culture

Dancing on My Own (to My Abusive Ex’s Voice-mails)

Photo: @trapmoneybella, @kmad__, @zowielynnnn, @madisonbruno/TikTok

When I was a teenager I dated a bad guy. I broke up with him when I went to college, and he, still living in the suburb where we grew up, took to calling me up to 100 times a day, leaving voice-mails that ranged from sobbing to screaming to whispered threats. At the time I had this burner Windows phone that looked and worked like a calculator — it didn’t let me block numbers, so the calls kept coming. I was 17 and a freshman, a bit too ashamed, too scared, and too overwhelmed to tell anyone about what was happening.

Eventually I got a new phone that blocked numbers and a restraining order I never had to use — I’d heard he’d moved across the country and I never heard from him again. I didn’t think of him much either, until about a week ago, when I started watching TikTok videos.

TikTok launched in 2017 and has been downloaded over a billion times since then. It’s an extremely popular place to be on the internet: rappers, Jonathan Bennett, Burberry, the Lancaster County Amish, and teens, TikTok’s bread and butter, all use it. When you open the app, you’re immediately fed a loop of (up to 15 seconds) videos, which TikTok continues to curate for you as you use it. The whole platform, owned by the Chinese AI heavyweight ByteDance, runs on these extremely sophisticated algorithms, and it’s become a hotbed for hashtag challenges and memes, some of which spawn the kind of virality that shot Lil Nas X into superstardom earlier this year.

About a month ago, a new trend emerged on TikTok. It goes like this: a teenager, usually a young girl, plays a voice-mail from what we’re told is a cheating or abusive ex-partner. In some cases, the person on the voice-mail is whining, blubbering, begging — “Please … you’re the only fucking person that actually cares about me and pushes me in the right direction. Without you, I’m just going to go back to fucking hell.” In other cases, they’re berating and threatening: “I’m not dating someone who’s got every fucking dude in the school looking at her … You want to do that? Don’t fucking be with me.”

I recognized the tone, the threats, and the pleas as the same standard fare I got in college. What I didn’t recognize, what made me laugh-bark, was the girl in the video:

She’s dancing: body rolling, twerking, voguing — it’s the kind of slow, careless gyrating that happens on most of TikTok. She looks goofy, cool, unbothered. The voice-mail pauses as the screamer takes a wet inhale, and the girl pauses, too — then all at once she’ll drop into a slow twerk as the person starts to yell and hyperventilate again. The dancer just lifts her eyebrows in a mock pearl-clutch and milly rocks.

I watched about 30 of these videos, my amusement at the girl dancing to her ex’s bad SoundCloud tracks devolving into concern and then fear as TikTok fed me other videos. I shut the app after watching one girl dance to a mix of cruel names and actual death threats. Then I DM’ed a bunch of the teens, mostly girls and some boys; many of them responded, having already spoken to writers at other publications covering what has been described as an “empowering trend” wherein teen girls put “fuckboys in their place.”

The “Me dancing to” trend isn’t actually new: For a while now it’s been a sort of catchall template to flip the script on something that, in most other contexts, is offensive or traumatic. You can find TikTok users dancing to everything from racist and transphobic comments to their screaming parents. Other times, it’s just absurdist, like dancing to a YouTuber’s whimpering apology video. For the most part, the videos are a digital way for teens to respond to various forms of trauma, stress, or abuse, and, in turn, receive digital validation from strangers.

“It was definitely hard for me to hear that audio again of my ex,” says a young woman named Tenley, who recently danced to a voice-mail of her ex screaming at her for wearing leggings to school. “After making the video, I actually felt much better about it. There were so many amazing and supportive comments from other girls, and it almost gave me closure,” she tells me. I messaged with another young woman, Maddie, who told me that her video was ultimately a “way to turn something traumatic and negative into something funny. After I posted it I showed some of my friends and we all laughed about it.”

Most of the other teens I spoke to echoed the girls, a lot of them assuring me that they were just joining in on a fun trend. Some added that the videos let them publicly shame their exes. Most though, described making the videos as a way to grapple with something unpleasant — “I think my generation uses dark humor to cope with things, and to make light of bad situations,” a girl named Ely told me, whose video shows her doing the 1-Up Girl dance as her parents shout at each other in a different room.

The point of the meme does seem to be reclamation, even though none of the dozen teenagers I spoke to used that word. And dance as a reclamation does in itself have a long history: consider the premise of ball culture. The TikTok dancers are working with the same juxtaposition: the freedom and camp and silliness of an interpretive dance paired with something traumatic or uncomfortable. A colleague tells me that it’s a behavior that has seeped into real life: Her teen will do a TikTok dance if there’s a disagreement at the dinner table — it’s like the new “Whatever, Dad,” or side-eye, she muses.

And the contrast is effective: The videos are funny. It’s easy to support the girls and revel in the caller’s humiliation, comfortable with the knowledge that they’ve done something bad and they’re being called on it. But to describe the trend as empowering, even good, might be too sanguine of a judgment — for one, like a lot of comedy, it works so well because it makes someone else’s trauma (in this case, a teen’s) more comfortable for us.

But consider Tenley, an 18-year-old college freshman now, who told Rolling Stone that she’d gotten a two-day restraining order against the ex in the voice-mail. She tells me over text that she’s still a little scared he will see the video and retaliate. Maddie, meanwhile, was one of the girls dancing to a message in which her ex threatens to come over and kill her if she doesn’t answer her phone. Domestic-violence experts I spoke to seem unsurprised but generally uncomfortable with the trend, like Rosemary Estrada-Rade, who runs the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline, who said she was concerned for the safety of the video-makers. “One of the most dangerous times in a relationship is when a person is trying to break up or leave their ex,” she tells me.

I do wonder if I would have posted a “Me dancing to” video if TikTok existed when I was 17, or if I would have feared for my own safety. What did exist was Snapchat, a more private platform than TikTok, and what I do remember is sending several friends a cute selfie captioned, “When your restraining goes through.” I received mostly “LMAOOOs” in return. I remember feeling a brief sense of relief, having made people aware in one fell swoop that (1) something bad had happened to me, and (2) I was obviously over it. I guess, as a young woman named Celeste explained to me about her trauma-dancing video, that doing it allowed me to feel like I “came out ‘on top’ of the dilemma.”

My little Snapchat declaration wasn’t unusual — it was normal, encouraged even, to send a Snap to your friends in moments of distress; I remember images of car accidents, panic attacks, unplanned pregnancies, funerals, hospital beds. The more outrageous the content the more responses you would get. Snapchat, a platform used for nudes and selfies, had also given its denizens a template for sharing their distress with each other, but we were protected by the ability to control how it was shared, which let us present it with a veneer of blasé indifference.

As we continue to live and breathe these platforms, the topic of how social media is changing how we emote will no doubt be pathologized to death. But TikTok trauma-dancing is a distilled version of something we’ve been seeing for years now: emotion — anxiety, depression, anger, joy, love — made into a focused piece of content to be presented (performed?) to the world, via the Über-public forum of the social network.

Facebook and Instagram, chiefly, have given us premade, socially acceptable templates for sharing our feelings: We know how to announce our engagements, our newborns, and deaths — there are hashtags for these things to make sure that they don’t get lost in the shuffle of other engagements, newborns, and deaths. We all know — or maybe we are — a person who overshares these sorts of things. And these people are rewarded; authenticity, honesty, and humanity pay off with likes, follows, and occasionally the intense kick of virality. TikTok is like these platforms but on steroids: Its rapid-fire cycle of memes, challenges, and billions of active users offers us an infinite number of ways to express ourselves. If it’s something bad, like sharing trauma or abuse, it can often be dressed up as a joke.

I considered if sending a bite-size piece of disappearing content to repackage my fear and pain into indifference compromised my opportunity to process it — or even recognize it — for what it was: trauma. It was distress that never made it into a private journal entry, as it might have done in previous years, or even to a friend, relative, or therapist, until many years later. Why bother addressing it when I could express it easily with the internet, and be instantly gratified by that? Wasn’t that healthier than keeping it entirely to myself anyway?

I wonder this about the TikTok dancers too: Now that they’ve declared that they’re not at all afraid, don’t care, are just joking, or feel better after their videos, I wonder if they’ll get a chance to revisit their trauma in a substantive way, or maintain, in the stubborn way that you do when you’re a teenager, that they’re 100 percent okay — here’s a funny video to prove it. Maybe the internet’s response, quick and warm, was enough for them, and they really are fine. Maybe it’s just too early to tell.

If you are or have been the victim of partner abuse, please call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Dancing on My Own (to My Abusive Ex’s Voice-mails)