Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: Leslie Jones triumphs over the haters by being who she is.
The first monologue of this current season of Saturday Night Live began in fairly typical fashion. Host Margot Robbie looked ecstatic as she smoothly navigated her first few jokes and an appearance by Kenan Thompson, who joked that he’s been on the show for so long that he “slept like a baby” the night before the premiere. (Actually, I doubt that was a joke. Side note: I hope Kenan never leaves SNL. He’s a treasure.)
Then Leslie Jones arrived onstage, and the crowd exploded.
Dedicated fans of SNL had no reason to be surprised by this development. Jones has been a stellar comedic force on the show since she was hired as a writer in 2014, made a buzzy cameo appearance on Weekend Update in May of that year and joined the cast full-time five months later. Her Update appearances, always as herself opposite her faux-love interest Colin Jost, are one of the show’s most reliable sources of laughter, thanks to the sheer expanse of her personality and the confidence of her delivery.
From some angles, what happened to Jones over the summer leading up to the SNL premiere laid the groundwork for the burst of applause during Robbie’s monologue. She had a starring role in one of the year’s most talked-about movies, an energetic reboot of the beloved 1984 comedy Ghostbusters, and she played a starring role in NBC’s otherwise regrettable coverage of the Rio Olympics, thanks to her passionate Twitter and Vine commentary, both unapologetically profane and unmistakably sincere. Kate McKinnon’s gonzo turn in Ghostbusters might have gotten more acclaim, but Jones is no slouch in the movie either, and she dominated much of the post-Ghostbusters coverage.
Not always for the right reasons, unfortunately. Both before and right after the movie came out, racist trolls barraged Jones with slurs and threats on Twitter, blasting her for participating in a franchise previously dominated by white men. The attacks turned personal almost immediately, criticizing in the nastiest rhetoric imaginable Jones’ voice, appearance and her very existence. Breaking from her typical impenetrability, Jones expressed frustration and despair in response, both directly to her digital attackers and to executives at Twitter, who have long deferred addressing criticism about their role in curbing or penalizing harassment online.
As a public figure, Jones has enough pull to attract the attention of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who worked privately with Jones to mitigate the threats. Unfortunately, thousands of non-famous people face similar harassment every day, with no similar recourse. This incident was a reminder that even for a public figure, progress of any kind comes at a cost and takes a personal toll, magnified when Jones’ personal photos and information leaked online as part of a targeted hack, later investigated by several federal agencies. Jones disappeared from social media at that point, then re-appeared triumphantly a few weeks later.
This blog series is called “Things I Loved This Year.” Much of what I just described falls under the rather large category of “Things I Did Not Love This Year.” But there are few things more inspiring than what Leslie Jones has done in response to the brutally unfair treatment she’s endured all year long: She kept doing what she was already doing, just as well as she was doing it before people told her she shouldn’t be doing it anymore. She continues to rail against weak man-children who cower in her presence. She continues to make endearing slip-ups during sketches. She continues to think Colin Jost is the sexiest white boy she’s ever laid eyes on. (Not everyone agrees.) She continues to take great selfies.
Jones addressed her tumultuous summer twice on SNL. The first was a narratively confusing parody of Mr. Robot in which she enlisted the show’s protagonist Elliott Alderson to find the hacking culprit. That one had its moments, but it didn’t feel like enough. Her true final statement on the matter came three weeks later on Update, when she deflected assumptions that the situation had made her feel ashamed or embarrassed:
“At a certain point you stop being embarrassed and start being you, and I have been me for 49 years. The only person who can hack me is me, and my firewall is a crazy bitch with a shovel.”
That’s as succinct a summation of the appeal of Leslie Jones as there has ever been.
The moment of hers from 2016 that has stayed with me the most, though, wasn’t even on SNL. It was on, of all shows, The View. She appeared as a guest during the promotional rounds for Ghostbusters. Holding back tears, she thanked View co-host Whoopi Goldberg for inspiring her to pursue comedy despite all of the institutional forces that conspire against black women. I teared up too — I defy you not to.
It’s not much of a leap to think that Leslie Jones will prove similarly inspiring to the next generation of comics, and to anyone who feels hemmed in by society’s prejudices. Right now, given that the presidential campaign and subsequent election of Donald Trump has empowered the public expression of racism and hatred, the path to success for people like Leslie Jones seems more treacherous than ever. The country has never needed her strength more.