"The Bed Intruder"—News Video Goes Viral: Antoine Dodson as Internet Celebrity and Commodity
After the attempted rape of his sister at a housing project in Alabama, the news video reporting the incident went viral, and Antoine Dodson became a popular phenomenon because of his comments on the video aimed at the perpetrator, whose performative aspects alone made him an instant internet celebrity. His comments were riffed widely on the internet, he received opportunities in advertising, and a Halloween costume based on the outfit he was wearing when he appeared on the news hit the market. At the same time, in spite of his recent success, Dodson has been jailed. In this essay, I will explore the implications of Dodson’s media construction by drawing on critical work from areas such as queer studies and the digital humanities to examine how race, region, masculinity, and sexuality made him an internet phenomenon overnight.
The attempted rape of Kelly Dodson in the Lincoln Park housing project in Huntsville, Alabama ironically and unexpectedly set a chain of events in motion that made her brother, Kevin Antoine Dodson, an instant internet celebrity. What makes Dodson’s fame even more remarkable is that it resulted from a feature in a news report aired June 28, 2010, on WAAF-48 news, an NBC station, in which he boldly spoke out about the attempted rape and warned her would-be attacker. According to news reports, the assailant allegedly used a garbage can to climb up on a second-floor ledge, entered Kelly Dodson’s bedroom where she was sleeping with her daughter, got into the bed, and attempted to remove her clothing and rape her. As Kelly Dodson acknowledges in the interview with Elizabeth Gentle, “I was attacked by some idiot from out here in the projects. He tried to rape me. He tried to pull my clothes off.” Upon hearing his sister being attacked, Antoine Dodson helped her to fight off the attacker, who escaped, leaving behind evidence such as a T-Shirt and fingerprints. When he was interviewed by Gentle, Antoine Dodson (2010) made a series of comments and became famous when the news report posted by CrazyLiveAction on YouTube went viral instantly.
The news report highlights Dodson three times. First, when asked about the attempted intrusion, he states, “Well, obviously we have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbing in your windows, he’s snatching your people up trying to rape ‘em, so y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband, because they raping everybody out here.” When the camera cuts to him the second time, he says that “We got your T-shirt, you done left fingerprints and all, you are so dumb. You are really dumb. For real!” As the reporter indicates, Dodson frames his third and final comment as a direct warning to the perpetrator: “You don’t have to come and confess that you did it, we’re looking for you! We gon’ find you. I’m letting you know now! So you can run and tell that! Homeboy!”
In the original footage, Dodson wears a black tank top and a red bandana over his slightly long, blown out Afro hairstyle. One factor that makes his comments distinct and memorable is that he delivers them in a flamboyant, assertive and performative style with intense passion and expressiveness in front of the camera (Butler, 1990). He presents all of his comments in a style of direct address to the audience. That is to say, in the first comment, he makes a direct appeal to fellow residents in Lincoln Park and the public to hide from rapists on the loose; in the second and third instances, he criticizes and even issues a direct warning to the perpetrator. Moreover, his comments are inflected by hyperbole (i.e. “they raping everybody out here”); he frames children, women and men as being equally vulnerable. His body language, from shaking his head from side to side as he delivers his comments to waving paper in the shape of a scroll back and forth in front of the camera, helps to dramatize his comments and makes them more provocative. The exclamatory expressions such as “for real” and “homeboy” that punctuate the endings of his statements have a similar effect. Black vernacular expressions that inflect his statements are thrown into relief all the more as they are framed alongside the staid mannerisms and formal English language of the unnamed white male news desk anchor and Gentle, a white woman. This formal style is characteristic in news reporting. That the news report was circulated on the internet and migrated to contexts in popular culture from commercials to music reflects the easy flows and exchanges between television and the internet in the contemporary era, including the overlap that now characterizes television and the internet as news sources.
Once the news video was posted on YouTube, it went viral and has had over 56,000,000 views. Dodson’s comments made him an internet celebrity, have been riffed widely on the internet, and have spilled over into popular culture, to the point of being made into a song by the Gregory Brothers entitled “The Bed Intruder Song,” which reached 89 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Dodson performed the song live with Michael Gregory at the BET Hip Hop Awards in October, 2010. The original news video has also been remixed in genres such as punk rock. Dodson has been featured in national media on television programs such as the Today Show and Lopez Tonight. He has also pursued various opportunities, including several merchandising ventures that included developing t-shirts highlighting the “Bed Intruder Song” album cover art, a “Bed Intruder” Halloween costume mimicking the outfit that he was wearing during the news report, and an application for smartphones called “Sex Offender Tracker.” One goal of Dodson’s commercial ventures has been the effort to earn money to move his family from the Lincoln Park housing project. In spite of his success, Dodson has also encountered some challenges, including an arrest for marijuana possession and violating noise ordinances.
As they are framed in the news report, Dodson’s direct comments to his sister’s attacker in the news interview in effect “read” the attacker in the colloquial sense associated with urban black gay masculine contexts, which means, to “throw shade” or to tell someone about themselves. As Judith Butler (1993, p. 129 ) acknowledges, “’reading’ means taking someone down, exposing what fails to work at the level of appearance, insulting or deriding someone.” If we draw on Charles Nero’s (1991) examination of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s (1988) “signifying” as manifested in gay contexts, Dodson’s comments become legible within the longstanding oral and written forms of the black vernacular that have been foundational in the development of African American literary history, from folklore to contemporary rap. At the same time, it is problematic that stereotypes of blackness and gay masculinity in popular culture have also helped to fuel Dodson’s success. Marlon Ross (2000) has examined recurrent homophobic invocations of homosexuality in black nationalist rhetoric. In his landmark essay “Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen,” Marlon Riggs (1991, p. 253) has critiqued homophobic representations of effeminate black gay men who are highlighted for the purpose of comic relief in black popular culture. In his words, “Snap-swish-and-dish divas have truly arrived, giving Beauty Shop drama at center stage, performing the read-and-snap two-step as they sashay across the movie screen, entertaining us in the castles of our homes-like court jesters, like eunuchs-with their double entendres and dead-end lusts, and above all, their relentless hilarity in the face of relentless despair. Negro faggotry is the rage! Black gay men are not.” Riggs offers a sobering reminder that the salience accorded black gay men as comedic in black media coexists alongside the routine exclusion of black gay men from notions of black authenticity. Riggs published this essay at a time when the skit featuring the gay duo of book reviewers “Blaine” and “‘Toine” on African American comedian Keenan Ivory Waynan’s In Living Color was salient in the media. Riggs’s analytical framework is indispensable for thinking about factors that have contributed to Dodson’s popularity as an internet celebrity and the mainstreaming of stereotypes of black gay masculinity in the contemporary era. These dynamics make queer discourses, including epistemologies on black gay masculinity, an indispensable framework for interpreting Dodson as a phenomenon.
Over 70,000 comments have been posted on YouTube in response to the original post entitled “Antoine Dodson Warns a Perp on Live TV” posted by CrazyLiveAction, which was uploaded initially on July 29, 2010. To provide a small sampling of some of the recent ones, the comments have included remarks such as the following: “So ya'll better hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband, cause their [sic] raping everybody out here!!!! OMG!!!!! That part was on replay 4 like 20 billion times. LMAO and I feel bad 4 the victim 2, but this guy is hilarious”; “Best brother ever !”; “I love Antoine Dodson”; “this man i[s] so so funny i watch him everyday just to get a smile on my face ha ha ha”; and “Rape is NOT funny. But Antoine Dodson made it sound HILARIOUS.”
Notably, one of the posts draws on Dodson’s famous comments to talk about the case involving the tragic death of the 17-year-old boy Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. Martin, who police later revealed had been carrying Skittles candy and Arizona Iced Tea, was shot to death by a white Latino man named George Zimmerman in the gated community where Martin’s father lived while Martin was returning from the store. Zimmerman claimed that he felt Martin looked “suspicious” and was “up to no good.” That the Sanford police did not arrest Zimmerman led to public outrage and catalyzed an international movement among some who have been appalled by the failure to arrest him and have linked the fatal shooting to racial profiling. The comment that responds to the “bed intruder” video by invoking Antoine Dodson’s words says that “IfGeorgeZimmermanIsFree HIDE YO KIDS HIDE YO WIFE CUZ THEY SHOOTIN EVERYONE UP IN HERE.” That one of these recent posters explicitly uses a racial slur, remarking that “N-----s are entertaining,” also underscores the extent to which linking the black body, whether masculine or feminine, primarily to entertainment easily invokes minstrel images of blackness that were established and circulated during the antebellum era, and that continue to have a residual impact in the present day. The comment also demonstrates the intertwined vectors of oppression that black gay men routinely experience, including being targeted with verbal violence on the basis of factors such as sexuality and race, as the work of Riggs suggests.
Dodson’s charismatic interview demonstrates his talent as a performer, which his large fan base has recognized, celebrated and rewarded. One important question to raise, however, is what Antoine Dodson’s overnight success as an internet celebrity means when considering that it has entirely eclipsed the story of his sister’s attempted rape. This is a problem, especially in light of the critical awareness that a range of scholars have attempted to raise about black women and rape, including Angela Davis (1983), Valerie Smith(1998), Charlotte Pierce-Baker(2000), Aishah Shahidah Simmons (2006), and Saidiya Hartman(1997). Furthermore, it is important to raise questions about what is at stake in the translation of the trauma of rape into comedy that emerges in the news report. At the same time, the portrait that the original news report paints of Dodson given that he saved his sister from a rapist is also notably heroic and yet unsettles what Mark Anthony Neal (2006, p. 9) critiques as the myth of the “strong black man” and its attendant heterosexism. Since this incident, Dodson has admitted to having been a victim of rape himself.
When he won the singing competition on the hit show during the second season of American Idol in 2003, Birmingham, Alabama native Ruben Studdard, was catapulted to fame, and nominated for a Grammy in the category Best Male Vocal R&B Performance for his song “Superstar.” In 2004, he won the Outstanding New Artist Award from the NAACP and has gone on to release several albums. During the weeks that he appeared on American Idol, geography played a central role in Studdard’s public representation as he wore shirts printed with “205,” the area code for Birmingham Given his large size, weight was also a primary factor in constructing Studdard’s image as friendly and cuddly, to the point that he was dubbed the “Velvet Teddy Bear.” Sexuality, as in the case of Dodson, has shaped Studdard’s representation significantly given Studdard’s portrayal as a lovable “gentle giant,” which distanced him from typical stereotypes of black men as violent, hypersexed, and rapacious. Furthermore, the body has been the object of intense media scrutiny in the cases of both Studdard and Dodson, to the point of becoming a spectacle. While television mainly popularized Studdard, the internet popularized Dodson and the conditions of their fame are different. Like Studdard, that Dodson was catapulted into celebrity from his home in Huntsville points to the role of the U.S. South in constructing black masculinity and its processes of nationalization and globalization<
Dodson’s birth in Chicago, migration to Alabama, and identity as a black, gay man illustrates the role of geography in his construction and makes it important to consider region in his fashioning, along with other terms of identification, including race, gender, class and sexuality (Crawford, 2005; Richardson, 2005). Within black queer discourses, for example, E. Patrick Johnson (2008) has carved a vital space in areas such as black studies, performance studies, and queer studies for examining blackness and gay identity in relation to the U.S. South. The Dodson internet phenomenon has profound implications for fields such as black studies, queer studies and Southern studies. In general, the U.S. South, including the “dirty South” rap genre, has gained increasing salience in the nation’s popular culture in shaping genres such as hip-hop over the past two decades. If realized, the plans underway to develop a reality television show featuring the Dodson family’s relocation from Huntsville to Los Angeles, California will accord Antoine Dodson even more salience in the media, reinforce his internet celebrity and launch him to new levels of fame while further foregrounding the family in relation to themes concerning geography and emphasizing migration.
In addition to critical epistemologies on sexuality, masculinity, and geography, it is useful to think about Dodson’s implications for digital scholarship, including work on the internet. As the internet emerged, cyberspace was touted by some cultural critics as a potentially democratizing force in global culture given its promise to unsettle conventional markers of identity such as race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality as well as to remove the excessive emphasis on the body that typically characterizes interpersonal interactions. Yet, the breakthrough of a young, black, poor and gay black male from the U.S. South like Antoine Dodson into internet celebrity underscores the limitations in the democratizing ideals associated with the internet that promise more inclusivity for minorities in this arena. In acknowledging “the nation’s desire to imagine and construct colorblind or tolerant virtual communities and digital public spheres through the Internet’s text-driven digital public environments during the late 1980s and early 1990s,” Anna Everett (2008, p. 5) observes that “the popularity and pervasiveness of static and moving visual images in digital media produced by ubiquitous digital cameras, cell phone and mobile cams, Wweb cams, streaming video, audio and so on” mean that identity is self-evident on the internet and in effect unsettles these early illusions. Everett (2009) has provided one of the most compelling epistemologies for thinking about the politics of negotiating black identity in digital and media studies and compellingly linked the race for dominance and domestication of the Internet and World Wide Web to histories of colonialism and imperialism. It was in part Dodson’s perceived status as a black gay man that contributed to his popularity given the entertainment value in his comments. The ideals that have been associated with the internet lend intense irony to how much factors such as race, gender, class, and sexuality, including Dodson’s specularity and hyper-embodiment on the news report that ended up being posted on YouTube, have mediated his commodification in popular culture and shaped his emergence as an internet celebrity. This issue points to how many of the prevailing representational politics, including a host of raced, classed, gendered and sexed stereotypes that have framed the black body historically in popular contexts such as film and television, also clearly shadow their representation in contemporary digital media.
Factors such as race, sexuality, class, and gender, including masculinity, are important for understanding Dodson’s media construction and emergence as an instant internet celebrity overnight. In this discussion, I examine the site marketing the “Bed Intruder Costume,” including the strategies for promoting and marketing this item in contexts such as the CNN network. Furthermore, I draw on materials such as the primary internet website related to Dodson, “Antoine Dodson’s World Official Website.” I discuss the “Bed Intruder Song” produced by the Gregory Brothers and marketed in collaboration with Dodson. It is significant, too, as this essay’s epigraph suggests, that social networking venues such as Facebook have played a salient role in promoting Dodson and according him legibility and popularity on the internet. I am especially thankful to Amber Johnson for the editorial insights that she has provided when considering that she, too, is a researcher of Antoine Dodson. In general, this essay reflects my belief that in this day and time, digital studies, including the digital humanities, are salient and arguably indispensable for reflecting on questions of race, gender and identity (Davidson and Goldberg, 2009).
The Specter of Aunt Jemima and the Antoine Dodson Marketing Phenomenon as Trick or Treat?
The representation of blackness as inferior during the period of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century intensified devaluation of blackness in the Western imaginary that had been discernible as early as the Renaissance era and before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade fully crystallized. During this era, the longstanding dualism within Western philosophy that cast the body as inferior to the mind was the basis on which blackness was dissociated from notions of rationality and linked to intellectual inferiority and black bodies were linked to sexual pathologies. This is the backdrop against which the South African Sara Baartman was paraded around England and France as the “Hottentot Venus,” whose body, including her buttocks, was made a spectacle. Her remains were posthumously excised and examined by the scientist Georges Cuvier and subsequently displayed for many years in Paris at the Museé del Homme. In this ideological context in which rationality was linked quintessentially to white masculine subjectivity, the black body’s abstraction, circulation as spectacle and representation as hyper-embodied paradoxically signaled a lack of subjectivity and voice.
Hallmarks of the mammy myth of the antebellum South included this female servant’s devotion to the white children in her care as she neglected her own children and her embodiment as sexual and plump. The Aunt Jemima logo, which emerged in 1889, was grounded in the mammy stereotype, and has been the longest running trademark in American advertising. Aunt Jemima, like the mammy, has been circulated through a range of products in American material culture alongside black caricatures and is the basis of film characters such as the maid “Aunt Delilah” in the 1934 version of the film Imitation of Life, who was known for her delicious secret pancake recipe that made millions for her boss, Bea Pullman. As Lauren Berlant (1991) illustrates in her essay “National Brands/National Body,” the spectacled body of this figure and her emblazoning on a lighted marquee was a reigning sign of her voicelessness. Such images coexisted alongside caricatures of black masculinity in film that were established in minstrel performances during the antebellum era.
Despite Dodson’s status as a black gay male living in the U.S. South in the twenty-first century, it is important to frame Antoine Dodson’s commodification in relation to historical figures such as Aunt Jemima whose salience in the arena of advertising was conditioned by stereotypes related race, class, gender and sexuality. Critical studies of the Aunt Jemima have shown that her hyper-embodiment and national abstraction did not translate into voice and agency. In the classic mind/body dualism of Western metaphysics, the mind has been privileged, while the body has typically been linked to subordination and subjection, logic that has helped to shape notions of black inferiority in contexts in which blacks who were enslaved in turn had an overdetermined association with the body. By decentering the body altogether in the virtual context of the internet, the digital age promises to remedy the longstanding racial script of blackness that links it to otherness, inferiority and hyper-embodiment. When considering these larger historical contexts related to hyper-embodied images of blackness in the media, that Dodson became an internet celebrity precisely because of the voice and body image that he projected during a local news interview is not necessarily a signal of voice, empowerment and acceptance as a black gay man. Indeed, his circulation in the media is steeped in stereotypes of the gay black masculine body as spectacle (Mulvey, 1989; Neal 1983).
Circulated by a company called the “Mirza Agency,” the site bills the item the “Bed Intruder Costume” as “Antoine’s Revenge,” which alludes to the warning that he gives the burglar who attempted to attack his sister bedintrudercostume.com. The multi-colored letters in the first two words of the costume’s name overarch and strikingly contrast with the word “costume” scripted in red letters. This word highlights Dodson’s face in the place of the “o” and similarly highlights a bandana print. The website presents the costume by saying, “Obvvioouuusllyyyy, this is the official Antoine Dodson Costume! So first hide ya kids, hide ya wife and order it today!” The injunction to “hide” wittily reverses his advice to the public in the original news report by urging potential customers, including women and children, to wear this costume, an outfit designed for camouflage and entertainment. The t-shirt’s message of “hide ya kids” registers as intensely ironic and cautionary when considering that it is primarily intended for wearing precisely when many parents allow their costumed children to attend parties and go out in their neighborhoods in the dark to “trick-or-treat.” On this site, the costume, offered in sizes from small to extra large, is priced at $24.99, sold via PayPal transactions, and includes four items that mirror the clothing that he wears in the news interview: an Antoine Dodson afro wig, a red bandana, a black tank top, and the rolled up piece of paper autographed. The emphasis on these four items in the costume’s development, like the salience of his face in the name of the item, foregrounds Dodson’s body and speaks to his iconicity and celebrity. Put another way, it is significant that the popularity of the costume relies on the ability of the public to recognize his face and identify with him in light of his performance in the news report and interest in mimicking it by echoing and riffing on statements that he uttered during his interview. As a head scarf, the red bandana served as a mainstay in Aunt Jemima’s fashioning. This item, which Dodson wears as an accessory in the news report, has been central in constituting his iconicity as an internet celebrity. The red bandana also links him to the iconicity of Aunt Jemima as a figure. Yet, Dodson’s dynamism within the medium of video belies the static visual economies in which Aunt Jemima has typically circulated, which also bespeaks his agency relative to this image primarily associated with the history of antebellum slavery. Furthermore, he has played more of a role in his marketing and public construction than was ever conceivable, say, for the several black women who embodied Aunt Jemima beginning in the late nineteenth century, most notably Nancy Green. The website describes the costume as the “Collector’s Edition” and describes the version sold there “As Seen on TV.” That autographs are included in this package of materials also attests to Dodson’s growing celebrity. In a sidebar on the left side of the website, a large image of Dodson himself is shown wearing the outfit, juxtaposed with images of the costume’s various pieces and a still photo featuring an image of Dodson during his famous 2010 news interview. The phrases “Hide yo kids! Hide yo wife! & Hide yo husband!” appear in a balloon and are framed as his utterances through the juxtaposition with his photo. The variations in the spelling of your, from “yo” to “ya,” emphasize his glib and witty incorporation of slang into his comments in the interview. Similarly, the exaggerated spelling of the word “obviously” mimics the distinctive pronunciation of the word in the news interview and the riff on the word here in marketing the costume is recognizable and memorable for those who heard it.
Mizra reports that the Bed Intruder Costume was voted the top costume of 2010. It is notable that a Halloween costume has emerged as the most salient marketing device for promoting Dodson. At one level, his association with costumes is intriguing for how much they have been associated with performance, masquerade, and camouflage, particularly if we think of the closeting motifs linked to gay identity or discourses that examine practices such as cross-dressing to underscore the performativity of gender and the instability of categories such as masculine and feminine. Yet, when considering the primary association of Halloween with horror and traditions such as trick-or-treating, along with costumes featuring supernatural figures such as ghosts, skeletons, monsters, goblins and witches, the “bed intruder costume” just as easily invites a reading of the black gay masculine body in relation to difference, otherness and deviance, or at best, reductively frames it in relation to codes of fashion and style.
The CNN network highlights the costume as one “ripped out of the headlines” and highlights the brief commercial by the Mirza Agency. Therein, Dodson appears alongside a young man dressed in the costume and instructs those who don it to knock on doors and say, “Hide yo kids, hide yo’ wife.” It is important to note the potential of the costume, given its accessory of an Afro-wig, to promote problematic and controversial practices such as minstrelsy. While airing the commercial, TMZ described Dodson as a “well spoken vigilante” in a sensationalistic tone. Fuse presents a photo of the website, and in his interview on the network, Dodson admits that the rolled up paper that he held in the original interview was a bus schedule. Dodson’s interview on CBS News with Katie Couric compares his experience with the Gregory Brothers to the routine auto-tuning of her voice in videos and reveals his goal to own a hair salon. All of these dialogues demonstrate Dodson’s popularity and illustrate how well he has also begun to cross over from the internet to television.
However, Antoine Dodson’s World-Official Site is the primary internet website that promotes Dodson and provides his most comprehensive portrait antoinedodsonsworld.com. The website features a range of sections with titles such as “bio,” “media,” “news,” “events,” “community,” “merch [andise],” and “lingo.” Several of these sections are premised on the public persona and celebrity that have increasingly been associated with Dodson. The word “world” in the title of Dodson’s website tropes the notion of the global, a term that defines the parameters of the internet. At the same time, this phrasing situates Dodson at the helm of his own personal empire, including his broad internet fan base of “commentators,” and over which it accords him symbolic sovereignty on the site. The diverse range of items sold on the site also bespeaks the extent to which Antoine Dodson himself has emerged as a unique brand and become a commodity in the wake of his internet celebrity. Within its eclectic product line, the site includes clothing items such as T-Shirts, tank tops, and hoodies that feature various sound bites from his famous news interview, as well as a calendar, a lunch box, a mug, a hoodie, a cigarette lighter, bumper stickers, and wrists bands.
In 2011, Dodson worked with George B. Kobler of Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne, P.C., in Huntsville to register phrases from Dodson’s interview such as “Run and Tell That, Homeboy!” and Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife, & Hide Yo Husband” as trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The “lingo” section of the website builds upon the verbal impact that Dodson made on his audience in his interview by offering his definitions of a range of slang terms. This eclectic range of merchandise sold on the website features the image of him in his black tank top and red bandana and relies on the iconicity that Dodson established in his news interview(also see allthatantoine.com/official-merchandise/).Aunt Jemima was marketed historically in relation to a vast economy of items in U.S. material culture that centralized images of her as abstracted and hyper-embodied, and that were rooted in nostalgia about the antebellum South. Therefore, it is important to raise questions about what is at stake in the intense commodification of Antoine Dodson on the basis of his deft verbal expression and visual image. His background as a young black gay male from a Huntsville, Alabama housing project is equally crucial to consider Ideologies of black masculinity and femininity, including early types such as the mammy and the Uncle Tom, have historically emerged in the U.S. South and have later spread into national and even global contexts. One byproduct of this phenomenon has been constructions of black Southern masculinity as feminine, romanticized and docile within this ideological economy. It is necessary to situate Dodson’s commodification on the internet within this continuum and recognize how much it is premised on the abstraction, specularity and hyper-visibility of his body as black, gay and masculine, as well as essentialist perceptions of black gay masculine speech and voice (Richardson 2007).
Antoine Dodson and the Gregory Brothers as Bedfellows
If the news video made Dodson an instant internet celebrity once it was posted on YouTube, the mixing of a song based on it entitled the “Bed Intruder Song” by the Gregory Brothers cemented his fame (Gregory Brothers 2010). Formed in 2007, the group includes four members-Michael Gregory, Andrew Rose Gregory, Evan Gregory (all brothers from Radford, Virginia), and Sarah Fullen Gregory, the wife of Evan. It is best known for “viral videos” on the internet, including its popular “Auto-Tune the News Series,” which sets the voices of politicians and news reporters to music and uses digital techniques to portray them singing with the goal of making political commentary, including producing political satire. When it was released in this series in 2010, “The Bed Intruder Song” catapulted the group to new levels of success. Within six months, the video was viewed 50 million times on YouTube and became the most frequently viewed video on YouTube that year aside from mainstream popular videos. Proceeds from sales of the song on Itunes have benefited the Dodson family, the Gregory Brothers, and Apple. The “Bed Intruder Song” reached No. 89 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart during the week of Aug. 20, 2010. Evan Gregory (Worhtham, 2010) addressed concerns that the song bought into stereotypes or deflected from the seriousness of rape by pointing out that the group was drawn to Dodson’s commentary in the news interview because “He’s conveying emotion and a strong personality, and that’s what we latch onto in a pop performance.”
The video for the “Bed Intruder Song” begins with a clip that remixes Dodson’s interview to show him repeating famous phrases from it such as “Hide you kids, hide yo wife,” “run and tell that” and “homeboy” multiple times. The multiple repetitions of the word “homeboy” by Dodson as the video begins throw into relief the intense irony in his use of a word that conventionally defines a friend from the same hometown to describe the man who attempted to rape his sister. The salient and repeated references to the word “bed” in describing this incident and its recuperation in this song adaptation of the news interview point to the reality of the perpetrator’s attempted sex crime and allude to the role of sexuality in mediating Dodson’s public construction.
The inclusion of shots of the original news anchor and Gentle also firmly connects the video remix by the Gregory Brothers to the original news report. The Gregory Brothers insert themselves into the video in cameo shots where their formal attire recalls the formal dress of news reporters but repetition of Dodson’s various phrases align them with him. Two members of the group are featured and appear suited and standing against the backdrop of a news room and school respectively, and are depicted echoing Dodson’s phrases such as “so dumb” and clapping along with the beat. The compilation of the news report as a song mainly anchored by Dodson’s commentary and its translatability to video and R&B song underscores the performative power of Dodson’s original interview. Other important images featured in the video’s visual economy highlight images of ballerinas dancing and the classical performance of a symphony orchestra. These shots provide a striking contrast to the hip-hop and R&B flavor of Dodson’s singing performance. It is noteworthy that the video uses cross-cutting as a technique to juxtapose images of dance performance and music associated with wealth and class privilege with images of the bedroom where the intrusion took place, clips of the Dodson family watching television and images of Kelly Dodson and Antoine Dodson. This strategy seems to comment on and attempt to unsettle the high culture/low culture hierarchy that routinely devalues and casts a discourse such as hip hop as inferior in relation to classical music performances. The juxtaposition of these images also makes a commentary on the persistence of crime and poverty in the lives of blacks such as the Dodson family at the same time that those with more economic privilege, including the wealthy elite, are able to consume elaborate ballet and symphony performances.
The live performance of the song with the Gregory Brothers featuring Dodson dancing and on vocals illustrates the latter’s talent and promise as a performer. That Dodson has shared in the proceeds from the song frames him as a partner in the project and the profits have enabled Dodson to purchase a new home for his family. However, a clear hierarchy is evident in the video where the Gregory Brothers are more visually aligned with and aestheticized in relation to the two white news reporters instead of the Dodson family. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that even their appropriation of the original news report portraying Dodson and the profits and high visibility from their marketing of it are factors that potentially reflect the colonialist and imperialist politics that Everett has associated with the internet. The video easily risks portraying black poverty, pain and suffering as spectacle. As Baratunde Thurston of The Onion has commented, "People online seemed to be laughing at him, not with him (because he wasn't laughing), as Dodson fulfilled multiple stereotypes in one short news segment. Watching the wider web jump on this meme, all but forgetting why Dodson was upset, seemed like a form of 'class tourism'. Folks with no exposure to the projects could dip their toes into YouTube and get a taste"(Gallager, 2010). Furthermore, the linguistic repetition of sound bites from the interview exaggerates, stereotypes, and essentializes the black gay masculine voice. In my own work, I have compared the marketing phenomenon of Miss Cleo as psychic from Jamaica on television that was launched by two white male entrepreneurs from Florida named Steven Feder and Peter Stolz buzzfeed.com/mjs538/the-legend-of-miss-cleo to how the Aunt Jemima logo was established by two white men in the late 19th century, Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, as a strategy for marketing their pancake mix(Richardson 2003). When weighed in this context, the degree of proprietorship that the Gregory Brothers have claimed over Dodson through the marketing of the “Bed Intruder Song” is equally suspect.
At the same time, I do not mean to obscure the collaborative role that Dodson has played in his marketing and circulation as an internet celebrity. With deftness he has been able to capitalize off of his internet celebrity by parlaying his original appearance in the news video into a range of lucrative commercial ventures. When considering his background as a student in business administration, his emergence as a commodity on the internet has given him an opportunity to put the knowledge that he has gained from his studies into practice and a direct entrée to entrepreneurship. Moreover, as a young and black gay man, his success story unsettles conventional narratives of the ‘self-made black business man in the new millennium. Yet, that Mizra has attempted to sell the webpage advertising the “Bed Intruder Costume” is just one of the many signs of his vulnerability that has been evident in the months since he first became a sensation. For example, he has had run-ins with the law for violations such as marijuana possession and making noise.
The form and composition of the video itself draws on digital editing and design techniques that have proliferated during the internet era. The video incorporates most of the visuals from the original news report but thoroughly remixes them and reverses their order in some cases. For instance, in the original news report, Kelly Dodson speaks before we ever see her brother, but in the Gregory Brothers remix, Antoine Dodson is featured first. The video also features a remix of Kelly Dodson acknowledging her attempted rape by “Some idiot out here in the projects.” The video for the “Bed Intruder Song” is also significant for its portrayal of Kelly Dodson vocalizing the cautionary phrases of her brother to the perpetrator of the attack against her, such as “We got your t-shirt” and “We gon’ find you,” which emphasizes her agency and voice as a woman. The repetitive “we” here also underscores the solidarity of the Dodson family and their endorsement of the effort of law enforcement to find the perpetrator. While the map visually featured on television in the original news report on WAAF-48 pinpoints and identifies the location of the Lincoln Park Housing Project for viewers who might not be familiar with the area, the “Bed Intruder Song” riffs on this image by featuring a map as a tool for finding the perpetrator.
The video also features via its remix techniques information about the incident that the news report did not air, including a part of the interview in which Dodson describes his sister’s attacker as being 5’9” or 5’10” tall, coffee-colored, clean-cut with a very smooth face, and with a wavy, low-cut hairstyle like a Caesar. It reveals that this man had his hands around her neck and Dodson mentions that “I pulled him off of her and that’s all I did.” It is significant, too, that the slow pan of the camera in the video emphasizes broken glass and the damage to the Dodson apartment caused by the intrusion more emphatically than the brief shots of the original news report allow. These visual images underscore the seriousness of the attack and, like Dodson’s commentary, point to how far it went and how dangerous it could have become.
The video ends with a shot of Dodson wearing a white head wrap and a yellow shirt in a bright and sunny shade as he holds a little girl. He comments that “Our family, we don’t’ run around crying and actin’ sad. We just dust our shoulders off and keep on moving.” It is noteworthy that Dodson is shorn of his black tank top and bandana. He is wearing bright colors that evoke the peace, calm and rebalancing that the video suggests he and his family have achieved since the incident.
The emergence of Antoine Dodson in the public eye through his circulation on the internet and in the realm of popular music no doubt holds potential to bring greater visibility to the population of gay black men in the South, which has often been marginal, voiceless and invisible in the African American context and the U.S. mainstream. Yet, his commodification in relation to stereotypes of black gay masculinity reveals the internet to be as fraught with potential to replicate ideologies of black gay masculinity as conventional forms of media such as television and film have been. Indeed, it is sobering that in the millennium of the twenty-first century, Dodson’s emergence as an internet icon, his emergence as a brand and trademark, and the strategies of his visual construction and marketing, replete with a red bandana, rehearses some of the conventional stereotypical features of advertisements such as Aunt Jemima. That is to say, just as Aunt Jemima advertisements often promoted notions of antebellum Old Southern romance by idealizing the mammy, in the twenty-first century, Dodson’s costume potentially re in scribes stereotypes of black gay masculinity. The Antoine Dodson phenomenon, in spite of all of its promises and possibilities, underscores that the move into a black future during the first years of the new millennium has looked a lot like the past. It also reveals our distance from a true internet democracy.
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Riché Richardson is an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. Her first book is Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007). She co-edits the New Southern Studies book series at the University of Georgia Press.
© 2014 Riché Richardson, used by permission