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Language Matters: A response to the Onion’s tweet

This weekend the Oscars sparked countless pieces not because of who did and did not win awards or whose attire was the most fashionable but because of how utterly sexist it was throughout the entire production, starting right at the opening song.  If we can have a list of the 9 most sexist things that happened and none of them focus on the ingrained patriarchal and heteronormative structure of Hollywood or the lack of diverse roles for women in films, then there were some pretty huge problems.

On top of all that, the Onion was downright tasteless and deplorable when it tweeted that Quvenzhane Wallis is a c**t after a clip was rolled showing her role as a strong willed and independent child growing up in the deep South.  This is widely known as a derogatory and offensive term, and is used as a way to objectify and demoralize the subject.  It strips someone of their personality, beliefs, actions, dreams, and successes and instead portrays them only as an object and something to be penetrated.  

Quvenzhane is nine year old actress who was discovered at the age of 5 (after lying about her age) when she auditioned and was cast in the role of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Festival. She is not part of an acting family and beat out more than 4,000 other children for the part.  She is the youngest star EVER to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress and the third youngest for any category.  As if that isn’t impressive enough, remember that while she was recently nominated at the age of nine, she was only six years old when she played the part of Hushpuppy.  Since her success in her first film, she has gone on to be cast in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, a second Sundance film: Boneshaker, and was recently named to be the title character in Annie. Without a doubt she is a child taking the film world by storm and impressing everyone with both her undeniable talent and charasmatic personality.  Instead of cutting and derogatory insults, she should be receiving praise, support and encouragement for all that she accomplished and for the greatness that is sure to come.

Quvenzhane is not just a successful and inspiring child actress – she is a successful and inspiring child actress of color. In addition to growing up in a society rooted in racism, she is starting to work for and within an industry that constantly tells women of color that they aren’t good enough, pretty enough, or even needed.  Her recent Oscar nomination for the Best Leading Actress is a feat in and of itself.  Two years ago, Octavia Spencer, who won Best Supporting Actress, became the sixth African American actress ever to win an Oscar.  In the past ten years, only three other African American women have been nominated for Best Leading Actress.  The first and only African American actress to win this award was Halle Berry in the 2001 film, Monster’s Ball.  

The roles in film available to women have not come very far in the past 7 decades and the opportunities for women of color have progressed even less.  The roles and characters that are offered often serve to bolster and reinforce stereotypes about African American women, families, and culture.  Storylines often have characters that are not fully fleshed out and focus solely on the trials, tribulations, and abuse that African American women endure rather than a full life encompassing both positive and negative experiences.  Additionally African American women are often cast into two different types of roles: the first being a maid/servant or helper/supporter and the second being an angry or hyper sexualized jezebel.  Casting women into these limited roles can have damaging effects both on and off screen especially when we consider how segregated this nation is and how many white people base many of their thoughts and beliefs about people of color on what they see in the movies.

The movie, film, TV, and modeling industry encourages people of color to present as ‘exotic’ or to ‘pass’ as different races and ethnicities, both in film and in real life. African American models face a lot of rejection based on their skin color as they are told by agents that clients don’t want them or that their skin color may be lightened between the shoot and the layout.  Recently, even when a spread called for someone to play an African Queen, a white model was covered in brown paint and toner and cast instead.  Understandably, this upset many African American models and many individuals of the general public but, it is not the first time it has been done by a popular magazine or famous actress/model.  Even though these companies are trying to mask it in the name of high fashion, this is blackface and is based in a long history of racist and derogatory images and stereotypes of African American people and culture.

The barriers identified above in addition to numerous others make it very difficult for women of color to both launch and continue careers in the entertainment industry.  On top of the structure that is in place to limit the roles and advancement of women of color, there are additional institutional structures in place to keep them from being recognized for the superb work they do within the characters they play.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t a rhyme or reason to who is a voting member for the Oscars. The members, and the process of selection, is kept secret from the public.  However an LA Times study found that of the more than 5,700 members over 75% are male, more than 90% are Caucasian, and the median age is 62.  These demographics fail to represent the majority of people who act in the movies in addition to the majority of people who flock to the theatres to see the movies.  Winning awards, especially as prestigious as an Oscar, can open doors and opportunities for actresses, directors, and studio companies.  The group’s biased and stereotypical selections of what types of movies and characters win, will continue to influence what films will be written, financed, and produced and the roles that people can expect to play. 

When people say this incident was just a joke or tasteless humor, they are forgetting that it is happening within an entire culture.  It is not just a one-time comment against Quvenzhane, it is yet another piece of the violence and racism that exists within the entertainment industry and our society in general.

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Posted by stacey

Stacey formerly served BARCC as the coordinator for Community Awareness and Outreach. Prior to BARCC, she worked for the Navy as a sexual assault response coordinator and volunteered for the DC Rape Crisis Center. She got involved with anti-rape work during college and has enjoyed doing both direct services and educational work.

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