They Used A Bad Word, or; Defending The Onion

First of all, we have to get this out of the way now: There will be numerous utterances of the C word to follow. If it offends you I apologise, but then I have a feeling if it did offend you then you wouldn’t be reading this to begin with. I also highly recommend people read Maryann Johnson’s piece on the joke right here.

It’s hard to defend a joke. If someone doesn’t find it funny they’re not going to suddenly guffaw when you explain how the Chicken crossed the road, so it makes it even harder when the joke is a pointed, shocking, one. There’s a comedian in the UK called Al Murray who plays the ‘role’ of a pub landlord. He’s xenophobic, loud and obnoxious but in reality the real Al Murray is anything but. The persona he created is to lampoon that exact type of person. Some people get the joke, some people don’t. For any US readers, think of Al Murray as Larry the Cable Guy except he’s entirely self aware.

It’s important to keep this in mind because to think about what a joke is you have to consider where it’s coming from.

During the Oscar broadcast The Onion, a satirical American news source ran a series of tweets throughout the event, ranging from Quentin Tarantino has been heavily criticized for his frequent use of the word “nigger” during tonight’s red carpet interviews to In Focus: Area Woman’s Baseless Hatred Of Anne Hathaway Reciprocated and finally to the below tweet.


The joke was deleted shortly after, amidst the furore and an apology issued on Facebook, which I’ll come to later. Taken at face value the joke is a poor one, but it’s absolutely designed to be offensive. If you sit up and take notice it’s because you were supposed to. The Onion were not using Quvenzhane Wallis as a punchline, they were using it to highlight the criticism culture that’s so prevalent now. People who think nothing of tossing out a casual remark on twitter (or in private) about someone’s appearance on the red carpet shouldn’t be surprised when its thrown back in their face. If it shocks you then congratulations, it was supposed to. It’s too easy to sit back and say that The Onion were baselessly calling her a cunt in favour of ignoring the larger target, which is culture as a whole.

Maryann Johnson’s piece above makes an excellent point. Calling Jennifer Lawrence or Kristen Stewart a cunt is somehow shrugged off as acceptable, but calling a child it is immediately frowned upon  – and rightly so. But why should calling anyone a cunt, let alone someone you’ve never met be somehow accepted when pointing it in the direction of someone else isn’t? The joke did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to provoke. It’s what comedy can do, it’s what great satire is meant to do. Read that tweet back and replace Quvenzhane Wallis with Jennifer Lawrence, or Kristen Stewart or even an actress you really can’t stand. As a joke it stops working because I could find countless tweets or comments on message boards saying just those things. By putting a child at the front of it though it highlights exactly what is ugly about it. Look at the various reports turning on Anne Hathaway or why so and so shouldn’t wear that dress because she’s put on a few pounds. The media (As vague and all encompassing as that is) is in the golden age of ‘snark’ right now. Sure there’s always been and will continue to be bad things written about people but thanks to social media you can now do it in real time, being retweeted and quoted for that totally sick burn you gave that celebrity whose existence is somehow an affront to you.

The target of that joke isn’t a nine year old girl, or women. The truth is that the real target of that joke is us. It’s you, it’s me, it’s everyone who feels like it’s OK to say horrible things about someone or feels that a casual and flippant remark about someone is alright to do. I’m guilty of it, you’re guilty of it too, the joke takes that line of thinking to an extreme.

This brings us back to the idea of context. If I had tweeted that then I would be called out on it and rightly so. Now consider The Onion, consider who they are and what they do and think if they’re really calling a nine year old a cunt or if they’re targeting the joke at someone else entirely. Arguing whether or not it’s funny is a separate issue (I didn’t actually think it was that funny but it would’ve made a much better full article than a tweet). By design The Onion holds a mirror up against culture and society and comments on it accordingly, the fact that people got up in arms or angry is precisely the aim, and why I think they did a disservice by apologising.

I understand why they’d do it, but I don’t think they’re sincere in what they say and I doubt they’ve given it a second thought. They have arguably made harder hitting jokes, dressed up in better language, and not apologised for it. It’s sad to see them give in to the countless voices that shouted them down because they put a nine year olds name next to a bad word, but the sad fact is if they made it about someone twice her age no one would care.

And that’s exactly the point.


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