‘The Onion’ Blows Its Oscar Moment, Or, How to Not to Deploy the Worst of All Possible Words

Want to use one of George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words in the service of cultural humor without bringing down fire on your head? Here’s a test.

I skipped the Oscars last night; Seth MacFarlane makes my skin crawl. You could see the implosion coming from as far away as a Seth McFarlane joke: signing up the Mel Brooks of bro culture to troll Hollywood for hours essentially guaranteed the disaster the Academy got, which was especially galling after the Golden Globes drew Amy Poehler and Tina Fey.

If MacFarlane had sung “Shipoopi” all night, I’d be writing a really different story right now. Instead, there were jokes about how Rex Reed would probably call Adele fat — because that’s what’s important about her — and how someday Quvenzhané Wallis will be old enough to date George Clooney — because that’s what’s important about her — and how sometimes, gasp, a woman might have body hair — because that’s what’s important about them. 

People are upset; here’s more:

But since so much of MacFarlane’s humor was rote and derivative, it’s more likely that he just stopped at the idea that “Zero Dark Thirty” was about “every woman’s innate ability to never ever let anything go.” That’s what it means when a woman in the office believes in something, and presses for it? There was a joke, too, about Jennifer Aniston not admitting having worked as an “exotic dancer”—and at that point MacFarlane had already more or less called Meryl Streep one. It’s possible that the line about not caring that he couldn’t understand a word that Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek said because they were good to look at was directed as much at Latinos as at women, since he also mentioned Javier Bardem—but that doesn’t make it any better. What are women in Hollywood for? To judge from a few other MacFarlane jokes, they’re for dating men in Hollywood, until the men decide that they’re too old.

Even Claire Hoffmann, author of a compelling and humanizing profile of MacFarlane, was soured: “suddenly the bitter asshole on the couch was up there on the stage, lost somewhere between a big smile and a sneer." The spectacle was easily enough avoided—I chose to go with Kenneth Branagh mumbling across attractively washed-out Swedish landscapes in Wallander, the most murderous show I’ve ever seen that doubles as a vacation brochure—but for a lot of people the Oscars are a work event. And they’re fighting back. And it’s good—dismiss them as the “comedy umbrage brigade” if you will, but the Academy pays attention to its press clippings.

But the big disaster of the night wasn’t MacFarlane, who stayed in the pocket of familar ironic misogyny; it was the Onion. The local instution generally positions itself on the precipice of comedic disaster, and given the many thousands of jokes they have to make every year it’s impressive how infrequently they misfire. This time they really, really blew it, as Roxane Gay (an assistant prof at Eastern Illinois) explains.

And then, there was a tweet from The Onion, referring to nine-year old Quvenzhané Wallis as a c-word. The tweet was meant to be satirical because satire is what The Onion traffics in. I am guessing the tweet was designed to comment on how we discuss famous young women on a night where Anne Hathaway was criticized as too earnest and Kristen Stewart was criticized as too sullen and unappreciative of her blessings. Young women in Hollywood cannot win, no matter what they do. There are more than a few smart jokes that could illustrate this rock and hard place women in Hollywood are crammed into.

She’s right; the joke really meant well (see this, for instance, of its nominal targets), strange as it is to say. That’s how the Onion usually gets away with it. But this one went wildly awry. Gay continues:

Diversity (and we’re talking race, class, gender, sexuality, political affiliation, religion, all of it) is about putting multiple points of view into a conversation. It’s about ensuring that no one is operating in the kind of cultural vacuum where they don’t stop to consider context. It’s why certain people and shows and publications keep running into the same brick wall of public outcry about diversity—because these people consistently demonstrate a callous and willful ignorance of context. They see these lines that shouldn’t be crossed and cross them anyway because they are blissfully unencumbered by context.

I’m not outraged about this one tweet. I’m outraged about 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.

Since figuring out why things don’t work is key to making things work, I enjoyed Choire Sicha’s attempt to reverse-engineer it, which was an inevitable failure. And he finds the tell: “Downgrading the cussing: does it help?” If you replace the c-word with “diva,” which is the point of the joke, it’s… just not much of a joke. Which is as good a test as any of the seven dirty words, which have remained robustly offensive as culture collapses around them; if you stick one in to save the joke, it’s going to collapse at that weak point.1

1. Alternately, the Onion provides the best counter-example as well.

 

Share

Advertisement

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Note: To serve its readers better, Chicago has migrated its comments to Disqus, a popular commenting platform. Please feel free to contact us with any feedback.