The idea that Leslie Jones, the Saturday Night Live star and NBC Olympic commentator, could keep winning at life is apparently too much to bear for some people. Earlier this week, somebody (or a group) hacked the actress's website to post nude photos of her and a photo of deceased gorilla (and deathless meme-generator) Harambe. The act played into the worst, and most tired, racial stereotypes of black people being akin to animals. This time, the attacks were aimed at a woman with darker skin, invoking the specter of colorism as the hackers revealed an inability to accept a successful, assertive dark-skinned woman in the spotlight.
"There are people who are just not used to seeing black women in positions of power and control," says Ava Greenwell, an associate professor at Northwestern University who has studied black women in corporate media. "When you look at the travel diaries of white men traveling throughout the South, they would write descriptions of slaves, describing black women as being very animal-like. It's not surprising we have not gotten over that."
Lisa B. Thompson, a scholar based in Austin, says she's horrified by the treatment Jones has endured all summer and hopes Jones's co-stars in film and TV take visible stands to support her as other celebrities and artists have already begun to do, including Octavia Spencer, Questlove, Katy Perry, and Patricia Heaton.
"The reaction to her being cast in Ghostbusters has been hysterical and not in terms of humor," says Thompson, whose areas of focus include the dating, working, and general ups and downs of black womanhood. "The amount of vitriol is so over the top, one has to imagine that the perpetrators are unhinged by her position in the world. The attention to her body in particular speaks to a centuries-old disparagement and mistreatment of black women."
This summer, when Jones shut down her troll-infested Twitter account, the social-media site banned one user who led the charge to harass her. After receiving widespread support, Jones did what some folks call "falling up," parlaying her Twitter ability into an impromptu role as a commentator for the Rio Olympics. She was well-received. When gymnast Gabby Douglas got dragged through the mud for perceived misbehavior during the Games, such as not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem or not appearing to cheer fellow teammates, Jones put "shine theory" in action. She created a hashtag to support the 20-year-old Douglas, #LOVE4GABBYUSA, just as she was supported (#LoveforLeslieJ) during her own ordeals.
Darker-skinned black women face disadvantages in applying for jobs, and there's an assumption that lighter-skinned blacks are more capable of doing the work.
The trouble started this summer, when the female-centered Ghostbusters remake debuted with Jones as a lead character. Many complained about women (including Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon) helming the film classic. But detractors went particularly hard on Jones, the only black star, dusting off their worst racist tropes to keep her down. The online harassment she received reflects the experience of many women. According to a recent Pew Research poll from 2014, 26 percent of young women said they'd been stalked online and 25 percent were the target of online sexual harassment.
There's nothing virtual about how negative comments and suggestion of potential violence weigh on the psyche, according to Greenwell. When she wrote about her son's encounter with local police in her hometown a few years back, negative comments led her to fear being stalked or confronted at work. The Jones breach suggests another step in a pattern of escalated abuse that can lead to violence. Nasty, hurtful online comments are one thing; breaking into this woman's website and defacing it with sexualized, racialized imagery is criminal, which several celebrities, like Patricia Arquette, have pointed out: "FYI sharing stolen intimate photos like @Lesdoggg's is illegal. You are participating in a sex crime."
"You even begin to doubt yourself," Greenwell says. "Should I or shouldn't I have not spoken up? I always come back to 'I should have.' It's as if we don't have the right to stand up for ourselves, and our loved ones because we're women, because we're black. But we do. We have that right."
"The attention to her body in particular speaks to a centuries-old disparagement and mistreatment of black women." —Lisa B. Thompson
The treatment of Jones has deep historical roots, says Dr. Kevin Cokley, a psychologist who directs the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin. "Several Englishmen in the 1600s and 1700s were obsessed with what they perceived to be the promiscuity and lewdness of Africans, which made them beast-like in the minds of Englishmen. It then became easy to link Africans with apes and being apelike in their appearance and behavior. This became one of the oldest and most enduring of racist stereotypes of African Americans," Cokley tells VICE.
The fact that Jones stands alone in her role and carries the weight of representation is a factor in targeting her, according to Claudette Roper, a Chicago-based documentarian and activist who teaches at Columbia College Chicago. Jones's adventures in misogynoir (a special brand of misogyny aimed at black women) are those that darker-skinned black women face daily. Jones's success troubles haters because the rules of colorism dictate that she must not have access, that she must fail. And research backs this up: Darker-skinned black women face disadvantages in applying for jobs, and there's an assumption that lighter-skinned blacks are more capable of doing the work. The fact that even people of color often absorb negative beliefs as a form of racial programming designed to replicate itself even through the people it harms is especially cause for concern.
Roper maintains we need more inclusion across the board, including dark-skinned black women, more people of color, disabled people, and those who represent ethnic diversity. A critical mass of figures like Leslie Jones is what's in order. "If you want to be a change-maker, you have to change the game," Roper says. "It's too much pressure on one person. It's a set-up for failure."
And yet, from "bye, Felicia" and "girl, bye" to "talk to the hand," black women are well-schooled from girlhood on shorthand ways telling them to "shut up." So when society subtly—or not so subtly—suggests they should stay in their lane, be nice, take up less space, or disappear altogether, this is not new information. "I would guess if anyone else had to go through the things we have to go through being black and female, it would be hard to get up in the morning," Roper says. "But as Maya Angelou said: 'I rise, I rise.' We rise every single day."
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