Interrogating The Onion’s Oscar ‘Joke’

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.

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One Response

  1. Good expla­na­tion (although I hadn’t heard of this inci­dent until read­ing your post). This is why so many osten­si­bly anti-​​racist jokes fall flat for me: they just feel like an excuse to say incred­i­bly racist things, with a wink and a nod. You get to indulge in offen­sive behav­ior and then get a pass because you’re jok­ing about how “some” peo­ple like to indulge in really offen­sive behavior.