I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes when I heard that Seth MacFarlane was hosting the Oscars. I don’t “get” Family Guy. Not even the Star Wars episodes. When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler did an amazing job at the Golden Globes, the prospect of MacFarlane hosting the Oscars seemed like an even worse choice. Rather than watch alone, my partner and I made a few dishes named after cheesy movie title puns and had a few friends over. As a result, I pretty much stayed offline much of Sunday. MacFarlane was predictably awful, but watching was made better by doing so with friends.
I signed on to Twitter this morning and it turns out that MacFarlane wasn’t the worst thing about the Oscars this year. Instead, the worst thing has been the media’s treatment of Quvenzhané Wallis. Where to begin?
As others have pointed out, white child actresses have never been subjected to this kind of treatment. The tweet from The Onion was reprehensible. After the apology, as people continued to discuss the incident, the following appeared in my tweet stream:
I blurred out the identity of the writer because it is not my intention to direct ire at him. I’d prefer to address the attitude, which seems quite prevalent. Yes, the tweet was retracted. And yes, The Onion issued a thoughtful apology that took responsibility and promised to try to prevent similar offenses in the future. But the problem is so much bigger than this tweet.
The problem includes the context in which anyone ever thought it would be okay, let alone humorous, to talk about a 9-year-old girl in such a way. The problem includes the people who want to pretend that her race has nothing to do with it, even though young white Oscar nominees are not held to the same standards of behavior or called horrible names. The problem includes all of the people who want to apologize for the behavior as being “just a joke.” The problem includes Seth MacFarlane’s joke about George Clooney dating Wallis. And all of the media personalities who did not even bother to try to pronounce “Quvenzhané.”
Radley Balko, who is a senior writer at The Huffington Post engaged in some Twitter debate with Xeni Jardin of BoingBoing on the topic. Eventually, Balko tweeted, “Ok. But instead of demanding apologies for jokes, why not focus on places where -isms cause tangible harm?” Balko links to a news story about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor reprimanding a prosecutor for racially biased remarks during the review of an appeal.
One of two things is happening here. Either Balko thinks that the things that happen online do not have tangible outcomes. Or he does not recognize the tangible harm that likely results from growing up in a culture that racially others you and views you as fodder for misogynist humor. A subsequent tweet, in which he laments the “PC patrolling of comedy” suggests it is the latter.
As my students know, I hate the term “PC.” People who bemoan political correctness seem to be those who feel victimized by others who would have them treat all people with decency and respect. Not buying it. But rather than follow that tangent, I want to stick to the issue here. The issue is that Quvenzhané Wallis is a personable young black girl who gave an amazing performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She has a name that is unique and that has to be learned. The media’s treatment of her reveals that in the racial project of the United States today, she is not important enough for others to try to learn to say her name. She should be quiet when people get it wrong. She should not be happy about her Oscar nomination. She should sit, docile and respectful, while the camera is on her, granting to the ceremony of the Oscars the respect that has been denied her on multiple occasions in the course of the evening. And if she deviates from these prescribed behavioral norms, she is called a cunt and a brat.
It’s a naïve dream to think that Wallis could stay oblivious to all of this coverage and that this incident will not have tangible harm. Because that assumes that she is not already a little black girl living in the culture that makes people think it is okay to say these things or that makes people scream that their rights are being violated when someone asks them not to. As responses from Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous and Moya B at Crunk Feminist Collective point out, this incident is just one of many that she will face growing up in this place at this time. A place and time that is often too quick to congratulate itself for being beyond racism and sexism.
The tweet from The Onion is a synecdoche for the place of race and gender in wider cultural structures. I don’t know what actually set it off, or what prompted Christine Teigen to call Wallis a brat, but I can’t help but be reminded of the criticism of Serena Williams when she C-walked at Wimbledon during the Olympics (credit to #digitalsoc students for bringing that one to my attention). Standards of behavior in elitist circumstances are being used to prescribe behavior and criticize deviations in a way that has racial undertones. Just as with Serena’s exuberant Crip-walk, Quvenzhané’s audacity to correct people on her name and her jubilant celebration, arms raised in “gun show” position, somehow offended people. Anyone who has watched any interviews of her knows that she is a smart young woman, with a charming and bubbly personality. Anyone who has seen the film recognizes in her posture the move from one of the sequences that managed to be simultaneously terrifying and endearing (seriously, I want to discuss the film. I continue to interrogate my reactions to it…Just not here.). It was a moment of small triumph for her character just as the Oscars were a moment of triumph for Wallis.
I really don’t know how to end this post. I mostly wanted to write this to underscore that this is not about accepting The Onion‘s apology. It is so much bigger. And those who attempt to deny the importance of the series of incidents are behaving badly on two levels: 1) You are attempting to belittle and actively suppress something that is an important issue that others feel needs extensive discussion and 2) You are denying that there is a larger racist and sexist cultural framework surrounding this issue. Both things are pretty tangibly harmful, if you ask me.