Last night, while live-tweeting the broadcast of the 85th Academy Awards, satirical online news site The Onion generated the night's biggest controversy. As part of a series of remarks poking fun at the red carpet interviews, the Onion made the following lightning rod of a tweet:
"Everybody else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a c*** right? #Oscars2013"
It was a tweet that, for the time, seemed to overshadow even the big wins by Argo, Life of Pi, and Silver Linings Playbook. Commentators across the internet were outraged that the Onion had called Wallis, the nine-year-old star of 'Beasts of the Southern Wild,' such a taboo and hurtful word.
Fox News called it "vulgar," while Treme actor Wendell Pierce criticized the "abhorrent verbal attack of a child." And then then more conjecture gets brought into the criticism, like blogger Elizabeth Hawskworth's allegation that the tweet (which was deleted from the account an hour after it was posted), was racist: "Quvenzhané Wallis is a nine year old woman of colour. Let's let what @TheOnion did sink in and remember that Dakota Fanning never had this."
It's at this point that these reactions become disproportionate and, to be honest, more than a little silly. Yes, the tweet was offensive, and a little too reliant on shock value to provide any relevant satire. But what seems to be overlooked here is the fact that the tweet wasn't meant to be taken as a serious insult toward Wallis.
It seems more likely that the Onion's intention was to decry the inherent nastiness of some tweets related to the event. If you've been on Twitter for very long, you know that there are people who can have strongly negative (and very loud) voices about even something as positive as an insanely talented nine-year-old actress. Satirizing these Twitter trolls was an easy target, and the joke was lazy. But it strikes me as hard to believe that the insult was directly targeted at Wallis. By noting that "everybody else seems afraid to say it," the joke seems to be on Twitter, or maybe on news coverage of the Oscars, but not at all on Wallis. She was the collateral damage of the joke, but the Onion (given the publications typical style of humor) did not appear to be suggesting that Wallis was actually worthy of the epithet.
My point here is that the outrage is disproportionate. The Onion made a really dumb and offensive joke, but it's not as big of a deal as it's being made out to be. They should be criticized for the poor execution of the joke, or just its overall poor quality.
But to suggest that the poorly chosen use of a sexist slur is actually racist by drawing a false comparison to Dakota Fanning (Twitter didn't exist when Dakota Fanning was nine years old) is an overreaction. So is any real outrage about the tweet. Sometimes jokes are in poor taste, and the Onion's joke was in incredibly poor taste. But let's slow down the gears of the outrage machine, shall we?