Why The Onion Shouldn't Have Apologized For "Offensive" Oscar Tweet


The Onion has issued an apology for the following tweet, which has since been taken:

Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis was in the running last night for the Best Actress Oscar. Though she lost out to Jennifer Lawrence and her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the talented child actress has still managed to become the Academy Awards’ all-time youngest nominee for said category, and the third youngest for any of the categories.

Shame on The Onion, not for tweeting that, but for apologizing (partly because it was such a disingenuous apology; if it was truly "personal," the CEO wouldn't have made it public). You’ve nothing to be sorry for apart from bad execution.

Obviously The Onion is no stranger to controversy. People have problems with their antics all the time. I remember one Onion story in particular back in November; it was called "Anorexic Woman at Gym Looking Good," and it featured a photo of an unnamed woman who clearly suffers from an eating disorder running on a treadmill. I’d caught it on The Onion’s Instagram stream, and I found it absolutely hilarious, though many did not.

The one comment that stood out to me was in defense of The Onion, saying “It’s not meant to be taken seriously” or to something of that effect. My reaction to that was simple and immediate: “Bullshit.”

Why do we laugh at satire? Why does something get satirized? When we laugh at Colbert’s satirization of Fox News personalities who, say, dwell on President Obama’s place of birth, we laugh not because we don’t take it seriously, but rather because it’s absurd, not the satirization, but the fact that people actually believe that the president was born in Kenya. It’s even more absurd that this particular point of controversy even persists as a point of controversy at all despite all the prevailing, intuitive reasons why we should move on and focus on real problems.

The seriousness (or as far as the birther issue is concerned, the lack thereof) surrounding the underlying issue lends to what’s absurd about it — and the satire that highlights and accentuates that absurdity makes for worthwhile satire. The controversy the behind president’s birthplace and the people obsessed with “outing” him are absurdities worth satirization; the behavior of religious zealots is absurd and worth satirization; the hazing practices, pomp, elitism, and idiocy of many fraternities is absurd, earning its fair share of satire.

People who defend satire (and rightly so —especially if it’s tasteful and timely), easily run the risk of defending it poorly. “It’s not meant to be taken seriously”? Really? If the subject in question wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously on at least some level, then it wouldn’t have been satirized in the first place. But maybe that’s a legitimate defense for some people. Who knows? Maybe people interpreted the Anorexic Girl piece in a more or less superficial way, finding it funny simply because it’s odd to see someone weighing 80 lbs. trying to burn fat at the gym (whereas I found it funny because it’s a commentary on how people obsessively harm themselves to fit someone else’s perception of “hot,” even to the detriment of their own health). Many of the piece’s defenders are as guilty of misinterpreting it as its offended detractors.

Which allows me to circle back to The Onion’s perceived “offensive” tweet. People need to read it again and ask themselves who The Onion is really making fun of —because one can make a very solid case in arguing that the target of it is actually everyone else, not young Wallis. Honestly, how degenerate do you think these people are, deep down? Is it truly reasonable to believe that the people behind The Onion or at least this tweet, intelligent grown men and women who make a living writing satire, would so crudely call a talented prepubescent black girl the "c" word and actually mean it? And expect to get away with it?

Take your eyes off the cunt part for once and read the rest of it closely: “Everyone else seems afraid to say it...” There’s simply more to this tweet that no one wants or cares to think about, that, say, it’s really a commentary on how the general pop-watching population insists on dehumanizing people as soon as they take on a higher profile; that it’s really a commentary on how someone’s success can motivate the easily envious and bitter amongst the rest of us to “troll the internet” in anonymity and belittle that which could’ve been ours (“he’s only famous because so and so is lucky”; “he’s only famous because he has connections”; “anyone can do that”). We are a chronically resentful culture; the best of a remarkable few brings out the worst in many of the unremarkable rest.

Not that The Onion’s tweet captures that notion perfectly — their wording was horrendous; but that’s what it was going for nonetheless.

And they’re right.