There were plenty of reasons to be concerned about the nature of Antoine Dodson's sudden, viral-video-starring fame after the attempted rape of his sister. But now, thanks to their own determination and appeal, there are some reasons to be optimistic.
Three weeks ago, Antoine became a star on YouTube via a local news report in which he angrily discussed the home invasion, attempted rape, and choking of his sister, which he interrupted. Tens of millions of views, an Autotune The News remix and hundreds of spinoff tributes followed. It was an irresistible yet jarring phenomenon: here was an effeminate black man, rightfully enraged at repeated crime in his community hitting close to home, and plenty of people seemed to find it hilarious. As Hortense wrote at the time,
Is it okay to be horrified but to laugh, as well? Can we understand the frustration and anger but still smile at the delivery? If the Dodsons are handling this with a bit of humor, is it okay to find their reactions funny? It boils down to differentiating between laughing at and laughing with, I suppose.
In an NPR report on the Dodsons, Baratunde Thurston of The Onion and Jack & Jill Politics argued that the phenomenon erred on the side of "laughing at," and that he'd come to think of the video as a form of "class tourism." Kenyatta Cheese of Know Your Meme disagreed:
"Kelly and Antoine may be victims but they are fearless. They both take control of the camera and call out their attacker. They issue a call to action telling people in their community to look out for the perpetrator. And yes, Antoine may not seem traditionally articulate, but he uses his time on camera to be performative and create spectacle and that gets our attention. In that sense, he's probably more effective in getting his message out there than a more traditional community 'representative' would ever be.
The two views aren't mutually exclusive. Plenty of the Dodsons' "fans" could be condescending or looking to confirm their own stereotypes about poverty, race, and gender. At the same time, the Dodsons are trying to talk about their personal stories and the broader implications of crime and autonomy in their community, as much as they're leveraging Antoine's instant fame.
In the weeks since, we've gotten to hear more from Antoine, and to a lesser extent Kelly, about how they feel about their newfound status and its (possibly transient) consequences, including in a recent interview with CBSNews.com and one with ABC News.
The good news is that the revenue from his various internet ventures — 50 percent of the profits from Autotune The News' iTunes remix and YouTube revenue, plus his own merchandising and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and PayPal accounts — has allowed the Dodsons to move out of the projects. He has a manager and is trying to break into fashion.
Antoine and Kelly have been thoughtful in interviews, addressing some of the concerns observers have had. To ABC News, he said, "I want people to realize that this is funny. It is funny — I'm not going to lie, 'cause we're laughing too. But this is a serious matter. I really thought that when I went into Kelly's room, he was choking her life out of her. I was terrified. ... It was so crazy. But God allowed me to save her and that's what I did."
And Kelly said, "When I first seen it, I was very upset about it because they were taking it as a joke and I was feeling like they were not looking at the part where I was the victim," she said. "If Antoine wouldn't came in, I probably would be dead."
Antoine struck a somewhat different note in his CBS interview, saying that the laughter "bothered me at first but after awhile I started to see that people were doing other things about it, it was cool."
But he also said that most of his fans are victims of rape or molestation — which he himself is a survivor of, something that hasn't been part of the public conversation so far.
"We're not going to cry and play victim if that's what people want," he said to CBS, in a theme that's recurred in his conversations. "I was angry and I didn't want this to get swept under the rug...I just want to be the voice for people who are in a similar situation, who got their cases swept under the rug, and I feel like now I have that opportunity."
Let's hope it doesn't stop here.
'Bed Intruder' Rant Buys Family New Home [NYT]
'Bed Intruder' Meme: A Perfect Storm of Race, Music, Comedy And Celebrity [NPR]
From Sex Assault Fury To Internet-Fueled Fortune [ABC News]
Exclusive Interview With Antoine Dodson [CBS News/YouTube]