I had planned on waking up this morning and writing about last night’s Oscars: the good, the bad, the ugly, a thorough blasting of the decision to turn the damn things into the Tonys, an at least tepid defense of Seth MacFarlane as host, who I thought was actually too deferential to the crowd and wasn’t nearly as savage and caustic as he could and should have been, etc. etc. I was ready to just do a basic overview of the proceedings and had catalogued a couple of noteworthy moments, like Chris Tucker saying on the red carpet that it was a joy to work David O. Russell, a line that has never been uttered by any actor before in film history, Halle Berry choosing to pay tribute to the Hollywood classic Ghostbusters by dressing as Gozer the Gozerian, and the fact that in the technical awards it was a huge night for Edgar Winter’s hair.
But as the night wore on and I followed the real-time response to the Oscar show on Twitter and Facebook, it became apparent that the social media guest of honor at the event was the same one who always gets invited to these things nowadays: bullshit indignation trolling. It began with the Huffington Post, of course, posting a piece that asked the almost laughably predictable question, “Did Seth MacFarlane’s Lincoln Assassination Joke Go Too Far?” less than a half-hour after the joke was told on live TV. The first line of the piece was and still is, “Memo to Oscar host Seth MacFarlane: it’s still too soon for Lincoln assassination jokes.” Then came the inevitable social media-ly ginned-up, pearl-clutching controversy over whether MacFarlane had crossed the line by supposedly sexualizing 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis when he cracked that in 16 years she’d be too old to date George Clooney.
But that was all small potatoes. In the end, it wasn’t Seth MacFarlane but The Onion — the venerable satire website that’s proven time and time again what a national treasure it is — that broke the internet by making an admittedly impudent joke which managed to piss off millions.
If by some miracle you haven’t seen it, here it is — a tweet that was issued last night and taken down within an hour, once the digital torch-and-pitchfork crowd started amassing at its front door:
Yes, it’s rude as hell. Yes, an argument can easily be made that it crossed the line, given that satire is a tough thing to not simply comprehend but to dispense, particularly in 140-characters or less. I admit that while I was taken aback by the crack when I first saw it, it did make me laugh, albeit uncomfortably (which is something I never mind; I’m one of those people who thinks “inappropriate” and “hilarious” are often interchangeable concepts). What The Onion was obviously going for was a two-fold shot across the bow of pop culture: it was commenting on the level of vitriol we heap on celebrities for the most miniscule of perceived offenses, when in reality we know nothing about the people we’re raging at — see: the inexplicable online hate for Anne Hathaway, based on nothing more than a snap judgment that she’s somehow a phony, imperious bitch — as well as pointing out that no one is safe from our celebrity-obsessed cultural condescension these days, not even, ostensibly, a little kid. The Onion’s heart was more than in the right place. Unfortunately, even though I’ll argue to the bitter end that the young and talented Quvenzhané Wallis wasn’t in any way meant to be the butt of the joke (we were), using a kid to make a point like that and putting her on the receiving end of the word “cunt” probably wasn’t the most judicious or tactful thing to do.
The editors of The Onion have issued what appears to be a very sincere apology to Wallis this morning; whether it will be enough to calm the mob, who knows. You know my thoughts on this kind of thing at this point: We’re a society that now looks for things to be angry about and social media has become the weapon we wield to make our outrage heard and felt. Within minutes of the comment hitting the Twitterverse, the machine cranked up and there were calls for a boycott of The Onion and the creation of an #UnfollowTheOnion hashtag. An outlet, online and in traditional media, that had built up a tremendous amount of respect and fondness across a wide swath of the public — an outlet whose stated goal is to provoke, even through occasionally brutal satire — was turned on in a heartbeat and became the latest target of our social media school of hungry piranha, suddenly moving in the same direction and toward the singular goal of stripping every bit of flesh off a mark before quickly moving on to something else, satisfied only for a moment. Social media isn’t about nuance; it’s about overwhelming cacophony.
And if that cacophony hadn’t become deafening in the wake of the Wallis tweet, chances are the kid never would’ve known it had happened in the first place. Our outrage culture ensured that the “What if this child reads that?” question was a self-fulfilling prophecy. As The Onion said in its apology, Wallis is an immensely talented little girl and didn’t deserve to be used to crudely make a point, but the very loud shouts that she was the intended target — namely, that The Onion tweet was in any way meant to be taken seriously — or, worse, that there was a racial component to the joke simply makes a questionable situation that much worse. The Onion is a comedy site — a satire site — and it stands to reason that nothing it prints should be taken seriously. This should be remembered at all times. To put it bluntly, when The Onion says anything, anything at all, consider the source.
On the plus side, now that The Onion has offered a heartfelt apology, maybe we can all move on to a truly serious topic: Seth MacFarlane’s offensive and uncalled-for Oscars joke about how Hispanic actors can’t be understood.
Jesus, we just fucking suck.