Beasts of the Southern Wild is the only film I’ve seen of this year’s Best Picture Nominees. As someone who was once a little black girl who loved fantasy, I had to see it.
When Quvenzhané Wallis started filming her starring role as Hushpuppy, she was only five years old, just a year older than my daughter is now. About 15 minutes into the movie, I commented to my husband that Hushpuppy reminded me so much of our daughter. Like Hushpuppy, our girl has a fabulous head of curls and a penchant for running around without pants (we keep that indoors, don’t worry). And like Hushpuppy and Quvenzhané herself, she’s independent, determined, and brimming with energy and confidence.
So it broke my heart when I saw The Onion’s “joke” calling Quvenzhané Wallis one of the most hateful words you can call a girl or a woman in the English language. On top of being sad and appalled for Wallis and her family, I also couldn’t help but think of my daughter and the inevitable day that she will hear that word directed at her for the first time.
I obviously don’t speak for everyone, but it’s safe to say that I’m not the only black person who feels a particular affection for Wallis. She’s charmed many with her lively and precocious personality. For black audiences specifically, there’s a sense of connection and identification with her, even feeling protective towards her. People baffled by the vehemence of the reactions to The Onion’s tweet perhaps don’t get this context, or the particular implications of the slur for young black girls. For many, seeing Quvenzhané Wallis succeed and thrive in an industry that is especially hostile to women of color is deeply personal.
We all get that this was meant as a joke, that the writer doesn’t actually revile Quvenzhané Wallis. I can see that the intent was perhaps to send a message about the vicious scrutiny of girls and women in the public eye. What he or she (let’s be real, probably a he) was really thinking, however, is entirely beside the point. What they did was call a girl a gendered and sexualized slur. What they did was send the message, yet again, that girls and women are open game when it comes to sexual jokes and jokes about our bodies, and that it’s extra funny if the target is a very young girl.
Of course, The Onion would have been wrong to use that word, no matter who they decided to use as the hinge for their “joke.” This and much of the sexist “humor” at the Oscars were a reminder to girls and women in Hollywood, and all of us watching, that some men will always see our bodies, feelings, and lives as simultaneously a joke and a threat.
However, the context for this particular joke is not only the gross objectification that all girls and women are subjected to in American society. It’s also that black girls specifically are hypersexualized in ways white girls are not. It’s also that black children are routinely denied the innocence that we otherwise claim is a right of childhood.
People who think the outrage over this “joke” is indulgent and overblown severely underestimate the power of media to legitimize violence against people on the margins.
Like Roxane Gay, I was horrified by the thought that Quvenzhané is not so far from the age when she might hear men calling her such vile names in public, just because she’s a black girl. The casual privilege The Onion’s staff felt to fling this loaded, violent word at her, just because she’s a girl in the spotlight, is absolutely connected to epidemic violence against black girls and our casual acceptance of it.
Black girls in the public eye are routinely devalued (see also: Gabby Douglas, Amandla Sternberg). Mainstream media—with Hollywood at its heart—sends the message that they are lesser and don’t matter.
Watch Thandie Newton talk about the rampant abuse of young women actors in Hollywood, and add to that the racism that black actors routinely experience. You might start to understand why black people were so ready to ride hard for Wallis, and why black celebrities intimately familiar with the bigotry of their industry spoke up so loudly in her defense.
For those who need any more evidence that this protest mattered, note the fact that many white men, including former Onion staffers, have taken to the web to express their fury over the fact that The Onion dared to apologize to Wallis. Some, again including former Onion staff, have repeated the word used against Wallis in defiance of “censorship” and the “easily offended,” and in supposed defense of editorial freedom.
Perhaps rather than ask why people are so angry at The Onion, we should ask why some white men are so invested in the right to slur black children.
As a girl, I was acutely sensitive to how girls who looked like me were treated and portrayed in the media. I saw the racism and sexism directed by grown adults at Venus and Serena Wililams when they burst on the national tennis scene. It affected me and many other black girls watching. The same is true for black girls—and for all girls—taking in media sexism and watching our collective response to it today. I understand if some people don’t feel Quvenzhané Wallis is a serious enough cause for their outrage. But for the sake of my daughter and so many girls like her, I can’t say silent.