When we meet her in Revelations 17, “the great whore” whose name is “Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth,” she’s dressed to kill. “Arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls,” she holds “a golden cup in her hand full of…the filthiness of her fornication,” and rides “a scarlet-colored beast” with “seven heads and ten horns.” She is “that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth”; the waters on which she sits are “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.”
Here is one of our earliest icons of whoredom: draped in luxury, crusted with opulence, drunk on the filth brimming from her cup, balanced uneasily upon those whom she’s conquered—those who, we are told, will in turn hate, abandon, consume, and set her ablaze. Though she is described and named at elaborate length, the Whore of Babylon is silent.
The figure of the Whore teeters between a position of power and a condition of abjection. We find this ambivalence in her etymology: the word whore may come from a root meaning “one who desires” or another meaning “sin, filth”; there’s still uncertainty in our diction today about whether a ho has sex for pleasure, for money, or for the pleasure of money. There also lurks a suspicion that the Whore likes her job, making her a rare example of the unalienated worker.
Perhaps for this reason, her relationship to capital remains murky. Is she a canny producer or a rapacious consumer? A thing to be used or an experience to be exchanged? A fetishized commodity or a figure for capitalism itself? “Prostitution is only the specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer,” Marx writes. Elsewhere, with a nod to Shakespeare, he describes money as “the common whore, the common pimp of peoples and nations.” Is she common? What is the Whore’s class position? She is traditionally the lowest in society, but can be catapulted to the top in an instant. She still magnetizes resentment and desire from everyone.
Yes, feminist analysis has had a lot to say about the endless whorification of women, the relentless misogyny that reduces us to objects, instruments, things to be used. And we’ve seen political movements over the centuries to abolish prostitution, make it safer, decriminalize it, unionize it, obviate it. But the Whore herself is still neglected as a political actor. Wherever she appears, she’s pressed into service as a rhetorical or symbolic conceit.
It is this insistent mediation of whoredom that interests me, the way she seems always to be a medium between things, or for something else. The historian Herodotus, in the fifth century BCE, claimed that the first prostitutes lived in “houses of heaven” along the Tigris and Euphrates, where they sold their bodies as a fertility rite, a holy marriage, or a sex ritual—whatever the case, as a channel to the divine. In the secular imagination, too, she’s the means through which others attain ecstasy, apostasy, luxury, sublimity, infamy, reality.
The Whore is betwixt: an intermediary in intercourse, within the madding crowd, among worldly goods. She’s capital (“She’s capital!”), the golden idol, mammon’s gal, the classic blonde with a heart of gold, the golden mean—the proportional ideal, the perfect fuck, the “means” meaning the money.
And curiously enough, we find that the Whore reappears as a pivotal figure (or a figural pivot) when it comes to the medium of art, too: the painting, the play, the novel, the movies, the Internet.
Consider, for instance, this entrance onto the stage of the heroine of Émile Zola’s Nana. It feels apocalyptic:
A shiver went round the house. Nana was naked, flaunting her nakedness with a cool audacity, sure of the sovereign power of her flesh. She was wearing nothing but a veil of gauze; and her round shoulders, her Amazon breasts, the rosy points of which stood up as stiff and straight as spears, her broad hips, which swayed to and fro voluptuously, her thighs—the thighs of a buxom blonde—her whole body, in fact, could be divined, indeed clearly discerned, in all its foamlike whiteness, beneath the filmy fabric. This was Venus rising from the waves…. All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.
Zola first introduced Nana in an earlier novel in his twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, L’Assommoir (1877), as the daughter of an alcoholic couple; she runs off with an older businessman, then becomes a prostitute.* Nana, published three years later, is the account of her zigzagging and ruinous ascent from streetwalker to courtesan during the last three years of the Second Empire. At the start of the novel she is eighteen, has had a child out of wedlock, and has just been cast in a production of La Blonde Vénus. When she transforms into her true (nude) form as the goddess of love, her true (blue) art becomes clear: the drama is merely an occasion to expose her body.
The Whore oscillates between fleshly person and work of art. Critics have noted that Zola’s descriptions of Nana mimic the erotic painting, the pornographic broadsheet, and the pin-up photograph. Even as a celebrated figure, the Whore circulates in a recursive loop among men. Zola wrote an essay in praise of Édouard Manet’s famous 1863 painting Olympia, which features a nude white woman gazing at the viewer, accompanied by a clothed black maid whose mere presence signals sensuality; Manet, inspired by Nana’s brief appearance in L’Assommoir, painted a hypothetical portrait of Zola’s character in 1877; this painting then inspired Zola’s later description of her body in Nana, in particular its association with a “primitive” sexuality.
Onstage, Nana’s heat, “the madness of her sex,” as if from a “rutting beast,” infects the theater:
The whole house seemed to be swaying, seized by a fit of giddiness in its fatigue and excitement, and possessed by those drowsy midnight urges which fumble between the sheets. And Nana, in front of this fascinated audience, these fifteen hundred human beings crowded together…,remained victorious by virtue of her marble flesh, and that sex of hers which was powerful enough to destroy this whole assembly and remain unaffected in return.
The scene plays on the legendary indifference of the Whore—who reputedly does not discriminate between acts, between body parts, between men—while raising the vexing and thrilling proposition of one woman having sex with thousands, at once.
Zola is the master of the crowd: its psychology, its shape, its intensities of sensation, the way it sounds like “the twittering of a host of talkative sparrows at the close of day.” The crowd morphs like a murmuration across his work: frenzied shoppers in Au Bonheur des dames (1883), manic brokers in L’Argent (1891), rioting miners in Germinal (1885)—swarms, throngs, motley arrays throughout.
Nana, like the locomotive or the market in other novels, is an engine of multiplication. After her performance, suitors line up in an endless queue outside her door: “a whole mob of men, jabbing at the ivory button, one after another.” The rapturous crowd later reappears at a climactic scene where Nana holds court after a chestnut horse named for her (“Who’s riding Nana?”…“It’s Price”) wins a race. There is always a violent, hateful edge to this vertiginous attention; Nana incites in peoples and multitudes and eventually nations the “dread of Woman, of the Beast of the Scriptures, a lewd creature of the jungle.”
Beyond the Old Testament, Zola relied for his portrayal of Nana on a long literary tradition from Chaucer’s Wyf of Bathe to eighteenth-century novels like Daniel Defoe’s Roxana and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses. Zola also borrowed curse words and slang from his encounters on the streets of Paris, scandals from the gossip rags, and colorful details—like an ornate gold “throne” of a bed—from the life of the courtesan Valtesse de la Bigne, the author of a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, Isola (1876). (Valtesse found the fictional character that Zola based on her to be “a vulgar whore, stupid, rude!”)
To wit, Nana is far from the original Whore story. But Zola’s novel crystallizes its archetypal characters, displays them like jewels on velvet. There’s Nana the Whore, young, buxom, and blonde; the fellow whore/best friend/queer lover (Satin); the facilitating maidservant (“Zoé, a brunette who wore her hair in little plaits, had a long thin face…livid and blemished, with a flat nose, thick lips, and black eyes”); the matronly Madam Tricon, in competition with the pimp-like figures who seduce and brutalize the Whore, like the actor Fontan. There’s a range of johns: the man of the arts who pulls strings for her (Bordenave); the writer who documents her (Fauchery); the scorned lover driven to suicide (Georges); the self-debasing zealot (Comte Muffat, a religious devotee as intoxicated by a chorus girl’s “forgotten chamber pot” as by Nana’s beauty). And we find a fine-grained parsing of sex workers that turns on the explicitness of either the sex or the money involved: grisette, cocotte, courtisane, maîtresse, demimondaine.
As Nana moves from patron to patron, we move through a series of houses that map onto her social ascent. She fills them with bric-a-brac, indulging in the “vulgar splendour” of
a stained glass window, whose pink and yellow panes suggested the warm pallor of human flesh…at the foot of which a Negro in carved wood held out a silver tray full of visiting cards, and four white marble women with bare breasts raised lamps in their uplifted hands.
In her homes, the foreign and the familiar, the haute and the gauche intermingle freely.
Her basest and finest commodity is, of course, her body:
One of Nana’s pleasures consisted of undressing in front of the mirror on her wardrobe door, which reflected her from head to foot. She used to take off all her clothes and then stand stark naked, gazing at her reflection and oblivious of everything else.
Nana squeezes her breasts, rubs her cheeks over her shoulders, kisses the skin near her armpit, “laughing at the other Nana who was likewise kissing herself in the mirror.” This narcissistic self-consumption before the looking glass is the self-fulfillment of Nana’s aspirations as a young flower girl who “used to dream in front of shop-windows in the arcades.”
One night, the Comte Muffat, delirious with jealousy that Nana has chosen an abusive actor over him, wanders these arcades. He pauses before a “window full of knick-knacks, where he [gazes]…at an array of notebooks and cigar-cases, all of which had the same blue swallow stamped on one corner,” then fixes on a “line of little round windows above the shops.” This hints at the hirondelles, the women who work the windows in the arcades’ upper stories, which Walter Benjamin likens to “choir lofts in which the angels that men call ‘swallows’ are nesting.” In The Arcades Project, Benjamin argues that “love for the prostitute is the apotheosis of empathy with the commodity” and that prostitution reveals “the dialectical function of money”: it “buys pleasure and, at the same time, becomes the expression of shame.”
Eventually, Nana brings shame and ruin to nearly all of France:
She alone was left standing, amid the accumulated riches of her mansion, while a host of men lay stricken at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes.
This doom is wrought by the corruption that runs in her family’s blood but also by capitalism, which Nana both enacts and becomes: she is compared to an “aqueduct…which had cost millions of francs and ten years of struggle”; to a “port under construction, with hundreds of men sweating in the sun,…building a wall on which workmen were occasionally crushed into a bloody pulp”; and to a “palatial edifice of royal splendour which had been paid for by a single material—sugar.”
This insinuation of colonialism trails Nana even when she leaves town in disgrace. Rumor has it that either she has “conquered the heart of the Viceroy, and was reigning, in the innermost precincts of a palace, over two hundred slaves,” or she has “ruined herself with a huge Negro, satisfying a filthy passion which had left her without a penny to her name, wallowing in the crapulous debauchery of Cairo.”
She returns to Paris only to die in a hotel of a “pox” caught from her son. Outside, crowds take to the streets at the news that France has declared war on Prussia, a harbinger of the Second Empire’s collapse, symbolized by Nana’s decadent decay:
What lay on the pillow was a charnel-house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh. The pustules had invaded the whole face, so that one pock touched the next…. And around this grotesque and horrible mask of death, the hair, the beautiful hair, still blazed like sunlight and flowed in a stream of gold. Venus was decomposing.
Even as a heap of rot, Nana is Venus, a stream of gold, a myth.
Nana could never conjure such a myth herself. She’s a lousy actress, a worse singer, a hapless decorator; it goes without saying that, unlike Valtesse de la Bigne, Nana could not write (and would not read) Zola’s Nana. The figure of the Whore is never a creator; she can only be the medium with which one creates.
Janicza Bravo’s 2021 film Zola begins with a voiceover: “You wanna hear a story about why me and this bitch fell out? It’s kinda long but it’s full of suspense.” We are watching two young women, one black, one white, standing in a mirrored room, gazing at their reflections as they apply their makeup, which, like the skimpy clothes and jewelry they wear, is shiny and bright. This could be the arcades, where beauties gaze at beauties in glass, where the body’s pleasures are for sale. The mirrors also stand in for the big screen we’re watching and the handheld ones we’re probably scrolling through at the same time. The film is based on a series of tweets posted by A’Ziah “Zola” King on October 27, 2015, about a disastrous trip she took to Florida with another stripper.
The opening presents these young women as doubles: friends, foes, foils. We flash back to how they first met: at a Hooters-esque restaurant, where Zola, a black eighteen-year-old waitress played by a laconic Taylour Paige, is serving Stefani, a white twenty-one-year-old customer played by a campy Riley Keough. Stefani compliments Zola’s “perfect titties,” and they suss each other out:
“It’s been a minute.”
“Okay bitch. Me too.”
They go out together—a giggly, jiggly sequence that clarifies that “dance” means “strip” and that “bitch” is meant affectionately—which prompts Stefani to invite Zola to go to Florida. Zola replies, “Damn—bitch—we just met and you already tryin’ to take ho trips together?,” but agrees, only to discover that they will be accompanied by Stefani’s white “boyfriend” Derrek (a mealy-mouthed, measly Nicholas Braun) and her black “roommate,” who is initially called X and who turns out to be her pimp (a pattern-clad, swaggering Colman Domingo).
The effect of Olympia’s maid lives on. Stefani, the white sex worker, is thin and blonde and all-American, but her voice and manner—she combs her baby hairs, twerks her ass, raps along to hip-hop—are infused with blackness. This is meant to reverse some stereotypes. At one point on the road trip, Stefani exaggeratedly mocks a black stripper for being “nasty” and “dirty,” when we’ve just seen Stefani herself being exactly that during a pit stop. In the gas station bathroom, the camera floats above the stalls (the chamber pot again), dividing the screen between Stefani’s stall (she sits; she doesn’t wipe; her urine is an unhealthy egg-yolk yellow) and Zola’s (she hovers; she asks for some toilet paper; her urine barely tinges the water). The white woman, not the black one, is the “dirty ho.”
By the end of the film, Stefani has had sex with dozens of men, and we’re led to believe that this includes X, her black pimp. Under his smooth American charm rumbles a sinister fierceness marked as “African,” which is to say, “savage.” His Nigerian accent first erupts when he threatens Zola, booming, “Get your ass back in this car! I know where you live. I know where you work.” He clears his throat wetly as he pisses—the stream loud, the door open. He shouts at Stefani, he kisses her head. The imagery is unmistakable and centuries old: the brute and the maiden.
Indeed, the film could be set to the old beats of the Whore story we saw in Nana: Stefani is the classic blonde Whore, airheaded and two-faced, monstrous and beautiful, associated with the lower classes but eventually barred from true solidarity with them. In Derrek, she has an overwrought lover whose jealousy drives him to attempt suicide; in Zola, a bestie/madam/maid who brokers and authorizes sex work; in X, a brooding pimp whom she both fears and clings to. As in Nana, the action rises as Stefani’s fees do. This is staged through architecture: the road-trippers move from a seedy motel to a decent hotel to a fancy five-star one, and finally end up at X’s immense glass-and-marble Tampa Bay condo, which overlooks a turquoise pool and the ocean beyond.
Zola is at its best when it lets this archetypal plot lie and plays with its filmic form instead. Its aesthetic, like other films produced by A24, has an air of gentrified graffiti, a palette like a neon bruise. But Bravo beautifully contains the sun-shot pastels of Florida in the manner of a David Hockney painting, and the film deftly references its origins on social media. With a camera-shutter sound, the screen freezes into a snapshot that shrinks into a corner, like on an iPhone; with a cha-ching of change, hearts flash or rise up the screen, like in an Instagram Live; with clickety-clicks and emoji bursts, texts are typed into being; the date and time appear at the top of the screen in a thin white font, then vanish—both with a click; and we occasionally hear the Twitter whistle, as the screenplay explains, “to pay homage when a line in the script is identical to one of @_zolarmoon’s tweets.”
The centerpiece of Zola—its climax, so to speak—is an extended sequence in the second hotel. Stefani changes into an innocent-schoolgirl outfit straight out of Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” video. A bearded middle-aged white man arrives. As soon as Zola opens the door, he complains: “I ordered a white chick.” Zola rolls her eyes, negotiates the transaction, then turns away from the bed as her voiceover deadpans, “They start fucking, it was gross.” When the sex is over and Zola hears how little money he has paid, she’s aghast: “Pussy is worth thousands, bitch.” She takes a new picture of Stefani to advertise her services on BackPage, and raises the prices. Soon, as in Nana, the men are practically lined up at the door. For some reason (aren’t we in Florida?), they’re all white.
The film highlights the johns’ interchangeability in their turns with Stefani: they take off their clothes; they manipulate her body; they climax. These shots appear in horizontal rows so we see a sliding blazon of male chests, stomachs, crotches. We seem to be scrolling through them as if we’re on Tinder or Instagram, bestowing exploding heart emojis over pecs and dicks. The grotesquerie of the images is meant to interrupt what pleasure the scene might otherwise prompt. It’s, again, a reversal—men rather than women divided into parts, turned into a series.
X, having noted and recompensed Zola for leaning in as a madam, forces her to accompany Stefani on a house call. In the words of the screenplay: “The door opens. At it a Latino man in boxers, we’ll call him JUAN. Further in and somewhat obscured another Latino man, we’ll call him ALSO JUAN.” The interior has the trappings of “Latinidad”: “Old black and white photos of mostly women and farm life. Presumably their Abuela in the old country.” More brown men come out of the woodwork. They request a gang-bang. “We savages, Miss,” one says. The others utter in unison, “We ain’t proper.” Zola panics but Stefani kneels in a pile of crumpled dollar bills and puts her finger in her mouth. The men surround her, stand over her: an unmistakable tableau from hardcore porn.
Just then, as if the film is balking at what it’s gotten itself into, Stefani breaks the fourth wall. We shift into her account of the road trip, based on a rant the original Stefani (a woman named Jessica) published on Reddit after King’s tweets went viral. Keough, as Stefani, narrates a stilted account of the events, painting herself as respectable and Zola in hyperbolic caricature as “very ratchet, very black.” In the dramatization, Zola wears a trash bag, her uncombed afro sprinkled with hay. This excursion to the other side of the story is meant to highlight by contrast the film’s counterintuitive depiction of Zola as “elegant”—“proper,” you might say—and of Stefani as “gross.”
But zoom out and another racial pattern comes into focus. The white men in the film are sometimes racist, but mostly pitiable or laughable; the brown men, the undifferentiated “Juans,” are dangerous and deviant; the black men aren’t johns but pimps, and they’re the ones we see committing assault. With the help of (per the screenplay) “A BIG BLACK DUDE,” a rival pimp with dark skin and a gold grill kidnaps Stefani and beats her unconscious, then holds a gun to Zola’s head while he puts his fingers inside her. The only black women other than Zola are her knucklehead coworker and a gaggle of thicc strippers played by extras, who parody a preshow prayer circle, asking God to “send us niggas with culture, good credit, and a big dick.” It’s almost uncanny how the film’s effortful reversal of stereotypes always seems to intensify them.
Audience expectations about race can be manipulated to cutting, hilarious effect—ideally when artists press on the promiscuity and contradictions of stereotypes about everyone, rather than recapitulating only white people’s misconceptions of nonwhite people as dirty, savage, poor, violent, lewd, etc. This focus on the pathologies of whiteness is a theme in Bravo’s short films; it’s also not surprising to see such fetishism in a film cowritten with Jeremy O. Harris, who gained notoriety for his ostentatiously “edgy” drama Slave Play (2018) and is presumably responsible for cues like “a black thigh meets a white torso.” Bravo’s camera sometimes dwells moodily, giving us ominous pans through the car window: an American flag, a big white cross, and—Bravo’s jarring insertion—a distantly viewed scene of police brutality. Maybe it’s foolish to ask that an A24 movie’s politics go beyond stricken pointing.
It’s a shame that Zola shrinks from giving us the real Zola, though. The film infantilizes this woman, victimizes her, tames her with a sulky respectability that feels frankly incongruous with the lines it borrows from King’s tweets. Zola says she’s a “full nude typa bitch,” but we see her mostly covered up, her dancing more Alvin Ailey than P-Valley. Zola knows that “pussy is worth thousands,” and yet the film strongly implies that she doesn’t turn tricks or “trap,” as she puts it. King’s ribald story only makes sense if you know that she has done sex work, as she freely and proudly admits.
By being coy about this, the film ends up inadvertently making Stefani the more intriguing of the two women. Even King agrees. “She’s probably my favorite character in the film,” she has said. Bravo circles the blonde’s body with a heady, disavowed mix of desire and disgust, pity and disdain. Meanwhile, the titular black heroine seems merely ornamental—beautiful but extraneous—instrumental only in the sense that she makes herself useful, the black sidekick/savior/server, not the star. Stefani is the center of the action, while Zola is merely the frame.
This may be a difference between media forms. King’s tweets use what literary critics call “dual narration”: Zola in the present describes and comments on Zola in the past. But in the film, we mostly have access to the character as a player in the moment, not as a narrator; some of her best lines are dampened into reactive dialogue. In a sense, adaptation mutes her. Bravo recounts how she explained the role to Paige: “It is sort of a more silent film character, you are a watcher.” It’s true. It’s hard to imagine the Zola of the film telling this raunchy, rambling tale in the form of 148 tweets.
Or more: A’Ziah “Zola” King actually wrote four versions of the series of tweets that came to be known widely as “#TheStory.” The filmmakers who adapted them tend to use another name:
It was called #TheThotessy, and what we really liked about that was that it put it in conversation with like, the beginnings of Western literature, it put it in conversation with Homer…. We didn’t want to be above our source material, we wanted to look at it as though it was above us…. We took all of the imagination and care and heart that we would put into a beloved piece of literature that you read in school into this beloved piece of literature we all read on our phones.
Creating this genre of “Twitterature,” so to speak, requires that Bravo and Harris harp on a far less common and rather precious portmanteau of Homer’s The Odyssey and the slang word thot (an acronym for “that ho over there”). The filmmakers even got A24 to publish a print book of the tweets, with hipstery fonts and a shimmery purple cover, to “legitimiz[e] things for people,” as King puts it.
But Twitter, its digital medium, is crucial to #TheStory—and vice versa. It is said that the popularity of her 148 tweets prompted the social media network to develop the “threading” function that has transformed the grammar of the platform. (King’s Twitter bio still says, “I invented threads.”)
King doesn’t come across as a noble or superhuman hero in her tweets, and she doesn’t really have a quest. #TheStory resonates less with the epic than with the folktale, in particular the One Thousand and One Nights, whose heroine Scheherazade, with her sister Dunyazad, must duck rape and murder through wit and storytelling skills. Their art is to convert the erotic potential of their bodies into narrative promise. King’s opening tactic is as old as the folktale itself—or the world’s oldest profession. You ask a question: “Y’all wanna hear a story about how me & this bitch here fell out????????” Then you drag out the answer: “It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
The folktale happily incorporates other genres: romance tragedy, comedy, poetry, satire, the picaresque, even erotica (as in the subtly titled “Ali with the Large Member” from the One Thousand and One Nights). These are sometimes nested, the thread connecting them not one hero but the tellers themselves, who masterfully choreograph narrative techniques—cliffhangers, innuendo, unreliability—to enthrall the reader. Or rather, the readers. The frame, and the codex, are just an excuse to gather together some tales that folks have long been telling together. It’s a fundamentally communal form.
This is also how I would describe Twitter. As Roxane Gay puts it in her foreword to the published version of #TheStory, “The platform is a cacophonous bazaar…. It is endless pageantry.” King describes discovering “that live interaction, that essence of storytelling,” when she was sending her tweets, some of which went viral on their own, and attributes it to “this moment in time” on Twitter: “I don’t know how that could ever be captured again…that essence of a live theater moment.”
This essence of a sociality is why Twitter appeals to black people, so much so that there’s a subset of the platform with its own proper noun (Black Twitter). It is a striking fact, one that most analyses of the Internet willfully ignore, that black people disproportionately use social media. The artist Aria Dean cites a 2015 Pew survey finding that “nearly half of black internet users use Instagram, as opposed to less than a quarter of white users. Twitter is more evenly distributed but still mostly minority-driven.” Memes, the critic Lauren Michele Jackson argues, “gravitate towards a Black way of speaking…latch onto Black cultural modes of improvisation.”
Zola’s tweets themselves are unquestionably strung through with blackness. Some of this is simply Black English, which the book of #TheStory displays for us in all its glory: eye dialect (wanna, wit, ima, cus, naw, dis, dawg, aiight); dropped verbs (this story long, we all talking, this fool gone); distinctive tense aspect modality (I had went, he done promoted me); postpositive intensifiers (old ass big ass, nice ass, dead ass, sorry ass); rhythmic repetition (I feel it I feel it, ok ok ok); and nominal slurs (bitch, nigga, ho). Most delightful to me are King’s idiomatic words (raggedy, bae) and phrases, some classic (who’s all going, dont even trip), others blessed with her own blinguistic inventiveness (vibing over our hoism, Im in the back on mute). While she doesn’t hesitate to use a high register (verbatim, bipolar, livid), Internet vernacular, acronyms, and punctuation crackle through her tweets, dragging #TheStory to the very edge of phonic recognition (oooommmmgggggg). And from the tweets’ opening question to “Bear with me. It’s almost over” to “(PAY ATTENTION HERE),” we find directive asides to the audience.
Toni Morrison traces these elements of black aesthetics in her 1984 essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation”: “The affective and participatory relationship between the artist or the speaker and the audience…is of primary importance. To make the story appear oral, meandering, effortless, spoken.” #TheStory also has a particular tone. After the pimp fucks the white girl in front of everybody, her boyfriend says, “i wanna go home,” and Zola tweets: “😂😭😂💀😭😂 I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it.” This small series of emojis for laughing, weeping, and “dead” (i.e., “I died laughing”) encapsulates the irony Ralph Ellison finds in the “near-tragic, near-comic” tone of the blues, which he defines as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” King’s tweet-chronicle is a new techno-strain of this tragicomic black lyricism.
This kind of irony is built into the position of the black writer, a paradox inaugurated by the slave narrative, which is conditioned on a seeming impossibility: I am writing a story about a condition that forcibly prohibits literacy. From the start, people questioned King’s authority and authorship. She shrugs off those who doubt or diminish her story: “People…just don’t wanna believe black women.”
Like Nana, King shamelessly bodies forth her sexuality onstage; unlike Nana, she puts it into words—online. This “Zola” is literally self-made. While Émile got the name from his Italian father (it means “mound of earth”), A’Ziah King chose it for herself—not for any high-minded literary reason but, as she explained when I asked her on Twitter, “Bcus I needed a stage name & bcus I liked it. I made it up. I wrote it & it was pretty.”
With the Internet, the Whore has found her medium at last. The Whore of Babylon’s “peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues”; the crowds in Nana that sound like “the twittering of a host of talkative sparrows”; the arcade windows filled with knickknacks, “all stamped with the same blue swallow,” like the hirondelles in their eaves—these persons and things that so love to swarm around the Whore are online now. Text, image, video, and GIF gather in a hybrid space quite like the theater, an everyday carnival that juggles hierarchies and norms, and whose manifold ephemerality—virality, interactivity, im- provisation, transience, relativity—allows the Whore to keep dancing.
If the Whore has always been a medium, #TheStory is radical enough to give us an actual whore’s meditation on that medium. Zola’s Nana, and Bravo and Harris’s Zola, gaze upon a body mirrored in the glass. But King turns her mind upon that body, specifically upon its material conditions. It’s telling how often she talks about sex work as work in tweets and interviews:
It’s a job, it’s hard work. We don’t all come from the same type of background, we are not all from the hood, or looking to be rescued or saved from something. Some of us, like myself, just are confident in our sexuality and expressing it that way and we like to make money.
At the same time, she stresses that the film shows a “much darker reality,” one “much more dramatic and violent” than her own experience: “I was never assaulted or touched or, you know, preyed upon in that way.” She emphasizes that “sex work and sex trafficking are two completely different conversations…. People mesh the two together. There’s one huge difference and that’s consent.” King isn’t interested in judging or idealizing whoredom. She is interested in being protected and getting paid as a sex worker, alongside other sex workers.
She wants the same thing for artists, too:
When it comes to black writers and black creatives and black women, I just want them…to share their stories…and claim agency over their voice. So many people will come to me, like…I can’t believe you got compensated for your story, and it’s like, why is that so rare?
Last January, King called out the Independent Spirit Awards on Twitter for neither nominating her as a writer nor inviting her to their ceremony. But when you go to @_zolarmoon’s Twitter page these days, you’ll mostly find her advertising her OnlyFans page, sometimes with the tagline “Watch my porn so I can pay my rent. Thanks️❤️🔥😘.”