For the past month I have been trapped in my own personal hell. After neck and spine surgery, I experienced some post operation complications which rendered me unable to speak as well as struggle to swallow and eat. Saddled with a neck brace, industrial strength painkillers and clear instructions not to do anything, I feel restricted and trapped. As someone who revels in vocal and physical expression, this seems like unduly harsh punishment.
That is until Leslie Jones, a Saturday Night Live (SNL) regular and one of the four female stars of the new Ghostbusters movie, dropped the mic on Twitter on 18 July 2016. She signed off after declaring “I feel like I’m in a personal hell”. Her devastating cyber experience firmly placed my largely physical pain squarely into perspective.
Comedian, writer and actor Leslie Jones.
Her “personal hell” was the result of an intensely unpalatable 24 hours on Twitter. After Ghostbusters opened in the US, Leslie was exposed to one of the most calculated, relentless and shameless racial and misogynistic attacks against a woman of colour on social media to date.
This onslaught was sparked by a character assassination, masquerading as a film review, by ‘alt-right’ columnist and opponent of feminism Milo Yiannopoulos. The vitriol, including disgusting memes – which will not be showcased here – and an offensive fake account set up in her name, put Twitter in the dock – yet again.
Yiannopoulos is a repeat offender. He has been suspended by Twitter on numerous occasions, to no avail. So the decision to permanently suspend his account should be welcomed. Sadly, there is very little to celebrate.
Leslie, who was left riding solo to deal with this racially-motivated warzone, had to personally reach out to Twitter – more than once – to tackle the problem. “I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s just too much. It shouldn’t be like this. So hurt right now”.
Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey.
Due to Leslie’s high profile, and the severity of the racial abuse, she was messaged by Twitter’s chief executive Jack Dorsey who then enforced the ban on Yiannopoulos. But the damage was done. The rest of the abusers still have their accounts intact, and the unforgivable episode remains engraved in the Twitter timeline and archive.
In her final tweet after 10pm on 18 July 2016, Leslie said: “I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart. All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the shit I got today…wrong.”
Leslie Jones with her Ghostbusters’ castmates – Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon.
The original 1986 Ghostbusters featuring Harold Ramis, Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson.
When you consider that in the original Ghostbusters, starring Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, the fourth Ghostbuster was played by African American actor Ernie Hudson, the irrational yet wilful nature of the attacks are even more pronounced.
This is a damning indictment on Twitter’s institutional failure to look away from its profit margins and new algorithms to deal with the painfully evident pitfalls of what it has created. Its persistent blindspot regarding extreme as well as subtle racial abuse and misogyny on its platform is repeatedly being exposed.
There is also the shame (and dilemma) of the cyber bystander. Thousands witnessed this atrocity, but many didn’t (publicly) intervene, possibly out of fear of also being a target, not knowing what to do or because they didn’t believe, as a celebrity, she needed their help. That said, complaining to Twitter isn’t a guarantee anything will be done.
Leslie should never have been put in a position where she had to directly demand that Twitter be accountable. This flagrant misuse and abuse of free speech should have caught their attention without external prompting. She should never have had to beg for its support. And she should never have been forced to leave.
My interest in Leslie Jones was first piqued at the end of 2013 when SNL took the overdue decision to locate a black female comic who could write material and/or be a regular cast member. In the end, they recruited three talented women of colour: Jones, along with Sasheer Zamata and LaKendra Tookes.
Leslie, a stand up comedy veteran of close to three decades, who counts Chris Rock as an early mentor, was already in her mid-40s when she was ‘discovered’ by SNL. Social media, especially YouTube, allowed me to engage with the body of work of a black female comedian who lived nearly six thousand miles away from me.
Since then, I have observed the dominant narrative surrounding her ‘trajectory’ with interest. From when she hit SNL, her appearance, build (she is 6ft) and ‘talent’ were regularly scrutinised (unfavourably) on social media.
The announcement that she would be part of the all female Ghostbusters’ reboot, in a role originally earmarked for Melissa McCarthy, attracted sexist and ‘misogynoirist’ comments. Although all of the female actors were abused, Leslie was singled out, first for allegedly fulfilling a racial stereotype, then for just being a black woman in the role, before the film had even been released.
A week before the online attack, Leslie admitted on a few US daytime TV talk shows that she couldn’t secure a designer to make her a custom-made $10,000 dress for the film’s premiere, until she called one directly. This is reminiscent of superstar Beyonce’s experience. During her recent acceptance speech for a fashion icon award, she said that in her Destiny’s Child days, no designer was willing to dress four black curvy girls from the South.
Leslie’s role model, Whoopi Goldberg.
Another sign of Leslie’s arduous journey to SNL and Ghostbusters’ fame was revealed on The View. During an emotionally moving interview with comedy legend Whoopi Goldberg, Leslie explained how Goldberg was an inspiration to her as a child.
She recalled that while watching Goldberg on TV with her dad, she broke into tears and screamed: “Oh my god. There is somebody on TV who looks like me…Daddy, I can do this.” Struggling to compose herself, Leslie added: “When I put on that Ghostbusters’ suit, and little girls see me on TV now, they are going to go, I can do it.”
Four days later she was forced off Twitter and had to temporarily abort her mission to be a role model to look after herself. In her wake, young black girls have been left with the sour, tarnished message that to be a successful black woman, there is a high price to pay: a lifelong burden of being viewed as racially inferior, a risk to your self esteem, health and mental wellbeing, and being judged on a historically skewed benchmark of beauty and race.
If there was ever any doubt about the relevance of intersectionality and the existence of hierarchical racism, Leslie’s Twitter experience has torn it to shreds. Authentic free speech needs to be reclaimed online.
The Reclaim the Internet campaign is useful, but it needs to be explicit about tackling racially-motivated misogyny. Cyber attacks of this kind are growing steadily in their ferocity, some of which were highlighted in The Guardian’s own research on its comment section.
Women were early adopters of social media. They have helped to shape digital platforms (as users and developers), have used it creatively to launch businesses, inspire political and cultural debates, and transform the news (and policy) agendas – and women’s lives.
Though far from perfect, this online empowerment is being compromised, encroached upon and colonised by largely white male opponents of anything powerfully female, especially where women of colour are concerned.
Tennis living legend Serena Williams.
Leslie is not the first high profile black woman to be treated with such racial disdain on social media. Notably tennis champion Serena Williams and FLOTUS Michelle Obama have been relentlessly attacked in traditional media and on social media. Like Leslie, the focus has been on them as dark skinned black women, and on their physiques, with them being unfavourably compared to animals.
FLOTUS Michelle Obama launching her Let Girls Learn initiative.
Both Williams and Obama have taken, and ducked, the blows over the years to navigate the perilous online waters to make a difference, most recently with Obama joining Snapchat to raise awareness of her Let Girls Learn initiative.
What has yet to be discussed in any meaningful way is the emotional trauma and impact these attacks have had on Leslie’s mental wellbeing. She admitted to feeling “numb” and “hurt” after her ordeal. If this multiple-pronged attack happened in real life (IRL), leading a woman to leave her job, her home, her neighbourhood or her college, a lawsuit would doubtlessly be pending.
Maybe Twitter will only take this infringement of women’s civil rights seriously if a series of global class action lawsuits are brought against them by different groups of women. There are many who have been relentlessly abused and emotionally scarred by these attacks over the years. Twitter has a trail of evidence at its fingertips. It is time for this unchartered legal terrain to be tested.
Leslie’s ‘case’ also painfully encapsulates why the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and movement are essential and relevant. There is a real battle being fought online and IRL. A battle that is relevant to every living soul as part of the growing continuum of racism, bigotry, discrimination, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Each fight requires, and deserves, its own hashtag and movement, with the awareness that these struggles are interconnected, and that the battle against oppressive systems and practices must be fought through alliance-building and solidarity.
As I slowly recover daily, post-surgery, I can only imagine that Leslie’s wounds will take longer, if ever, to heal. But it heartens me to reveal that, as I write this ending, Leslie is now back on Twitter. To me, this is why #lesliejonesmatters.
Joy Francis is the co-founder of Digital Women UK.