Of all the Oscar-related surprises of the last 24 hours, David Carr's comment on The Onion/Quvenzhané Wallis affair was one of the most bewildering things of all.
I expected that Seth MacFarlane's stint as Oscar host would result in a night full of obvious and lazy jokes. I didn't expect so much of the Oscar telecast to be quite so casually misogynist, but was I shocked that his generally unfunny remarks were shot through with so much genial ignorance and arrogance? Sad to say, not really.
Experiencing live events through a haze of social media is a whole new form of entertainment these days, and, as expected, my Twitter feed was more amusing than most of what transpired on the Oscar stage. Naturally, I expected The Onion's Twitter feed to be full of barbs meant to take celebrities and their egos down a few notches. Did I expect them to lob the c-word at a 9-year old girl? I did not. In fact, when a tweet that screen-grabbed The Onion's comment showed up in my timeline, I first thought it had to be a Photoshopped, made-up thing and could not really have come from The Onion, because not only was it horribly offensive on a number of levels, it wasn't funny.
Almost as surprising as The Onion tweet? The fact that the leading media columnist in America apparently doesn't understand how privilege works.
Well after The Onion apologized for the statement about Wallis (which had already been deleted), here's what David Carr of The New York Times had to say: "Onion to writers: Tweet incredibly edgy, funny stuff. If you go over the line, we'll just slide you under the bus."
There are a few things that need to be unpacked here, so I'll take them one by one.
1. No one was thrown under any bus. No individual took credit for that tweet, so how could one person be blamed for it? We still don't know who wrote it, and anyway, it doesn't really matter. This isn't about a witch hunt. It's about people holding an organization accountable for what it put out into the world (as happened during the recent New York Times-Tesla flap).
No writer was named by The Onion. No one was publicly shamed by the organization. Were there consequences internally? Apparently so, based on the apology, but that's how the world works. If a similar brouhaha developed over a New York Times tweet or story, there would no doubt be consequences at that publication. How does an unnamed writer (or writers) dealing with unspecified consequences constitute throwing someone under a bus? Did Times public editor Margaret Sullivan throw Tesla reviewer John M. Broder "under a bus" during that controversy, or did she discuss how the publication might have altered its approach in order to create a better offering to the public?
The latter is essentially what happened here, and, as was the case with the Times-Tesla flap, the depth of the anger had to do with the degree of trust and investment people had in those respective publications. The Onion isn't some minor-league publication; it's a big-time media concern these days, and big-time publications issue clarifications and corrections when something blows up in their faces.
2. It was "incredibly funny and edgy"? Many people, including many longtime fans of The Onion's comedy stylings, did not find it so. Isn't it worth considering why that's the case? Even if it amused Carr (as well as dozens of commenters on The Onion's Facebook apology, who continue to assert how funny the comment was), isn't it worth asking why so many people who generally support or tolerate "edgy" things thought it was problematic and indicative of larger cultural issues?
David Carr covers the media industry, and he usually displays more curiosity and skepticism than was apparent in that comment. I wonder if he's read any of the thoughtful, smart essays, tweets and posts that have been written about both MacFarlane and The Onion situation (like this one from novelist N.K. Jemisin, or this summary from Racialicious). There's a lot of grist for his mill there.
3. Many people, both inside and outside the media industry, have made astute observations about how the Oscar ceremony was disturbingly disrespectful to women and people of color, how Wallis was marginalized and condescended to before and during the ceremony (i.e., reporters have learned how to say Zach Galifianakis' name but they didn't bother to learn Wallis'?), and how the Academy Awards ceremony was designed to be "for guys" and yet left many men and women feeling disappointed, disturbed and dismayed. The whole thing blew up because that tweet was the tip of the an ugly iceberg -- or, in a more apt analogy, the straw that broke the camel's back. As Mslooola said, "There comes a point where you're simply FATIGUED. Fatigued that comedy has STILL not found a way to evolve from making you the punchline."
Yet Carr's tweet -- his only comment on The Onion matter so far -- indicates that he wonders how the writers are feeling, which strikes me as the least interesting part of this. The Onion's writer or writers had a degree power in this situation (more than 4.5 million Twitter followers, which is just one measure of its influence), and that person or people used it to lob an extraordinarily crude word at a child. Forgive me if I haven't spent much time thinking about how the whole thing affects them, and a good deal of time wondering if Wallis can be shielded from hearing that word for a long time to come.
Because Carr has a lot of power himself, his tweet was the one that made me despair.
Carr is not dumb. As a media columnist, he's proven in other situations that he understands how power dynamics work. Why is he so blind to the hierarchies and power imbalances here? Why isn't he using his power to excavate and examine them, even a little bit?
A lot of comedy comes from playing around with and commenting on status and power, and one of The Onion's best-known gags involves taking Vice President Biden -- an icon of Establishment power -- and re-imagining him as a lovably foul-mouthed, working-class dude. It's funny because Biden is famous and important in real life, but The Onion writers give him a narrative in which he appears to have less power -- but their version of Biden is actually more likable and memorable than the real thing. That's clever.
There was nothing clever, witty or perceptive about the Wallis comment. The tweet that invoked her name -- and the treatment of women at the Oscars in general -- was about putting less powerful people in their place. When a more powerful entity attacks a less powerful entity -- especially a more vulnerable group that has been historically marginalized and demeaned -- why should we worry about how the more powerful feel? Shouldn't we just expect them to take their lumps when criticized?
As Emily Hauser pointed out, "Humor rooted in demeaning & belittling those who are routinely demeaned & belittled is a) lazy & b) part of the problem." It's true. Carr's comment smacks of siding with bullies, and we already have enough of that kind of exclusionary thinking floating around. Yes, we can "take a joke," whether those jokes are from MacFarland or The Onion, but not when they're "an ostensibly gentler way of saying, 'I don't think you belong here'" or when, in "the process of trying to satirize the media's cruelty towards women, they actually [end] up accidentally perpetuating it."
Though I don't particularly care how the person who wrote that tweet is feeling today, I truly don't wish that individual ill. It sucks to be in the center of an Internet shit-show, but speaking as someone who's been through my share of them, they can be educational experiences.
I'm hoping that The Onion writers and other funny people who wield power on Twitter realize how powerful they really are, and how much context matters. What was the narrative here? There really wasn't one in that tweet, so as a joke and a construct, it simply failed.
As former Onion staffer Baratunde Thurston put it in his savvy take, The Onion "largely satirizes media and the general public. Everyone fawning over a clearly lovely and innocent little girl presents an opportunity to go the opposite direction with something contrasting and clearly false. It was also a take on tabloid media extremism... but it was an extremely high-risk move and missed that target by WIDE margin. Limited upside. HORRIBLE downside."
Yes. Many, many people were smart enough to understand what The Onion is going for but how the publication missed the mark. Many people can laugh at what's funny about "Family Guy" and "Ted" while still thinking that MacFarlane's humor is lazier, mean-spirited and more sexist than it needs to be.
What we really need are powerful people in the media who can interrogate and examine the assumptions and dynamics that put MacFarlane in a position to demean so many. What we need are powerful media columnists who can help us understand why ABC and the Academy hired him, and how a well-regarded entity like The Onion could do something so unfunny and dumb -- and how these powerful players could be caught so flat-footed when large segments of both audiences responded with revulsion.
The whole melee has been a depressing reminder of how much still needs to be achieved when it comes to gender and race in the media and in Hollywood. Though I think Brokey McPoverty's spot-on Twitter feed and Black Girl Dangerous' incisive post are required reading, I also want to think the news here isn't all bad.
This is a teachable moment. As someone who has read Carr for years and who has respected his insights in the past, it would be great if he could be one of the teachers.
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