See You Next Tuesday: How and Why The Onion Crossed the Line

Last Updated on: 17th August 2021, 03:53 pm

The 2013 Academy Awards ceremony was last night, February 24th, and critics both amateur and professional are weighing in with various post-ceremony reactions. There weren’t any huge upsets – Argo won Best Picture, as the buzz had predicted – and most commentators agree that Seth McFarlane relied on too much crass humor and approached the ceremony as if it was a roast instead of a celebration.

However, the most lingering controversy originated from outside the event, when The Onion’s Twitter account tweeted (and later deleted) a joke that referred to nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a “c—“.

The Onion quickly posted an out-of-character apology from their CEO first thing this morning, but memories are long on the internet, and there are some people who will never forgive them for this incident.

The interesting thing is that The Onion has a long history of posting edgy satire, but as far as I know, this is the only time they’ve ever chosen to publicly apologize for one of their jokes missing the mark.

I definitely agree with their decision to remove the tweet and apologize; it was thoroughly tone-deaf and completely unfunny. However, I think it’s interesting to consider why that joke didn’t work when compared to other equally controversial pieces on the site. For example, earlier in the night they used the n-word in a joke about Quentin Tarantino and it seems to have passed unnoticed.

First off, the most obvious problem with the tweet is that it places a nine-year-old girl at the center of harsh satire. Even if it wasn’t the author’s intent, it was far too easy to read the tweet as a genuine attack on a child, which is not something that most people are willing to overlook. However, I also think it’s notable that the tweet’s style didn’t match The Onion’s normal editorial voice. It was written in a casual, off-the-cuff “live-blog” style and was followed by tweets structured more like their signature “Area Man” format.

Part of what makes The Onion work so well is the way they juxtapose a distanced, impersonal editorial style with shocking satire. One of the best pieces I’ve seen on the site recently, Teenage Girl Blossoming Into Beautiful Object, is also one of the most chilling things I’ve ever read because it rings so horribly true. That article is satire on the level of Jonathan Swift, where the correct response is horror, not laughter.

The Onion’s comedy works largely on the understanding that they are almost always saying the exact opposite of what they believe; in rare cases, such as their stunning, pitch-perfect response to the Newtown massacre, they put less ironic distance between the article and its true intent, but those pieces are still presented as fake journalism or simulated editorials.

That distance is part of what makes it understood that the target of their satire isn’t necessarily the apparent subject of their posts. Along those lines, I’d imagine that the target of the tasteless joke about Miss Wallis was actually the sort of person who would say horrendous things about a nine-year-old actress excited about being at a massive awards ceremony. (For examples, check out the first few comments on this Jezebel post.) The problem was all about the joke’s presentation and, most crucially, word choice. Instead of working as an anti-exemplary comment on the misogynist nit-picking that dominates award shows, the tweet read as a face-value takedown of a young actress.

However, I’d argue that if the joke was presented in The Onion’s editorial style, the intent would have been clearer and the joke might have received a more measured response. Imagine, for example, if the joke was written as one of their headlines or couched in a fake editorial. Of course, I doubt there’s any way they could have worked in the c-word without coming off as grasping for shock value, and I think better jokes can be made. I do think there’s a valid satirical target found in the occasionally poisonous discussions about Miss Wallis’ nomination (or really, discussions of any actress), but the most important thing to make clear is that she is not that target.