Chris thinks it’s stupid that people are upset about The Onion’s joke calling Quvenzhane Wallis a cunt. More bafflingly, he “thought the onion’s joke was hilarious.” Ha ha ha. No. Even setting aside for a moment–which we will come back to–what the joke calls Quvenzhane, it’s still a joke that takes a nine-year-old girl hostage in order to point out how horribly women are treated by Oscar commentary and then shoots the hostage! Ooops, guess what, The Onion and Chris? Once the hostage is dead, you’ve lost your leverage.
Wage acts like Quvenzhane’s appearance in the joke is incidental–that the joke can somehow be about her and yet have nothing to do with her. In that regard, I think Wage is being an idiot. A joke about a person that the person the joke’s about can’t honestly and spontaneously laugh at is probably a joke a lot of people are going to find, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work. A joke about a woman that the woman who is the center of it can’t laugh at and probably shouldn’t even hear unless she’s got a team of people around her to put it in context for her (as Wage seems to acknowledge this joke would take–“So yes, she probably has heard about it. What horrible things exactly are we imagining have happened as a result? A brief explanation by her parents that it was a joke poking fun at institutional sexism and the vacuity of celebrity viciousness in general? A more in-depth conversation about the power of the word “cunt” and how its colloquial usage is pernicious and should be avoided, and how the Onion turned that on its head to make a rather biting point?”) isn’t a joke with a woman as the subject of it. It’s a joke in which the woman is an object. It’s not a joke for her. It’s a joke about her.
And one, if she hears it, she’s just supposed to learn to think is funny. It’s cruel to make jokes about people they can’t willingly laugh at (I keep saying things like “willingly” and “spontaneously” because we are taught from an early age to laugh at things we don’t find funny, things that often hurt us, because people tell us to. I’m trying to differentiate between what people laugh at because they feel pressured to and what they would laugh at if no one was judging them.), but often cruel jokes are hilarious. So, I’m not opposed to cruel jokes.
But when you’re making a joke about someone and you don’t care if that person is in a position to laugh at it at all, then that’s not just comedy–that’s comedy that uses, in this case, a little girl as an object. Again, I say, it’s not surprising that people would find that not funny.
But I want to make another point as well. It is very, very difficult to make a true statement funny. It’s not that it can’t be done, but, if you’re going to attempt it, you need to be prepared to fail miserably. Which, in this case, The Onion did. Wage makes the same mistake when he says, “Because calling a 9 year old girl a cunt is a horrible, horrible thing to do.” Chris, no one thinks that.
Okay, not no one. A very small pool of people in this world genuinely think that calling any girl a cunt is actually horrible. Women get called cunts our whole lives and when we get confused or put off or upset or angry, and we look to the very same people who I’m sure would tell Wage that they think calling a nine year old girl a cunt is horrible, they tell us the people who call us cunts don’t mean it, or we just need to understand where they’re coming from. Or that they’re just joking. (We’re coming back to this in a second.). We get the message over and over again, loud and clear, that there’s nothing wrong, not really, with calling us cunts. Because we are.
You’re incredibly fortunate if you live in a situation where it’s obviously funny to call a nine year old a cunt because of how horrible it is. Because most of us don’t live in situations where people think it’s that horrible at all. They just think it’s true.
For them, The Onion joke was funny for that reason–because The Onion just went ahead and said what everyone else is thinking. But again, then the joke only works if we’re saying that that it’s not important that the person at the center of it be able to laugh at it. It’s funny because it’s true, in this case, works because the people who think it’s funny think so little of women. Could you make a joke in which the punchline is “so-and-so is kind of a cunt” and have it be funny to the very people who regularly get called cunts? I think so. This was, as evidenced by its reception, not that joke.
Why not? I’ve actually been giving this a lot of thought since I read Chris’s post last night. Why doesn’t this joke work for me? And I think that it goes beyond that I find calling a nine year old girl a cunt distasteful (which I do, but I laugh at distasteful shit all the time) or that I find it gross that a little black girl who’s going to spend her whole life being hypersexualized by popular culture gets labeled a cunt, even as a joke, straight out of the gate (which I do and you can find good and useful commentary about that all over the internet). It even goes beyond the fact that I live in a culture where women are cunts so how is a statement of fact really a joke?
And it’s this: Every time I’ve been called a cunt, when the dude who called me a cunt got called on it by someone he respected, his excuse was that he was joking. Every damn time. Can’t she take a joke? And yet, obviously, he wasn’t joking at all. He meant it.
So, The Onion is trying to land a joke that is more complicated than Wage gives it credit for. There’s already a non-joke joke in wide circulation that is “Ha ha, I called you a cunt, but I say I was joking, even though I meant it, so that makes it okay.” Most women are going to hear it in their lifetimes. The Onion wants to make a joke that is “Ha ha, I called this little girl a cunt, but I’m joking in a style that looks like I mean it, so that makes it okay.” In order to land the joke The Onion was attempting to land and not have it veer into the non-joke joke which is the more culturally familiar one, The Onion would have to be the fucking Mike Tyson of comedians (See? In a paragraph about landing punches, I stick in a notorious rapist and it stings and is funny, because I’ve just spent all this time building it up and because we’re talking about how women can’t get away from this idea that we’re just objects for men to use however they want, so hello Mike Tyson. But I didn’t attempt that in 140 characters and I accept that it might not be funny to you.).
I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m not even saying that it can’t be done in 140 characters. But The Onion didn’t do it. They threw “I called this little girl a cunt, but I’m joking a a style that looks like I mean it so that makes it okay” and they landed “I called you a cunt, but I say I was joking, even though I meant it, so that makes it okay.”
I have a theory as to why, too. And that theory is because they had no idea that “I called you a cunt, but I say I was joking, even though I meant it, so that makes it okay” is as prevalent as it is. I don’t think they had the first idea that they were playing right up against an incredibly common trope. Much like Wage, I’m pretty sure that they thought the joke was “I’m saying something so horrible about a little girl that we’ll all laugh because it is so horrible.”
So, what backfired on them, I think, is that they thought they were making a funny original joke about things that are too horrible to say, when really, they were just making a more sophisticated version of the non-joke joke. Probably a wider variety of women on The Onion’s staff would have helped this.
Which brings me to my last point–if you’re going to make jokes ostensibly in defense of women, I’d prefer it if they not disparage any woman to try to get their laugh. But, fine, whatever. If, however, the point of your joke requires that the woman at the center of it probably not hear it, because it would upset her and she wouldn’t understand, and it requires the use of a word as a joke that most of us get called “as a joke” all the time, don’t pretend like it’s a joke about how terrible women have it. There isn’t actually any concern for how women have it in the joke. If you think it’s a problem that we’re objectified and that slurs are routinely tossed at us, you don’t objectify and toss slurs at us in order to protest our treatment.
Don’t pretend like, when a joke relies on objectifying a woman and calling her a cunt, and women are grossed out by it, it’s because women just can’t see what’s so funny about it. Maybe there’s a whole painful context to the joke you’re not aware of. Maybe Quvenzhane’s parents can come by and explain it to you.