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How to read satire

Stacy alerted me to a good (feminist) analysis of the Onion tweet.

First of all, she says, Quvenzhané Wallis is terrific, no question.

But you know what? All of the women at the Oscars last night are awesome. Just to have survived to that level in an industry that, at best, ignores women, and, at worst, actively despises them means they have to be awesome. Maybe they’re not awesome in ways that everyone sees or acknowledges. But in their own way, they’re fierce and strong and bursting with personality in an industry that is designed not to see women that way…

The best examples of how Hollywood hates women were supplied by Oscar host Seth MacFarlane himself. He sang an entire gleeful song about how he saw famous actresses’ breasts in movies, as if he were 12 years old and had no hope of seeing breasts in real life (maybe, with his attitudes, he doesn’t), including movies in which their characters are abused, even gang-raped. (Yup, so sexy, getting a glimpse of nipple as a woman is being brutally attacked.) He degraded women left and right by reducing all their immense talents to how “beautiful” they are or how human carbuncle Rex Reed might insult their body size.

Hollywood and pop culture — including most pop culture watchers, such as the mostly male ranks of film critics and the mostly rank roster of “serious” film fans who populate movie sites from the IMDb to Rotten Tomatoes – is absolutely vile to women, with extra bile if they’re famous and don’t give that particular boy a boner.

And the Onion tweet was parodying that. Not echoing it but parodying it. I saw that as one possible reading at the time, but I saw the shock-horror about the tweet before I saw the content of the tweet, so I was primed not to see the parody reading as clearly as the echo reading. Or I was just stupid. One of those.

Or maybe a third possibility, which is that so much humor these days turns out to include misogyny, to have a misogynist edge, to be compatible with misogyny, to be the product of people (mostly men) who are misogynist. I occasionally watched Family Guy for awhile because I found Stewie and Brian hilarious. I find parts of The Big Bang Theory hilarious. I find Jon Stewart sexist quite often. I’m used to discovering that something hilarious turns out also to be misogynist and/or sexist as well.

It was probably all three of those. Anyway, the parody reading seems like a better fit now – but Twitter can be a bad medium for jokes like that. I know this. People mis-read my jokes aimed at myself as jokes aimed at someone else, and then ignore my corrections. Twitter can be a dangerous toy.

But the point was a good one.

What highlights how outrageous is the loathsome treatment of women on the Web?

Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?

That gets attention in a way that calling a famous adult woman the same thing never does. Because it’s clearly outrageous in a way that, apparently, isn’t quite so clear-cut when it comes to an adult woman. But she asked for it by wearing that dress. She’s an attention whore. She likes being in the spotlight. She can stop being famous any time if she can’t take it. We should see such rationales as ridiculous. We can see it when they’re applied to a nine-year-old. But we don’t see it in general.

Well. Okay. Feminist pop-culture watchers see how all women are treated in pop culture as outrageous. But we feminists are still a minority. That Onion tweet was not directed at feminists. It was directed at a general readership that probably has not yet internalized that it’s just plain wrong to talk about women like this, but might possibly understand that it’s just plain wrong to talk about a little girl like this. And might possibly start to get an inkling of a clue.

God damn that sounds familiar. She’s an attention whore. She likes being in the spotlight. She can stop being famous any time if she can’t take it.

She’s a professional victim. She engages in drama for the blog hits. She can stop blogging any time if she can’t take it.

So the point was a good one.

The Onion likely demonstrated some tone-deafness when it comes to issues that some online feminists I respect immensely pointed out, like how women of color come in for extra bonus disrespect and misogyny, and how little girls are inexcusably oversexualized.

But that’s not what this tweet was about. As I think many of my readers would attest, I am attuned to misogyny in pop culture, even the point at which I see it when others don’t. And still, I didn’t see it here. I didn’t see Wallis as the butt of this joke. It seemed completely obvious to me — to the point that I didn’t even have to think about it — that the butt of the joke here is people who say such things about women.

But she reads the Onion much more regularly than I do, so she had a better sense of their overall attitudes than I do. I’ve learned to expect to be suddenly disappointed.

Comments

  1. S Mukh says

    Thanks Ophelia. I sort of get what she is saying here, but as you said, on Twitter it becomes difficult to grasp the nuance of a statement. If the Onion had published it in their weekly paper, they could have added context such as, ‘Seth McFarlane totally thinks Quvenzhane Wallis is a c***’ or something like that. I used to be a regular reader of the Onion too, when I lived in the US, so I am familiar with their brand of humour. By just sending out this Tweet, however, they failed to provide any information on whether they are ridiculing Wallis or ridiculing the misogyny of Hollywood or the media or what. That is something they should have really thought about, and I am glad that the Onion chief apologised officially.

  2. says

    Yes. It’s easy to forget that other people don’t automatically understand the context you have in mind – I do it myself all the time, and then have to go back and explain. On Twitter that problem is magnified hugely.

  3. A Hermit says

    I thought the intent of the tweet was clear, being from the Onion, but the thing about satire is you have to do it well or it doesn’t work. And if you’re using a 9 year old child as a device in that satire you better you do it perfectly. Whatever the intent the tweet was offensive because it failed on every level.

  4. A Hermit says

    Damn you Joe, you beat me to it and said I was thinking better than me…again.

    Also your avatar is triggering my G.A.S.

  5. Sastra says

    I’m also a regular reader of the Onion and agree with Johanson’s take on the tweet. They constantly play the same sort of game Colbert plays: pretend to be a conservative and go over the top. And they usually do it in the crudest way possible. I mean, look here.

    My guess is that sure, the satire was clear enough … to a regular reader of the Onion. Which is why the apology was called for.

  6. says

    Yeah, damn me A Hermit, damn me to Hell. Great minds think alike… and so do we! :) Brevity is the soul of wit, but on the other hand if you have to explain the joke then it fails as a joke. Some jokes, especially satire, need more of a build-up and are almost impossible to do off-the-cuff on Twitter.

    Oh, and sorry about the G.A.S. attack. Although, if you have to buy a guitar the first bit of the year is the best time.

  7. daved says

    Since the Onion pulled that tweet within an hour and apologized up and down (exceptionally rare for them), I think it’s clear that they felt that they’d blown it badly. Or that the staff member who tweeted had, anyway. The satire worked for me, but I read the Onion every day. Most people don’t.

  8. evilDoug says

    I read the page Sastra linked to. I never thought I would see anything that would make Family Guy actually seem clever or funny by comparison.

    Fuck the Onion. Fuck the scum fucking shit brained asshole who thought (and jesus fucking christ I use that term in the loosest possible sense) that tweet was anything but a public declaration of what a fucking shit brained asshole he is.

  9. says

    The satire was clear, but the splash damage was the problem. In order to show the absurdity of Hollywood’s attitudes toward women and the TMZ/paparazzi culture of hot gossip, they had to call a 9-year-old girl the c-word. That’s a price too high for that joke, especially when it came on top of all the other sexist and racist bullshit that Harris (and everyone else) had to put up with that evening. The Onion did the right thing by pulling the tweet and apologizing for it.

  10. suttkus says

    Okay, how do I keep FTB pages from coming up in mobile-mode? For some reason, sometimes pages just insist on coming up as if I was using a mobile device instead of my desktop. The result is that all the quote boxes are replaced with italicized text. When you have quotes inside quotes and italics inside the quotes and italics outside the quotes, the result is the entire post becomes a huge unreadable mess where you can’t tell who is saying what.

    Is there any way I can fix this? And, yes, I know about the “view full site” button at the bottom of the page. It doesn’t work.

    I’m using Firefox, if that’s important.

  11. Stacy says

    By the way, I agree that the Onion was right to pull the tweet and apologize, given all the sexist and racist baggage inherent in the word vis a vis young Wallis and the lack of context.

    But it was very interesting reading the Onion’s facebook page. Most defenders of the joke seem to have missed the point entirely. Their analysis was at the remedial, or “slymepit” level: “Butbutbut FREEZE PEACH It’s just a word cunt cunt cunt cunt see? there I said it see how edgy I am CUNT”

    The original joke implicitly criticizes the sexism of the word. The dimbulbs don’t care; they just know the word has power to shock and hurt, and the power and not the hurt is theirs when they use it.

  12. Stacy says

    Qualification of my #16 for the sake of the Simple: “…the sexism of the word when used as an epithet.” (No, words are not inherently anything. And I have no problem with the word in other contexts.)

  13. evilDoug says

    You do know that Onion piece about

    Yes, I am well aware of that.
    Fuck the Onion.
    It isn’t funny.
    Fuck the Onion
    It isn’t clever.
    Fuck the Onion.
    It isn’t satire.
    Fuck the Onion.
    It is the kind of shit I might have though was good when I was 15. Now it just comes across the same way Family Guy does – say something thought to be clever then repeat it 3 to 5 times so the target audience might have enough time to pick up on it.
    Oh, and Fuck the Onion.

  14. evilDoug says

    Suttkus,
    That happens to me all the time. I’ve become so pissed off with it that I just close FtB and go do something else.
    I’m running the most recent version of Firefox with all the updates.
    SOMETIMES it helps to get to a particular blogger from the main FtB page by clicking on the title for the blog, rather than the link to the specific post.
    I have lately been getting the impression it is time-of-day correlated – typically late afternoon Mountain time zone.

  15. Stacy says

    evilDoug, the last line of that piece, following that diatribe, didn’t make you laugh, obviously.

    No accounting for taste, I guess.

  16. Kelseigh Nieforth says

    Wait, there’s a mobile mode? I tried opening Stephanie’s blog on my phone yesterday and it came up unreadably tiny (i.e. the browser version crammed into a phone screen).

  17. says

    I’ve been stuck on this whole thing with Seth McFarlane.

    First, I should note that I didn’t actually see the Oscars. I was stuck in a funeral home being a Shomer, which is basically a Jewish thing where you essentially babysit a body overnight or longer. Not creepy, but quite dull, and very hard to sleep when the only room they let you sleep in has exit signs so bright you can see the room through your closed eyes… blech).

    But I’ve seen clips of most of the offending stuff, and….

    I get why the joke about Jack Nicholson’s summer home was bad and why the thing about Rhianna and Chris Brown was bad.

    I read the joke about George Clooney as being about George Clooney. It was making fun of his predilection for women who are more than a lot younger than himself. Seth could have used any woman for it… I think Quvenzhané just happened to be the most notable young woman there. Though I’ll grant that the wording of the joke was poor. He should have targeted Clooney directly, instead of using Quvenzhané as a dart to target George.

    As for the song… on the one hand, a lot of those scenes were rape scenes. The lyrics suggested a very straight-forward idea. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say they took it as Seth making fun of that mindset (that is, he was making fun of Hollywood’s penchant for trying to get every relatively attractive woman who comes through to take their tops off in at least one film), and I could see why one might view Seth’s work that way… Family Guy, for example, is (according to some fans of the show, anyways) basically a show about making fun of stupid people by being stupid (such as the famous moment when Peter Griffin was shown to be ever-so-slightly more intelligent than Creationists, who were displayed as some of the stupidest people in the world).

    Personally, I lean more towards the first interpretation of the song: it was a sexist song ignoring the context of the scenes for BOOBS! I think the Oscars’ would have been better off without it, quite frankly. I much prefer Ricky Gervais’ “thank God… for making me an atheist.” That was at least hilarious and not really all that problematic unless you’re an easily offending religio-bot.

    But this really has me in a bind because Seth McFarlane is the reason Fox is hosting the Cosmos reboot produced by Anne Druyan and hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m all excited about it, to be honest, and it never would have happened without Seth.

    So…

    Actually, maybe I’m not stuck. While I do get the arguments defending Seth, I disagree with them. It was largely an Oscar’s all about telling women how they aren’t worth much more than their bodies… at least, that’s what I get from the clips I’ve seen…

    As for the tweet… yeah, that was all levels of fucked up. Glad they retracted it an apologized, because come on… Quvenzhané’s fucking 9 years old. You just don’t do that.

    Period.

    On another note… what is this about people complaining about seeing the mobile site? I didn’t even know there was a mobile site! I don’t see it on my laptop or my iPod!

    WTF?

  18. PatrickG says

    So the comments section on the link is rather interesting, in a good and educational way.

    There’s a rather involved conversation about intersectionality going on there… though you have to avoid the “Stop Being So Humorless” trolls. As a white male myself, I hadn’t even stopped to consider the racial aspects involved here (beyond the sort of obvious “well, everything’s just worse if you’re not white” thought)…. this comment kind of snapped me back:

    There’s no joke here. People already do think black little girls are cunts. White men slap 18 month old black babies while calling them nigger. And then the ensuing commentary is about how annoying crying babies are.

    There’s no irony in this supposed “joke” targeting Quvenzhané Wallis. That’s because there’s no reverence or protection given to children if they happen to be black, so the argument that “Oh, of course we know they’re not serious!” — that just doesn’t fly.

    We know that there are some white people who can’t empathize with a fictional little girl if that little girl happens to be black (as we saw with the reactions to the character in the Hunger Games). We know that little black children are sent home in police cars if they wear the wrong color shoes to school.

    You’re off base here. I don’t understand why you’re defending them while calling yourself a feminist. Their supposed intent is not a defense – the construction worker commenting on your breasts might say he intends a compliment, but you know what – who cares? He’s offensive and out of line. The same applies here.

    You’re blinded by your privilege. I don’t want your brand of feminism if a 9 year old girl has to be insulted to prove a point.

    I’m still mulling over the racial aspects. It’s something that’s hard for me to empathize with, being the White Male that I am. I included it because I found it really interesting, and it raised a lot of questions for me, and I’ll try to wrap my privileged lil head around the issues here as best I can at a later date.

    But the bolded part really sums up my position. In fact, my position is rather infuriated. The rest of this comment is downright angry and ranting. I went over it to try and make it less so, but I really can’t seem to make myself, so here it is in all its unedited glory (outside of html fails).

    How is the linked piece a great feminist defense? The entire argument seems to be “well, it’ll happen to her anyway, so let’s make a satirical point about a 9 year old because fuck it — she’ll get it in real life later anyway”. This is acceptable collateral damage — and it’s apparently good feminism to do so!

    You think I exaggerate? MaryAnn Johanson makes it quite explicit in the comments. Go read them. I can’t possibly quote it all. Though I might as well try.

    Right near the top we get this in response to a commenter (commenter first blockquote, her response second blockquote):

    This is one of the thoughtful things I’ve read (as in it is making me think). I think part of the problem is that: yes, even if Wallis isn’t the “butt of the joke” she is still ‘collateral damage of the joke’ and it isn’t fair that a nine year old adorable actress should be.

    MaryAnn Johanson your hostess possum • 5 days ago

    I guess I don’t see how she’s “damaged” by this. It seems so obviously preposterous that it cannot be taken seriously.

    She doubles down later with:

    In what way could the Onion writer have seen this as an attack on a child? The tweet appeared in the feed of an adult satire site. It wasn’t texted to Wallis. It wasn’t said to her face. It wasn’t sent in an email or a letter.

    How were her feelings intended to be hurt by this?

    What the everloving fuck? The daughter of my friends was posting on Facebook at 5. She sent me an email all by herself at 6. Johanson seems to fail to grasp that young kids these days not only fail to get out of the way of her argument, they know how to use the internet.

    Plus, the argument that “if it isn’t said to your face, it can’t hurt you” is so flamingly stupid, I just doublechecked that I have a fire extinguisher handy.

    Back on topic, since kids these days use the internet, I’m sure that by 9 years old they have the social context and awareness to deal with horrible things being said about them. Any 9 year old can recognize badly done humor, right? And it was in a good cause, right? And really, it’s absolutely fine to y’know, really make sexism and misogyny clear at a young age — really really clear — because, as Johanson says elsewhere:

    As I just posted above in reponse to someone else: Do you *honestly* believe the intent here was to say that a nine-year-old girl is *actually* a “cunt” (whatever that’s supposed to mean, though clearly it is generally taken to be something horrible)? Or is there any possibility that this was meant sarcastically, to mean precisely the opposite?

    Isn’t it possible to explain, even to a nine-year-old, that it was meant in an opposite way, a way of pointing out how very nice everyone thinks she is by being ridiculous and saying the thing that’s furthest from nice? Kids get sarcasm. And then all the sexism stuff can be saved for when she’s older.

    To which a lot of people respond with “Um, hello? Intent isn’t magic?” and “You can’t just hold the side of sexism”. To which I add “Oh good, girls don’t get enough of this, let’s make them deal with badly done satire, too”.

    I guess I’m just not getting this. How is this position remotely a good feminist defense of this joke? Her entire position seems to be “look, 9 year olds will learn about this eventually, so it’s totally ok to make jokes about them, even if this one backfired somewhat”. Feh. As another commenter there said:

    Yep. There’s far too much overcooked “Oh but SATIRE!” rationalization going on around this. I understand and agree with the Onion’s point; the practical reality, however, had them saying something vile to a small girl who almost certainly is not going to be mature enough to process what’s going on here.

    That’s pretty much my position. No quote-unquote social education campaign justifies using 9 year olds as a prop. And that’s the entire argument here, that the attention this tweet got justifies the treatment of a 9 year old. I’d say that’s a pretty fair reading of the following from the linked post:

    That gets attention in a way that calling a famous adult woman the same thing never does. Because it’s clearly outrageous in a way that, apparently, isn’t quite so clear-cut when it comes to an adult woman

    Of course it does. Part of that is that it’s just fucking inappropriate to involve a 9 year old who will undoubtedly read your tweet in your point scoring. But well, at the end of the day (and the piece), we have:

    Yes, the Wallis tweet uses some language that cuts harder and sharper and that comes laden with baggage. But that’s part of why the tweet itself had such an impact.

    The flip side, too, is that if you have to explain a joke, the joke has failed. So the Onion screwed up. Just not quite in the way that a surprising number of people seem to think they have.

    The issue here is that the joke failed.

    That 9 year old who has to read about this? Who has to be told that it was just humor — no wait, satire — making a point that would ultimately help her? Well, she would have had to learn about it anyway, so fuck her. Plus, she’s an actress, so she better get tough, amirite? And anyway, we’re making a point here.

    In short length: This is a “good (feminist) defense”? What the fuck am I missing here? Did I fail to insult a pre-teen while writing this post? Hey wait, I know, who wants to satirize raping Cub Scouts? Or maybe some Junior Firefly Girls? What, you’re offended? I’m just raising awareness! Sorry I did it ineptly.

    My ultimate point here? Quvenzhané Wallis may be an amazing 9 year old who will transcend this.

    She shouldn’t have to deal with this shit from people who are supposed to be on her side.

    Good feminist analysis? Feh.

  19. Jeni says

    I read the onion tweet as a direct response to the duet Seth sang at the very end of the show. The song “for the losers.” In the song, Wallis is described as “adorable” or something to that effect, but the word is supposed to rhyme with Helen Hunt.

    The onion tweet was still inappropriate, but the song was just as offensive, IMHO. Even though they didn’t actually use the word cunt, they made everyone listening think it.

  20. Stacy says

    PatrickG, I understand why you’re angry, but you’re misrepresenting Johanson’s argument.

    Her entire position seems to be “look, 9 year olds will learn about this eventually, so it’s totally ok to make jokes about them, even if this one backfired somewhat”.

    That’s not her position, not even in part.

    That was Johanson explaining to a commenter that the joke could be explained to Wallis in a way that emphasizes that no, the people who tweeted that don’t really think that about her.

    (And as for the fact that she’ll learn about sexism–and racism–eventually, sadly enough that’s perfectly true. Assuming she hasn’t already.)

    The entire argument seems to be “well, it’ll happen to her anyway, so let’s make a satirical point about a 9 year old because fuck it — she’ll get it in real life later anyway

    The satirical point wasn’t the child. It was the sexism.

    And that’s the entire argument here, that the attention this tweet got justifies the treatment of a 9 year old.

    Well, that’s two different “entire arguments,” and neither one is a fair summary of Johanson’s argument.

    The argument is that calling women “cunts” is par for the course in Hollywood. By directing–ironically–the sort of dismissal and hostility Hollywood typically directs at women, at a 9 year old child, the writer of the tweet meant to underscore how common, and callous, and sexist, that attitude is.

    Yes, the Onion was right to apologize. Too close to the bone, too many boneheads who really think that way, too much collateral damage, especially to Quvenzhané Wallis herself. But the joke was intended for grownups, and she was never the butt of it.

    Hey wait, I know, who wants to satirize raping Cub Scouts?

  21. hoary puccoon says

    Did the Onion bother to publish their estimate of how many times Quvenzhane Wallis is going to find that word on her Facebook page? How many times she’ll get called that at school, or hanging out with other kids? How many more pieces of hate mail she’ll be receiving from the lily white residents of the cherry-red states? How many years that one tweet is going to keep being dredged up to hurt her?

    Because, really, how can we be expected to know just how hilarious and cutting edge this is until we know exactly how much damage they managed to inflict on that little girl?

  22. PatrickG says

    @ Stacy:

    Uh, no, that’s emphatically not her argument. As you’ll see if you continue in the comments. Or just read the original piece, with her own summation (again):

    Yes, the Wallis tweet uses some language that cuts harder and sharper and that comes laden with baggage. But that’s part of why the tweet itself had such an impact.

    So the Onion screwed up. Just not quite in the way that a surprising number of people seem to think they have.

    Kind of seems Johanson defends the original tweet, yes? On the grounds that it cuts harder and sharper towards people who aren’t Wallis, I can only assume. Since she doesn’t really enter into the picture in Johanson’s argument (beyond being awesome and all that, of course). If anything, Johanson’s done a great magic trick — Wallis just sort of disappears!

    The argument is that calling women “cunts” is par for the course in Hollywood. By directing–ironically–the sort of dismissal and hostility Hollywood typically directs at women, at a 9 year old child, the writer of the tweet meant to underscore how common, and callous, and sexist, that attitude is.

    First, well, duh. This was articulated in the linked piece, in the original post here, and in the comments of this section. We can stipulate what the point of the satire was, all right? It’s not relevant.

    What is relevant is that using Wallis as a target of satire was wrong. Full stop. Defending the Onion’s choice to do has jackall to do with the satirical point. They punched down at a 9 year old girl. Satirically or not, they made a joke at the expense of a 9 year old girl.

    Am I not making myself clear here? All this was in my original comment, and seemed to just get completely ignored or missed. So once again, the satirical point, however interesting or though-provoking, does not justify punching down. Should I go link pieces — from this very blog, I think, or at least on FTB — about how to do humor right?

    No, the argument was that it was appropriate for the Onion to use a 9 year old child as the target of a tweet. Justified, in Johanson’s mind, because the child did not suffer harm and will not suffer harm. I refer you again to the comments section (again), where this is made explicit.

    And once more, for the record, particularly jaw-dropping is her assertion because the Onion didn’t tweet it at Wallis, hey! No harm done!

    Thought exercise:

    In what way could the Onion SlymePit writer have seen this as an attack on a child woman? The tweet post appeared in the feed of an adult satire a “free speech” site. It wasn’t texted to Wallis the woman. It wasn’t said to her face. It wasn’t sent in an email or a letter.

    How were her feelings intended to be hurt by this?

    And yes, yes, yes, of course this doesn’t apply to the ones that are directly sent. But come on, this is, again, probably the stupidest argument I’ve read in a long time. Slymepitters make this argument and they’re laughed out of town — but it’s not an issue here?

    And finally, the piece that really infuriates me, is this argument:

    Johanson:

    But that’s not what the tweet was about.

    You:

    The satirical point wasn’t the child. It was the sexism.

    Intent is not magic. Intent is not a defense. People come to this blog all the time and try to use intent to defend the indefensible. They tend to get chewed up.

    The harm the tweet did is in fact real, and the tweet was in fact entirely unjustifiable therefore. Whatever the intent was. My position is that there is no defensible feminist case for the original tweet, that even the purest of golden satire should not target a 9 year old, and that denying the harm done by the tweet is pretty much the most anti-feminist position one could take here. “Harming a small child is worth the ensuing discussion” is not ethical to my mind.

    As satire meant to provoke thought, the tweet was obviously pure win. As long as you ignore the collateral damage.

    Oh, and the your 10-year old satire link? See, now that’s good satire. Here’s a hint why: the boys there are not the target of the satire. Beyond that, they’re fictional, unlike Wallis.

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