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Flatiron Hot! News | December 12, 2017

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2013 Oscars: The Onion’s High-Tech Lynching of Beasts of the Southern Wild Star Quvenzhané Wallis

2013 Oscars: The Onion’s High-Tech Lynching of Beasts of the Southern Wild Star Quvenzhané Wallis
Eric Shapiro

During the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony (sorry, the Oscars), satirical publication The Onion set Twitter ablaze with an outrageous – and, many claim, racially-charged – tweet about 9-year-old Beasts of the Southern star Quvenzhané Wallis. And just what were those 17 inflammatory words that sparked such an uproar on the night of the Oscars?


While it is natural to react to such reprehensible comments with outrage and revulsion, the online response to The Onion’s tweet underscores a phenomenon pervasive in our culture. Namely, rather than addressing controversial societal issues, we target the people, publications or events that bring said issues to our attention. To be sure, the intentions of these entities are often far from commendable.

The Onion is a publication that thrives on controversy and attention. It is tabloid journalism taken to the extreme, its very purpose being to shock us. Last night, whoever was responsible for manning the publication’s Twitter feed stepped over the line, cynically targeting an innocent child and also begging the question of whether race – the talented and adorable Quvenzhané Wallis is black – played a part.

Furthermore, the tweeter did not cast his over-the-top aspersion in the service of any larger point. One can make the case that we go too far in placing children on a pedestal, perhaps to the point of worship. Novelist Ron Currie, Jr. makes this point in a chapter of his literary debut, God is Dead. Comedian Louis CK makes it in his stand-up comedy and on his TV show, Louis.

But in both cases, the point is not to single out specific children for insult, but to illuminate our cultural attitudes towards children and/or highlight the absurdity of the parent-child relationship. Calling a 9-year-old actress a cunt is not comedy, satire, or legitimate cultural criticism (hell, it’s not the least bit funny). It is simply revolting.

That being said, we should think very carefully before we go about drafting online petitions and venting our outrage in an endless barrage of tweets and Facebook posts. Setting aside the fact that the very object of our outrage, The Onion, is likely to benefit from the publicity engendered by such attention, we should consider whether our efforts might not be better spent on other endeavors.

Children suffer far worse travesties than online insults. They are victimized daily in numerous ways, some widely discussed and others neglected in part because they are so horrible to think about. Yet, how often do you see “childsexslaves” trending on Twitter? It is easy to go online and vent our outrage at the debasement of a relatively famous actress.

It is much harder to confront the reality that even as you’re (hopefully) reading this article, children are being molested, beaten, used as soldiers, and murdered. Against the backdrop of this sobering and horrific reality, the words of an Onion employee on Twitter seem rather insignificant.

The reaction to the online smearing of Quvenzhané Wallis is not only a product of her age. Many people also claim, quite plausibly, that her race was a factor. Would Dakota Fanning, or the Olsen twins, or any other white child star have been singled out in this way? Would Don Imus have called an all-white girl’s volleyball team a bunch of straight-haired hoes?

Or, as many suspect, is it considered more acceptable in the media to insult a young girl who happens to be African American? This is a legitimate question that deserves serious consideration. Insofar as Quvenzhané Wallis’ experience sheds light on this phenomenon, it is useful to discuss.

However, it is crucial that we do not lose sight of the larger issues at play, namely the discrimination, insults, and inequality that black women endure in the U.S., even at the hands of their fellow African Americans. African-American women, many of them the mothers of young children, have suffered disproportionately before and during the recession.

Yet, the government is on the verge of permitting a “sequester” that would cut funding from programs that these women rely on to feed and educate themselves and/or their families.

None of these societal problems justify The Onion’s reprehensible tweet. But they should go some way towards placing it in its proper context.