“Chair Girl” is Canada’s latest viral sensation for all the wrong reasons. Earlier this week, Toronto Police tweeted an image of an unidentified woman tossing a chair over a high-rise condo balcony onto the road below. Torontonians were rightly offended by the careless and dangerous act, widely circulating a screenshot of the woman in an effort to bring her to justice.
Two days later, 19-year-old Marcella Zoia surrendered to police. But rather than quiet the online fervor, her appearance encouraged a torrent of hateful, sexist commentary and memes.
Canadians love to pat ourselves on the back for our supposed inclusivity and forward-thinking nature. Many even consider feminism an outdated movement that’s no longer needed. However, if the reaction to Chair Girl is any indication, there’s still a hotbed of misogyny just beneath the surface, eager to be unleashed.
In an article covering her surrender to police, blogTO included a number of gratuitous references to Zoia’s appearance, including that she wore a “black Moose Knuckles parka trimmed with white fur” and “heavy makeup.” BlogTO also chose to feature several selfies from Zoia’s Instagram account, one of her wearing a low-cut tank top and another of her in a semi-transparent red bodysuit.
A small sampling of comments on that article include: “Toss her in general population of a maximum security men's prison for a month,” “She is probably a ‘working girl’ in the ‘white light’ district,” “Stupid Bimbo. They should throw the BOOK and CHAIRS at her and deflate her too,” and “Fake hair. Fake boobs. Fake nails probably. Fake brains obviously.”
White nationalist and former Toronto mayoral candidate Faith Goldy tweeted: “Hands up if you knew Toronto Chair Girl was going to be a barely legal thot with an Instagram account laden with thot thotty thottery ?♀️?♀️?♀️.” (According to Urban Dictionary's top definition, a "thot is a hoe," with the plural being "thotties.") Goldy, as part of the far-right fringe movement, isn’t exactly a torchbearer of feminism, so her outrageous tweet comes as little surprise. What’s scary is that, when it comes to Chair Girl, large swaths of Torontonians seem to share her sentiments.
Then came the memes. Disturbingly, the most popular one depicts Zoia herself being tossed off a high-rise balcony. The Instagram account behind the meme posted the image with the caption, “Tag a friend that wants to see this happen to this waste yute for real.” BlogTO and Narcity both shared the meme in separate articles.
Obviously what Zoia did was dangerous, wrong, and illegal. She could have seriously injured or killed someone. However, her massive judgement lapse isn’t a license to spew hatred and toxic misogynist vitriol. The response to Chair Girl has been problematic on many levels. For starters, there’s the rampant objectification of her body parts and equating style choices like having blonde hair and wearing makeup with stupidity and vapidness. Makeup-shaming is the gold standard of sexist double standards: Women either wear too much makeup or are belittled and dismissed for not buying into society’s manufactured beauty ideals.
Then there’s the totally baseless speculation by many on social media and in comment sections that Zoia is an escort or prostitute. Not only is this an offensive twisted mix of stereotyping, slut-shaming, and policing women’s clothing choices, it wrongly implies that sex workers are inherently dumb, immoral, and reprehensible. This kind of thinking is one small step away from blaming rape victims for dressing in revealing clothing and exactly the sort of stigmatization that places sex workers at heightened risk for discrimination, abuse, and violence.
On the topic of violence, the fact that a meme depicting violence against women (some would say murdering a woman) is so popular in a supposedly progressive city like Toronto is unnerving. What’s even more alarming is that at least two mainstream media outlets chose to share the image with their readers for, according to Narcity’s post, “your enjoyment.”
It’s telling how, for many Canadians, feminist attitudes fly out the window as soon as there’s an excuse to do so. Treating women as equals when they adhere to societal standards, but objectifying, demeaning, and encouraging violence against them when they make a mistake is not feminism. It is regressive and dangerous. We simply do not vilify men who makes mistakes in the same manner, and it’s hard to imagine reactions would be the same if it were “Chair Boy” instead of Chair Girl.
The closest comparison we have is the Jays beer can guy, real name Ken Pagan, who threw a beer can into the outfield of the Rogers Centre during a Jays game. He, too, was arrested, and he lost his job. The incident and aftermath were widely covered by media, but absent was the myriad of paparazzi-style photos, personal images mined from his social media, and intense fascination with his appearance. There were no widespread gleeful memes or threats of violence. A number of Torontonians were even concerned the police fingered the wrong man. Ultimately, Pagan received a conditional discharge after his lawyer argued the public humiliation he suffered should be taken into account.
While it was presumed Pagan was humiliated by the public attention to his case, Zoia, as a young female who posts selfies on Instagram, is surmised to revel in it. Some social media commenters even accused her of orchestrating the entire incident as a publicity stunt. Many seem sure she’ll find a way to profit from the whole thing — once again reinforcing stereotypes about female vanity, untrustworthiness, and fame-seeking.
In reality, it’s the press and public heaping attention upon Zoia, whether she wants it or not. Globe and Mail reporter Robyn Doolitte called the media circus outside Toronto’s College Park Courthouse for Zoia’s bail hearing “downright Ghomeshian.” While Jian Ghomeshi was one of Canada’s biggest media stars and a household name with numerous accusations against him, Zoia is a previously unknown 19-year-old woman whose one-time crime didn’t physically harm anyone. It’s a stark reminder feminism still has a long way to go.