Beasts of the Southern Wild star and youngest-ever Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis is a lovely little girl who shows plenty of signs of turning into a reliable talent and a charming presence on the awards-season publicity circuit. And for some reason, she became the target of some of the most unpleasant jokes both during last night’s Academy Awards and in the commentary about them.
Seth MacFarlane cracked that “to give you an idea of how young she is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too young for Clooney.” It was a line that could have been at Clooney’s expense, if it hadn’t seemed so congratulatory—both MacFarlane and Clooney have a tendency to date much younger women. And as I wrote earlier today, MacFarlane immediately defused any sense that he was going after Clooney by tossing him a mini-bottle. Mega-stars, it seems, must be protected from any hurt feelings or criticism, but little girls? Not so much. Things got worse later in the evening when the Onion’s twitter feed Tweeted, and subsequently deleted “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a c—, right? #Oscars2013.” It was jarring and appalling to see that kind of language directed at a nine-year old girl, even if there’s a world where the concept of the joke could have been funny. Suggesting that a little girl who carries purses shaped like puppies and has a habit of flexing adorably on the red carpet or when the camera comes to her is secretly a Machiavellian schemer or a diva is a reasonable joke to me, and a similar schtick was a long-running and successful plot point on 30 Rock. It even could have been a riff on the irrational haterade directed actresses like Anne Hathaway. But the Onion’s choice of sexual, nasty language blew up that possibility: it was programming to the character length, not the actual quality of the gag.
To the publication’s credit, the Onion appears to have realized this. The company’s CEO, Steve Hannah, just published a Facebook post asking for Wallis’ forgiveness:
I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive—not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting. No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire. The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible. Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.
But beyond the Onion’s apology, it’s worth thinking more deeply about why the attempts at satire aimed at Wallis went so badly last night.
It wasn’t just that Wallis is nine, or that she’s African-American (the AP reporter who tried to sub in Annie’s name for Wallis’ own has some thinking to do on that score)—though the failure to understand the particular implications of her age and race is embarrassing—that made the decision to target her both bizarre and comedically awful. She’s a first-time actress, rather than an established Hollywood commodity, which means she’s at a different stage in learning to manage her reaction to the vitriol from within the industry and outside it that’s directed at women, without respect for age, race, or any other identifying characteristic. The movie that she made her debut in had a budget of $1.8 million—Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence made $500,000 for The Hunger Games, almost a third of that budget, and it’s a figure that’s considered scandalously low, given that she’s anchoring that franchise. All of this means that, while Fox Searchlight Pictures certainly supported her Oscar campaign, Wallis and her family have fewer financial resources at this stage in her career to hire personal publicists and plot the management of her image. Wallis may be tapped to play Annie in a new movie adaptation of the stage musical, replacing Willow Smith after the older girl both aged and bowed out of the role, but she’s hardly a power player with the money to finance projects or the clout to nix co-stars.
In other words, of all the available targets at the Dolby Theater, all the directors who have asked the actresses in Seth MacFarlane’s boorish musical number to take off their tops, all the executives who are obsessed with their bottom lines until the couple of months a year when they’re required to talk about great art, and the great age and overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the Oscar voters, you pick a child? Courageous humor punches up, rather than down, and effective humor exposes something meaningful about the target. Maybe the Oscars stage with that vaunted billion-person audience isn’t the right place to tell big truths about Hollywood, but it’s not a hard position from which to reveal some small ones with craft and finesse.
I had a chance to talk to Wallis after a screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild two weeks ago, and I asked her, considering how much responsibility her character Hushpuppy has for her community in the movie, if she thought adults should listen more, and more carefully to children. Her answer felt even more illuminating this morning than it did when we spoke. “If you’re working, look at them to make them feel that you’re actually listening,” she said. “They have a wild imagination, and grownups don’t. They just focus on their kids, or like their family, they really don’t like chill, they’re always busy…They really don’t imagine as much. I was thinking about, a few minute ago, how I would look whenever I get older. I think of crazy stuff.” On a night when a lot of grown-ups, in the course of chasing desperately after approval and professional validation, showed an utter lack of imagination in defaulting to sexism and cruelty rather than thinking through clever material, Wallis is right.
Respecting kids doesn’t necessarily mean letting them off the hook. But it does mean remembering that they’re children, and thinking about both appropriate limits when you’re speaking about them, and the things you can get out of talking to them that you couldn’t out of anyone else. And given the whiteness of Hollywood, and the fact that Wallis’ first role as a pint-sized superhero may be the best one she’s ever offered given the way Hollywood values women, MacFarlane and The Onion could have revealed much more about the movie industry by being on Wallis’ side than by picking her out as a target.