On Quvenzhané Wallis

by Jessica Luther, aka scatx, who can also be found at her own blog, Speaker's Corner in the ATX, and blazing trails of righteous fury on Twitter.

[Content Note: Racism; misogyny.]

On Sunday night, the Oscars happened. And a whole lot of people have written good things about how the ceremony itself was misogynistic and also people have pointed out that we really shouldn't have expected more from a group of people who we already know to be misogynists.

But the misogyny was not limited to the TV screen. It leaped right onto the Twitter feed of over 4 million people on Sunday night when the Onion tweeted the following:
Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right? #Oscars2013
I have so many thoughts about this tweet and the fallout from it and I'm going to try to get them written here in a coherent fashion. This is me saying: This will be long but I'll try to make it worth it.

First, let me address why I found this tweet to be way over the line (and I'm cribbing from some tweets I wrote on Monday morning).

It matters that this was not the only "joke" directed at Wallis that night. During the telecast itself, which 40 million people watched, MacFarlane said this:
So let me just address those of you up for an award, so you got nominated for an oscar, something a 9-year-old could do! She's adorable, Quvenzhane. She said to me backstage. "I really hope I don't lose to that old lady, Jennifer Lawrence." To give you an idea how young she is it'll be 16 years before she's too old for Clooney.
And I think that we need to take these two "jokes" together and discuss their full impact. [If you need a primer on why "cunt" is a problematic word and a terrible slur, Melissa has one.]

Quvenzhané Wallis is 9.

Joking about a 9-year-old black girl hooking up with George Clooney is INAPPROPRIATE. She was in the fucking audience. 40 million people were watching. It was the biggest night of her life. Her nomination was historic because of her age. But it was also a nomination for a black actress, something that is still rare in Hollywood. And MacFarlane used her to make a joke about how George Clooney likes to date young women.

But the context of these "jokes" is so much larger than the Oscars, MacFarlane, Hollywood, the Onion, or Twitter.

Wallis is a young black girl in a country with a horrific history of racism and sexual exploitation of young black girls.

She's a young black girl in a country with a horrific history of racism and sexual exploitation of young black girls. Because - AND I CAN'T SAY THIS ENOUGH - black women's bodies have been sexually exploited, used, disparaged FOR CENTURIES. That's great for you if that history doesn't mean anything to you but that doesn't mean that history isn't real and isn't present now. The fact that you don't have to engage with that history when MacFarlane or the Onion "jokes" just means you're lucky. (Also, what Shelby Knox tweeted.)

SHE IS 9. She took a PUPPY PURSE WEARING A TUTU to the Oscars. And got sexualized and called a "cunt" just for daring to be in public eye.

@mslooola expressed it this way (tweet #1, tweet #2):
there comes a point where you're simply FATIGUED. fatigued that comedy has STILL not found a way to evolve from making you the punchline. i need Seth MacFarlane, The Onion, (and their defenders) and all those who make a living through comedy to DO BETTER.
The Onion apologized on Monday.

This is also part of a larger story about Wallis herself and the overall disrespect she has received. The media refuses to learn how to say her name. Despite the critical acclaim to the movie in which she starred. Despite her historic nomination. Despite that she is a human being. From Arturo Garcia:
First, there was an Associated Press — Associated Press! — reporter on the red carpet before the show allegedly telling Wallis, "I'm gonna call you "Annie," instead of by her given name, for which the reporter was quickly and rightfully corrected. In another bizarre outburst, model Chrissy Teigen saw fit to call her "a brat."
This was not just about the Onion.

But lots of people covered the overall terrible misogyny of Seth MacFarlane. Seriously. Google it. Jane Fonda wrote a blog post where she tore into MacFarlane for the "boob song" but in which she did not mention Wallis (though she "LOVED" that Tarantino won the Oscar for his Django Unchained screenplay).

The Onion tweet was lumped in with a lot of that coverage. But the main coverage of the tweet and the use of the word "cunt" in relationship to a 9-year-old black girl, especially through the simultaneous lens of gender and race, was lacking. Most of it came from women of color:
Lots of white men were unhappy that people were unhappy with the Onion. Former Onion staffers, that I'm guessing are white men (I'll retract if I am wrong), were angry the Onion apologized (I will point out that Baratunde Thurston, a black man who used to work for the Onion, spoke out against the tweet). Matt Kirshen, a comedian, specifically went after Falguni A. Sheth's Salon piece in order to show why people's outrage was directed at the wrong place. Thanks, Kirshen! We love it when men police our emotions.

T. F. Charlton's response to white men being unhappy about this:
Perhaps rather than ask why people are so angry at The Onion, we should ask why some white men are so invested in the right to slur black children.
Here is what Luvvie tweeted after The Onion's apology went up:
Many of the comments under @TheOnion's apology are people calling them "cunts" for apologizing for "doing their job." *facepalm*
But this goes beyond these men and apologists. White women - white feminists even - defended The Onion, too:
  • Katie J.M. Baker at Jezebel tried to argue that we should be reclaiming "cunt" and that talking about this was overshadowing the real misogyny of the night that took place at the The Oscars.
  • Mandy Stadtmiller is the deputy editor of xoJane: "If it helps break the tension at all, @theonion can call me a cunt as much as they like. I will always defend jokes. Also I'm kind of a cunt"
  • MaryAnn Johanson titled her piece: "a feminist film critic defends the Onion's Quvenzhané Wallis tweet" and then when called out on Twitter for her whitewashed piece about the tweet, said she was being "bullied."
  • Jennifer Evers at blogher: "Freedom of Speech - Even For The Awful Things" (I don't even have time to explain censorship and first amendment rights and how that has nothing to do with this)
  • On Feministing's February 27th "Daily Feminist Cheat Sheet," where they list links they want people to see, they juxtaposed Johanson's defense of the tweet with Charlton's critique in an uncritical post that made it seem like there is a debate to be had here about whether the tweet was actually offensive.
For a comprehensive take, Falguni A. Sheth wrote a piece about the backlash against her Salon post criticizing The Onion.

Perhaps the worst was the silence.
  • Kirsten West Savali at Clutch Magazine: Where Were White Feminists Speaking Out For Quvenzhané Wallis?
  • Tressie mc: Did White Feminists Ignore Attacks on Quvenzhané Wallis? That's An Empirical Question (and I will note that Tressie includes a list of blogs associated with white feminist media, one of them being Flyover Feminism, a site I co-created and co-edit, and she points out that we had no response)
  • Slate's XX Factor, despite having posts about Ben Affleck's acceptance speech, MacFarlane's "boob song," and a post about "Makers" (a PBS documentary that has been criticized for its whitewashing), had not one post about Wallis. Tressie, in her post, noted XX Factor contributor, Amanda Marcotte's wishy-washy personal response to all of this.
  • If you search The Nation's site for "Quvenzhane," you get a single post: "The Oscars Fails Its Own Vision Test," that briefly mentions the tweet and the post was written by a woman of color (Aura Bogado). But, oh my god, did they write about the Oscars: here, here, here, here, and here.
  • Feministe has Oscar open threads but no specific post about Wallis, MacFarlane, or The Onion.
  • Women, Action & the Media (which has nothing on the Oscars)
  • Women's Media Center, which has a blog post about sexism and the Oscars but no specific mention of Wallis. [Update: There is one mention of Wallis, though not by name: "This could be why the Academy Awards sees nothing wrong with picking a host who starts off the night with a joke about actresses' breasts, makes an 9-year-old in the audience the subject of sexual innuendo, and tags a movie about a dedicated female CIA officer with an eye-roll-inducing joke direct from 1950 about how women 'never let anything go.'"]
[Note: I would be remiss not to note that Shakesville did not have a dedicated post either until this one, as Melissa was in the emergency room almost all of Monday, late into the night. Deeky, however, included it in Monday's In The News.]

This isn't to say that NO white feminists went to bat for Wallis or black women more generally. Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress jumps out at me (though she doesn't really engage with the racial implications of this incident - same with Amy Davidson at The New Yorker). Erin Matson also. Anya Josephs at SPARK.

Tressie mentions Women's Media Center in her post because they reacted immediately on Twitter after The Onion posted their tweet. But I mention above that their blog post on the Oscars does not mention only briefly mentioned Wallis, and not by name. So let me take a short moment to talk about Twitter, my favorite space on the internet.

Yes, I saw plenty of white feminists tweeting their anger about The Onion and MacFarlane. But let's be honest about Twitter. It's ephemeral. It quickly disappears unless someone takes note of a particular tweet's URL, screenshots it, or puts it into a chirp story or storify post. There is a reason people write blog posts. There is a reason we do this kind of long-form writing: It lasts.

While it is wonderful that so many people jumped to Wallis' defense in the immediate aftermath of the Oscars and the Onion tweet, if we want the message to have staying power, we've got to write it down. Every time we choose to take the time to write one thing down and not another, we are making a political choice about what topics matter enough to us to make that effort. While tweeting matters, too (at least I hope so, shit), white feminists' reaction to women of color pointing out our lack of response cannot be a defensive "but I tweeted about it for a day" and feel like that is good enough. If nothing else, what women of color are saying to white feminists is that it wasn't good enough. White feminists need to listen.

I'm keenly aware that I am here, a white lady, writing about this right now. I'm extremely aware that the takeaway may be that I am trying to play "good white feminist" up against "bad white feminists." Today is March 1. It has been over five days since The Onion posted that tweet, since MacFarlane sexualized Wallis, and this is my first sustained critique of the entire episode. I admit wholeheartedly that my writing of this post was not because I am some kind of superior social justice activist but rather that I felt terrible guilt yesterday when my friend, @graceishuman, tweeted the following:
Like @StephHerold said, *institutional* white feminist response has been basically *crickets*. So from my POV the issue is less that white feminists didn't speak up for Quvenzhané. Many did. To me the issue is more that it almost always takes black women to point out these silences and attacks. The silences and attacks from white feminists, I mean. It shouldn't be all on black women + other WOC to address this substantively. With few exceptions it's always WOC starting the convo about racism in feminism. Has to change.
I shouldn't have needed that push. But I did. And once I read those words from someone I respect more than almost anyone else in the world, I felt compelled. This is the result.

I, white lady feminist, have a responsibility here and I want to meet it.

Therefore, let's talk Sandra Fluke and expectations from white feminists.

I think Neal Carter's point is an important one:
WOC were expected to defend Taylor Swift becuase of "F*minism" and now when Quvenzhane needs to be protected, where's "their" uproar?
This mirrors what Kirsten West Savali wrote in her post at Clutch:
As the layers of this incident continue to unfold, Black feminists have been accused by misogynists of irrationalism in the face of microaggression and ignorance in the face of satire apparently so sophisticated that it floats just beyond our comprehension. And during this condescending exercise in privilege, white feminists have largely remained silent. That is the travesty here. We can all take the outcry over Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" all the way to the White House, but a 9-year-old Black girl can't even get the support of white feminists in 140 characters or less.
The Fluke comparison is interesting.

First the differences (as my friend, Will Weldon, noted to me last night on Twitter):
The Onion wasn't actually trying to call her a cunt, they were making a joke about both how she actually seems totally perfect and/or the ridiculous vitriol gossip magazines spew at (almost exclusively female) celebrities. But they fucking blew it. Rush's point was that women who expect us to pay for their slutty birth control are sluts.
But here is the difference that DOES matter: Rush Limbaugh was saying shit for years before everyone freaked out. I actually got people very angry on Twitter when I pointed out that he had a history of attacking women of color, Michelle Obama in particular, without the same sort of response. There was a GIGANTIC boycott in the IMMEDIATE wake of Limbaugh calling Fluke a slut (and I was happy about it - I hate Limbaugh and think he should be off the air and what he said was reprehensible). The campaign went full force on Twitter and social media and the news networks for days and days and days. I still regularly see #STOPRush tweets go through my timeline.

A huge part of the feminist blogosphere spent what felt like months defending Fluke. While I do think the Fluke thing happened at a specific moment in time at the end of a long build of misogynistic bullshit around reproductive health care, I also think Amadi hits it on the head:
It felt to me like identification. Like finally he'd picked on someone enough like them for them to care.
In other words, it's clear the feminist blogosphere goes hard when the person attacked is young, white, cis, hetero lady in political sphere because a lot of feminists, especially those with large platforms, identify intimately with Fluke. Unlike what was written at Jezebel about Wallis, was anyone saying in the wake of Limbaugh's comments: "Yeah, what Limbaugh said was bad but really, shouldn't we be reclaiming the word 'slut'?" (I know Slut Walk was about reclamation but it was not in reaction to Limbaugh and the movement had its own problems with inclusion and race.) But is that really how we want to do our feminism? We take up rhetorical arms only when we can see ourselves in the person attacked? I hope not. That is not my feminism.

Sandra Fluke, after being asked on Twitter to respond to The Onion's tweet, was wishy-washy (tweet #1, tweet #2):
Obvi, meant ironically but crossed line. Word has 2 much history & power when applied 2 young Black girl. Apology was 1st I saw of it. Thought my reaction obvious, but should have shown solidarity.
I'd say that was the typical response from most white feminists: "Thought my reaction obvious."

The history of white feminism and white feminists' problems of inclusion when it comes to women of color, lesbians, trans* people, queer folk, fat people, people with disabilities, the poor and working class have been heavily documented. If privileged white feminists want those who have historically been left out of the movement to trust us ever again, we have to stop thinking that our reactions to attacks against those groups or people in those groups are obvious. That places the burden, once more, on the excluded and the oppressed to do the work. And, once more, we reinforce that this movement isn't really about them. That is, in fact, what is obvious.

If you had a completely different reaction to Quvenzhane Wallis being called a cunt than you did to Sandra Fluke being called a slut, you should probably be asking yourself why.

And if you didn't think that it was an issue that concerned you, you should also be questioning why a slur used against all women, when directed at a young black girl, suddenly only matters to women of color.

Now. Final Part.

I want to talk about four specific responses to this entire incident and why they are not okay.

1) I don't want to listen to someone explain to me how this is satire and that this is about the intent to show how we, as a society, say terrible things about women who do not deserve it.

Johanson's article, which I mention above, does this. It tries to explain the intent of the tweet and pass that off as more important than the impact. Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) pointed this out on Twitter the other day when she was trying to explain to Johanson why the post is so problematic (something that Johanson did not want to hear).

I have nothing to say about this argument except [CN: violent imagery]: If you intend to punch one person in the face and instead hit a 9-year-old black girl in the face, your intent does not matter; the impact does.

2) I don't want to listen to someone explain to me that the Onion has already apologized and therefore there is no reason to be talking about this anymore.

First, the tweet will never die. The Onion deleted it about an hour after they posted it. But the screenshot will live forever. Twitter may be ephemeral most of the time but that does not mean it cannot have longevity, especially in moments of controversy. You don't think some asshole journalist will not ask Quvenzhané Wallis about this first chance they get?

Second, just because a major media outlet apologizes, that does not mean the damage is gone. Even if someone decides to forgive the Onion, forgiveness is not exoneration.

As Roxane Gay put it, this is about the larger culture that allows space for The Onion to think it can pull off satire that equates a 9-year-old black girl with that word:
I'm not outraged about this one tweet. I'm outraged about the cultural disease that spawned this tweet, the one where certain people are devalued and denigrated for sport and then told to laugh it off because hey, you know, it's humor.
3) I don't want to listen to someone explain to me that the Onion is progressive generally and so this is a just a blip that ultimately doesn't matter.

Yes, the Onion wrote the article about the abortionplex. Yes, it often, through its pointed satire, has some of the best, most cutting pieces on the internet. Yes, a lot of the time we could label it progressive. But that's not a free pass.

I call this the "Bill Maher" syndrome.

Back in 2011, he had no problem throwing around the word "cunt," since his mark was Sarah Palin, a republican. The idea being that that word was okay to use in that context because he wasn't making fun of the women whom he respects. But any misogynistic slur put out into the world against a woman hurts all women.

Bill Maher has a LONG history of misogyny, racism, transphobia, homophobia, fat hatred, you name it. But since he is on "our" side and he makes "jokes," he is immune to the criticism, I've been told. Repeatedly. Any time I point out on Twitter that Maher is terrible, I am met with instant apologies for him.

We all have our vices. And we can all decide what we are willing to stomach - if we didn't want sexist, racist, transphobic, heterosexist, fatphobic, disablist, classist material to be in our media, we would literally have to stop consuming all media. Yet that does not mean that when our so-called allies fuck up, just because they've been good in the past, they are free from the criticism we regularly lob at people we don't consider our allies.

And here's the thing about The Onion. It fucks up a lot and it, like Maher, has a LONG history of it:
The idea, then, that somehow the Onion is off limits is ridiculous and unfair.

4) And I really don't want to listen to someone explain to me that this is a just a joke and that the magical force field of comedy shrouds such displays of crude, disgusting behavior in a criticism-free blanket.

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I don't think I should get the final word on this, though. Instead, I'd like to quote this amazing piece from Prison Culture:
A recent comment made on Twitter by the brilliant Dr. Sharpe (who I cited earlier) led to a question that has been rattling around in my brain: "What if most people (including some who are black) in the U.S. actually don't care about the decimation of black people?" For many, this may in fact be a rhetorical question. But for me, it isn't. The response that one offers must necessarily shape our interventions, strategies, and ideas about social change and justice.

And so the question that we are left to answer is: "What if no one cares about black survival because we were actually never meant to survive?" Where does this leave those of us who want to see an end to racialized mass incarceration or to the subjugation of black women & girls? Who should we be "convincing" to join in that struggle? How are we supposed to build power within this context?

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