Monday, February 25, 2013

Why the Oscars Terrifies Me as a Parent

I tried starting this blog post out with some context and setup. I tried to make this about seeing the way we treat our celebrities as a window into our cultural value of humanity. I tried to make this sound intellectual and analytical with some distance between myself and what I was talking about.

But I couldn't.

The truth is, when I saw The Onion tweet that called nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis a "cunt," my reaction--at least my initial reaction--came from only one place, and that place is not intellectual or analytical or distant. That place is raw and visceral and very, very close. I am the mother of a little girl of color, and I was enraged.

Angry tigress

Sure, I could draw connections from this incident to Ms. Magazine's recent victim-blaming of Rhianna to those horribly racist tweets about Amandla Stenberg a while back. I could draw those lines and make some comments about how all of these young, black women are being denigrated in the media in ways that show a lack of value for their humanity. I could then talk about how horribly misogynistic the entire Academy Awards were last night and how the very first thing I heard when I tuned in mid-way was the host (a man chosen to represent us on this night to celebrate our mainstream media) congratulated women on successfully suffering from bulimia in order to meet his standards of beauty. I could talk about the measures taken to combat that and how we need to do more, and I could give signs of hope and signs of despair.

But, at the end of the day, as I watched my own little girl sleep, none of that felt adequate because none of it gave me any real answers in how to protect her from the horrible, vile, dehumanizing things that are waiting for her. Nothing can keep me from realizing that the days where she's oblivious to these forces are numbered, and that I'm the on the front lines of keeping it at bay and arming her for the inevitable battle. 

I can read posts like this one and take heart that she will not fight that battle alone. I can teach her how strong she is and encourage her to grow stronger still. I can read her books and sing her songs and take her to tumbling class and pray and cry and write and scream, but I can't fight in her place. 

I can't fight in her place, and I--a white woman--can't even understand all that she faces. 

But I understand enough to know that the battle will be hard, and long, and painful. I understand because the evidence is everywhere. The Onion, thankfully, issued an apology. As far as apologies go, it's a pretty good one. They take ownership. They lay out future actions. They are direct and do not say that they're sorry we got offended instead of concentrating on the actions they made. But the comments under that apology on their Facebook page point to the real problem

So some rogue social media writer for The Onion got carried away and made a horrible, terrible joke. If that's where it ended, then it would be over. 

But there are so many (mostly white, mostly male) people who are outraged that The Onion would dare apologize for calling a little black girl a perverse, sexualized, derogatory term that I know it doesn't end there. I know that they are outraged because they are trying to maintain a power that keeps them on top and keeps little girls like Ms. Wallis on the bottom. I know that they are outraged because even the tiny shred of human decency in apologizing is seen as a threat to their privilege. 

And I can't fight in my daughter's place, and that hurts. 


  1. I was hoping you would weigh in on this. What a complicated world we have laid out for our kids.

  2. If only all that Quvenzhane would need to take with throughout her entire life is her knowledge that she is the man while retaining the fierceness with which she claimed it, she'd be set.

  3. The Onion tweet, which I did not see, was, unfortunately, just an extension of the cruel, dehumanizing tone of the whole evening. Seth McFarland is a very talented person, clearly intelligent and witty, but he needs to take a class in rhetoric to learn something about context and audience and perhaps social decency. I'm not just being prudishness, although I am still not sure about the "We saw your boobs" number. The comment about "beautiful women," following immediately after the stage was vacated by some hard-working, talented film industry artists (hair? makeup?) who clearly did not fit the model of women typically put in front of the camera, was stupid or heartless and uncalled for. He's intelligent, so let's say heartless and uncalled for. The Lincoln-Booth joke was tactless. There were more, but the closing number was just cynical. Hollywood deserves to be made fun of. The self-congratulatory importance the industry assumes is ripe for ridicule, but cynicism and mean-spiritedness do no one any good. That's what the "looser" song seemed to me. Maybe it wasn't intended to be, but it sure came off that way. That's called a rhetorical failure. If cynicism was the mode of the Academy Awards Ceremony, then the tweet on Onion hit the mark in an ugly, socially unacceptable way, because social cynicism in all its manifestations always hits children and the vulnerable first and hardest.

    On a brighter note, when Jennifer Lawrence fell, she handled it with grace and style and carried on. Then when Meryl Streep came on the stage immediately after, she almost imperceptibly tripped a bit, but recovered and began her presentation by saying something to the effect, "We're all tripping on our dresses tonight." It seemed to me a very cleaver and thoughtful way to express solidarity with her fellow actress without outright saying anything to further humiliate her. If so, it was a gracious act of kindness and decency which shone brightly against the background of heartless cynicism. Well done, Ms. Streep. Shame on McFarland and the producers of a show that did not so much celebrate the achievements of artists, as degrade them. With so much talent at hand, he could have done so much better.

  4. I completely agree, especially with your comment about rhetorical frameworks. What segment of the audience was MacFarlane trying to reach? Was it just shock value? Is that really how cheap the American public has become?

  5. I think that one thing you can do for your daughter is teach her not to personalize things which are not personal. I grew up being teased and tormented for a great many things in my life and my mother would alternate between telling me that people who said such things didn't matter and telling me how I should change in order to no longer be subjected to such treatment. What she didn't tell me, and if she had told me so again and again, I might have grown up with a lot more self-esteem, was that none of that actually had anything to do with me. All of those comments were reflections of the psychological issues of the people making them. They were not personal and I needed not to attach my emotions to them.

    Rather than react as a tiger protecting her cubs, I believe it may be more helpful to contextualize the behavior of people who appear to behaving in a way which is personally hurtful toward her. You cannot control the actions of other people no matter how angry you get or how much you attack the sources of those actions and hope they'll back off. In the real world, you can only control your responses and your daughter would do best to know that hurtful comments cannot hurt her if she does not let them. Her only task in life is to behave with the integrity she feels others should possess because she can't force others to have it anyway.

    Don't take it personally or your daughter will also learn to personalize such comments and every dumb or insensitive remark by some ignorant jerk toward someone similar to her will seem like a shot at her and will instill a sense of bitterness, anger, and hopelessness at the fact that she cannot control the actions of those who appear to be attacking her (but actually aren't!). You do not want her to grow up feeling constantly under attack by proxy.

  6. I agree with a lot of this advice, and I am certainly hoping to show her that she can only control her own actions (something I hope to embody through my own philosophy as well) and that her integrity is key to her sense of self.

    I don't completely agree, though, that people who are attaching women or who are attacking people of color aren't attacking her. We are individuals, but we are also members of communities, and attacks on those communities are attacks on us. I think it is important to see yourself as a member of those communities and as someone who wants to make those communities better. So while I think there's a lot to be said for not personalizing attacks, sometimes it is personal, even if it's not individual.