Quvenzhané Wallis + The Oscars = Sexist/Racist Undertones

For those of you who don’t know, this is Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9 year old star of Beasts of the Southern Wild, for which she received a Best Actress nomination. She is a fireball of energy, an extremely talented actress for her age (hence the nomination) and wise beyond her years. Despite all this, much of the attention she’s been getting recently has had some disturbing and completely inappropriate sexist and racist undertones.

For starters, people are having a lot of difficulty trying to figure out how to pronounce her name. She spells it out in this video for everyone who hasn’t taken the time to figure it out themselves. It is still a fairly common and accepted practice to make light black men and women’s names (see: Top 60 Ghetto Black Names). There seems to be a very fine line between poking fun at a cultural practice and marginalizing someone because of their ethnicity or heritage. On the bright side, Quvenzhané is taking no guff from anyone about her name. In an interview about her upcoming role as ‘Annie’ an AP reporter said she was “Just going to call her Annie”. She responded, “My name is not Annie. It’s Quvenzhane.” She’s proud of her name and she’s letting everyone know.

Unfortunately, the trouble doesn’t stop there for Ms. Wallis. Last night at the Oscar ceremony Seth Macfarlane who served as host made a joke about Quvenzhané’s age saying “She’s 9. To give you an idea of how young that is, in 16 years she’ll be too old for Clooney.” To be honest, at the time I didn’t think much of his joke, thinking it was more of a jab at George Clooney than anything. After reading numerous negative comments about this particular joke I realized that it’s a lot more problematic than it was perhaps meant to be. Black women have historically been over sexualized in this country and this joke was just a perpetuation of that process, not to mention that this girl is 9 years old. 

By far the worst media attention surrounding Quvenzhané is a tweet from the satirical news source The Onion. It read, “Everyone seems afraid to say it but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c**t, right?” After a surge of outrage on Twitter, The Onion took the tweet down and quickly apologized via their Facebook page:

“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.”

Yes, The Onion is satirical and not meant to be taken seriously. However, there is a huge difference between the intent of a joke and the impact it makes, especially when the joke is focused on someone who is part of a marginalized group. And again, maybe the tweet wouldn’t have been quite as offensive if it wasn’t directed at someone who’s still in elementary school.

A lot of people are responding to all of this controversy by saying that those who are offended “just can’t take a joke” and that it’s not a big deal. But it is a big deal. It’s a big deal to anyone who has ever been belittled or told that they were weird because their name isn’t “normal”. It’s a big deal to women, especially women of color, who have been told from a young age that their only attribute is their body, that their only hope of achieving anything lies in being hyper-sexualized.

This little girl does not deserve any of the disrespect she’s been shown recently. Luckily, she has a ton of support behind her, and honestly, she’s probably tough enough to handle all it all herself.