A few things up front: I do not condone using that kind of language aimed at anyone, including and especially children. I think the joke was a mistake and one for which they’re going to pay dearly. Second, I understand implicitly that my lower level of outrage over the joke in question is 100% due to my position of privilege as a white male. Don’t think for a moment that this is not on my mind at all times as I tentatively poke at this thing.
Last night, during the Oscars, The Onion was live-tweeting humor. They were doing okay until they tweeted the following joke. Note: this joke is considered incredibly offensive by most: here.
Okay. Thanks to my position of privilege, I didn’t find this joke incredibly offensive, but I didn’t laugh at it either. My initial gut reaction was “this is weak and poorly constructed.”
My interpretation of intention, which I have as a luxury, is that they object of satire here was Hollywood and the media apparatus around it. This was a “illuminate with hyperbole” tactic, where you draw attention to something somewhat subtle with an explicit statement of it, so over the top that nobody can miss the point.
Except they went so over the top they cycled right back around and became part of the problem they wanted to make a critical comment about.
I wondered if the tweet would have been slightly better received if they had phrased it as a quote like this: “Original Tweet”, Says Hollywood Insiders. Maybe? But the use of the word in question fires up the outrage centers for a ton of people. Their construction also relied on faux-criticizing a black girl, and this was a huge mistake to compound the use of word tenfold. Do I think they actually believe that about her? Absolutely not. I think the distance brought by the television screen allowed them to forget that Wallis was a real human child, and not just an assortment of pixels. In pursuit of a joke, their empathy sensors failed miserably. My luxury-allowed interpretation of intent says no, that was not their point or intent.
But it doesn’t matter what their intent was, really, when it comes to pissing off the entire internet.
Here’s why all of this concerns me as a writer, and why I am following it closely, giving it thought; I write about horrible people sometimes. I write about racists and bigots because unfortunately, those are some of the people around me, the people I know. I do not consider myself to be one, nor do I support their ideology. I don’t believe the Onion does either. But I want to make sure that in my writing, when attempting to write about such people authentically, my audience does not take what I write as a statement of my own personal beliefs.
I once wrote the N-word in a story, used by an overt racist because I didn’t want to leave any doubt in the reader’s mind what kind of person the character was. This character was based heavily on one of my grandparents, and I felt I was being true to the reality in my portrayal. I’d heard him use the word a hundred times at least.
When the story was accepted, the editor requested I remove it. I wasn’t sure that I should at first. Some people these days don’t get to see overt racism of that kind because most racists have developed enough sense to keep it private. When you’re a white guy, you hear some crazy shit uttered by fellow white guys who assume you share their vile beliefs. I wanted to reveal that a little. It felt important.
But ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the word itself added nothing to the story. If the word itself were more objectionable than the fact that the character were racist in general, then that word was a distraction from the point I was trying to make. The word was removed. Sometimes, in pursuit of “truth,” we try to get too close to its flame and burn ourselves with it.
The Onion took a satire thesis of “people in Hollywood are assholes who degrade women and children” and crafted a statement that made it impossible for most of us to conclude anything other than “The Onion staff are assholes who degrade women and children.” I suspect that’s not the case, but we’re measured by our words on the internet, and their words were most definitely found wanting.
I can sort of forgive the mistake. That’s a luxury I have thanks to such hateful words never being leveled at me, so I have no comprehension of how those words feel when aimed at me. This is not a luxury many, many others have, and that’s why the Onion should break character and issue a plain-spoken and heartfelt apology.
And then maybe we can turn our outrage to Hollywood itself.