Context Matters. Words Matter. On Quvenzhané Wallis and the Onion’s Tweet

[WARNING: Feminism ahead.]

This is going to be shorter than I’d like, because I’m having awful hand pain and still have to type a bunch of things tonight.  But I can’t not post it.

In case you missed it, among the awful sexist racist misogynist crap that got shared with 40 million viewers during the Oscars last Monday was a tweet from The Onion, calling 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis a “cunt.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  SHE IS NINE.  SHE CARRIED A PUPPY PURSE TO THE OSCARS.  AND THE ONION CALLED HER A CUNT.

The Onion later deleted the tweet and issued an apology that’s pretty good as far as covering-your-ass PR apologies go; it apologized to Quvenzhané Wallis for calling her that word and promised to do better in the future, which is miles better than the average “we’re sorry if anyone was offended” nonpology.  So there’s that.  There’s also the fact that the Onion’s defenders are all up in the idea of “satire,” as if a joke can’t possibly fall flat or even cause harm if it’s intended to be funny.  (Right.)

There’s also this: until very recently – like, maybe, today – white feminists were largely silent on the Onion tweet.  We weren’t silent about the Oscars by a long shot – but we didn’t tackle this tweet.  The best we had was nothing; the worst was defending the Onion.

(For a much better-articulated and well-researched background of the white feminist silence problem, see Jessica Luther’s marvelous post at Shakesville.  For some even better background on why the white feminist silence problem is a problem, read the links.)

I am one of those white feminists who hasn’t said a damn thing, except in the ephemeral Twittersphere – which, as Jessica Luther points out, is inadequate for many reasons, primary among which is that black feminists told us it wasn’t enough.  And I don’t particularly feel like making excuses, because the problem is that I, as a white feminist, dropped the ball on this one.

I haven’t blogged about this until now, however, because for days I had no idea what to say.  Partly I was gobsmacked that anyone would call any nine-year-old girl a “cunt” (and don’t tell me that’s not going to follow Quvenzhané around for the rest of her life, because the Internet never dies), and partly I’m woefully under-informed on the ways racism turns certain words and actions into extra-horrible piles of crap.  I’ve never had to know that.  That’s what we call “white privilege.”  So, given that there’s a giant hole in my knowledge, I found it necessary to Shut Up and Listen for a bit.

And then I realized that, despite the giant hole in my knowledge, there is something I can say, and it’s something I can say because (as I said in a tweet to a friend) it’s pretty much the only thing I ever say when teaching writing.  And it’s this:

Words matter. Context matters. Words in context matter.

Was the Onion’s tweet sexist?  Yes.  The word “cunt” is, by its nature, a sexist slur.

Was the Onion’s tweet racist?  Yes.  The sexist slur “cunt,” in the context of talking about a black girl, evokes our longstanding history of sexualizing black girls long before we would ever impose the responsibilities of a sexual being on white girls.

Was the Onion’s tweet jaw-droppingly disgusting?  The Onion called a nine-year-old cuddling a puppy purse a “cunt.”  

The Onion’s tweet wasn’t racist in the same way it was sexist – here, the racism depends on the context, while the sexism is inherent in the chosen slur.  But that’s a distinction without a difference, because both words and context matter.  Both are powerful.  And both can be used to devastating effect.  Both are used to devastating effect against black girls and women every day; our racist “history” is very much here and now.  And we are remiss, every one of us, when we don’t call that out when we see it.

As Flavia Dzodan said: My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
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One Response to Context Matters. Words Matter. On Quvenzhané Wallis and the Onion’s Tweet

  1. therelentlessreader says:

    “Jaw-droppingly disgusting” That’s the best way to describe it.

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