The Onion crosses boundaries of satire with errant tweet

The Onion drew criticism during its live coverage of the 84th Academy Awards for a vulgar tweet about 9-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis. The tweet, meant to be a commentary on media constructs of celebrities, referred to the actress as a “cunt.” While The Onion frequently uses inflammatory humor to expose absurdities inherent in modern culture, given Wallis’ age the tweet showed thoughtlessness and irresponsibility on The Onion’s part.

The backlash from the tweet was immediate, and prompted The Onion to delete the tweet within the hour. President and CEO Steve Hannah issued a formal apology on Facebook the next day, in which he stated, “No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.”

Satire has been and will always be relevant and vital. Modern journalistic satire came to fruition during the Age of Enlightenment by means of famed satirist Jonathan Swift. Perhaps most famously in his essay A Modest Proposal, Swift critiqued society’s indifference to the plight of the poor – a commendable objective.

The 20th century also gave breath to an influx of satire in literature and the media. In the 1960s, the magazine The Realist was one of the most prominent publications to critique the Vietnam War and its proponents. The Onion continues in this rich tradition of cultural satire.

 The tweet in question, however, while presenting a legitimate bit of satire, ultimately did more harm than good. The point the tweet attempted to make was simply not worth subjecting a 9-year-old to the firestorm Wallis now finds herself in. Given Wallis’ age, how can she be expected to understand the situation as anything other than an unmotivated attack on her? Further, that The Onion had to rely on shock value to point out absurd media constructs of celebrities shows laziness on the part of the joke’s writer.

While public figures open themselves up to ridicule and satire by virtue of their fame, it is unfair to hold Wallis to this standard given her career. Her Oscar-nominated turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild was her first acting job ever. The film was a small, independently financed project that happened to win several high-profile festival awards, thrusting Wallis into the spotlight. Wallis never could have expected where this role would take her, nor could she have expected to be targeted for satirical purposes.

The Onion’s tweet was simply a case of misjudgment. While there is nothing wrong with pushing the envelope, doing so at the expense of an innocent child is just unfair. The point of the tweet may have been apparent, but the need for it was not.