Unfortunately, 2020 did not offer as much opportunity for schadenfreude as one might have hoped—it seemed that, during the pandemic and a summer of protests over the police killing Black citizens, rich people mostly holed up on private islands, bitched about not going to restaurants, and occasionally popped by a protest to hold a sign (when they weren’t singing “Imagine” into their iPhones to remind the poors that we’re all in this together). However, one improv artist just a couple of years out of college, Sydney Battle, managed to neatly parody so many frustrations during a year of misfortune by punching up with Swiftian force in the creation of a character for social media called Brooklyn Mom. Battle, an improv actor and former Brooklyn nanny, had plenty of experience with her subject material for the video. Renée, the “Brooklyn Mom” swilling white wine while riding out covid in a vacation home, is a pitch-perfect (literally the voice is perfect) parody who adeptly encapsulated everything that was so frustrating about watching the rich bury themselves in money to hide from a situation that will hurt regular people for years, possibly generations, to come.
Speaking to Jezebel, Battle is quick to acknowledge the ill timing of a career taking off during a time when so many are suffering. While her burgeoning improv career was halted by the pandemic, Brooklyn Mom brought tens of thousands of social media followers overnight, a management team, and a DM from a representative for Jimmy Kimmel, who invited Battle to write for the Emmys—all hard to imagine even back at the beginning of the summer. “I’m very lucky,” Battle told Jezebel. “And it could be the anxiety talking, but it does sometimes feel like a fluke and has since [the videos] went viral.”
But the videos were not a fluke: Brooklyn Mom was exactly the right character at the right time. Renée should be familiar to anyone who has ever had to nod along to an immensely privileged person in a position of power try to “relate” to the people nodding along, waiting politely for their paycheck. Her white-blonde lob carefully blown out into perfect beachy waves, Brooklyn Mom’s voice projects all the confidence of someone whose money has always served as insulation against being told to shut the fuck up. So instead she rambles about “doing the work” for Black people (two words she’s not quite sure are okay) by telling her son, “Atticus,” racist jokes so he will know to stand up for marginalized people or having him watch 10 minutes of The Wire every day for experience with an “Ebonic accent.” From her vacation home, Renée swears she would never leave New York, but since her doorman’s sister’s niece has gotten covid, the virus was a bit too close for comfort. She only has $80 when she owes her nanny $75 and would like change. She thinks her help “looks great,” responding “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up,” over the revelation that the weight loss is due to anxiety and poor mental health. The family is “doing Belize next week,” but she can’t help but be a bit bummed, as the pandemic is keeping Atticus from forming a friendship with a little girl named “Sojourner” back in Brooklyn. In just a few minutes, Battle, via Renée, manages to use every single word and gesture to underline the widespread wealth and racial inequality that has left the majority suffering and the privileged few patting themselves on the back for imaging that they empathize. It’s “A Modest Proposal” condensed for the Instagram age.
And though Battle might worry about the uniquely fraught experience of earning attention and praise during a historically terrible time, for an observer, watching nice things happen to someone who did great work was a balm for a year spent watching bad things happen to vulnerable people while the ruling class tutted from their Hamptons estates that their hands were tied. Battle’s good fortune was the opposite of the spectacle of schadenfreude one might have hoped might be coming for Renée, but Sydney Battle potentially getting a pilot picked up for perfectly capturing what is so infuriating about Renée’s good fortune is at least one thing that can go into the win pile during a year in which there is not much else there.
Sydney Battle spoke to Jezebel about Brooklyn Mom, becoming a success story over the course of 24 hours, and what’s next. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Brooklyn Mom is such a mashup of so many things that pissed me off over the pandemic. My impulse is to write an academic paper pointing it all out, from the CBD to the ‘You look amazing,’ and obviously the name Atticus along with the reference to The Wire. How long did it take you to create all these characteristics?
SYDNEY BATTLE: There was almost no prep or planning. My friend Nora bought me the wig for a Scarlett Johansson impression. I spent three and a half years as a babysitter in Brooklyn for a mom that was very kind and caring. Most moms were not like this character at all, but I would meet moms at school pickup or run into women who were exactly like this. None of the video was written beforehand. I had my dad follow me around with the camera.
The wig and voice just seem like someone I’ve met before.
When I put on the wig, I feel like ‘Oh this is privilege.’ But it’s all in my head. I would probably get treated even worse in it because now I’m appropriating a white woman’s hairstyle.
The voice is a combination of the vocal fry that is very recognized and surged to prominence in early the aughts. But the pitch of it is so high on some words and low on others with a slight lisp. Consciously, I didn’t really choose it. It’s just a person speaking who sounds exactly like they know what they’re talking about, but with the brand of confidence that is masking ignorance.
Where did the name Atticus come from? It feels so right.
One little girl I babysat had a crush on a kid from her class named Atticus, but there were three different Atticuses. Watching the fallout in Brooklyn of parents devastated by [Go Set a Watchman]; they were so proud of having named their kid Atticus.
I have definitely encountered this mom in Brooklyn but so many other places I’ve lived as well. What parts of her do you think apply outside Park Slope?
They never think they’re being harmful: they’re progressive and informed and conscientious. But their reality is so removed from what other people go through, and especially what BIPOC people go through in this country. There’s this sense of performative progressiveness and liberalness, and then they just go about their business.
I love that you mentioned The Wire as some of the white kids’ only exposure to Black people.
And The Wire is just one portrayal. Yes, that is a side that exists, but there are so many other stories. Yet these are the ones that get a chance: slaves, biopics, historical movies, and drug lords. Those are the ones that generally white audiences extoll.
Brooklyn Mom popped up on my social feeds pretty much simultaneously from so many different directions. What does it feel like to get that much attention all at once?
I had only been on a sketch team for a little over a year, and we only had three shows when the pandemic started. After Brooklyn Mom, I went from having like 500 followers, then I posted the video, and overnight tens of thousands more.
That seems terrifying.
I did not know what to do. It was everything I had wanted while I was doing characters and hadn’t gotten much traction. All of a sudden I had what I’d been wishing for and it was like ‘What do these people want? Am I ready to have this many people see my thoughts?’ It happened at the end of August, and I went from no representation to having managers and an offer to write for the Emmys.
So right now, it’s exciting but also terrifying, especially with clinical anxiety. I guess I’d be more scared of all the new followers if a video hadn’t gone viral. At least I know why they’re here, but I’m also terrified of losing them.
You mentioned needing stories beyond The Wire. What stories do you feel ready to tell?
It was my dream growing up to write a book that would be turned into a movie. And now I have this ideology like Issa Rae and Mindy Kaling that I need to write for me. I don’t see myself represented in TV writing or art. So I have a pilot right now. Hopefully this project I finally put on a page will help get to where I want to be: writing and creating things for me.