[CN: sexual assault of young girls, misogynoir.]
First, take a look at this photograph.
Now — which pictured baby would you name “most likely to have a joke about it getting sexually humiliated and assaulted appear as the key element in a new comedy already heralded as potentially ‘the next Seinfeld‘ and executive-produced by a woman lauded for her outspoken feminism“?
[Jeopardy theme music plays briefly.]
If you guessed the Black girlchild in the lavender playsuit, congrats! we have a winner!
Other acceptable answers: the baby most likely to grow up with an 18.8% probability just of reporting being raped (actual risk of assault significantly higher); a 40% probability of experiencing coercive sexual contact by age 18; vulnerable to a higher rate of domestic violence than most other ethnic/racial communities; a disproportionate risk of being killed by an intimate partner; a 4x higher likelihood of being incarcerated than a white woman, at which point her probability of experiencing sexual violence will again increase.
(Or maybe you just went with “baby most likely to enroll in college when it grows up.” That one works too.)
Gentle readers, I am pissed off.
The Deets of Alice’s Frustration
“Difficult People” is a comedy that premiered on Hulu just a few weeks ago. Executive-produced by Amy Poehler — yes, that Amy Poehler — the series stars Julie Klausner (who is also the show’s creator, producer, and writer) and Billy Eincher as NY comedians named “Julie” and “Billy” who both have a penchant for tasteless humor. That “the more taboo the target, the better!”-style of joking.
Get it??! The main characters are just teeeeerrrrrible. (The show is called “Difficult People,” after all.)
Even with only half-paying attention to the first episode, I still noted drive-by snark directed towards: hipsters, fat people, disabled people, gay people, old people, cancer patients, parents of young children, Jews — and all the stick-in-the-mud characters who don’t see humor in such outrageous statements.
Oh. And then there’s this:
At four minutes into the pilot, we get the full hook for a joke about how teeeeerrrrrible Twitter users are, which provides the running gag for the rest of the episode: people tweeting outrageously mean things to Julie in response to an outrageously tasteless joke she herself had tweeted earlier.
The joke? Julie “can’t wait” until Blue Ivy Carter, the 3yo daughter of Beyoncé Knowles and Jay Z, is “old enough” to be pissed on by R Kelly, the R&B singer who was himself raped at age 8 and repeated sexually assaulted as a child and who has an extensive history as an adult (documented on numerous videotapes and in dozens of lawsuits) of committing sexual violence against young teenage girls, including: rapes and other assaults, multiple pedophilic “sexual relationships” lasting a year or more, at least one coerced abortion, and — the best known incident — videotaping a 13 or 14yo girl as he urinated into her mouth and instructed her to call him “Daddy.”
Are we all laughing yet?
I know meta jokes. I laugh at meta jokes. Meta joking is a friend of mine. A piss-baby tweet is not a meta joke.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up-front: in context, it’s quite clear that the intended target of this joke are people — like me — who take offense at “jokes” clearly designed to be outrageous about things like, say, the rape and degrading sexual assault of a toddler. (A Black girlbaby toddler, to be precise, which I’ll come back to.)
We are in prime “ironic racism/hipster sexism” territory, where joke’s on you to anyone who responds (and on social media, no less!) with serious anger. We are being trolled.
I get it.
In fact, here’s the full context. See if you can spot it too:
Julie [looking at her smartphone]: Uh-oh.
Julie: I tweeted something about Blue Ivy earlier, and now the Internet’s being really mean to me. ‘Unfollow. Kill yourself.’ From @SpinClassAddict91. Oh god, that’s probably the year she was born!
Friend: What was the joke?
Julie: ‘I can’t wait for Blue Ivy to be old enough so R Kelly can piss on her.’
Julie: I hate this! I hate fighting with people! I just like saying something crazy and then leaving the room. Unless people like what I say, and then I stay in the room. […] I’m gonna delete this piss-baby tweet.
So, yknow, much as I appreciate The Washington Post’s supremely ‘splain-y piece, “Amy Poehler’s ‘Difficult People’ slammed for Blue Ivy-R. Kelly joke: Here’s why it’s extremely meta“ [emphasis added], I really didn’t need their scene-by-scene analysis. I got the point all the way to the final bit when Julie, waiting for a late bus while needing to urinate, ends up pissing on herself — well before WaPo told me what a dummyhead I was being:
“There’s another visual gag at the end that shows the joke is clearly on Julie’s ignorance. Still, the Twitter criticism continues as some people don’t understand why the line even made it into the script in the first place.”
We understand the line.
We just also find it shitty, sexist, racist — and in-no-way funny.
In fact, the only thing watching the whole episode convinced me of is that, with or without this line, “Difficult People” is a show fully committed to its racism.
“JK!” is not a Get Out of Jail Free! card. That is, I mean…do you have a Whiteness Race Card to play with it?
Going by the pilot, “Difficult People” is an extremely white show. This despite casting the Academy Award-nominated Gabourey Sidibe. (Hers is an excruciatingly underutilized role — not even accorded the “sassy Black best friend” position, Sidibe is relegated to playing the “sassy Black best friend of the sassy gay best friend.”)
Race remains an unmentioned elephant in the room, with Blackness one of the only identity categories not explicitly named and mocked by the central characters. Instead, Blackness is mocked implicitly: this tweet about a [known-to-be Black] man preying on a [known-to-be Black] child, which leads to the pubic shaming of the white woman who wrote it, evokes not only the trope of “humorless feminists getting their panties in a twist over rape jokes” but also the public shaming of Justine Sacco, the white PR exec who lost her job after tweeting “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Why does the Sacco parallel matter?
Because not only was she reemployed after only a month — but more than year later, she was still receiving an outpouring of sympathy for her ordeal rarely accorded to white women who do not tweet blatantly racist jokes or women of color who tweet…anything at all.
“I’m not a shitty person. I just play a shitty person on TV.”
Here’s the truly terrible thing about the R Kelly “joke” (and no, I don’t mean teeeeerrrrrible):
The fact that the line clearly targets Tweeters and their flame wars means that any harm done to a little Black girl is ancillary to poking a stick at white people with Twitter accounts and the tendency to get into a huff.
She’s just collateral damage.
And through that little Black girl (who is a real person, let’s be clear), laughter was directed at all of R Kelly’s victims, who are also real people — and who have already had far more harm done to them than my mind can even contain, on most days.
Through her, laughter was directed at all the other little Black girls, who collectively make up one of the most vulnerable populations in our society.
At all Black girls and women, who already bear the burden — historical and present-day — of extreme, hyper-sexualized depictions in media and pop culture and the brutality such imagery invites and excuses.
While I may not be overly concerned that any direct, measurable harm was done, in this instance, to Blue Ivy herself (who likely neither saw the show nor would have understood, if she had, and who has fierce parents that have been tackling ish like this directed against their daughter since her birth), I think it’s critical to understand this “joke about tweeting” — in particular, its reliance on Black girls’ victimization as mere mechanism for its humor — within the broader context of US culture. This is just one more example of the cultural illegibility of Black children as children, of Black victims as victims, of blackgirl vulnerability as vulnerability.
It ain’t the first time. When the hell will it be the last?
Who will arrive first: Godot or the White Feminists? Your betting booth is now open.
In 2013, 9yo Quvenzhané Wallis became the youngest actress ever nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress, for her performance as Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
She attended the Academy Awards ceremony carrying a puppy-wearing-a-tutu purse.
She was perfect.
She is perfect.
I hope she remembers only the magical parts about that night. Some of us remember a few other things.
Like how host Seth Myers quipped about Wallis, as she sat in the audience: “to give you an idea of how young she is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too young for [George] Clooney” to date.
And how @TheOnion tweeted out its own, truly reprehensible “joke” sexualizing the young actress: “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right? #Oscars2013”
And those of us involved in feminist blogging that year remember — or we certainly should remember — how white feminists failed to defend Wallis or to support the Black feminists calling out these jokes for the harm they caused and perpetuated. (For an overview of how things played out, as well as links to articles and blog posts written at the time, see Jessica Luther’s comprehensive piece over at Shakesville.)
The lowest point, to my mind, came courtesy of the writers white-splaining how they personally ‘don’t mind being called a “c**t” — so lighten up already!’ This week’s “sheesh! it’s just a joke about distasteful people!” responses brought me right back.
A few days ago, I posted this on Facebook:
Having watched the pilot episode in its entirety now — and having read numerous responses in mainstream media, with their frequent references to how “stirred up the Beyhive is” (a term for Beyoncé’s ardent fan base) — I’m not waiting any more. Certainly not for any apology from Poehler, advocate for women’s issues and co-founder of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, a web-based community that “seeks to help future women channel their intelligence, imagination, and curiosity into a drive to be their weird and wonderful selves.”
It’s clear to me that not only was this “joke” deliberately made — at the expense of Black girls’ dignity and rape victims’ humanity — but that it was made intentionally to provoke exactly the reaction it has received. After all, nothing says “great press” for the summer release of a web-delivered TV show like a “stirred-up Beyhive”!
And if Black
girls future women get hurt in the process? Well…
It’s not like this show wanted them in its audience anyway.