I spent some time in Germany when I was in high school. At the time, I was shy but funny. As anyone who’s spent time in cross-cultural situations knows, jokes don’t always translate easily, especially the sort of asides I was used to dealing in. I felt totally ill at ease until I figured out a neat trick. I would just say things that were obviously and ludicrously untrue. Given the limited nature of the German vocabulary at my disposal, most of these jokes were about the weather. When our class was standing, freezing, in line to tour some landmark or another, I turned to my host sister and said something like “Mensch! Ich wünschte, es wär’ nicht so heiß!”
Hilarious stuff. There’s a reason why I went into ministry and not comedy writing. But it worked, minimally, because there was a shared understanding that what I had said was ridiculous. To complain of the heat on a cold rainy day on the Baverian prairie was absurd.
There’s been an uproar in the last few days over a tweet that the Onion feed posted during the Oscars on Sunday night, one which used a really, terribly vulgar word to describe Quvenzhané Wallis, Best Actress nominee andnine-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The Onion took the tweet down Sunday night, and issued an apology Monday morning. But the internet had already afforded us myriad petitions demanding the writer’s dismissal and opinion pieces decrying the misogyny, “hipster racism,” evident power imbalances and sexualization of girl-children “apparent” in the “joke.”
I agree that the word the Onion writer(s) used is one of the nastiest around; it’s one I never ever say (unless I’m singing along with feminist folk singer Ani DiFranco, as she reclaims and repurposes it), and I am one known to be a bit lax with my profanity filter. I have never been called by that name, but I like to imagine if I were to be, my response would be as awesome as Tina Fey’s (which she documents in Bossypants): “No. You don’t get to call me that. My parents love me; I’m not… going to take that […].” It’s a word I generally hate, and one I hope my little girls never hear.
But I have to say, that while the joke was in poor taste, I don’t think it was evidence of misogynistic, or racist tendencies in the writer, or about sexualizing or otherwise dehumanizing this dear girl. The “joke” was that Quvenzhané Wallis is obviously beyond reproach, and entirely delightful. Anyone who has ever seen her speak, or interviewed, or interact with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning, America cannot deny how utterly wonderful she is, much less what a terrific actress she is. To call her such a thing is totally absurd. The more important part of the Onion joke, commentator Matt Kirshen writes, is the “everyone else seems afraid to said it. It’s the ludicrous idea that this is some dirty secret…. The joke is in the writer saying something no one would, or could possibly believe.”
It is ludicrous to call any child such a thing, and, I suppose, to call anyone that word. It’s like “the n-word.” We just do not use it. Despite how fearsome children can be sometimes, they in particular should never be the recipients of verbal (or any other sort of) abuse. Still, I couldn’t help but think of my time as a failed cross-cultural comedian when this controversy arose. Just about the only jokes I could make were about the weather, and they only worked because the weather could really only be interpreted in one way. We all agreed, implicitly, that the day was cold.
And this, I think, is the crux of the terrible problem with the Onion tweet. Americans do not all agree that it is ludicrous to speak so horribly about a young black girl. Americans speak and act terribly toward children all the time, especially poor and minority children.
I recently spoke at a nice, white, wealthy mainline church about public goods and public burdens. It was nice to use my public policy degree. I defined some economic terms, terms like “public good,” and “free rider” and “externality.” Knowing what I know of my affluent, suburban brethren, I made a point of illustrating these terms: for example, if I listen to public radio, but never pledge, I am a free rider. If I rely on the level of community immunizations to protect myself and my kids, but never vaccinate them or get my flu shot, I’m contributing to “the free rider problem.”
But despite my attention to subverting expectations, there were a few in the class who interpreted the term “free rider” as applying to the poor, the marginalized, the children who qualify for food stamps and Head Start. Why should we pay for them? Why should we carry their weight? Someone actually talked about the distinction between the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving” as though this is a distinction Christians should feel comfortable making, instead of ashamed of.
While I can’t imagine the Onion writers were trying to shame or harm Miss Wallis, I also don’t think we live in a world where it is obvious that casual racism, misogyny and child abuse are accepted as abhorrent. After all, some reporters on the red carpet Sunday night couldn’t be bothered to learn to pronounce the young actress’s first name, and joked with her that they weren’t even going to try. We’re only a year out from the Trayvon Martin murder; Marlo Thomas despairs that Free to Be You and Me didn’t make enough of a difference; and five children die in this country every day from child-abuse related causes. If the Congress doesn’t get its act together by Friday, sequestration will lead to millions of people living in poverty losing vital services.
We can be outraged about the terrible Onion joke, or not, but my prayer is that those who love children, who care about the eradication of racial and gender injustice, and who despair over the seemingly endless torrent of dangers and injuries our brothers and sisters face, will not be content to ask for apologies from humorists, but will rather be outraged and inspired to work toward a day when the ill treatment of children, women and minorities will be as absurd as the complaint of hot weather on a cold, rainy day.