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Why Seth MacFarlane and The Onion’s Jokes About Quvenzhané Wallis Are So Gross

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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.

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