How 12 Years a Slave Became a Punny Racist Trope


Despite 12 Years a Slave‘s very serious subject matter—steeped in the most inglorious era of our country’s history—and all the important conversations about race that have taken place leading up to the film’s big win at this year’s Academy Awards, white people still feel super comfortable making stupid jokes and puns about the movie that are glaringly racist.

It’s not like we expect cultural sensitivity from The Opie & Anthony Show host Anthony Cumia. He’s a shock jock, so the most that we can expect is that he has both a particular skill set and a face for radio. That being said, his “joke” was so egregiously racist in that Gabourey Sidibe was not in 12 Years a Slave, so the premise here (beyond mocking the way she looks) is: haha black people.

You sort of have to be familiar with the show The Bachelor in order to “get” actor Jason Biggs’ tweet. Cassandra Ferguson, a contestant on the show’s current season, was an NBA dancer and she has a child with Rodney Stuckey who plays for the Detroit Pistons. So it would seem that Biggs was making a joke about how she’s so into black dudes—any black dudes—that she is brought to the point of arousal just looking at them, even if they are being beaten or tortured or whatever. But we’re tempted to give Biggs a pass on this one as we seriously doubt that he has any knowledge of female arousal or what it takes to make a woman wet.

Chelsea Handler took a lot of heat for her Oscar coverage, which consisted of her tweeting one-liners from Huffington Post’s Twitter account. Among her more offensive remarks were a series of Angelina Jolie adoption jokes in reference to non-white presenters and winners (one of which targeted Lupita Nyong’o). But it was her tweet about Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, which managed to be at once self-promotional and self-destructive, that took the award in achievement in Twitter racism.

Then of course, there were a series of headlines from actual, legitimate news organizations that meant well but did worse with inappropriate puns.

From The News-Gazette, a local paper in Illinois:

From L.A.’s Daily Breeze:

From The Denver Post:

Last, but not least, Jezebel received a PR email from someone at Lawlor Media Group promoting a story idea from “celebrity eyebrow stylist” Joey Healy that contained 1000 words worth of red carpet eyebrow critique. It included this little quip about 12 Years a Slave actress and Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o:

Lupita Nyong’o – We are a slave for your brows! With her stunning, rich skin tone, Lupita has a brow that gives striking definition to her face. Her eyebrows are in ideal contrast with her warm skin tone. Her charcoal-infused eyebrows are the perfect neutral shade without any hint of red or ashy undertone. Lupita’s bold eyebrows balance out her fuller lips and create a sense of harmony in her overall appearance.

It may have been an error in judgment, but it was also no accident. The entire email contains pun after pun relating actresses to the roles they’ve played. (“Meryl’s dysfunctional on-screen family isn’t the only thing that needs therapy; her eyebrows need help as well,” and “Sandy [Bullock], your brows are out of this world!”) Maybe Joey should focus a little less on eyebrows and a little more on what he’s supposed to have behind them.

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