That so many were so outraged this morning is precisely the point. Satire at its best highlights the lesser parts of society, using amplification to reflect it back at us and make us take notice of our own behavior. Those decrying The Onion, a satirical newspaper, for running an offensive tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis are possibly missing the point. Obviously this wasn't someone online expressing an honest opinion about how they felt about a nine-year-old actress celebrating her first Oscar nomination. It wasn't Rex Reed calling Melissa McCarthy a hippo or Brett Easton Ellis whining that Kathryn Bigelow wouldn't be considered a great director if she wasn't a hot white woman who made manly war pictures (essay). This was an intentionally offensive, knowingly disruptive statement intended to provoke outrage and offense sent out by a technically 'fictional' twitter avatar. Sadly, it wouldn't have been as shocking if an even slightly older woman had been called a "cunt." Because we do that all the time.
Oh, we're fancier about it and we use nicer language. But we call women 'cunts' all the time. We do it when we complain that Anne Hathaway just annoys us for no good reason, or that she earns our ire because she's just too damn energetic or just wants "it" too badly. We do it when we obsess endlessly about Michelle Obama's new bangs or her bare arms. We do it when we ignore Angelina Jolie's humanitarian work and still see only 'that bitch' who stole Jennifer Aniston's man. We do it whenever we turn any slight disagreement between two females into a "feud" and/or "cat fight" or when Jessica Chastain has to publicly declare that she really isn't feuding with Jennifer Lawrence based purely on fabricated gossip. We do it when we obsess more about Jennifer Lawrence's success as a red carpet fashion princess than as a twice-Oscar nominated (and now Oscar-winning) actress. We do it when we express our alleged outrage at The Onion and then immediately click on a slideshow of the various dresses that the actresses wore in order to snark or pointlessly compare.
We do it when we lionize female stupidity and then decry that women made to be vain or stupid are considered role models (essay). We do it when we treat every accomplishment of every would-be successful woman as merely a prelude to the ultimate accomplishment that is childbearing. The message is clear: Women of accomplishment deserve our scorn rather than our admiration, and the only thing that should really be admired about a woman are her looks, her fashion sense, and/or her ability to be a mom. Those decrying the fact that Wallis is a nine-year-old African-American child only open themselves up to the fact that it would apparently be okay to call her a cunt if she were a 21-year old white lady. Those saying that Wallis's feelings may have been hurt are A) missing that she was merely a vessel for satire and not a target of criticism and B) she likely never would have found out about it had the outrage machine not charged in full force putting it to the front pages of the online news all day long.
Thanks to the outrage machine, a snarky satirical tweet about Ms. Wallis is now taking precedence over her Oscar nomination and/or her snagging the lead role in the new remake of Annie. Go ahead, Google her name and tell me what pops up first. Thanks to we the offended, Wallis is no longer a promising new actress but a damsel-in-distress in need of protecting from the scary men who would call her mean names. The good news is that maybe this will all possibly (hopefully) lead into a moment or two of self-reflection among the allegedly offended. The tweet in question was offensive precisely because it was directed at someone who was viewed in the eyes of society as a complete innocent. So the next question is why it is more acceptable to body-snark or arbitrarily criticize women who happen to be older than nine years old?
Why is it acceptable to fill our Twitter feeds or Facebook pages with arbitrary snark about famous women, often based on their fashion choices, opinions of their level of attractiveness, or even merely the fact that they seem to like being successful just as long as those women are of a certain age? What exactly is the right age to be called a cunt in public, be it overtly or through insinuation? What exactly is the right age to start being judged on their attractiveness or fashion choices? If you go by the tabloids, which routinely critique the styling of Suri Cruise and Shiloh Pitt, it would seem that anyone older than two months is fair game. The hope is that the alleged outrage over The Onion's offense will cause people to think twice when Quvenzhané Wallis gets old enough to get the "Gabby Douglas treatment." Maybe we won't turn on her and criticize her hair or her ambition or her arbitrary fashion choices. Maybe we'll just judge her on her work as opposed to imaginary standards that women, and only women, have to be subjected to.
The good news is that The Onion, perhaps unintentionally, got people talking in a roundabout way regarding how we judge women in the public eye. Maybe more people will see the irony in the coming days. Maybe we'll realize that we went from snarking on the likes of Anne Hathaway only to be outraged when that same level of snark was directed at a young child, minus the filter of polite discourse. Hopefully it will be a little less appropriate to make fun of Honey Boo Boo (what exactly did she ever do to you?). Because what The Onion apologized for is what we as a society do all the time, be it through reality shows, gossip magazines, infotainment, and the general emphasis on beauty and fashion or brains and talent. They just cut out the politeness and went for the throat. Maybe it failed because so few got the joke and merely took it at face value. But if it got people talking about how we talk about women and if that conversation continues, then The Onion will have provided a public service.
The Onion arguably took the fall for our national misogyny. Maybe they really are the satire we need, rather than the kind we think want. So belittle and criticize The Onion because it can take it. Because it may have just done a mitzvah. The Onion, by cutting through the niceties, has created what has the potential to be a teachable moment. For the fault lies not in The Onion, but in ourselves.