Dear Comedy, Just So You Know, You Are Allowed To Apologize
Last night, during the 2013 Academy Awards, The Onion published a tweet calling Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a cunt. End of joke! About an hour later, the tweet was deleted, but not before a bunch of people got mad about it, and this morning Steve Hannah, The Onion‘s CEO, drafted a formal apology. OK! Good! A lot of people have knee-jerk reactions to use of the word “cunt,” which I think is silly, considering that it’s just a word, and it’s not even a word with that much historical baggage (unlike certain racial epithets for example). That doesn’t mean that women (or men!) aren’t allowed to have as violent of a reaction as they want. We all have to make our way through the day somehow, and if that word strikes some kind of traumatic chord within you, speak up! I am not suggesting otherwise! But it’s not a word that I, as a white, middle class man find particularly problematic especially in the context of a joke. In this case it has a lot more to do with making fun of a CHILD and also with using a sexually aggressive word that is, even after everything I said about the word not being that big of a deal, about as violent of a word that you can use especially to describe a (young) (very young) woman. Here’s a thought: how about we just not make fun of little children? There are no lines in the sand, like you can make fun of your own children if you want. But if you aren’t related to the child or have any personal knowledge of what they did that was so ridiculous, maybe just make a joke about something else? There are literally one billion other things to make fun of*. Exactly one billion. I counted. OK, but so The Onion wrote a dumb non-joke calling a little girl a bad word, and then they apologized for the joke, and that’s basically the end of the story. Except I just saw this tweet from the New York Times‘s David Carr and it really bugged me:
Onion to writers: Tweet incredibly edgy, funny stuff. If you go over the line, we’ll just slide you under the bus.
— david carr (@carr2n) February 25, 2013
First of all, I don’t really think The Onion threw any writers under the bus. Unless the dude (I’m assuming it was a dude, and I feel comfortable doing so) who wrote the tweet has been fired. To which I would say that does seem unnecessary, but also people get fired all the time, and for far less egregious mistakes. But also: every time there is one of these cultural flare ups where a comedian does/says something that is deemed inappropriate and are then forced to respond to said offense, we always get into the same argument about what is and is not OK to joke about and what is or is not the job of a comedian to push society’s buttons and whatnot, and not only is this argument very exhausting, the bigger problem is that IT IS THE WRONG ARGUMENT.
No one is even remotely suggesting that The Onion have its Twitter account taken away, or even really do much of anything different. Like, if the one new rule is “don’t call children cunts anymore” that’s not a huge hinderance on their ability to make biting satire. You can still rip our collective culture a new one, guys, you’re going to do great. And apologizing when you are wrong is literally WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO! Look, I understand as well as anyone that comedians are going to try and make jokes and sometimes those jokes are not going to work, and that when your mission statement is to make particularly “edgy” (oof for lack of a better word but there has got to be a better word) jokes then you’re more likely to fall on the wrong side of the line. OK! Who cares?! It’s not like this has ever stopped anyone from trying! But please someone explain to me under what circumstances it is even remotely inappropriate to APOLOGIZE when this happens? Do you know who does not apologize ever? Sociopaths. (This may or may not be true because even sociopaths at least engage in social mirroring and would probably apologize just because they understood this to be one of the rules of being a human being.)
If you are allowed to offend people, which you are, we all are, and we do, almost constantly, at the very least you should also be allowed to apologize sometimes if the WAY in which you offended them was the wrong way. This is where the expression “my bad” comes from.
Now that they are chastised and apologetic, will The Onion be “less funny” out of fear of some kind of vague, non-existent comedy policing entity? Maybe. For awhile. Oh well? Sorry? That’s the cost of doing business on a large scale with a national audience? When Daniel Tosh says that rape is always funny, or Tracy Morgan says that he would murder his gay child, or when Michael Richards you know whats all over the place, we all can understand that this is the flailing public failure of a comedian who reached for the great brass ring of “honesty” and fell on his face. Are people too sensitive sometimes? Absolutely 100% they are! Is it completely within their rights to just leave the comedy club or stop reading The Onion instead of shouting something from the audience or writing an angry letter? Oh of course, and in general this is the more appropriate course of action. You have a tiny bit of power as a consumer, and you should use that power by making choices!
I’m starting to get the impression that there is a fear in the comedy community (that David Carr shares for some reason, perhaps because of his love for journalistic freedom–I mean that in all seriousness, even though somehow that sounded a little snarky–I think that is the link, a journalist’s appreciation for the unvarnished truth is not dissimilar to a comedian’s appreciation for the unvarnished truth) that somehow to apologize for making a mistake is to show some devastating and irredeemable weakness. NEVER APOLOGIZE! Well, why not? If this is the community that is supposed to be so open and honest that it can make fun of its own flaws and weaknesses, those flaws and weaknesses can’t stop at Irritable Bowel Syndrome and being BAD AT FLIRTING. Come the FUCK on. If you are able to admit on stage (or in an article) that life is a short-term nightmare from which the only escape is our inevitable death, then surely you can also admit that sometimes you hurt someone else’s feelings and that wasn’t your intention. Big whoop.
In the world of comedy, apparently, the only thing more offensive than calling a 9-year-old child a cunt is apologizing for anything ever.
Do we all need to walk around on egg shells now? No! None of us do, and none of us will. Should people only listen to that tiny, exciting voice in their heads right before they say the big thing that tells them maybe they shouldn’t say it? That maybe this time they are going too far? No! Ignoring that voice is half of the fun. But that’s the whole thing about that voice: sometimes it is right. And when it turns out overwhelmingly that OK, this time the voice had a really good point, then just say you were sorry. LIKE A MAN. It is not the end of the world. Even after all of that, you will almost certainly call someone else a cunt tomorrow. Hopefully they will just, you know, even remotely deserve it. Or at least be someone your own size.