The Abuse of Leslie Jones Shows Us How Tokenism Sets the Stage for Hate

First, a confession: I only just made it to see Ghostbusters last week. And rather than wading into the ballyhoo surrounding whether the film is or isn’t a good feminist remake of the 1984 Ghostbusters or even the value of all-female remakes, I want to talk about Leslie Jones—the only black actor among its quartet of supernatural crime-fighters.

BagoGames / Creative Commons

BagoGames / Creative Commons

A lot of people want to talk about Leslie Jones these days—she’s funny, smart and fearless, and her hilarious Olympic Twitter commentary so charmed the producers at NBC that they invited her to Rio. Leslie Jones, however, has been more interested in starting conversations about online abuse.

The comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member was viciously doxxed last week. Her website was hacked and her private information and personal photos posted publicly. She’s been receiving a slew of hateful messages on social media for months, forcing her to leave digital spaces several times to protect herself.

It’s been clear from the beginning that the attacks are both gendered and racially-motivated. Much was made over the fact, for example, that the situation was so dire even pop star Katy Perry used the term misogynoir (coined by Dr. Moya Bailey) to describe what’s happening to Jones. Our problematic surprise over pop stars reading and understanding intersectional theory aside, the horror show of vitriol directed at Jones has rightfully led many fellow celebrities to come out in support of Jones since some of the worst hate tweets began in July (using the hashtag #IStandWithLeslie). But all the support in the world can’t be enough to shake the terror and vulnerability of having your privacy violated, being compared to a dead gorilla and enduring constant threats.

We’ve seen incidents like this before—Gamergate and the spate of hacked nude photos of celebrities that made the rounds a few years ago come immediately to mind—but something about the attack on Jones seems to be both reaching new levels of online aggression and echoing deep-seated, centuries-old criticisms against black women. It’s an example of the worst kind of backlash, as it represents how people respond when their supremacy is supposedly under threat, writes Mark Shrayber: “Make no mistake: What happened to Jones wasn’t ‘trolling.’ It was a hate crime.” Citing Madeline Davies’ analysis in Jezebel, Shrayber adds:

She’s black, she’s a woman, she’s successful, and she refuses to lay down when people come at her. Jones is also older (nearly 50) and doesn’t fit in the historic movie star mold. She is too talented to be relegated to bit parts and refuses to conform to stereotypes, and because of that, the men who hate her (overwhelmingly men, overwhelmingly white) are driven into a state of frenzy by her mere existence.

Jones is also alone—or at least that’s the perception—which makes her especially vulnerable to attack. While there are myriad talented, smart, funny black women in Hollywood, how many of them do we see on a daily basis? Whatever the number, it’s not nearly enough to counter the image of Leslie Jones as an exception rather than a rule. Uniqueness is not a fault; however, it is a slippery slope on the road to tokenism, which is why my niggling feelings of concern at the beginning of Ghostbusters turned into full-blown disbelief by the end of the film.

My reasons for not seeing Ghostbusters until six weeks after its theatrical release were purely personal and frankly boring, but the delay garnered me with an unexpected clarity regarding the dangers of tokenizing black womanhood. Jones’ character, Patty—an MTA worker and armchair historian already playing outsider to the three physicists making up the team—is constantly othered throughout the film.

Observe: “We’re all scientists. And Patty.” “Erin, you’re doing great. Abby, you’re doing great. Patty, try a little harder.”

These are just a couple of the most obvious examples, but I challenge you to watch the film (again, if not for the first time) and not see what’s happening over and over again.

Whether this othering was racially-informed or merely an accident of casting we’ll never know, but it’s almost worse if it was completely unintentional. If director Paul Feig and his creative team were trying to make jokes about racial tokenism that were too ill-defined to land, that’s unfortunate; if, on the other hand, they displayed a complete lack of awareness about what they did to Jones’ character, it’s further evidence of the underlying racism of even well-intentioned “allies.” Until there’s more than one black character thrown in “for good measure,” we’re not going to see contempt of the likes Jones is experience go away anytime soon.

I’m not saying that the othering of Jones’ character in the film led to the actor’s doxxing or can somehow be blamed for it. Rather, I’m arguing that we need to be vigilant about how unconscious tokenism affects the perception of black women (and other minorities) in popular media and beyond—for sisters and allies, not to mention the haters.

When it comes to black women in the media, more is more.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. She’s written for both popular and academic venues on gender and sexuality in American culture, contemporary art and television.

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