Okay, so I really wasn't planning on having anything in-depth to say about this, but... A.) I do, B.) It's in my wheelhouse and C.) The questions of comedy and its limits (or lack thereof) is endlessly interesting - to me anyway. So, alright, let's talk about The Onion.
Unless it's already left the news forefront, you're probably aware that in the wake of last Sunday night's Academy Awards telecast, the official Twitter of news-satire website The Onion fired off a tweet (since deleted), the crux of which was declaring Quvenzhané Wallis - the 9 year-old Best Actress nominee for Beasts of The Southern Wild - to be "kind of a c**t."
NOTE: For my international readers, in the U.S. "the C word" (which I understand to be common to the point of casual use in the UK) is for whatever reason considered to be just about the worst anti-female insult one can utter.
The reaction from the rest of Twitter, and then the rest of the media, was swift and damning outrage, followed by the equally-predictable backlash of folks "defending" The Onion - some of them with rational arguments regarding free speech, others from the more reflexive place of the un-self-conscious privileged screeching about "feminists" (because Wallis is a girl) and "The P.C. Police" (because she is also black) not being able to "take a joke." By the following morning, The Onion had issued a rare apology in an attempt to stem the rising tide of anger.
I am conflicted about this. And then conflicted about my being conflicted. On the one hand, I'm very much on the "actions have consequences" side of the free speech issue. Say whatever you like, but if what you say is hurtful or leads to actual harm be prepared for repercussions, be they legal or (preferably) in the form of shame and societal shunning by your peers. On the other hand, this was clearly intended as satire, not as a personal attack on young Ms. Wallis - quite the opposite, in fact. But, on the other other hand, it was badly executed satire that didn't work. In fact, from where I sit, it blew up in its own face and wound up becoming what it was trying to make fun of.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Here's the thing: Yes, obviously, it is not okay to call a 9 year-old girl a c**t. "Why" shouldn't have to be explained (it's a sexualized/gendered insult, reducing a person to their genitals and then shaming them for what said genitals are, this kid is nine freaking years old, etc.,). BUT - and I boldface because this is a big, big, BUT - while what The Onion did was in fact call her that word, they also didn't "really" do so. It's a weird distinction, I'll grant, but this is what satire is made of.
Let me preface this by saying that this is the reason why I don't think the joke works at all, but to get why this wasn't intended as mean or even an attack on the actress in question requires the context of what The Onion is and how it operates. They are a news parody outfit, but not of The Daily Show variety where the humor is mainly based on holding up actual examples of idiocy in the media for public mockery by Jon Stewart and his audience. Instead, The Onion takes the form of a "real" news site and runs fake headlines (and entire fake news stories) that mock the worst excesses of the "real" media by exaggeration. Sample joke: "Study Concludes: Babies Are Stupid."
In this context (and, once again, the fact that context is needed and needs further clarification is why this is a bad joke), it's pretty clear that the intent here was not to attack Wallis - or any actress, for that matter - but rather to, through exaggeration and parody, shame those who would. The punchline is not "This little girl is a C-word," it's "The way the entertainment press treats female celebrities during Awards season is one step away from calling a little girl the C-word." The only reason Wallis' name/persona are used at all is because, for the gag to theoretically work, it requires a central figure who virtually everyone agrees is not "that word."
So yes, I get the joke. But I also get why it failed so spectacularly. First and foremost, it failed to properly distinguish itself as a thing apart from what it was mocking - mostly because it came in the limited, anonymous form of a tweet, but also because the very thing it's mocking is already vile to the point of self parody (more on that in just a bit). It also fails to take into account collateral damage (i.e. "Will the 9-year-old girl in question understand that the joke is making fun of the idea of making fun of her and not just actually making fun of her?), which in my opinion is a factor in crafting good versions of this kind of satire.
Yes, "crafting." As in the careful, deliberate construction of something - even a joke. Crafting. Something that's hard to do in the Twitter of age of comedy at the speed of light.