Disclaimer: Dear white feminists, this post is in keeping with my organizational background. I do an analysis of media organizations and not, say, you and your friends, your individual experiences, or of tweets. You are welcome to conduct that analysis but you will not find it here.
Children are sacred. They are off-limits for behaviors and treatment that are perfectly acceptable for adults. Although this cultural norm is violated frequently enough to make us question how seriously we take the rights of children, it is fairly uncontested that at least in theory our society considers children deserving of special laws, care, and treatment.
So, when The Onion published its now infamous tweet in which it called he Oscar nominated phenom nine-year-old Quvenzhané Willis a c*nt, it raised a few hackles. This has been documented, discussed, and debated. Kirsten West Savali wrote one of the most articulate essays on this issue. It is really a beautifully written essay. In it, West Savali starts from a provocative position that mirrors a conlusion many have drawn: white feminists weren’t nearly as outraged by a gendered slur being lobbed at a black child as they would have been had Quvenzhané been white.
Racism in feminist circles is nothing new. Angela Davis documented the history of racism in the evolution of woman’s suffrage. When Kimberlé Crenshaw coined intersectionality it was a refutation of the ethos that all the blacks are men and all the women are white. This dominant construction of humanity as either raced or gendered effectively erases the lived, structural, and political experiences of black women. As one who watched the debacle unfold live the night of the Oscar’s coverage, I’m inclined to believe West Savili’s reading of the events. But, many are not.
Did white feminists ignore, downplay — or, worst — defend the public degradation of a black little girl?
That struck me as an empirical question. To explore it I did a little content analysis.
I focused on media platforms for several reasons. One, I study organizations. Two, media – both new and traditional – powered the response. The attack was issued via a tweet on a weekend night. As a result the most immediate responses were on social media and online sites, which are generally characterized as a means of responding quickly to current events. Three, there is an observable history of congruence between published blog posts and essays on mainstream white feminist media outlets and current events deemed “feminist”. For example, when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut on February 29, 2012 it was covered by Ms. Magazine on its blog on March 1, 2012. Certainly, feminist organizations then know how to marshal organizational resources like blogs in response to current events. Therefore, it did not seem untoward for me to examine response of the same organizations that responded to Fluke in an analysis of the response to Quvenzhané.
I conducted searches for “feminist magazines” and “feminist blogs” and compiled an initial list of 39 online and print publications recognized as feminist. Then, I surveyed feminist blog carnivals produced over the past year. From those I removed entries of sites that had isolated blog posts about feminism but were not part of a blog or magazine that specifically proclaimed to be feminist in either its title or description. Next, I removed blogs whose focus was so (explicitly) narrow and consistently focused on a specific topic that would preclude the coverage of pop culture or media (for example: Holla Back Girl is narrowly and consistently focused on street harassment). The final list had 50 entries. Round numbers make me nervous in analysis so I went hunting for a few more entries. I included online spaces aimed at women like HuffPo Women. Finally, I went to the website for each link and tossed out entries that were defunct, had not published anything in the last month or appeared to stick to a strict publishing cycle that would preclude it from having responded to an event that happened a week ago.
The final list has 19 entries. It is a mix of independent and corporate publications; blogs and periodicals; online and print-online hybrids. I read coverage within a four day window of the Oscars at each website.
So, what do I think: did mainstream white feminist press ignore Quvenzhané?
The largest, most mainstream feminist sites like Bitch and Bust responded within 24 hours. Establishment feminist publication Ms. Magazine appears to have never even printed Quvenzhané’s name, much less responded to the issue at hand. Content on the online site may be driven by the publication cycle of the print product, precluding responses to recent current events. However, Ms. also issues a daily feminist news alert. I found no mention to Quvenzhané in any of them save a couple of comments to a blog post about the Oscars. (ETA: someone on a listserv points out an article on a Ms. blog on the 26th. It was overlooked because they misspelled Quvenzhané’s name. So that is one mention for Ms.)
What was most common among large publications and/or corporate publications (e.g. Atlantic Sexes) was reporting on the backlash and corporate apology from The Onion, absent of any analysis of race or gender. At most, mainstream and/or corporate media outlets focused on the debate about what constitutes satire.
There was decidedly more action on blog aggregators and independent blogs. If you rely on BlogHer for your feminist news you would know what The Onion said about Quvenzhané and you would know that there is some disagreement about whether calling a child a c*nt constitutes satire. You would also have a nifty defense of free speech. You would be less versed in the racialization that many, including myself, believe made Quvenzhané vulnerable to such a public, mean-spirited attack (of which Seth McFarlane is also guilty, by the way).
Feministe’s coverage is just a comment war in an open-thread about the Oscars. There is no editorial analysis. Jezebel has been a Quvenzhané booster in the past. It posted adorable .gifs of the little Oscar nominee pumping her arms in celebration as the camera panned to her in the audience. There is an essay about the disrespect of clueless media professionals who somehow insist that Quvenzhané is unpronounceable and not worthy of practice or phonetic cue cards. That post ran AFTER the Onion episode, by the way. There is no analysis of The Onion tweet or Seth McFarlane’s dig about Quvenzhané almost being too old for George Clooney save an odd (comedic?) response from two Swedish writers. They are described in the byline as unemployed roommates in an industrial Swedish town. The article is entitled: How To Make Fun of a Nine-Year-Old Without Offending The World.
HuffPo has a whole section dedicated to “Women”, albeit not to feminism. This could explain why there was no coverage of the event on HuffPo Women. There is an essay from AJ Verdelle that directly addresses racism and gender in the vulnerability of Quvenzhané to such an attack and to the virulence of the backlash. It ran on the Black Voices branded section of the website. It should be noted that there is also a post that defended satire against misplaced outrage. A black woman wrote the former and a non-black man wrote the latter.
In the final analysis, the white out on Quvenzhané and The Onion is gradational. Some feminist outlets covered the issue, if only tangentially. The notable exceptions are the biggest brands and the most corporate outlets. What appears to be closest to the truth of what happened, and what feminists of color are arguing, is that white feminists ignored how race made Quvenzhané vulnerable to attack and that race muted the intensity of the response from white feminists.
My intent at the start of this project was to compare the feminist media response to a comparable case. The example of Sandra Fluke has come up more than once. If the issue was about the vulnerability of black women to sexist attacks, I could offer more than a few examples starting with the Rutger’s basketball team.That I could not come up with a single comparable example of a white girl being called a gendered slur by a media organization, in service of humor or not, reinforces the saliency of race.
This analysis underscores the importance of non-mainstream voices, online and off, to push narratives we care about. The Feminist Wire responded swiftly via Facebook, Twitter, and on the main website. The coverage included analysis of race and gender. We were unequivocal in our support and stand-by our full-throated defense of Quvenzhané. So was The Crunk Feminist Collective, also managed by black women voices. We need these spaces to exist.
The Women’s Media Center, an organization dedicated to women’s voices and representation in media culture, presented a case of mainstream organizational support for Quvenzhané. They also point to a weakness of my analysis. Because the event was sparked by a tweet and was driven largely by twitter responses, much of the coverage may have escaped standard blog and print coverage. I watched the WMC twitter feed blaze a trail across its diverse followers in support of Quvenzhané. They did not shy away from talking about race, racism, sexism, or power. That response is not captured on the website where a search reveals no coverage of Quvenzhané or The Onion. However, this does lead to the question: why did twitter outrage not translate into less ephemeral responses on blogs and online media as it has happened for other “feminist” issues in the past?
Despite these limitations, I think there is something to the feeling many of us black feminists/womanists have about the non-response from white feminists to what happened to Quvenzhané. And it is not in the question of if white feminist media ignored what happened but if they responded to what happened with the intensity and intersectional focus it seemed to demand. The wishy-washy response from feminists like Amanda Marcotte belied the severity of the act.
For many black feminists, the extremity of the attack, satirical or not, demanded an equally extreme organizational response. If a movement was ever going to be unequivocal and resolute about anything I would like to think it would be about calling a child a c*nt. The response for me was visceral. The minute I saw The Onion tweet I was nauseated. I was not kidding when I said I was shaking.
I felt that for a host of reasons, I’m sure. She’s brown like my adorable younger cousin Genesis. God knows she has my god-daughter’s impish personality and preternatural confidence. I used to wear my hair like she had hers the night of the Oscars.
She looks like people I care about.
If she doesn’t look like people you care about, I have to wonder where your give-a-damn cuts off.
Being disgusted by sexualized attacks against a defenseless child is a function of a social construction, and likely a hypocritical one at that. Even though our society idealizes children we abuse them individually and structurally every day. Still, there remains a cultural norm that children are off-limits. When that norm is violated and it does not elicit a social response equal to the severity of the violation, it communicates that there are invisible limits to who is included in the greater social contract.
In this instance, being black and being a girl put Quvenzhané just beyond the limits of inclusion.
That is the kind of thing those of us who fight for an intersectional feminism consider a fundamentally feminist issue.
That others who identify as feminists felt differently or, worst, appeared to feel nothing at all lays bare the tensions in big tent feminism. That happens.
But maybe it shouldn’t happen when the subject in question is a little girl with a puppy purse.