a feminist film critic defends the Onion’s Quvenzhané Wallis tweet

Yeah, I’m going there.

I hate that I have to explain up front, for those not already familiar with my rages and rants, that I am most definitely a feminist of the most hairy-legged sort.

Probably some who read what I have to say here will want to revoke my feminist credentials. Fortunately, there is no central governing body of feminism, and I can say what I like and call myself what I like and not feel as if I’m being unfair or disingenuous.

I also hate that I have to say that of course everyone is entitled to be offended by whatever they want to be offended about, and that, no, it’s not reasonable to tell other people that they’re being unreasonable when they’re offended by something that doesn’t offend you. I am most emphatically not saying that feminists who disagree with me need to get a sense of humor — I’ve been on the receiving end of such nonsense too many times to deploy that myself. I am totally on board with the concept that privilege blinds people to the experiences of others.

I’m only explaining how I saw that Onion tweet. As a film critic and film fan. As a pop culture watcher. As a woman who is fed the hell up with how girls and women are treated by the media and by our society at large. As a feminist.

Here’s what I saw last night from the Onion. Its writers were (mostly) on fire all night, savaging media obsession with celebrities, celebrities’ obsession with media, audiences’ obsession with celebrities, and — perhaps most potently — Hollywood’s reduction of the most serious matters to catty gossip:

I’m not saying that’s not shocking. It is. If you’re offended by it, that’s good. It’s supposed to be offensive. It’s supposed to make you think about how maybe just a little bit, Zero Dark Thirty is a celebration of American gung-ho soaked in blood that Hollywood is applauding. I don’t even know if I agree with that! But it’s certainly something worth talking about.

If “Kathryn Bigelow Stuns On Red Carpet Wearing Blood-Soaked Rags Osama Bin Laden Was Killed In” offends you, it’s worth thinking about why that offends you. Is the concept of even Osama Bin Laden’s blood-soaked rags being paraded about like a trophy offensive… and if it is, what does that say about the actions of the American government after 9/11 and Hollywood’s followup (in making a movie about it)? Or are you offended by the idea that you’re supposed to be offended by the idea that the likes of Bin Laden deserves any respect in death?

There aren’t any easy responses to this. There aren’t supposed to be. I freely confess to being stunned by that tweet from the Onion, partly because it’s provocative in a way that we hardly see in American pop culture. Very few individuals or entities have the nerve to be so challenging to our preconceived notions and to what we accept without even thinking about it.

And then we come to this tweet. The Onion has deleted it, but it was grabbed by many (including, here, reellives):

the Onion Quvenzhane Wallis tweet

My initial reaction to that, when I first saw it, was similar to the blood-soaked-rags tweet: I was shocked. But I wasn’t offended. (Again: I’m not saying it’s wrong if others were offended, okay? But I wasn’t.) What shocked me was how incisively it cut through the utter bullshit about how women (and girls) are treated by our culture. Because, look: Quvenzhané Wallis is adorable. Adorable. And also fierce and strong and bursting with personality, both in Beasts of the Southern Wild, when she was six years old, and now, as a nine-year-old attending last night’s Oscars:

Quvenzhane Wallis Oscars

She’s carrying a puppy purse, for pete’s sake. She gave herself a cheer when her name was announced as a Best Actress nominee. She reprimanded an AP reporter who wanted to call her “Annie” (the role she’s just been cast in) instead of her proper name. She’s awesome.

There is no question about this.

But you know what? All of the women at the Oscars last night are awesome. Just to have survived to that level in an industry that, at best, ignores women, and, at worst, actively despises them means they have to be awesome. Maybe they’re not awesome in ways that everyone sees or acknowledges. But in their own way, they’re fierce and strong and bursting with personality in an industry that is designed not to see women that way. I mean, look: Jennifer Lawrence, who won the Best Actress Oscar, has in recent weeks been called unladylike and crass and ungrateful and all manner of negative things. Plus she’s “fat.” Which is ridiculous. And even if she was fat, so fucking what? Kristen Stewart, who presented last night, was derided all over the Web during the broadcast for being insufficiently appreciative of the celebrity that has been granted her, as if it’s a boon she didn’t earn, and insufficiently enthusiastic about her appearance at the Oscars. (Contrast this with the snide comments directed at Joaquin Phoenix and Tommy Lee Jones and Robert DeNiro, for instance, which focused on their specific behavior at that precise moment — he wouldn’t smile; he looked miserable; he thinks this is bullshit — without ever implying that they didn’t deserve to be there. In fact, the men garner the opposite reaction, in general; the guys see the Oscars as beneath them, and isn’t that awesome cuz it’s true LOL Oscars suck. The gals see the Oscars as beneath them, and how dare the uppity bitches not acknowledge how the fuck lucky they are to be there.)

The best examples of how Hollywood hates women were supplied by Oscar host Seth MacFarlane himself. He sang an entire gleeful song about how he saw famous actresses’ breasts in movies, as if he were 12 years old and had no hope of seeing breasts in real life (maybe, with his attitudes, he doesn’t), including movies in which their characters are abused, even gang-raped. (Yup, so sexy, getting a glimpse of nipple as a woman is being brutally attacked.) He degraded women left and right by reducing all their immense talents to how “beautiful” they are or how human carbuncle Rex Reed might insult their body size.

Hollywood and pop culture — including most pop culture watchers, such as the mostly male ranks of film critics and the mostly rank roster of “serious” film fans who populate movie sites from the IMDb to Rotten Tomatoes – is absolutely vile to women, with extra bile if they’re famous and don’t give that particular boy a boner.

If you wanted highlight how horrible those people can be, how would you do it? You could tweet

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Kristen Stewart is kind of a cunt, right?

But that’s not satirical, because that very thing gets said on a regular basis.

You could tweet

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Jennifer Lawrence is kind of a cunt, right?

But, again, that wouldn’t be satire. It would be the reality of what too many people think and aren’t afraid to say publicly and for all eternity on the never-forgetting Internet.

Jennifer Lawrence cunt Google search

What highlights how outrageous is the loathsome treatment of women on the Web?

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

That gets attention in a way that calling a famous adult woman the same thing never does. Because it’s clearly outrageous in a way that, apparently, isn’t quite so clear-cut when it comes to an adult woman. But she asked for it by wearing that dress. She’s an attention whore. She likes being in the spotlight. She can stop being famous any time if she can’t take it. We should see such rationales as ridiculous. We can see it when they’re applied to a nine-year-old. But we don’t see it in general.

Well. Okay. Feminist pop-culture watchers see how all women are treated in pop culture as outrageous. But we feminists are still a minority. That Onion tweet was not directed at feminists. It was directed at a general readership that probably has not yet internalized that it’s just plain wrong to talk about women like this, but might possibly understand that it’s just plain wrong to talk about a little girl like this. And might possibly start to get an inkling of a clue.

Now. Could the Onion writers have achieved the same result with this?

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Emmanuelle Riva is kind of a cunt, right?

Riva is, of course, the 85-year-old Best Actress nominee for Amour, an elderly French lady whom no one could say a bad word about, right? Perhaps… although it does not take much imagination on my part to foresee how some Internet idiots would be perfectly willing to rationalize Riva’s likely cuntiness. I mean, for a start she’s French, amirite? (Then again, anyone who can use the word cunt to defame women probably would have no problem with assuming that a little girl could well have “earned” such a label, too.)

So, sure, the Onion could have gone that route. The Onion likely demonstrated some tone-deafness when it comes to issues that some online feminists I respect immensely pointed out, like how women of color come in for extra bonus disrespect and misogyny, and how little girls are inexcusably oversexualized.

But that’s not what this tweet was about. As I think many of my readers would attest, I am attuned to misogyny in pop culture, even the point at which I see it when others don’t. And still, I didn’t see it here. I didn’t see Wallis as the butt of this joke. It seemed completely obvious to me — to the point that I didn’t even have to think about it — that the butt of the joke here is people who say such things about women.

I was, frankly, astonished that so many outspoken feminists whom I hold in high regard were so upset over this tweet. Yes, the tweet is savage. And it’s “funny” only in a bitter, brutal way that holds up our collective callousness to disdain and in despair. But any honest look at the Onion’s output over the years shows that the Onion writers are very hard on misogyny, particularly in the public realms of politics and pop culture. I find it hard to believe that that attitude would suddenly have done a 180.

If someone on the red carpet had said such a hideous thing to Wallis’s face — “Hey, kid, you’re kind of a cunt, aren’t you?” — that would have been despicable. But that’s not what happened, and it’s not what this is about. The Onion did not call Wallis a cunt, as so many have framed it, anymore than the Onion believes, say, that “Intern Just Happens To Be Beautiful 22-Year-Old Woman” or “Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews.”

Yes, the Wallis tweet uses some language that cuts harder and sharper and that comes laden with baggage. But that’s part of why the tweet itself had such an impact.

The flip side, too, is that if you have to explain a joke, the joke has failed. So the Onion screwed up. Just not quite in the way that a surprising number of people seem to think they have.

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