Someone is Wrong on the Internet: The Onion…and Most of its Critics
Ed. Note: In this column, we put aside our deep reservations against becoming argumentative blowhards and answer the moral obligation to call shenanigans when some other blowhard is spouting substantial amounts of BS.
You know the details by now, so I’ll just get right to my take on this whole thing. The Onion’s infamous Quvenzhane Wallis tweet was definitely a screw-up and an ugly incident, as the publication itself has acknowledged both seriously and satirically since Oscar night. But I just can’t go along with the shallow, knee-jerk backlash focused solely on the fact that some entity put the sentence “Quvenzhane Wallis is a cunt” out into the world. Arguing that the sentence itself should never be published, or the offending word should never be used, betrays a lack of willingness or ability to think critically about the issues that could have been raised if the Onion had done its satirical job as well as it usually does.
I am no free speech absolutist. As with all our other constitutionally protected freedoms, I believe verbal expression should be treated not only as a right to be exercised (“Can I…?”) but also a responsibility to be upheld (“Should I…?”). From this non-absolutist perspective, for example, I think Daniel Tosh deserved all the backlash he got in 2012 for saying it would be hilarious if a specific woman in his audience were being gang-raped, and he probably should have received more backlash. It would have been nice if he’d at least been shamed into some PR-minded charitable donations.
Fittingly, my favorite public criticism of Daniel Tosh came from the Onion’s piece of withering satire titled “Daniel Tosh Chuckles Through Own Violent Rape.” After Tosh’s rape joke confirmed that he is even more of a boring, boorish, mean-spirited fuck than what Tosh.0 reveals weekly, no one turned the Toshian worldview and comedic perspective (both squarely on the “middle school bully” level) back on the little toad better than the Onion did. They took his warped logic, spun it out as far as it would go, and showed that a mid-rape Tosh would either have to laugh during his own assault or be exposed as a lousy hypocritical turd.
You know what else would have made for an awesome opportunity to do some of that classic “taking a harmful worldview about women to its logical extreme” satire, with which the Onion is normally so masterful? The sentence “Quvenzhane Wallis is a cunt.” I’d argue that we wouldn’t even be talking about any of this if the anonymous Onion staffer had made a better creative choice once he had an inkling that there might be satirical potential in that sentence. Simply, the Onion opened itself up to simple-minded, reactionary criticism because it said those words in the wrong “voice.”
If you’re familiar with the Onion at all, you know that it mirrors traditional print media outlets by offering editorial, journalistic, and guest-editorial or “person-on-the-street” perspectives. Of course, all of these “voices” come from the same writers and are all employed for satirical or parody purposes. Given that, it seems safe to assume that Onion writers frequently come up with premises first and then decide how best to convert a raw premise into a finished piece of satire. Let’s go back to Tosh for a moment, and then I’ll have to take a shower to wash off the funk I feel from saying his name so many times.
The premise of the Tosh article linked above is to demonstrate that, by his own logic, the smarmy bastard would have to laugh during his own rape. Within its creative repertoire, the Onion had several options to convey that premise once it was contrived. They could have had a guest editorial from “Daniel Tosh” saying that he would totally laugh during a hypothetical rape scenario. They could have had one of the “American Voices” make the same assertion in some pithy way. But clearly, if the goal is to really push Tosh’s terrible logic to its extreme and pursue some justice for his offense, the most effective choice was to write in the style of a traditional news article “covering” the “actual” rape and Tosh’s “actual” laughing. That choice by the Onion made the satirical Tosh the next victim of the real Tosh’s mode of thought, and that’s exactly what needed to happen satirically to help clarify the very real brutality of what the woman in Tosh’s audience was forced to hear.
So back to the premise of “someone calls Quvenzhane Wallis a cunt.” The Onion opened itself up to criticism when, through Twitter, a staffer made the Onion itself that “someone,” when the Onion itself became the voice attached to the provocation. I have to think that the Onion’s early notion that it must live-tweet the Oscars (and presumably get inexperienced lower-level staffers to shoulder that responsibility) is mostly to blame here. The tweeters needed content, and lots of it, and the filters of caution and good comic judgment were probably left deactivated for the night. “Next premise…call the kid a cunt?…good enough…let’s do it!” And suddenly, to the world at large, the Onion at best is bad at comedy, at worst is teeming with a bunch of drooling, racist woman-haters who probably trade weekend Roofie recipes with Daniel Tosh.
What a shame. Consider this instead: what if that Wallis premise had been reserved for some much-needed satire against E! Network’s mush-brained red carpet fashion police that revel in screechy takedowns of celebrities’ dresses, hair, jewelry, make-up, accessories, and the like? What if the Onion’s “Oscar coverage” had included an editorial written by “Kelly Osborne” or “Joan Rivers,” blathering on and on about loving J-Law, being mystified by Anne Hathaway’s nipples, and really hating Quvenzhane Wallis, “who was kind of a cunt all night”? Or a “news article” in which that profane analysis was given intentionally, or at least captured on a hot mic, during E! Network’s pre-show coverage. The difference, of course, is that some worthy targets get assailed in these satirical formulations. Not Quvenzhane Wallis herself, but the Rivers and Osbornes of the fashion-TV world, along with their coterie of shrill yes-men designers and image-mongers, whose success in basic cable body-shaming and hate-peddling needs to be slowed down a little.
That’s what the Onion could have done with that premise if a junior staffer hadn’t been so Twitter-trigger-happy on Oscar night. Too bad they got it wrong, but the Onion-directed outrage I’ve seen also gets it wrong. The problem isn’t that the Onion used an offensive word; it’s that they used an offensive word carelessly and wastefully, thereby missing the chance to start conversations about gender, race, age, language, basic human decency, and shameless pop-culture cruelty that are really worth having.