The Onion CEO Takes Quvenzhane Wallis to Disney World!

Well, not really.  What Steve Hannah, CEO for The Onion, the popular satirical news source (otherwise known as “America’s Finest News Source”), actually did was issue an apology to Quvenzhane Wallis after an immediate backlash on social media greeted an inappropriate tweet from The Onion‘s live Twitter feed during the Academy Awards telecast Sunday night.  The tweet referred to the youngest Oscar nominee for Best Actress in derogatory, misogynistic language. I won’t repeat it here, but you can get specifics elsewhere on the Internet.

However, since I’m not one who ever accepts apologies without some kind of adequate reparations, I’m offering the headlined scenario in the style of hyperbolic headlines we often find in The Onion.  It’s the best mea culpa I could think of to offer a nine-year-old girl (if not Disney World, then perhaps an all-you-can-eat special at an ice cream parlor or a shopping spree at one of the biggest toy stores in the world).

Now, why am I coming up with all the imaginary parody headlines for The Onion–which should be following up its serious letter of apology with all sorts of creative ways to make amends to our young actress? And if not that, how about some self-deprecating humor along the lines of:

“Angry U.S. Citizens Ransack The Onion’s Headquarters, Disperse Copies of bell hooks’ Happy to Be Nappy.

It’s satire, get it? Something that The Onion inexplicably did not get Sunday night.  The tweet wasn’t simply misogynistic, cruel and vulgar:  It wasn’t funny. Perhaps the person tweeting was simply taking his (shall I assume it’s a he?) cues from Oscar host Seth MacFarlane, whose brand of humor, laced with chauvinism and an adolescent boy’s worldview, threatened to disrupt the dignified (and overbloated) telecast celebrating the best of the movies of 2012. MacFarlane is known for “pushing the envelope,” and perhaps The Onion tweeter tried to do the same.

Perhaps the tweet was a failed response to one of the envelope-pushing jokes from MacFarlane during the Oscars.  Remember that rhyming-but-not-quite reference when he said something along the lines of “Over there is Helen Hunt/ and we think Quvenzhane is a-dorable?” The audience laughed.

What is the satire here? MacFarlane suggested that he was about to get vulgar, but remembered in the nick of time what show he was hosting, so he nicely stopped himself and instead said something precious about our youngest of the Oscar nominees.  Perhaps The Onion wanted to be “edgier” than the edgy Oscar host by finishing the rhyming scheme and, subsequently, went into “unspeakable” terrain–not quite understanding that part of the “unmentionable” was MacFarlane making fun of his own persona as a chauvinistic humorist.

What MacFarlane did was push the envelope. What The Onion did was rip the envelop to shreds and then stomped all over it.  One is funny, the other is not. The former is rooted in a veiled critique of our social attitudes (e.g. only real sexist pigs would expect a vulgar joke at the expense of the grown woman Hunt and the young girl Wallis, so fill in the blanks if you care to because I’m not going to since I’m so above that!). This is what satire does, while a bad joke is simply mean-spirited.

Worse, in a society like ours, in which former GOP executive directors can tweet violent messages aimed at a murdered black minor like Trayvon Martin; in which our school-aged black children are already treated like future criminals in “school-to-prison pipelines;” in which we have a history where, 50 years ago four little black girls were killed in a church bombing, 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched for whistling at a white woman, and six-year old Ruby Bridges had to be escorted by U.S. Deputy Marshalls when integrating a school in New Orleans, a bad joke–already hampered by a 140-character limit–reinforces the power others have over a little black girl through callous and disrespectful language. We’ve now morphed from humor into cyber-bullying.

The very fact that there are people in this world who would say such things about a black girl (regardless of her age) because of her gender, because of her race, means that there is no “satire” to be found in the tweet. The very fact that in the immediate outrage that followed, several folks (black women, I imagine) had to symbolically threaten in various blogs and tweets to “put on their Vaseline and their tennis shoes” (translation for those of you who did not grow up in inner-cities: That’s code-word for “we’re going to take this outside!”) means a line has been crossed.

The C-word? The N-word?  Those are fighting words! And a good humorist knows how to cleverly work these (or bend them) or skate ever so closely near them without staring into the abyss.

More to the point: our children are off limits (even though we should always be outraged when all women and girls are targeted by ugly sexist language).

Either way, I’m deeply disappointed in The Onion, and while it might simply be a satirical headline, I really would like Steve Hannah to treat Quvenzhane Wallis to an expense-paid trip to Disney World.

Photo courtesy of Disney ABC Television Group via Creative Commons 2.0.



Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.