I also cringed, winced, rolled my eyes and almost certainly audibly groaned, but still- I laughed:
I had just watched the entire Oscar telecast and its accompanying sideshow of live social media commentary, in which every aspect of female worth, sexuality, and beauty, were dissected mercilessly:
- Is Anne’s dress darted, or are her nipples erect? Her boyish hair was ghastly but…
- Halle and Charlize wore their closely-cropped ‘dos beautifully…
- Dame Shirley Bassey was alternately a hag or a diva…
- Jane Fonda looks great at 75- thanks to plastic surgery…
- However old Jamie Foxx’s daughter is, we lust for her, jail-bait or not…
Then- unlike the onslaught of misogynistic mockery- out of nowhere, came this baseless, asinine, universally offensive barb slung circuitously at an adorable little girl who is most definitely not a “CUNT.” And so, I laughed!
As folks boarded the virtual bandwagons, gathering pitchforks and calling for blood, I confessed I was not outraged. Though I was not alone, I was clearly in a none-too-vocal minority. “You’d be outraged if it were your daughter,” they chided me. No, I wouldn’t; I insist. Given my ability to inoculate her from it and her relative youth, I doubt I’d mention this brouhaha to her at all.
Indeed, had The Onion made such an off-color remark about my daughter last night, I’d let Quvenzhané, unaware of the hoopla, celebrate ‘til her little 9-year-old self couldn’t celebrate anymore. Then this morning I would give a tongue-in-cheek shoutout to The Onion from the Good Morning America couch as we kicked off our already planned interview circuit now reenergized thanks to our new friends at The Onion.
But no, I wouldn’t be outraged. Granted, what I find meritorious and what most of my friends find entertaining often has very little overlap. So given our historically divergent tastes, I was none-too surprised that while I chuckled/cringed at The Onion’s since deleted Tweet, they recoiled and did not laugh [or so they claimed]. What did surprise me- shock me even- was such swift and strong backlash at The Onion. Even more surprising? The Onion’s failed apology issued this morning.
Last night while publications including @TheRoot247 retweeted demands for boycotts, I waited in vain to see my sentiments reflected. After all, “we” are not a monolithic, like-thinking homogenous block- but the response of Black Twitter suggested otherwise. I thought of former The Onion writer @Baratunde’s “How to be Black” manual; I suspected that “Be outraged that a fake news outlet called a little girl a cunt” might earn entry in a future edition.
The Root and its outraged readers were in fine company. @WendellPierce demanded: “Identify the writer. Let him defend that abhorrent verbal attack of a child.” Interesting that Pierce, and others, concluded that the author was a man. Surely no woman could have green-lighted such a remark. And if she had, certainly not a black woman. Right?
Wrong. This black woman [<--points to self] would have said “go” on the Tweet, would not have deleted the offending remark, and would not have apologized. The apology only exponentially amplifies the error that was the deletion.
The apology issued this morning by The Onion was a mistake and sets a dangerous precedent. It may placate the masses, but the apology itself is woefully incomplete- and only raises more questions than it answers: Who are “those individuals responsible?” What “new and tighter Twitter procedures” were implemented? Why did whoever ok’d it ok it, and what “discipline” is necessary? And most of all, if THIS warranted an apology, how could [insert your favorite reprehensible past Onion content] not?
Peruse The Onion’s archives and you’ll see last night’s was not their first “cunt” reference. In May 2004 The Onion reported on a 14-year-old girl calling her foster mother a cunt. But here the little girl is using the word to an adult woman, not being called it herself. And she’s 5 years older. Plus she’s fictional… so we don’t mind? Was last night’s Tweet really so “crude, offensive, [and]… inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire”- on its own merits, or only due to the public response?
No lasting good can from come from The Onion’s apology; although perhaps some good could come from the firestorm they ignited. Congratulations to The Onion for either brilliantly or inadvertently forcing us to ask a question otherwise largely ignored: at what age is such a moniker fair game: 12? 16? 21? If those designations seem arbitrary, consider the ridiculousness of attaching an age to such an epithet at all.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is well remembered for stating in 1964, that while hard-core pornography was hard to define: “I know it when I see it.” Similar sentiments have reared their heads in the wake of the offending Tweet. I ask: When is too young to be called a cunt? Friends answer: I don’t know; but 9 is. Frustratingly, no one seems willing to state an age at which it IS permissible to call a woman a cunt. Or a bitch. Or a slut, whore, ho… And if we can’t bright-line an age rule, should we not be similarly outraged at its misdirection at a 19 or 65-year-old?
In their apology, The Onion too ignored those most relevant of questions. If anything, The Onion should have explained, not apologized. Occasionally The Onion does step back and give an inside look into their thought process. In October 2001, less than a month after the tragedies of Sept. 11 Robb Siegel and Terry Hanson of The Onion spoke with Terri Gross about crossing the line. They explained why they rejected the one-liner: “America Stronger Than Ever, Say Quadragon Officials.”
If such a forum should present itself- for “those individuals responsible” for the cunt Tweet to give insight into their decision making- so be it. But for The Onion to “apologize” sans explanation was premature and only amplified the error that deleting the Tweet already was.
Quvenzhané Wallis is talented and precocious and deserves to enjoy her success without this distraction. But she does not deserve an apology; neither do we. This is not Rush Limbaugh suggesting Sandra Fluke was a slut. This is not Dan Quayle deriding fictional Murphy Brown. The collective defense of America’s sweetheart is endearing, but is sadly overshadowed by the fact that- apparently- a female has to be aged 9 for the world to demand no one call her a cunt.
Those demanding an apology won a Pyrrhic victory. Will people stop calling each other cunts? No. Will The Onion stop using the word? Doubtful. Our memories are short, our attention spans even shorter. The Onion will survive, and go back to pushing the proverbial envelope, crossing that invisible line. Here’s hoping we’ll begin to demand of ourselves the critical accountability we demand of The Onion- at least until something else catches our attention.
What happens the next time The Onion or its ilk “go too far”? By all means: be offended. Picket the publisher. Write letters to the editor. But when you demand a retraction and an apology, when you dare- as so many did in those first hours since The Onion’s piece- to suggest that those of us who do not share your outrage or offense are somehow complicit in blaspheming an innocent little girl- it is you who has gone too far, not The Onion. Either way- I laughed.
Meet me on Twitter: @ElisabethEpps | Facebook: Elisabeth Epps | Instagram: (See the pattern?)