Comedian Leslie Jones takes up too much space and I love her for it. Whether it’s standing at over 6ft tall at a film premiere in heels and with high, high hair that makes her seem even taller, or making joke videos with Drake on Saturday Night Live, where it’s him and definitely not her who’s the butt of the joke, she’s always seemed like the type of woman I’d love to grow into.
Leslie Jones is also a comedian, a dark-skinned black person and a middle-aged woman. Women – particularly black ones, especially tall black women in their forties – are most definitely not supposed to take up so much space, to be so unapologetic for the way they move through the world. I’m both amazed and unsurprised by how rare it is that someone as talented as Leslie – but who looks like Leslie – is a rarity. From the physical space of her body, to her existence in online and artistic spaces, Leslie’s presence is a reminder that women like her both exist and insist on thriving professionally.
Not everyone is as inspired as I am by Leslie Jones’ refusal to make herself smaller. Since her (criminally late) breakout role in this summer’s Ghostbusters remake, the abuse that she has received from sad, racist, sexist corners of the internet has been horrific. While all the four main actresses in the film have received seemingly endless criticism from annoyed men who claim the remake would “ruin their childhoods”, it is Jones, the only black woman, who has overwhelmingly been the target for straight-up abuse. It was this abuse that finally prompted Twitter to permanently ban professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos after his followers went after her in earnest, prompting Jones to comment how she needed to leave Twitter for a while “with tears and a sad heart… all this cause I did a movie”.
Following her return to the social networking site to tweet excitedly about the Rio Olympics (and offer her own public support to gymnast and fellow over-criticised black woman Gabby Douglas), this week the abuse hurled at Jones somehow managed to get even worse. Her website was hacked; personal information was posted there alongside nude pictures of herself. Jones is yet to comment on the events of this week and my heart genuinely breaks for her.
When I think of myself, and when I think of Leslie Jones, I’m reminded of the paradox of black womanhood – no matter how much or how little space we take up, it will always be too much
Coined by queer feminist academic Moya Bailey, the racist sexism (or sexist racism) that black women suffer is known as “misogynoir”. The word might not yet be in the mainstream, but with celebrities like Katy Perry specifically naming it when tweeting solidarity with Leslie Jones, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the world realises and accepts that the particularly gross combination of racism and sexism that affects black women is, ultimately, to do with the spaces our bodies inhabit. We are both too dark and too woman, and often our existence is a double affront to spaces – comedy clubs, film and TV, Twitter – where only one of our identities is unwelcome, let alone both.
As someone who is also both black and a woman, I feel so heartbroken at what Leslie Jones has suffered because I, too, am wary of taking up so much space. It’s bizarre how angry people get at the space I take up, and I am yet to work out if they even realise that they’re doing it. Online, I have a policy of never replying to strangers who ask provocative questions about the things I write, just in case I “set one off” and am trolled for days like I have been in the past. In person, I am constantly conscious of how my body reacts with the world as a black woman (something that would be even worse if I was plus size, or visibly perceived to be queer).
I get told off a lot in public. Over the past month, I’ve travelled on trains near-constantly and, each time, I’ve been chastised by a stranger (always an older white man) like a child. Not including the general stares of disapproval when I travel in my comfortable leggings and hoodies, I’ve been told off by men for apparently not putting my bag in the rack properly, for keeping a book on the seat next to mine on a near-empty train, for eating a sandwich, for drinking Red Bull (“You shouldn’t have that – it’s bad for you”). One saw me move seats mid-journey and demanded to know if I had booked the seat I was sitting in; another tutted when I began playing peek-a-boo games with a small child sitting opposite me. These incidents might seem small, but they are constantly humiliating. I’m in my mid-twenties and yet am told off, loudly and publicly, by men I don’t know. I hate it. When I think of myself, and when I think of Leslie Jones, I’m reminded of the paradox of black womanhood – no matter how much or how little space we take up, it will always be too much.
Womanhood is so often about apology. About excusing ourselves or saying sorry for not wearing enough, or wearing too much, or merely just wearing – just being ourselves. It’s exhausting. I hope that I, that you and the very talented Leslie Jones continue to take up so much space. The saddest thing is that a part of me feels it would be better for her wellbeing if she didn’t.