The vicious online attacks against black comedian Leslie Jones make it seem like it’s still the Jim Crow South, but we’re actually living in an internet age dominated by Trumpism.
Anonymity has always been part of the web’s allure—especially for bigots. In real life, it’s taboo to identify as a racist, but online, anyone can openly express their most violent prejudices, be it via Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit. Explicit racism, which re-emerged during President Barack Obama’s White House run in 2008, is now penetrating the mainstream in a way it hasn’t since before the Civil Rights Movement. For that, we have Donald Trump and his supporters to thank.
In a column for the Guardian, Giles Frasier calls the alternative right or “alt right” a group of “dysfunctional millennials” who have “sheltered behind their bedroom laptops, watching porn, sending abusive tweets (anonymously), and eating pizza in their underpants.” Whereas mainstream politics dismissed this group, Frasier argues, Trump has embraced them. In turn, they’ve been emboldened, becoming the Republican presidential nominee’s “digital vanguard.”
Jones just happens to be an innocent bystander in their warpath.
It’s not like she’s the first successful black female comedian to not conform to Hollywood’s beauty standards. There was Whoopi Goldberg, Wanda Sykes and Mo’Nique before her. But while they’ve certainly been the target of racism, those attacks don’t compare to what Jones has experienced.
Unfortunately, there’s a clear correlation between Trump’s ascendance and the increase of racist attacks against Jones, particularly since her breakout role in this year’s Ghostbusters reboot. On Wednesday, the 48-year-old’s personal website was hacked and nude photos of her were posted alongside a video of Harambe, a 400-pound gorilla who was fatally shot by officials after a 4-year-old boy fell into his pit. (There’s a long, dark history of black people being compared to apes in European cultures, which is best illustrated by King Kong, a 1933 film about a gigantic and ferocious ape falling in love with a meek white woman. At the time, it captured the nation—a nation that was obsessed with protecting white women from supposedly scary black men.)
Over the last few years, Jones became a Saturday Night Live cast member, starred in Ghostbusters, and got a gig covering the Olympics based on the strength of some tweets. She started performing standup comedy in college, but didn’t get mainstream exposure until her late 40s. Still, Jones is a phenomenal success by anyone’s measure.
It couldn’t have been an easy road for Jones, who has managed to find success as a funny, dark-skinned black woman with neither a European nose or lips. The comedian, who was born in Memphis and attended high school in Los Angeles, doesn’t have a palatable look when it comes to white standards of beauty. In Hollywood, the marginal space given to black women has too often gone to fair-skinned comedians or thin, dark-skinned ones whose features don’t disrupt whiteness the way Jones’ do. As a result, there are certain roles Jones just doesn’t get. The love interest, for example, has largely been reserved for light-skinned black comedians like Maya Rudolph and Rashida Jones.
Instead, Leslie Jones has sometimes been criticized for playing the loud, unruly black woman, an unfortunate stereotype dating back to the beginning of the minstrel era in the 1830s when the only roles for black comedians were cartoonish portrayals of black people as dumb, ugly, and lazy. In 2014, Jones received backlash for an SNL sketch in which she imagined how much better her love life would be during slavery times:
See, I’m single right now, but back in the slave days, I would have never been single. I’m 6 feet tall and I’m strong, Colin. Strong! I mean, look at me—I’m a mandingo … I’m just saying that back in the slave days, my love life would have been way better. Massah would have hooked me up with the best brotha on the plantation … I would be the No. 1 slave draft pick.
The comedian responded to her critics in a string of tweets that defended the sketch, saying she was a black woman who wasn’t “afraid to be real.”
Jones, a tall, older (as far as Hollywood goes) black woman, is the perfect target for internet trolls and Trump adherents. She represents everything America’s white ruling class has always despised: difference. So, right now, Jones unfortunately bears the brunt of America’s growing pains.
But in the near future, when America is more brown than white, comedians who look like Jones hopefully won’t be as uncommon. And maybe then attacks against black women who don’t fit neatly into white perceptions of beauty will end, too.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.