Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why I Stopped Laughing at the Bed Intruder Song

by Rebekah Mays

“Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife.” 

Many of us remember this immortal advice from Antoine Dodson, the unsuspecting star of one of the most famous YouTube videos ever. It all started in July 2010, when a man broke into the Dodson home and tried to rape Antoine’s sister Kelly.

Obviously shaken, Kelly and her brother spoke to a local news station about the incident. “Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife, and hide your husbands, too, cuz they’re rapin’ everybody out here,” Antoine said.

Dodson’s lively speech and personality caught the attention of the Gregory Brothers, who auto-tuned the interview and posted it on YouTube. In less than a month, the “Bed Intruder” song had more than 16 million views, quickly making Dodson a celebrity. It was the most viewed amateur YouTube video of 2010, and although four years have gone by, we still know the lyrics by heart.

I used to really love this video. But just last month while staying with some friends in Germany, I decided to introduce them to this bit of American culture. One friend was actually appalled that I was laughing and singing along, and he asked how I could make fun of a rape victim. Of course I denied this – I was making fun of the rapist, not the victim! – but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t completely true.

Part of me wanted to defend my laughter by pointing out that Antoine Dodson profited from the video, and that it improved his quality of life. After doing some research, I learned that this was true: in fact, Dodson made enough money from iTunes sales and merchandise to move his family out of the projects.

This was great news, but it occurred to me that many of us who watched and shared the video over the years never bothered to find out what happened to the Dodsons. And though most wouldn’t admit it, I imagine that many of the viewers still don’t know – and perhaps don’t even care – that the rapist was never found. While I can’t say that these sentiments are true for everyone, I have to admit they were at least partly true for me. I’m sad to say that I was never really invested in the Dodsons beyond their entertainment value.

Baratunde Thurston, a comedian in New York City, identified another problem with America’s “Bed Intruder” obsession. He smartly observed that viewers are engaging in something he calls “class tourism.” “Folks with no exposure to the projects could dip their toes into YouTube and get a taste,” he said.

Thurston’s criticism could also apply to some of my other (formerly) favorite auto-tuned videos, namely “Back It Up,” and “Leprechaun Song – Where The Gold At.” While the subject matter of the latter two isn’t nearly as serious as that of the “Bed Intruder Song” (the topics are an attempted robbery and a leprechaun sighting), they nevertheless, at least at first glance, all feature the foibles of uneducated and lower-class subjects. By watching and sharing the videos, I’m touring their world for my personal entertainment – all from the comfort of my living room.

And Thurston is right about something else – I was laughing at each and every one of them.

Here’s the good news. From what I can tell, it's becoming less and less trendy to post videos making fun of the poor and vulnerable. Rather, what seems to be gaining in popularity is sharing videos that humiliate the ones in power.

Take the plethora of memes and posters mocking Putin, for example. Or John Oliver's takedown of FIFA, what he portrays as a cartoonishly evil organization that robs every World Cup host country of its funds and resources. Or the video series “If Black (Or Asian) People Said the Stuff White People Say.” All of this humor is at the expense of those who have abused their power. Satire in response to oppression is nothing new, but it seems to be growing, and this is a good thing.

The contrast between these two kinds of humor isn’t any clearer than in Oliver’s video, starting at 9:45. After he spends several minutes cataloging the ways in which the president of FIFA is a terrible human being, Oliver shows a YouTube clip in which the man stumbles and falls as he’s making an entrance at some formal event. Oliver laughs hysterically, saying, “That is, wonderfully, the one time you can genuinely say, ‘I’m glad that old man fell off that stage.’”

Perhaps Oliver is taking it too far, but he does so to make a point: humor, when it's directed at a person, takes away some of that person's power. If the person is weak or vulnerable, it's the exact opposite of compassion to laugh at that person – it’s cruelty.

But change the object of ridicule and it’s a completely different story. Humiliating people or organizations who are misusing their power is a potent way to lessen, or even stop, their oppressive behavior. After all, Jesus didn't give a nickel about hurting the feelings of the Pharisees – they were a "brood of vipers" in his book.

Thankfully, not all humans have the same sense of humor. A video mocking a political figure can be side-splitting to one group while enraging to another: a lot of it depends on our perspective, and whether we find the accusations true or baseless. In the same way, it’s perfectly OK that people have different definitions of what constitutes an “offensive” joke or video. But we can agree that mocking the weak or the vulnerable is a separate category, one which should offend all of us.

I'm asking, both myself and you, to think about what we post on Facebook. I’m asking us to consider what we laugh at, both publicly and in private. I’m asking that in our laughter, which can at times be ruthless, we spare those who are already humble. 

Rebekah Mays is a Barnard College graduate originally from Austin, Texas. She currently works and writes in Prague, Czech Republic. You can find more of her writing on her blog The Prague BLOG or follow her on Twitter @smallbeks.

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