Let Me Explain Why The Onion's Quvenzhané Wallis Tweet Was so Hurtful.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the only film I've seen of this year's Best Picture Nominees. As someone who was once a little black girl who loved fantasy, I had to see it.

When Quvenzhané Wallis started filming her starring role as Hushpuppy, she was only five years old, just a year older than my daughter is now. About 15 minutes into the movie, I commented to my husband that Hushpuppy reminded me so much of our daughter. Like Hushpuppy, our girl has a fabulous head of curls and a penchant for running around without pants (we keep that indoors, don't worry). And like Hushpuppy and Quvenzhané herself, she's independent, determined, and brimming with energy and confidence.

So it broke my heart when I saw The Onion's "joke" calling Quvenzhané Wallis one of the most hateful words you can call a girl or a woman in the English language. On top of being sad and appalled for Wallis and her family, I also couldn't help but think of my daughter and the inevitable day that she will hear that word directed at her for the first time.

I obviously don't speak for everyone, but it's safe to say that I'm not the only black person who feels a particular affection for Wallis. She's charmed many with her lively and precocious personality. For black audiences specifically, there's a sense of connection and identification with her, even feeling protective towards her. People baffled by the vehemence of the reactions to The Onion's tweet perhaps don't get this context, or the particular implications of the slur for young black girls. For many, seeing Quvenzhané Wallis succeed and thrive in an industry that is especially hostile to women of color is deeply personal.

We all get that this was meant as a joke, that the writer doesn't actually revile Quvenzhané Wallis. I can see that the intent was perhaps to send a message about the vicious scrutiny of girls and women in the public eye. What he or she (let's be real, probably a he) was really thinking, however, is entirely beside the point. What they did was call a girl a gendered and sexualized slur. What they did was send the message, yet again, that girls and women are open game when it comes to sexual jokes and jokes about our bodies, and that it's extra funny if the target is a very young girl. 

Of course, The Onion would have been wrong to use that word, no matter who they decided to use as the hinge for their "joke." This and much of the sexist "humor" at the Oscars were a reminder to girls and women in Hollywood, and all of us watching, that some men will always see our bodies, feelings, and lives as simultaneously a joke and a threat.

However, the context for this particular joke is not only the gross objectification that all girls and women are subjected to in American society. It's also that black girls specifically are hypersexualized in ways white girls are not. It's also that black children are routinely denied the innocence that we otherwise claim is a right of childhood.

People who think the outrage over this "joke" is indulgent and overblown severely underestimate the power of media to legitimize violence against people on the margins.

Like Roxane Gay, I was horrified by the thought that Quvenzhané is not so far from the age when she might hear men calling her such vile names in public, just because she's a black girl. The casual privilege The Onion's staff felt to fling this loaded, violent word at her, just because she's a girl in the spotlight, is absolutely connected to epidemic violence against black girls and our casual acceptance of it.

Black girls in the public eye are routinely devalued (see also: Gabby DouglasAmandla Sternberg). Mainstream media—with Hollywood at its heart—sends the message that they are lesser and don't matter. 

Watch Thandie Newton talk about the rampant abuse of young women actors in Hollywood, and add to that the racism that black actors routinely experience. You might start to understand why black people were so ready to ride hard for Wallis, and why black celebrities intimately familiar with the bigotry of their industry spoke up so loudly in her defense.

For those who need any more evidence that this protest mattered, note the fact that many white men, including former Onion staffers, have taken to the web to express their fury over the fact that The Onion dared to apologize to Wallis. Some, again including former Onion staff, have repeated the word used against Wallis in defiance of "censorship" and the "easily offended," and in supposed defense of editorial freedom. 

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.

As a girl, I was acutely sensitive to how girls who looked like me were treated and portrayed in the media. I saw the racism and sexism directed by grown adults at Venus and Serena Wililams when they burst on the national tennis scene. It affected me and many other black girls watching. The same is true for black girls—and for all girls—taking in media sexism and watching our collective response to it today. I understand if some people don't feel Quvenzhané Wallis is a serious enough cause for their outrage. But for the sake of my daughter and so many girls like her, I can't say silent.

Bitch Media publishes the award-winning quarterly magazine, Bitch:Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

30 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Unfortunately Ignorant

The post I just read has completely ignored any mention of this very important book that is on many feminists' "required reading lists" into the conversation. It is unfortunate because even today, after the book was written, too many find the word offensive. Full Disclosure: Bitch has written about/reviewed this book in the past. I used to be offended by that word, but thanks to the courageous prose of Inga Muscio and her brave book, I am no longer offended by it. I have "reclaimed" it for myself and even other feminist peers have reclaimed it for themselves and applied it to the movement. We are no longer ashamed of using it. I suggest that the author of this post read the book before writng even more harsh judgement of it. As for her daughter and other girls of her generation, they must decide for themselves whether or not they find it offensive. This post reeks of the fundamentalist "policing" that I, as a feminist, strive to overcome and pushback against. While I agree that using the word to describe an "innocent" nine-year-old girl in a public space was, perhaps, not the most appropriate word to describe her, I refuse to be shamed as a consenting feminist adult for my choice of using that word as a reclamation, an important element of our movement to better ourselves as humans, striving for the EQUALITY that we can all agree is the core of feminism. Bitchmedia ought to know!

YOU are unfortunately ignorant, my friend.

Excuse me?

I have a copy of that book. It's a great book. I get it. Use the word wherever, whenever you want.

HOWEVER, when an individual speaks out against verbal violence, and specifically, verbal violence that is disproportionally directed at women of color, you need to listen to what they have to say, and recognize that their experience is valid. In fact, being a decent human being, and LISTENING, doesn't negate your own experience.

The fact that YOU don't find the word offensive, doesn't mean that it's all right to let The Onion use the word. I'm sure that the person who wrote the tweet hasn't read that book. I'm sure that that writer doesn't know what it's like to be a member of society who is deemed less worth of respect in almost all public circles.

Verbal Violence is not Real

There's a reason people use the term "verbal abuse" to distinguish between forms of violence and things that are abusive but that don't constitute violence. It's catchy but it's not real.

The reality is that if you don't support freedom of speech in extreme cases you really don't support it at all.

I didn't know if you knew, but

Your privilege is showing.

No one is infringing on free

No one is infringing on free speech in any way by suggesting that the Onion shouldn't have used the word. Free speech means the right to say what you want without government interference, but not without being held accountable by the public for the things you say. The Onion said something, people thought it was offensive, the Onion responded to their audience by apologizing for it. That's how free speech works. That's how it should work.

Verbal Abuse is equivalent to BULLYING

When a comment, word or phrase is repeated an individual starts to believe it. So if it is negative comment one will start to believe it if and when it is repeated to them by different or a group of individuals or even ONE person.for example Slut, Bitch, Ugly, Whore are commonly used words that will make one not feel good about themselves.. Bullying shows up in all types of context including VERBALLY.. Or is Verbal Bullying not Verbal abuse.. Oh wait Verbal bullying/abuse is not real and neither are the suicides that happen to young men/women , boys and girls after one is tormented.

It may be hard to prove but to say it isn't real is ( I'm sorry) ignorant!

Just another internet

Just another internet troglodyte who's confused freedom of speech with freedom from responsibility.

Your freedom to make a joke doesn't give you freedom from people's reactions. It's something we learn as young children.

It's bullies who find a way to unlearn it.

WHAT

'using the word to describe an "innocent" nine-year-old girl in a public space was, perhaps, not the most appropriate word to describe her'--are you kidding me with this??

reclaim that word all you want. knock yourself out. no one is shaming you (and this piece isn't about you at all). just don't use it to publicly attack little black girls, especially on a twitter account followed by millions of people. you completely missed the point of this piece.

What is this I don't

What is this I don't even.

There's a MASSIVE difference between reclaiming a slur and applying it to yourself and someone else applying that slur to a 9 year old black girl. The former is something one choses to do to liberate oneself, the latter is something someone else does to you to insult and hurt you.

That word does not mean what you think it means

On top of what the other commenters said, I want to add that you are grossly misunderstanding the concept of "reclaiming" slurs.

Reclaiming is a controversial process in which people try to take words used to abuse their group and redirect the meaning towards something positive. In regard to the c-word, "reclaiming" it means things like women talking positively and lovingly about our "cunts" -- thus taking away the power to define (and revile) women through the use of our genetalia as a way to shame people and claiming the word--and, by extension, our bodies and our sexuality-- as ours.

Reclaiming DOES NOT and NEVER HAS applied to using the word in its original, abusive context. Saying "I reclaimed this word so now it's A-ok for me and others to use it as a slur against vulnerable groups!" is utter bullshit. You cannot make a positive change through a shift in your perspective only; whether or not you, personally, find a slur offensive is immaterial. The measure of a slur is how it's USED on people and what EFFECT that has on the general community.

So, do us all a favor and stop trying to police people's criticism of slurs. You don't get to silence people because you have decided that your opinion trumps the reality we all live in.

Also, using the first comment on a post that focuses on black womanhood to berate the author for speaking out and speaking up for black girls? Racist and gross.

I kind of want to make out

I kind of want to make out with this comment, and have the bit where you talk about the actual definition of reclamation framed and hung somewhere. I'm not sure where yet, as I don't have a fireplace with a mantel.

It's frustrating to hear people lash about with cries of "CENSORSHIP!" "FREEDOM OF SPEECH!" to defend things like using certain words. There's also a failing to notice the irony of doing so when it comes to people speaking about things that they find problematic. Also "freedom of speech" does not mean "freedom of consequences". There are also (not in the US but in other countries) things like hate laws. Which actually do moderate (well, in theory) people's ability to throw around hateful slurs!

Congratulations

Wow, you're like, so enlightened. I'm so happy for you.

Thanks for this article. I

Thanks for this article. I was very moved by Beasts of the Southern Wild (aka I bawled like a baby the whole way through!). It was such a beautiful film and Quvenzhané was unbelievable. So so so good. I'm kind of glad she didn't win the Oscar because she's so young, it might have put a whole heap of extra pressure on her, going from an unknown little girl to an Oscar winner before she's old enough to handle it. I really hope she has a long career ahead of her and goes on to win many Oscars in future though!

I'm white, so it was interesting to see how that slur could be offensive specifically for a black woman or girl. I hadn't really thought about it before, and although part of me is inclined to say, "hey, she's a little girl, it doen't matter what colour she is, it's terrible to speak about a nine year old that way", I do actually see your point about racism in Hollywood, and hadn't considered this perspective before. So, basically, thanks for the article!

Amen!

"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."

Amen! I attended a talk today on race in mainstream movies, and the presenter ended with an impassioned plea that little black girls (specifically one whose name escapes me right now but who is six years old and was arrested and handcuffed for hours for throwing a temper tantrum at school) have images of themselves on the big screen that show they are valued. I immediately thought of Quvenzhane and smiled. And then I thought about The Onion's tweet and wanted to give up. The effort to tear down such powerful images of black girls and women is appalling at best. And really, why does anybody, but especially why do white men, need to do that?

white men?!?

I find it to be interesting that it is assumed that the Onion's tweet was written by a man and then further assumed that those defending the Onion's right to post such things are white men.....are you all blind? Or choosing to be that way? None of us should assume that we know the gender of the individual who wrote that tweet. This person could have been a woman, a black man, Asian, you get my point....As for those defending the Onion there are women who are feminists who also believe in freedom of speech and freedom of the press and do not believe that things should be silenced because a large group of people are offended or disagree. Maybe there are less of us than I realize.

Now, should theat tweet have been written? No probably not....But I think everyone needs to take a step back and realize that this is not an instance of white men trying to put or keep little black girls in a position of disempowerment. It was someone trying to be funny, who failed and managed to offend a lot of people in the process.

Yes, White Men

Take it from this white man: Yes, every single instance of defending that horrible, horrible "joke" as "free speech" or "not worth investing in", every time I saw someone say "get over it" or "you're just being overly emotional" was from a white male.

Every. Single. Time.

Correction

(Since there's no edit)

I meant every instance I caught. And those being as diverse as HuffPo senior editors, gay rights activists, men's right activists, and New York Times columnists, and a host of other white males.

the onion

Speaking in my authority as a former Onion intern, I can safely assure you that yes, almost everybody there is white.

please learn what Freedom of

please learn what Freedom of Speech means.

kthxbye

Freedom of speech? What is that?

People will never understand the concept of freedom of speech. Even the most professed liberals seem to want to stifle speech when they become offended or do not agree with what another person has to say. BUT when it comes to their views, their opinions, their jokes, they become outraged when someone else wants to do the same. People never cease to amaze me.....

Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech doesn't remain immobile and attached to the original speaker. Others exercise their freedom of speech to respond. Freedom of speech does not equal freedom from response or freedom from accountability.

When you criticize someone

When you criticize someone else's speech, it does not in any way infringe on their right to freedom of speech. In fact, it is ALSO freedom of speech. This argument is asinine and a lazy way to not ever have to defend the things people want a right to say. The right to freedom of speech is not the right to say whatever you want without ever having to deal with the consequences it may present. No one is entitled to a particular platform via freedom of speech. And I don't see anyone on here threatening to have this person arrested. So I don't see how it infringes on anyone's freedom of speech to criticize something you think is wrong.

Freedom of speech only

Freedom of speech only guarantees freedom from being silenced by the government, or from being forcibly silenced.

Being silenced because a lot of people got angry and said they thought you were a twit is NOT a violation of your freedom of speech.

Being silenced because you offended a government official and they used their political power to shut you down or threaten you IS a violation of your freedom of speech.

Being silenced because people accuse you of saying something racist is NOT a violation of your freedom of speech.

Being silenced because people threaten to kill you if you keep talking IS a violation of your freedom of speech.

You have a right to speak - you do NOT have a right to an absence of criticism.

I'm white but I loved the

I'm white but I loved the movie and I so fell in love with our little Hushpuppy!! I didn't see or hear anything about The Onion slur .... I don't even know what they called her. But they should be ashamed of themselves. The Academy should be ashamed too! Miss Wallis deserved that Oscar!!

Thank you for the missing (to me) puzzle piece

Many thanks, T.F. Charlton, for sharing your thoughts. Like the commenter above, Katie G., I am a white woman who initially reacted to the slur hurled at Quvenzhané in terms of ALL girls, any girl. So I'm grateful for the prompting to think more deeply, to see the trend not just the story-of-the-moment, and for the reminder that, as you wrote, "black girls specifically are hypersexualized in ways white girls are not. ...black children are routinely denied the innocence that we otherwise claim is a right of childhood." A painful but important truth.

BitchMedia responds to Hurtful Slur with Condemnation

I'm sure that a bunch of white guys at The Onion are really out to denigrate little black girls. These crocodile tears are worthy of a right-wing talking points memo.

Sigh

The question still stands why a bunch of white men are so eager to stand by their comments which (whether purposefully or not) contribute to the long standing tradition of white people in positions of power saying terrible things about black people. By your short and useless comment, I can tell that you probably consider yourself as liberal, progressive, post-racial and blah blah blah, but honestly your (and your white counterparts) privilege is showing. Seriously, it's showing so hard, it's amazing how you can't see it. Anyway, you can go back to talking with your other white friends about how "progressive" you are and how much you're willing to protect your "free speech".

Riiiight. It's fine to call

Riiiight.

It's fine to call a 5-year old a cunt.
Things get really offensive when you call grown men, who are paid to be sarcastic, assholes.

I mean, they're obviously the victim here.

re: reclaiming the c-word

Anonymous, are you kidding me with your reclamation b.s.? It's already been said, but just because YOU feel just fine about the word cunt, doesn't mean being called a cunt feels just fine, especially by a nine year old girl, and especially if she hasn't "reclaimed" it.

I may be a Vietnamese lesbian who calls herself a dyke, but I'll be damned if I let some random Onion editor tweet "gook dyke" about me or my girlfriend.

Get it?

Yes! I call myself a dyke,

Yes! I call myself a dyke, but I wouldn't call someone else a dyke unless I knew they claimed the term.

And I cannot know what it is like to grow up black, but as a human, and as a woman, I am offended by the tweet.