When I watched Quvenzhane Wallis telling the story of a little girl called Hushpuppy and her adventures living in a poor Bayou area in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I was enchanted by how well she articulated her life and the world around her. I had so much hope that she might be the youngest person ever to take home a golden statuette and wanted to believe that everyone else on the planet shared my sentiment.
The best actress trophy went to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, and the pervasive thinking for Quvenzhane was probably something like, "It’s OK, Princess, you were still wonderful." But that wasn’t the case in the offices of The Onion, the Chicago-based satirical news website. Someone, possibly a social media editor, as yet unnamed, decided to place this on Twitter:
"Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c--t, right?"
The tweet was reportedly taken down an hour after it was posted, but not really. Anyone who follows The Onion on Twitter and everyone who doesn’t got wind of this tweet, and it spread across the Web like, well, the smell of bad onions!
The controversy has, at least for half a day — which is equal to months on the Internet — became to the Oscars what the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" became to Super Bowl XXXVIII. Nobody’s even thinking about Argo or Ben Affleck or red carpets or lengthy, tearful speeches now, and anybody with access to a keyboard is pissed, and rightly so (except for those who try to explain that the joke was aimed at Hollywood itself and not the girl, and make themselves sound fugazi in the process).
"How dare they use that kind of vulgar language when referring to a nine-year-old girl?" "This wasn’t funny!" "They’ve gone too far!" And on and on it goes. That’s until something else catches people’s short attention span.
The Onion CEO Steve Hannah, betting on short attention spans, quickly whipped up a mea culpa for the tweet, offering his most humble "we screwed up" plea for forgiveness.
But that’s why The Onion’s half-a**** apology for the tweet, while maybe sincere, isn’t enough, and nothing they can do ever will be.
When you put something out there in the media, good or bad, it’s out there and can’t be taken back, no matter how sorry you are. Just ask Don Imus. His infamous "nappy-headed hoes" quip was heard and never unheard, because the damage was done, like throwing acid in the face of a girl in Afghanistan who is trying to get an education, or a slave owner raping one of his slaves. It’s just that sexist and racist, and I’m not sparing the feelings of anyone at The Onion, since they didn’t spare Quvenzhane.
So while an apology is part and parcel when someone says or does something this thoughtless, it only really pushes the envelope a little further for someone else who believes that in order to be funny someone needs to be offended.
Don’t get me wrong — edgy comedy is funny. Hell, Richard Pryor did it for years, and I’ll argue that he’s the funniest man of all time. But as raunchy as his language was, he never directly aimed it at anyone’s child. He was smart enough to know that what he said had to be carefully engineered not only for maximum impact, but to make the social statements that he intended.
So perhaps that’s the takeaway from all this: When you try to be funny, be adhesive. What came out of The Onion was the opposite. In fact it was like dress socks on a bamboo floor: It caused the people at The Onion to slip and fall on their unfunny a****.
This is why, as many n-words and M-Fs as Pryor spewed, he never once had to apologize for them, because there was nothing to apologize for. It was just hot, sticky truth.
Madison Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and Web journalist.