Twitter now has its very own Citizen Kane.
A woman identifying herself as Aziah "Zola" King posted a 148-tweet epic Tuesday night about a trip to Florida and the incredible chaos that ensued. If true, it's a detailed first-person account of crossing paths with a sex trafficker and murderer. If false, it punches most screenplay treatments in the teeth anyway.
Real or not, A Wild Weekend in Florida constitutes a leveling-up of social media's possibilities. Zola's story braided with a hungry news cycle and a horde of social media users eager to share their opinions: racist, doubtful, horrified, and gleeful. From a yarn of dubious veracity came something bigger, something indisputably real: This is how we feel about sex and race and money right now.
If you haven't already seen the story that set things off, here's the link—I recommend reading from start to finish, even though it takes a minute and your milage with emojis may vary. When paraphrased, it loses the language, the character development, and above all the pacing—which accelerates from a chance meeting at a Hooter's to a series of intense third-act scenes in motel rooms and condos around Tampa. We follow our narrator down a rabbit hole of id, archetypes, and violence. She wants to go to Florida, strip and make some cash, but soon is helping to pimp out a woman she scarcely knows and running for her life. There's a shooting, an abduction, and an unforgettable blowjob. There is graphic prostitution, which turns out to have been coercive, "hulking" black men who prey on white women and get their comeuppance, and a cuckolded white boyfriend whose attempted suicide is greeted with laughter.
If I didn't mention it, trigger warning from start to finish.
The story went viral almost immediately. Imaginary castings for the adapted movie became a meme. Authenticity was debated, crime reports from Florida and Las Vegas were produced as corroboration and then discounted. The woman central to the action was searched for, and possibly outed.
I am unqualified to comment in depth on intersectionality, but it is impossible to ignore it in the coverage of this story. Race is central here and seen through a variety of idiomatic guises, most of them amused. Complex called the story "Wednesday ratchet entertainment" that would fill in for the lack of a new episode of Empire. Vulture inserted pop culture .GIFs and movie stills aplenty. Fader, VH1 and BuzzFeed kept it clean, sticking to praising the story and forming listicles out of response tweets.
Praising an ostensibly funny story about the ways the lives of marginalized women are marked by violence is a tricky line to walk. At Vulture, Ira Madison III published photos of Zola's "friend" Jess. Jezebel's Jia Tolentino posted the same photos and jokingly compared the story to the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God. "That part … where Tea Cake gets rabies?… instead of a rabid dog it's a white girl named Jess who tricks for $100… and instead of Tea Cake it's a guy named Z." After being criticized for her flippant tone, Tolentino apologized for including Jess's Instagram handle and face in the post, but defended her language. (Whatever the writer's intent, comparing a woman who is coerced into prostituting herself to a dog is a hard simile to get behind.)
The laughing and meme-ifying response was galling, but it also indicates one of the reasons the story is so compelling: It's told from Zola's viewpoint, and she doesn't package herself as a victim we're used to. For most of the story, Jess doesn't either. This is not a Lifetime movie, or at least not one I've seen. The emotional responses in most depictions of Women in Sexual Peril range from plucky to destroyed. What fictional WSP says things like, "'he's not gna force you to trap' i said 'OH BITCH I KNOW HE NOT I KILL DEAD ASS KILL YALL' verbatim"?
The way Jess and Zola respond to their situation is complex, assertive, and doesn't fit into the innocence lost narrative of the trafficking specter. Two sugar daddies, a boyfriend, 20 dudes in a night, and enthusiasm for an upcoming trip to Florida—Jess isn't a traditional sponge for internet sympathy. Zola refuses to prostitute herself, but can't stand to see Jess work for less than fair market value, and profits off her. This falls more in line with my experience of what it's like in the sex work margins. Exploitation sucks, but it doesn't necessarily lead to empathy with other coerced women, it doesn't create financial indifference, and it doesn't mean you don't choose to have sex for money. There is frequently some agency—just not enough. Even being abducted and beaten doesn't turn Jess into the kind of woman who can expect our outrage; it turns her into a dog.
Another way to describe intersectionality is convenient partial blindness. Not understanding that privacy violations are a problem because you're engaged in praising a narrative with street cred is a partial blindness. If someone tells a joke about their rape, that doesn't make it OK for me to yuck it up about the event. It would be even more fucked if I read a primary source's dark humor about a violation and then wrote up Their Hilarious Rape Story.
What will be the repercussions for Zola? The story contains within it confessions of pandering—or facilitating prostitution—and being an accessory to a shooting, and those are just the crimes I'm knowledgeable enough to name. Will the story be used against Backpage.com as evidence against it? It's impossible to say.
The repercussions for Jess are a little easier to gauge: The story trended on Twitter and her Instagram photos of her kids turned into fair game. As a woman named Nichole tweeted, "i feel bad for Jess (of Zola, Jess, Z, and Jarrett fame) bc she's clearly tried to move on and now people are blowing her spot AGAIN."
Will Zola sell the screenplay, buddy up to Shonda Rhimes, and take over the world? We'll have to wait and see. One thing I do know: Easy reading is damned hard writing. If King writes something else, I will be swiping through it as fast as I can.
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