02/26/2013 09:06 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

The Onion, the Oscars, the Misplaced Outrage

There's a fun joke my friends and I sometimes do, and you can too. The target of the joke is the nicest one in your group; trust me, you know who that person is. They'll also never know it's happened, because what you do is wait until they've just left the party, or the bar, or the car you were road-tripping in, until the door's shut behind them, and they're a fraction out of earshot and say, "What a cunt!"

Here's the thing: You have to say it like you mean it, like you were personally slighted by them and their presence. Your friends will pause for a second, then the penny will drop and they will laugh. Why? Because that friend is so obviously not a cunt. Because they're the least cunty person you all know. Because they've spent the whole evening being an absolute delight, and it's so implausible that you'd actually mean that that it must be a joke.

Here's the other thing: You have to pick the nicest one in the group. Most people also have a friend who they like, but can sometimes be a dick. You can't do that joke with them because the others will say, "I know he can be difficult, but his heart's in the right place," or worse, agree, and then you'll have to point out that you actually meant the opposite, and then you're explaining a joke, and that's never funny. (See this whole article for evidence.)

During the Academy Awards, The Onion tweeted this:

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right? #Oscars2013

Here's's take on it. It's fairly representative of the general shit storm:

Most likely -- the Onion has not yet responded to Salon for comment -- whoever tweeted that was trying to bring America's fawning obsession with the child star down a notch with a dose of schadenfreude.

No! No it wasn't! There was no schadenfreude. The butt of the joke was her niceness, and the absurdity of the writer's view. This joke only works because Wallis is 100 percent blameless; she is the embodiment of innocence. It wouldn't have even worked as well if they'd picked an adult actor who's thought of as nice -- Bradley Cooper or Jennifer Lawrence, say -- because people would think, "Maybe I'm missing something -- did they do something dickish and I didn't catch the story?" Whereas Wallis is a 9-year-old girl, and one who, in all public appearances, has been nothing but a joy. She could never be considered a cunt. She's the very last person you'd ever call that, and that's what powers the joke.

Not only that, but the real joke isn't even the second half of the sentence, it's the first seven words: "Everyone else seems afraid to say it." It's the ludicrous idea that this is some dirty secret. That we all know it, and it's just society's niceties that are keeping us from voicing the truth. The joke is in the writer saying something no one would, or could possibly believe, then turning to an astonished crowd and saying, "Am I right? We're all thinking it. Come on!"

What's more, it's simultaneously a gut-punch of a gag, and a parody of show business and celebrity culture, where baseless judgement calls are thrown around with absolute certainty. It may not be the greatest, or deftest work The Onion has produced, but it's clear where they're coming from.

Salon continues:

At best, the tweet reads like a degrading attack on a child; at worst, it's a racially tinged degrading attack on a child, by virtue of the fact it dredges up memories of those offensive tweets directed at Rue from "The Hunger Games," another young, black, female child actress in her breakout role.

What? How are these even in the same world? Those Hunger Games tweets were specifically about the girl being black, and written by people who were not happy about that, and meant it. The Onion tweet was exactly not that, on all counts.

A lot of people are then saying, "But how do you explain that to her? She's a young girl. She shouldn't be exposed to this joke." Firstly, she probably wouldn't have ever seen it at all if people weren't so public about their outrage. The wording of the joke has been reproduced many thousands of times more, and in more mainsteam avenues, than it ever would have been, were it just a single tweet by an adult comedy publication.

And if, by some peculiarly specific act of self-googling she had seen it, her parents or minders could have explained, "It is a joke, based on how nice you are. It's like when someone's just won a race and you say to them, 'You're a bit slow!' because they're obviously not. It means that people think you're lovely." And then they could explain how sarcasm works. They'd also have to explain a rude word, but again, they probably wouldn't have to because there's no way she would have seen it.

Now, thanks to the many thousands of times it's been reproduced on the web, she's far more likely to come across it, and thanks to the relentless, misconstrued analysis and The Onion CEO's back-pedalling mea culpa, those same people will now have to say, "It's because you're famous, and when you're famous people will say mean things about you, but you shouldn't listen to them." The original joke wasn't being cruel to her, but the reaction has made it that way.

Which is why when the nice one leaves the bar, and your friend says, "What a cunt," don't then text them with, "Hey, Sam just called you a cunt. What's up with that?" because the context is lost, the moment has passed, and they won't get it. And Sam will have to say sorry for a perfectly fine joke.