I don’t editorialize much here on SOA. Okay, that’s not true – pretty much the entire thing is one long editorial. But usually I’m saying things like, “I liked this actress in blahblahblah, so I’m looking forward to her next movie.” You know, simple stuff.
But sometimes in this silly old world, controversies so ridiculous pop up that I feel like I should say something. I present you the following tweet posted during the Oscars last night (only a screengrab, because the original tweet has since been deleted):
Now, whether or not you think this is funny (I got a mild chuckle out of it), I think we can all tell that whoever the writer is, they are going for shock value, yes? They aren’t actually proffering an opinion on the temperament nine-year-old Wallis (aka the youngest best actress nominee of all time).
But no, this is the Internet. So naturally a lot of people are losing their minds about this thing.
My argument here isn’t about humour, which is subjective. My argument is about free speech. I believe that freedom of speech is an absolute. Or as Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it, encapsulating Voltaire’s beliefs, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m aware that certain people or groups abuse their free speech to say all sorts of dumb and horrible things. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I think if you start trying to be an arbiter of which statements are in good taste and which are in bad taste, you’re heading down a slippery slope.
And this isn’t even a case like with the Westboro Baptist Church, where they genuinely believe in the heinous shit they’re saying (which, again, I still defend their right to do). This is a tweet from the account of a satirical website. The joke is that what they’re saying is ridiculous, because obviously Wallis is nothing other than a sweet, cute kid. I mean, just look at her for god’s sake! The contrast between their tweet and observable reality is literally the joke that’s being made. Again, if you don’t find that to be funny, then fine. But how can you take it at all seriously? How do people work up the energy to be outraged over every little thing?
While I’m for free speech in general, I’m especially for it when it comes to comedy. In an art form that’s about making people laugh, nothing should be off limits. Not the n-word, not 9/11, not rape. Nothing. Now, sometimes this is going to lead to bad situations. Like the Michael Richards thing. That was fairly offensive, but only because he’s not actually making a joke. He’s just trotting out a racial slur as a lame attempt at a comeback because he’s crumbling under pressure from a hostile crowd.
And it’s not like comedians going the shock route is something new. Remember the days post-9/11? For obvious reasons, September 11th was a taboo subject in comedy for awhile. Yeah, that lasted about three weeks. Cue Gilbert Gottfried (I don’t have a clip for this one so text will have to suffice): “I have to leave early tonight, I have to fly out to L.A. I couldn’t get a direct flight, I have to make a stop at the Empire State Building.”
See, now that’s funny. It’s finding humour in something tragic. It’s poking at a raw nerve. Maybe it was “too soon,” as many in the audience shouted that night. But in retrospect? Pretty clever, and certainly ballsy as hell. It was a way of “getting on with life” so to speak. A way of saying “Fuck you, we aren’t going to let what you’ve done defeat us,” to the perpetrators of the attacks.
And just to complete the trifecta, remember the Daniel Tosh rape joke debacle?
Again, pretty funny stuff, I thought. Certainly not the height of comedy, but it’s not trying to be. This example hews closest to the Onion’s joke about Wallis. He’s saying something ridiculous on purpose to get a laugh. Of course he doesn’t think it’d actually be funny if a bunch of people in the audience suddenly raped his heckler. But the way the comeback is delivered so mercilessly is what makes the joke. It’s understood that he’s deliberately being an asshole.
Getting back to the joke at issue today, Steve Hannah, the CEO of Onion, Inc. has issued an apology:
On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.
I think it’s pretty sad that this apology had to come out, but I guess there was enough outrage they felt they had to do it.
I don’t want to come off as an insensitive dick here. I get that the joke is uncalled for. There’s no need to go after a nine-year-old child. And satire at its best should be used to bring low the high and mighty, not shit on a little kid who hasn’t done anything to anyone. But my question then is, who exactly gets a free pass when it comes to this kind of comedy? Minorities? Old people? Young people? Women? Where do you draw the line? Should we only go after the rich and the powerful? Which words are okay to use and which aren’t? Or maybe no one should ever say anything mean about anyone else, regardless of whether they’re “just kidding” or not? Personally, I think everything and everyone should be fair game. Maybe that makes me mean and callous to some. I think it’s being fair.