on cunt

I thought the onion's joke was hilarious. The joke:

"Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhan Wallis is kind of a cunt, right?"

For those (like me) that maybe didn't actually watch the Oscars: Quvenzhan Wallis is a 9-year old actress up for an award at the ceremony. A few of the hypothetical reasons proposed that this joke was horrible and should have immediately been deleted, and my response to them:

The word "cunt" is horrible and offensive and should never be used ever.

Yeah ... no.

Still, it was kinda funny, but they should have chosen a less inflammatory word, like "bitch".

What? Frankly, bitch is just as horrible a word in a colloquial context. The inflammatory, derogatory gendered nature of the word is specifically what made the joke so funny.

I don't get it. Why are they calling a 9-year old a cunt?

Because calling a 9 year old girl a cunt is a horrible, horrible thing to do -- similar to all the horrible, horrible things floated in the name of snarky Oscars commentary. Often, these things center around highly contentious and offensive gender notions/roles. Get it? This is not horribly complicated humor.

I still don't get it -- I find it easier to be obtuse and pretend I've never read The Onion and I don't really get how humor works, because I really love Being Offended.

Er .. okay.

Okay, fine, you're right. The onion is pretty hilarious and often risque. But still, no one should ever objectify a 9 year old in that way, no matter what their intent. If anyone called my little girl a cunt, I'd kidneypunch them.

If we're going to go down the "protect the virgin ears of an oh so innocent child" route, might I remind you that this is a 9 year old actress that was in a movie that spent the evening at the Oscars -- a gathering of arguably some of the worst people in the world. I find it hard to believe that being called a cunt on the internet is really the most damaging aspect of her experience for her, assuming she would have heard about it at all. It's not like the Onion sent a correspondent on to the red carpet to call a little girl a cunt to her face. But she will hear about it, now, undoubtedly -- thanks to the indignant claims of offense and raucous calls for censure. It's headline news, now. (Nice work, indignant public!)

So yes, she probably has heard about it. What horrible things exactly are we imagining have happened as a result? A brief explanation by her parents that it was a joke poking fun at institutional sexism and the vacuity of celebrity viciousness in general? A more in-depth conversation about the power of the word "cunt" and how its colloquial usage is pernicious and should be avoided, and how the Onion turned that on its head to make a rather biting point? A quick lesson that the Onion is, in fact, hilarious? Are we really claiming exasperated offense at this idea because we are so cynical so as to assume that she's so stupid she won't understand any of this? Or that her parents are too stupid to explain it to her?

Okay, yeah, but ... the word "cunt" is horrible and should never be used ever.

*headdesk*

It seems to me that any reasonably intelligent adult (I realize this rules out a lot of the American population, but stay with me here, dear reader) can discern the difference between using a slur in a casual way that promulgates a negative stereotype (which I have talked about at length) and using it in a specific way to make a point, or a joke. Given that, the crux of the Onion's supposedly horrible offense was making the joke in a context where this 9 year old girl might hear about it (and ignoring for the moment the relative initial implausibility of this), let's examine this for what it is: the rough equivalent of grown adults making a joke to eachother using a word in a context that a 9 year old might not understand, and a 9 year old in the next room maybe overhearing it. Do you: a) pull the kid aside, explain to them that "cunt" is a horrible word and that mommy was making a joke, or b) freak the fuck out and accuse the person telling the joke of being a horrible misogynist bully, even though you know they're not and that you're being willfully obtuse so you can be a big jerk?

  • Laura Creekmore

    Here’s the horrible part: The word cunt is used to objectify women and reduce them to a sexual function, typically meant as someone who exists to serve a man. It’s NEVER going to work in a joke the way you’re wishing it would, because you can’t remove the objectionable connotation. I fully understand that that’s WHY you think it’s funny. I’m hear to tell you that making fun of objectifying women isn’t any funnier than flat-out objectifying them.

    And I swear to god, a decent number of Onion readers didn’t “get” the joke on the level you’re wishing they did. It’s perhaps a sign of something positive that a white 30-something guy in an urban area in a red state can fully parse all the meta levels of context on the Onion tweet, but stop giving everyone else so much credit. 

    • cwage

      I don’t think there’s anything that is off-limits for making fun out of. You keep using the phrase “making fun of” as if to imply that the joke was intended to condone objectification or sexism. So I’ll ask again: do you think that the Onion believes this 9 year old girl is inferior and intended to make her feel bad about it?

  • Colin

    How many women does it take to change a lightbulb?

  • Wesley

    Your rational, well reasoned argument is right..  It’s funny for the reasons you say it is.  But getting paid to make that joke in public with the intent of getting laughs at the expense of a nine year old takes it from funny to just bullying a little kid.  Sure she’s an academy nominated actress, but she’s still nine. 

    Most adults I know have some story about a kid on the playground making fun of them and that story has stuck with them for 30 years.  You think having a major media outlet make jokes for half the internet to laugh at your expense isn’t going to stick with her?  She’s an actress, not a robot.  Grown ups are fair game but little kids aren’t equipped to deal with that, even the really bright ones.

    The outraged reaction was overblown for sure, but this is the internet after all.  I’m not really buying the ‘history of the word’ and objectivication arguments thrown around a lot.  It’s just a case of someone with a whole lot of power picking on someone with very little.  Seeing a major media outlet use their bullly pulpit to laugh at a little girl engages the parental instsinct in a lot of people, myself included.

    You asked Laura above ‘do you think that the Onion believes this 9 year old girl is inferior and intended to make her feel bad about it?’.  Personally, no I don’t think that.  I think it was a poorly thought out mistake that they got called out for, as we all get called out for poorly thought out mistkaes.  Really though, does their intent really matter?  The end result is the point.  I have no doubt they made her feel bad whether they intended it or not.

    • cwage

      I’d argue that intent is what matters above all else, actually. I still am not clear on how it’s fair to characterize tweeting something in a torrent of other jokes about the Oscars constitutes “getting paid to make that joke in public with the intent of getting laughs at the expense of a nine year old”. As I said, it’s not like they had a correspondent on the red carpet calling her a cunt. Again, accusing the Onion of using their “bully pulpit” is not accurate or fair. 

      At the very worst, the Onion (specifically, whoever was tweeting on their behalf) can be accused of writing for an adult audience while forgetting that (I concede this) there’s a real, however slim, chance that she might hear about it. And it’s the only real compelling argument for why the Onion should have exercised some self-censorship. Most of the criticisms of the joke, however, were not merely “eep, this 9 year old might see this funny joke”, they were “using the word cunt is never funny and we are offended and demand you do this and that”, which, I think it’s important to admit, did nothing but raise the profile of the joke to the point where it’s all but inevitable that she’d hear about it.

      The girl in question was merely the object that the joke turned on — not the subject of it. I realize that in a debate suffused with indignation over purported female objectification, I’m committing lexical suicide, here. But I hope we can all distinguish the difference between sexual objectification and objectification as abstraction — i.e. the joke was funny not because of some failing of Quvenzhan Wallis specifically, but rather because being viciously derogatory to any hypothetical 9 year old girl is horrible. Thus, the comic irony.

      It’s true what Laura said that parts of the Onion’s audience genuinely may have genuinely thought they were just being horribly mean to a little girl and thought it was accurate or funny — even I am not so naive or optimistic to think that’s not possible. But you can hardly blame the author of a joke for the failings of a minority of its audience — nor can you hold it up as an example that somehow confirms their intent (or “end result”). The end result is what we make it, and if we are disingenuous with ourselves by insisting, in contrast to all available evidence, that the Onion was actually attempting to hurt a little girl, then the end result is that we’re condemning someone for something they didn’t do.

      • 1nm

         Intent may matter in assessing culpability; it emphatically doesn’t matter to the harm that gets done. If your killing me is accidental, you are very rightly not going to be charged with premeditated murder, but it won’t make any difference to me, because I’m dead either way. The same holds true for lesser offenses: if you walk off with my stapler and hid it because you hate me and want to interfere with my work and get me in trouble with our mutual boss, it reflects differently on you than if you were near my desk, used my stapler, and walked off with it absent-mindedly because you were in the middle of a conversation. But if I need to staple something, I’m stuck either way.

        In this case, all women in general, and a little girl in particular, got stuck by being reduced to genitalia, and to those genitalia being understood to be bad. If the intention was to criticize reducing women to objects (and I agree with you that it was), subjecting women to that yet once more was a pretty poor way to go about it.

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  • Hilariouscomedien

    Poooooooor  chris wage just cant understand why he cant make fun of 9 year old girls without everyone getting all upset!!! Let’s all feel really bad for him together?

    Face the facts: there are words you just cannot say because they are too hateful. a joke with the ‘c’ word or the ‘n’ word will NEVER be funny. if you think it is your living in a different century. we have a black president and women in politics. get a clue.

    but what can you expect from a big white fatass nerd? what’s that? you dont like being called a fatass? dont you get it? its comic irony. i didnt mean YOU specifically, just the hypothetecal you. its totally different…. cant you take a joke?

    • Colin

      “a joke with the ‘c’ word or the ‘n’ word will NEVER be funny.”  Challenge Accepted.

  • http://lesleyeats.com/ Lesley

    I agree with much of what’s already here. The thing is, I’ve had this debate many times over the years because I’m a fan of language and semantics. I actually enjoy arguing this. The word does not bother me. Fortunately, in the outrage that I witnessed, no one ever told me I had to be, which I appreciate. They just pointed out that there’s a line and it was crossed. The Onion responded appropriately, so it’s time for everyone else to stop defending them.

    And here’s the thing about language. As I said on Twitter, it’s communal. Words are not just a collection of letters. Words are only words because they have meaning. And they can be hurtful regardleshttp://chris.quietlife.net/2013/02/25/on-cunt/#disqus_threads of intent. Using Christy’s example, if I say, “Get out of my face, faggot” to (some of) my gay friends, they’ll laugh and lob back an appropriate insult and we’ll all laugh together. If I say that same phrase in the same spirit to a gay person I don’t know so well, it can be hurtful. So, I just don’t say it to anyone.

    Ultimately, communication is something that involves more than one person. The speaker and the listener have to have the same context and a level of understanding for it to be effective. You saying, “intent and meaning are what determine contextual appropriateness, not word choice” only works 100% of the time when a person is speaking to themselves.

  • Lesley

    ps–was it your intent to misspell this girl’s name?

    • cwage

      … seriously? yes, you got me. i misspelled her name on purpose, yes.

      • Lesley

        Merely giving you the benefit of the doubt to keep this thread out of the googles.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hmarkrogers Herbert Mark Rogers

    Chris, 

    The problem for many of your critics is that the object of the joke is not the daughter of white, upper middle class, preferably Republican parents who home schooled her even before she went into acting.  If the nominee were Mary Elizabeth Wasp, the legions of the outraged would be severely diminished.  

    Having said that, the ‘joke’ isn’t edgy or thought-provoking.  It is laziness posing as ‘brave.’  It is a ‘Friends’ joke, not a ‘Barney Miller’ joke and anyone who doesn’t appreciate the difference should be sentenced to a lifetime watching reruns of ‘My Mother the Car’ and ‘Two Broke Girls.’  

    “I still don’t get it — I find it easier to be obtuse and pretend I’ve never read The Onion and I don’t really get how humor works, because I really love Being Offended.”

    Now that is a funny and pertinent observation.  Too many people live for the chance to be offended.  Even if this is a legitimate instance, as I noted, were the subject white and prosperous, many of the ‘Offended’ would shift their offendedness to those who criticized the comment.  

    • 1nm

      Except that Abigail Breslin and Dakota Fanning and Anna Pacquin when they were up-for-acting-awards-while-young didn’t have remarks like that made about them, did they? Yes, there’s a racial element in the outrage, but I think it plays out in the recognition that Quvenzhané Wallis is more vulnerable to being attacked as a female because of her race, and not because of some nonexistent lack of concern for a hypothetical Ms. Wasp. I mean, plenty of the same people who are pissed off at The Onion now were equally pissed off, and equally vocal, when David Letterman made his stupid “joke” about Sarah Palin’s daughter.

  • Steph

    I swear … I’ve been watching this unfold from afar and i am late to the party now….

    This just makes me sad. Look: the onion, consistently liberal/progressive and the last bastion of true comic satire skewering the stupidity that passes for cultural discourse in this country (the oscars) and someone dares to find it funny and admit it. What is the response by the so-called “progressive” arm of Nashville’s feminist movement? A virtual lynching. A self-righteous, hysterically emotional barrage of abuse and conflicting “arguments”. Way to prove a stereotype, ladies. I’m not even going to bother commenting on the other thread because it’s clear any remote hint of disagreement will be met by insults.

    And yes, I used both the word “lynching” and “hysterically” and yes I am fully aware of their etymology and history. Know why? Because I have a functioning forebrain and I’m capable of discerning the meaning of words based on their context. I’m a black woman. Go ahead, tell me about how I should be so offended. Well, I’m not…. Sorry….

    Sad. It’s just sad. Talk about eating your own.