Last night’s Oscar Awards ceremony was huge for Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old Beasts Of the Southern Wild actress who, with her adorable sparkly, puffy navy blue Armani gown and sleek press-n-curl and fancy puppy purse walked the red carpet as the youngest actor ever to get an Academy Awards nomination. She didn’t win the statuette, but she did win hearts—wooing everyone from Halle Berry and Sam Jackson to Channing Tatum and Jessica Chastain with her adorable smile and spirited personality, which took centerstage when her category was announced during the ceremony and she hilariously worked the “I’m the Man!” bodybuilder “gun” show she made famous in her critically-acclaimed film. Why then, did the usually quick-witted satirical site, The Onion, feel the need to call Quvenzhané a cunt?
Yes, you read that right: Whoever was steering The Onion’s Twitter feed during the Oscars last night took to the social media site to call a celebrated African American actress—a child—one of the most perverse, sexualized slurs you could call a female. The Tweet has since been deleted, but the quick ones managed to grab a screen shot:
Backlash was fast and severe: Twitter lit up with a gazillion people who made clear to The Onion that calling a 9-year-old little girl a cunt not only is disgusting but abusive, and at least one petition already is making the rounds, demanding The Onion issue a public apology, fire its editor and review its hiring policies. Most poignant was actor Wendell Pierce’s defense of Quvenzhané, a fellow NOLA resident whom Pierce, star of HBO’s Treme, made clear should be off-limits to the celeb bashing that plagues pop culture.
Shameful, indeed. But are we surprised? Quvenzhané is a black child in Hollywood—an actress who has chosen to make a living entertaining the American masses. This is a beautiful thing, considering how talented she is. But we’re living in a society that, at the very sight of the adorable Amandla Stenberg as Rue in last year’s The Hunger Games, whipped itself into a frenzy of racist, hate-filled diatribes. That beautiful child, then 11, was called all kinds of “black bitch” and “nigger,” with Hunger Games “fans” making clear for public record on the internet that they absolutely abhor human life if it comes wrapped in skin that isn’t white like theirs.
Now, I’m not ready to call The Onion racist for its Tweet. But I do think that we’re moving in a society that makes it easy for some dumb low-level intern hired to be “funny” on their social media pages to be extra disrespectful when a little black girl is involved because, really, who gives a damn about little black girls? Say what you want—context be damned.
Of course, this is what folk need to consider when they’re having their fun at the expense of black children. Be clear: I’m not suggesting that it would have been okay for The Onion to call, say, Dakota Fanning or a young Miley Cyrus or Drew Barrymore gendered slurs. But there is context and history there for all to see: the Angry Black Woman/Hottentot/Mammy/Jezebel meme that plagues black women is incredibly real, and none of us, no matter how sweet, cute, kind, generous or famous, seem to be able to escape it. Not even 9-year-old little girls.
This is about respect—respect and understanding when it comes to our babies. The beauty of Quvenzhané Wallis is that she seems to get this already, even at the tender age of nine. When an AP reporter gushed, “I’m just going to call you Annie”—both because she couldn’t pronounce Quvenzhané’s name and because the pint-sized actress has been cast in the upcoming Will Smith and Jay-Z produced screen remake of the Broadway musical— Quvenzhané spoke up and made it plain: “My name is not Annie. It’s Quvenzhané.” Like a boss. Indeed, Quvenzhané Wallis has a name and is a human being who deserves respect—not your ill “humor” or your laziness. And the word “cunt” should never, ever be associated with it. And if The Onion and random reporters can’t understand that, then they should just keep her name out of their mouths. (In the meantime, check out this adorable post from BuzzFeed, which covered our shining star the way children should be covered.)