target of that joke (whether you like it or not) is George Clooney and his propensity for younger women.
Of course, I agree that they failed and that using the c-word probably made it too mean to be funny, but what The Onion is really guilty of is writing a bad joke. Should the CEO really be apologizing for writing a bad joke?
Two things trouble me about the apology: First, The Onion has spent over two decades developing a very consistent editorial voice. Their articles aren’t signed (at least, not by the people who write them), and the writers are largely anonymous. As a result, there is a certain style of sarcasm and satire that is unique to The Onion, and the paper has done clever things that play with this voice. But for the CEO to break that voice and address readers directly in order to issue an apology breaks that voice. It’s like an actor breaking character and talking directly to the audience—it shatters the illusion. Since nothing on The Onion’s Facebook is ever meant to be taken seriously, I initially didn’t even think the apology was real. It was only when I saw that it was signed by the actual CEO that I realized it was sincere. And now that the illusion has been shattered, it will be harder to do another joke “message from the CEO.”
More importantly, though, issuing an apology (and possibly firing the writer) will create a serious chilling effect on future jokes. If writers have to worry about how a joke will be interpreted, or whether or not it is good for The Onion’s “brand,” they will inevitably hold back from certain subjects and certain language. Part of what makes The Onion so great is that it doesn’t shy away from any subject matter (remember the paper’s classic post-9/11 issue). This will inevitably offend people,* but that is often a sign of success rather than failure.
*Having briefly been an intern at The Onion, I can personally attest to the fact that readers were offended by EVERYTHING. When sorting old complaint emails, I noticed that the story that generated the most outrage was this one about the Olsen twins.**
**Which, of course, is another example of a joke that could be construed as an attack on a young female actress (though in this case a white one).
This is why, as a rule, I’m against apologies for jokes. It’s one thing to say you don’t like a joke—jokes, like this one, can be bad—but demands for apologies or boycotts imply that the joke never should have been attempted. This idea—that some subjects are not OK to joke about—is a very pernicious one, and one of the last vestiges of censorship still commonly accepted. It decrees that certain subjects can only be spoken of in a certain way, and that those who violate that proscription ought to be shunned and shamed.
This is wrong for the same reason all censorship is wrong—it inhibits the free flow of ideas. And subjects that tend to offend people are exactly those that most need a free flow ideas. There was a similar outcry a few months ago when Daniel Tosh got in trouble for a crude rape joke. But even there the trouble wasn’t what he was talking about, but how he talked about it; you CAN make a good rape joke, and understanding why some of these jokes work and others don’t helps people understand each other. But you can’t do this if you make certain subjects off-limits to comedians.
And the subject matter behind The Onion’s tweet should be joked about. We ought to joke about child actors and our tendency to vilify celebrities for no reason. Sometimes that might make us uncomfortable, but comfort isn’t funny.