Singling out a young girl—a child—for that kind of treatment was gratuitous and hostile. It’s hurtful enough to hear it as a young or older woman—but by the time a young woman of color is an adult, she has already heard it: tens or hundreds—or—ouch—thousands of times. Even Quvenzhané never hears of this tweet, she will likely hear the term directed towards her before she becomes an adult. And it will have affected her in any number of ways; perhaps her wounds will have scabbed over, only to be refreshed by each such horrific insult anew. Or maybe, it will amplify her by then–already politically and socially vulnerable existence, reinforcing a horrific message that women should be understood, not as human beings, but as sexual vehicles.
This is an excerpt that I deleted self-censored from my last piece, a critical response to the Onion tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, on the grounds that it was too pathos-laden. The editor asked if I really wanted to cut it out. After five minutes reflection, I asked him to cut it. On 72 hours’ reflection, perhaps I should have left it in–as a way to anticipate and meet the anger that my own outrage generated.
I was surprised that this article generated way more controversy than the previous piece that I wrote on racial double-standards. I thought it was a kind of obvious argument for political liberals—and so must have others, because later I read similar pieces about the Onion tweet, including two cited below. And it wasn’t just disagreement, or indifference [“Onion fatigue”—which is funny when you think about it, because presumably fatigue typically causes lethargy]—but serious heated anger.
Some wanted to point out that the Charlize Theron’s ‘mortified’ expression was ‘canned,’—as if that somehow invalidated my point about the nature of the skit or the tweet. Others wanted to teach me about racism. Others thought it was ridiculous to use Critical Race Theory to think about an Onion Tweet. Others couldn’t possibly understand how the Onion tweet was racist. Sexist maybe. Misogynist? Only if you were really sensitive. But racist? Never! After all, we’re libs/progressives and we know that racism is found in political/legal/economic structures–not in satire.
As well, there wasn’t a single interpretation about what made the tweet funny–I was given multiple–often conflicting–explanations. Ditto about what made the tweet humorless/tasteless/bad.
In the US, the term ‘cunt’ is a sexual epithet–of the most painful kind, to be sure. Does it make it automatically racial if the label is directed toward any woman of color? I don’t know.
My motivation in discussing the racial and sexual implications of the Onion tweet was this: I was surprised/upset that there was any context in which it’s okay to call a young child a cunt. At least in the context of the US, it is almost exclusively leveled at women. Many objected to my characterizing the tweet as racist: would it have been racist if it were leveled at a young white girl? Probably not, though it would still be misogynist.
But here is what I wonder: Colleagues tell me that many young—famous—girls such as the person who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, have had their sexuality unraveled and graphically discussed. But how many young famous or otherwise–white girl-children are laughingly referred to as cunts? Someone suggested that the same epithet would have been directed toward Shirley Temple in the 1920’s. I can’t know for sure, but somehow I doubt it.
Others, if not livid, were puzzled that I chose to write about this tweet. But my surprise about the tweet was about a point that I found obvious and had therefore not articulated. As Roxanne Gay said eloquently, the objection is not about the Onion tweet per se, but
the cultural disease that spawned this tweet, the one where certain people are devalued and denigrated for sport and then told to laugh it off because hey, you know, it’s humor.
But as much, my objection is about the re-iterative, intimate association between the vulgar obscene reference to this intimate/sexual/reproductive body part and Black women, for whom the association has long-standing political, historical, social, significance: as slaves who were but dehumanized/objects of pleasure for white slave-owners. Who, even post-slavery, have less recourse to sexual and political and economic justice—because on the continuum of sexual justice, they fall way below in terms of so many gauges: protection from rape in courts as well as in prison, where so many poor Black women are incarcerated; access to reproductive justice is much more limited for women of color, especially if they are poor; associations with women in power rather than as (single) mothers, nannies, etc. are also extremely limited in media and entertainment.
In large part, this is because Black women are considered still–still–sexually promiscuous beings [through denigrated discourses about welfare, having too many children, lack of moral awareness]. In this case, the term ‘cunt’ is being used in reference to someone whose gender/racial identity overlaps with those who descend from Black women slaves, whose bodies were used as sexual vehicles—forcefully, coercively (even consent isn’t truly consent under slavery—we know that). There is a long history and ample literature about the continual re-iteration of the sexual objectification of the bodies of Black women. And context—and consciousness—about this history (even when deeply buried), doesn’t (pdf) disappear quite so quickly. I daresay this is why Blacks—among other populations– worldwide are still politically, socially, denigrated and subjected to dehumanized treatment.
Part of my concern was expressed by this writer:
The underlying assumption is that folks who are outraged about the Onion’s tweet are not also vocally opposed to state-sponsored violence. It’s a snarky way to belittle the justified anger that people were feeling about the Onion’s actions. It also assumes an inability to hold at least two thoughts in one’s mind at once.
The rest of the piece is as poignant and speaks to the concern that underlies the critical comments about the tweet.
Was the Onion tweet so significant? More significant than, say, massive incarceration of Black men through Drug wars? The unjust imprisonment of Black and Latina women? More important than other forms of institutional injustice? Larger than the injustice of a flawed judicial system? The death penalty? Drones? Renditions? Torture? CIA Black Sites? Pre-emptive Detention? OLC White Papers? The Supreme Court’s dismissal of FISA in the Clapper v Amnesty case? Aren’t these the real issues? The serious issues?
Why must we make the comparison? Can’t, shouldn’t, we resist both? Is it so difficult to allow that the general cultural and social psyche that facilitates the acceptance and casual dismissal of the Onion tweet is part and parcel of a political and legal context in which the status of Black women (and men) is that of sub-persons, as Charles Mills describes in his book, The Racial Contract? That Black women were neither the explicit focus of the 13th Amendment (for emancipation), nor the 15th Amendment (Black suffrage), nor the 19th Amendment (for ‘women’s’ suffrage)?
Is it that outrageous to consider that the attitudes towards people of color, as expressed casually in a satirical tweet is connected to the absence of empathy towards people of color in a variety of other dehumanizing situations—such as all of those listed above?
Many theorists and writers and activists have expressed the connections between material and legal circumstances and the psyche. Alienation is, among other things, the forced disconnect between one’s material conditions and self-understanding. How does one begin to participate in resistance to injustice—except through empathy? It seems that empathy is the place to begin the challenge to legal, political, material denigration.
That is why, I think, we must consider these links—as trivial, as ‘pc,’ as trite, as they may seem. As importantly, I think this is so for those of us who argue and write about more lofty topics: how we can expect empathy for Black and Brown folks internationally, who are daily assaulted through US-led unjust practices in the name of the War on Terror, when we are unable to muster empathy for US—vulnerable, dehumanized, minority populations who suffer—not just serious political and legal injustices—but the casual denigrated—satirical–reference or treatment as sub-persons?
I think there’s another element here, as well: Quvenzhané is a young Black child. She is hardly threatening, but also considered barely worthy of serious awe or respect—in part because of her youth, in part because of the lack of any formal political status. It makes it easier to have her be the stand-in to denigrate someone in a humorous context.
But that should also be part of what makes her off-limits for such references: youth, vulnerability, and absence of a legal status of her own. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the film in which she acted, I thought she was a remarkable actress, especially given her youth. I wish for her achievement to stand without taint.
Maybe it’s just me. But I cannot imagine the Onion making a similar comment about Michelle Obama. Not just because she is FLOTUS and the FBI/DHS/CIA will all come after you for doing so (“Drones! You won’t even know what hit you.”), but because she is considered to be plenty worthy of respect–or least, unworthy of sexual denigration/satire/humor. Ditto the late former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, or Condoleeza Rice, the former Secretary of State under the Bush Administration, or Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State? They are all women whose are either deeply loved or deeply despised. Yet, I can’t imagine such things because they are so worthy of a sexual (and in several cases) racial hands-offness. To denigrate them with that kind of a satirical reference would be considered beyond the pale. In part, I think this is because—they are considered worthy of respect in regard to “that” aspect of their personas. But maybe that’s just me.
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