The Zola Show and Why It Was Hard to Look Away

Photo: Christoph Wilhelm/Getty Images

You have most likely heard about Zola, a.k.a. Aziah King, and her stripper odyssey gone horribly awry. On Wednesday she unveiled a story that featured murder, mayhem, and cuckolding blow jobs in a series of 150 tweets. Told in a somewhat raucous, heroic tone, the tale went viral soon after its release. King has since deleted the tweets, but the narrative lives on in screen-capped versions on Imgur and Storify. The saga begins at Hooter’s, when Zola meets a fellow exotic dancer, Jess, and decides to take a stripping trip with her to Florida. While there, a series of horrifying events ensue, including coerced prostitution, the public and humiliating outing of a sex worker to her friends and family, a pimp being shot in the face by a rival pimp, a bipolar man’s attempted suicide, kidnapping, assault, and child sex trafficking.

Despite these grisly and alarming details, the collective response on social media has overwhelmingly been “LOLZ!” Readers dubbed it “hilarious” and “wild,” and said it would “make you fall out laughing.” It inspired several memes, and garnered praise from people like Selma director Ava DuVernay and Jezebel, which filed it under “I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD HOES,” in an attempt to imitate Zola’s irreverent voice. Complex called the epic “Wednesday ratchet entertainment.”

The LMAO response is partially due to Zola’s raucous narrative style, which is nonchalant, street-savvy, and blanketed in crying-from-laughter emoji. She says things like, “we vibing over our hoeism or whatever.” She assuages her sugar daddy by “fuck[ing] him calm.” She’s unapologetic, brassy, and infinitely retweetable.

Zola’s tale deviates wildly from the sex-worker script we are accustomed to seeing play out in mainstream media. Most sex workers we hear from have “graduated” and are no longer in the business, and are overwhelmingly white. We see depictions of sex workers of color (often tragic, often exploited — or living it up in a music video), but we rarely hear from them. That Zola is unrepentant about stripping (“Ima full nude typa bitch”) and owns her sexual agency (“pussy is worth thousands”) is refreshing in the face of a profession fraught with victimization, rape, and trauma. Zola explodes stereotypes and flips the sex-worker-as-martyr narrative on its head.

And yet — what does it say about us as a culture that our response is “how entertaining!” to the assault and abuse of a sex worker and the attempted suicide of a mentally ill man? Why are we not more disturbed by the horrifying acts that unfolded before us 140 characters at a time? It’s especially troubling when one considers that we don’t generally, as a people, delight in such things. If a woman came up to you on the street and told you she was recently kidnapped, would you respond by drawing a cartoon of her bloodied and tied up, or post mocking pictures of chickens? Would you, upon learning of a bipolar man’s suicidal anguish, turn it into a movie in your mind, and then imagine the “dream cast” that would star in it?

More than a few people have cast doubts on the veracity of Zola’s tale, which could potentially explain some of the more callous and casual replies to the disturbing story. If “Jess” is not a real person, if she’s just an internet meme, we don’t feel bothered laughing at her. We can disconnect from the brutality of the actions described and simply enjoy the ride, like we do in any form of media that involves gratuitous violence.

Or perhaps our laughter is a kind of coping mechanism. As Josephine, a sex worker who writes at Tits and Sass, put it, “If I want to tell [sex worker] stories in public — on a medium like Twitter, for example — I have to manufacture the humor in all of it. God forbid I admit that a few times in my career I’ve been terrified, that I’ve been hurt. Stories with those kinds of truths immediately get weaponized against sex workers. So, shit happens. Maybe that’s what Zola was doing: defusing the horror of her experience with humor.” Black-millennial site Blavity also highlighted humor as a way of dealing with trauma and institutionalized racism, and cites the meme-ification of the recent speech by Sheriff Lott, who excused the violent behavior of an officer toward a black child.

It’s understandable to be entranced by a good story, especially one as absurd and provocative as Zola’s, but even if it turns out to be untrue, that doesn’t diminish the deeply disturbing prevalence of violence against women as entertainment.

It’s not just Zola’s story, of course. Our culture is besieged by TV shows, video games, movies, and music videos that rely on the brutalization of women as routine plot points. Look at Game of Thrones or True Detective. (Look at 60 Minutes, Unsolved Mysteries, and practically any horror movie.) It’s difficult to watch narratives that hinge on female violence and not wonder if said entertainment undermines the very common and very alarming violence perpetrated against women in real life. It’s difficult to play a video game that rewards murdering sex workers and not wonder if we are becoming desensitized. It’s difficult to read about a sex worker’s exploitation and not wonder if we are reinforcing ideas about the worthlessness of prostitutes, even if that story is told in a captivating manner by a sex worker of color.

What does it mean that Zola has been launched into the limelight at the expense of another woman’s misfortunes? And whose story is this to tell anyway? Will Jess’s voice be heard amid all the noise and GIFs and potential movie deals? If her Instagram account is to be believed (though who can say what’s real, especially after the Fake-Jess Twitter Debacle of Yesterday), she is not happy about her real name and face being pasted all over the web, to be harassed and traumatized anew.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t begrudge Zola’s narrative chops. Perhaps the fact that we are talking about and thinking about the plights of marginalized women at all is reason enough for its celebration. But the praise and attention do give me pause, especially when Zola’s tale is missing a vital element of compelling storytelling: empathy.