Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Yes, That Onion Tweet is Racist: Intersectionality and the 'C-Word'

Since my initial rage over that tweet by the Onion, I have done some reflecting. I realize that practically everyone on the internet has also done some reflecting, but here's some more.

There have been some people to come to The Onion's defense, including several people I respect. Friends of mine and several online articles have said that The Onion had a positive intent. They were attempting to skewer the misogyny that's rife in Hollywood in general and the Oscars in particular. By calling Quvenzhane Wallis a "cunt," The Onion was pointing out the incongruity. No one would really call that sweet child such a vile thing, so by pointing out the ludicrousness of the statement, we're supposed to reflect on how awful it is to treat any of the actresses in Hollywood with such misogyny.


I get that. I also admit that I think that was The Onion's intention. I don't think that whoever wrote that tweet was consciously trying to abuse a child, but I think that this tweet is a prime example of why intersectionality is so important and how whoever wrote that tweet did so without any regard for it. 


Intersectionality is the framework Kimberle Crenshaw developed for viewing oppression. This framework recognizes that systems of oppression intersect. Our world is set up in power-filled binaries.  In a patriarchal society, men are given more cultural power than women. In a racist society, white people are given more cultural power than people of color. In an abelist society, able-bodied people are given more cultural power than people with disabilities. And so on and so forth.

At any given point in our lives, we are operating within these different systems of power. Often, we are privileged in some ways and oppressed in others. We can also slip in and out of some categories over the course of our lives. We could be able-bodied one day and then suffer an injury that leaves us disabled later. We could start out in a lower class and then end up with more economic power later in our lives. Sometimes we exist in a position with less power, but it is invisible, so we can choose when we admit that position. Sometimes the position with less power is obvious or read upon us whether we claim ownership of it or not. 

One of the points of intersectionality is that we cannot ask individual people to ignore the other parts of their identities in favor of the one that we want them to identify with most strongly. 

This has particularly been an issue for feminism, where many women of color have seen white feminists as asking them to set aside their focus on racial identity in favor of focusing solely on gender identity. 

But our lives don't work that way. We are more than the sum of our identities, and we cannot just ignore pieces of ourselves because it would be more convenient that way. Furthermore, we cannot do that to other people or ask them to do that to themselves. People are whole and complicated, and any social act that doesn't start from that premise is bound to fail. 

Back to The Onion

(Warning: there's going to be some pretty strong language in the next part of this post.)
Perhaps The Onion was attempting to make a commentary on one system of oppression: misogyny. I think that they intended to point out a misogynistic pattern in Hollywood, and the Oscars was a good platform to deliver this message because it was certainly fitting the bill

This feminist defense of The Onion points out that intention and suggests that it worked to reach its goals. The author does this by putting in other actresses' names and demonstrating that the "joke" wouldn't work if we used, say, Kristen Stewart's name because many people were saying such vile things about her for no good reason. By pointing to the youngest, most innocent person in the group, they were able to make their point. 

I'm interested, though, in why the author doesn't try swapping out the word "cunt" for anything else. Yes, choosing Wallis was an important authorial decision for whoever wrote that tweet, but so was "cunt," and that's the part that I think has really upset people. 

It is also the pairing of Wallis with "cunt" that points to the reason their joke failed. They pointed to misogyny by choosing a girl, but they also stepped into issues of age and race by choosing the youngest  nominee and the only person of color nominated in either the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress categories. Quvenzhane Wallis was representative of more than just her gender, and The Onion tweet ignored that. 

"Cunt" carries a connotation that other possible gender-based slurs do not. "Bitch," for instance, doesn't carry that same weight. (Please note: I am not saying that The Onion should have just called a nine-year-old a a bitch and everything would have been fine. I'm just trying to point to specific problems in the language). 

In the Oxford English Dictionary, "cunt" is defined as a taboo meaning for female genitalia. It is also defined as a term of "vulgar abuse." It includes usage such as "cunt-struck" to mean coarse slang for "sexually infatuated." The literary examples--dating back hundreds of years--frequently signal that a woman tries to lure men with her "cunt," or sexual prowess. 

"Cunt" does not mean the same thing as "bitch." Calling someone a "cunt" has specifically sexual overtones that suggest not only a sexual appetite, but one that is to be feared or disgusted. 

The fact that The Onion chose to pair this word with a little girl of color is intersectionally important. Black women are notoriously sexualized in our culture. The trope of the jezebel and the image of the Hottentot Venus are parts of our cultural past that frequently show up in our contemporary media

In addition, as the youngest nominee, Wallis' presence at the Oscars was representative of our future, of our youth. In a world where young women are sexualized at younger and younger ages and shows like Toddlers in Tiaras are so popular they get spin-offs, we have to pay close attention to what it means when language like that is applied to a girl that young. 

Bottom Line

The defenders of The Onion say that the point of the joke is that no one would dare say such a terrible thing about Wallis, and so the incongruity made it work. However, people do dare say such terrible things about people like Wallis everyday. In fact, the host of the Oscars, Seth MacFarlane, sexualized her earlier that very night by suggesting she could be George Clooney's girlfriend. 

The Onion could have chosen other words to put in that tweet, but they chose "cunt," and that has a very particular, very sexualized meaning. They then aimed it at a nine-year-old. A nine-year-old girl. A nine-year-old black girl. All of those things matter, and together they demonstrate why we cannot ignore intersectionality. 

The Onion may have meant to call one system of oppression into question, but they (perhaps unwittingly) embodied simultaneous oppressions in their message.