I want to talk about The Onion, but first I want to talk about the boob song.
At last Sunday’s Oscars, there was this bit about Captain James T. Kirk traveling back in time to tell Seth MacFarlane how not to be the worst host in the show’s history. Among the fatal missteps that Kirk wanted to help MacFarlane avoid was singing “an incredibly offensive song that [upset] a lot of actresses in the audience.” On the off-chance you didn’t hear the song or read about it, dear reader, it’s called “We Saw Your Boobs,” and it catalogs the films in which Naomi Watts, Charlize Theron, and numerous others have appeared bare-chested—complete with shots of those actors looking grumpy and defeated, and of Jennifer Lawrence looking victorious because “we haven’t seen [her] boobs at all.”
Get it? Because she wins. Because you see, “sex is a contest,” and “men win and women lose when sex or nudity happens. It’s an archaic, prudish, creepy concept that derives from twisted notions about female purity and women-as-property.”
Plus, to celebrate the act of cinematic mammary-ogling while simultaneously slut-shaming the women to whom those breasts belong—in direct proportion to how naked they’ve gotten, and how often—is both manifestly regressive and spectacularly moronic. Besides which, MacFarlane was more or less daring the women he name-checked to do anything other than play along, because hey, they totally asked for this by being naked on camera, the dumb humorless floozies. (Headdesk forever and ever).
But what I found equally irksome, if I’m being honest, was the way the song was declared “offensive” first and foremost, as though that quality alone justifies its existence and assigns it comedic value. The mechanics of jokes matter, so I’d like to use this one, with its hoary premise and its lazy framing, as evidence that we all need to stop leaning so heavily on “offensive” as a category.
I’m not saying that we need to banish the word offensive from our vocabularies, exactly. Being offended is a valid reaction. It’s just that it’s not a particularly informative one. You can be offended by earnest, mean spirited hate-speech, yes. But you can also be offended by prescient, valuable satire. Or you can be offended by button-pushing attempts at incisive commentary that come up sort and thereby come out muddled. All of those things are equally likely to offend you, and the fact that you are offended will not help you to tell them apart.
In other words, nothing is objectively offensive, but lots of things are objectively problematic. And problematic things can spur useful dialogue, whereas all we ever seem to want from offensive things is a Big Old Apology (which all too often means very little and accomplishes even less). The time and effort we spend talking about whether something is offensive could, therefore, be better spent talking about whether it’s harmful, or immoral, or tone deaf. Even if the cultural object in question is all of the above, you can still like it—and you can like while still acknowledging that, in some respects, it’s kind of fucked up.
Which brings us to The Onion.
As Maryann Johanson points out, this joke is problematic for a whole host of reasons, “like how women of color come in for extra bonus disrespect and misogyny, and how little girls are inexcusably oversexualized.” Very, very true.
“But that’s not what this tweet was about,” she continues. “I didn’t see Wallis as the butt of this joke. It seemed completely obvious to me—to the point that I didn’t even have to think about it—that the butt of the joke here is people who say such things about women.”
Again, the mechanics of the joke matter. This is parody by exaggeration. Say that same bitchily misogynistic thing about Jennifer Lawrence, for exmaple, and it wouldn’t even register as satire; it would just register as the the kind of thing that people constantly say about women, especially but not exclusively on the Internet. Say it about an indisputably adorable and irrepressibly ebullient little kid, however, and the hatefulness of the sentiment becomes freshly obvious and sharply visible—which is supposed to make us ask why it’s OK to talk about anyone that way, if we can all agree that it’s not OK to talk about Quvenzhané Wallis that way.
Jonhanson concludes by conceding “that if you have to explain a joke, the joke has failed. So The Onion screwed up. Just not quite in the way that a surprising number of people seem to think they have.” We can appreciate that The Onion was taking aim at a valid target (that target definitely not being Quvenzhané Wallis), while also acknowledging that they missed the mark pretty severely (hence the widespread, perfectly understandable misunderstanding that their target was Quvenzhané Wallis, which again, was not in fact the case at all).
The Onion’s own apology calls the tweet “a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire,” but I think it would be a mistake to decide that this joke, because it is so problematic, has no value—and to some of you, that statement will mean that I am taking The Onion’s side, explaining away their error, and telling their detractors to shut up and stop being offended. The comments section of Johanson’s post (which, as with so many comments sections, I would strongly encourage you not to read) contains a whole lot of outrage along those lines.
But look, I’m not making excuses for The Onion, nor am I telling anyone not to be offended, and I don’t think that Johanson is doing any of that, either. Rather, I’m saying that it’s pointless to talk about who is and is not on the The Onion’s side, because everyone in this discussion, including The Onion, is on the same side.
That’s what we stand to gain when we stop using offence as our primary unit of measure. We can eschew the reductive, self-congratulatory fiction that the world is neatly divisible into an enlightened, empathetic Us and an ignorant, boorish Them. We can see that Seth MacFarlane’s shtick is fundamentally different from The Onion’s in terms of form, intent, and effect, even if both end up being offensive. And most importantly, we can move past the idea that being good is a fixed state rather than an ongoing process, and that it’s more important for offensive parties to seek absolution than it is for all of us to seek understanding.
Personally, when I’m offended by something, I try to approach it as the beginning of a potentially meaningful conversation, not the end of one.