Tumblr's newest Queen is Bernice, the superhumanly strong star of South Beach Tow, an awful "reality" TV show on TruTV produced by Jennifer Lopez. It follows the Tremont Tow Truck company's adventures in Miami, but really it's about Bernice getting into fights with people who don't want to pay the fee for getting towed. Bernice is beloved for setting people straight, and the moment that appears to have turned Bernice into a viral Tumblr star is shown in the GIF above, when she ripped a car door off its hinges. South Beach Tow is a show that manages to be entertaining — in the trashy way reality TV shows are — while also exploiting racist stereotypes. And Tumblr, even the users who value things like standing up to the patriarchy and oppression, is eating it up.
South Beach Tow has been on since 2011 (the episodes are staged, dramatic re-enactments of real events) but the Bernice fandom just recently blew up. She's been embraced in the language of Tumblr—she's everyone's spirit animal, she's been endorsed as American Horror Story's next Supreme, and she's a religion.
Basically, Bernice is a meme, in the sense that certain personalities can suddenly become massively popular for embodying certain emotions or character traits. A recent meme star was Chloe, the toddler who looked disturbed by her sister's hyperventilating reaction to a surprise Disneyland trip. Since the video was posted in September, Chloe's face has been photoshopped onto everything from Justin Bieber's mug shots to scenes from American Horror Story (she's also a Tumblr nomination for Supreme). Bernice has been embraced by the same sort of fandom obsession, but whereas Chloe is a cute little girl being cute, Bernice is a grown adult, and her portrayal on the show is more complex.
Basically, Tumblr loves Bernice because she doesn't take shit from anyone, which is the sort of person Tumblr users hope to be in real life. Fandom Tumblr likes people with sass and attitude, people who stand up to oppression and rudeness. As Hazy-Haley noted on Tumblr, "There is one tool that is necessary for dismantling the patriarchy — Bernice." In one episode of South Beach Tow, Bernice asks a woman to put out her cigarette. Instead of listening to her, the woman blows her smoke into Bernice's face. And, as if fulfilling the fantasy of every socially awkward and overly polite person on the Internet, Bernice puts that cigarette out with a fire extinguisher. It's the Django Unchained of reality TV shows.
But that doesn't excuse the fact that South Beach Tow is an awful show, one that perpetuates awful stereotypes and caricatures. Take for example this clip, where Bernice tries to tow a truck from a fraternity's Pimps and Hos soiree.
Tumblr likes to use trigger warnings, so here's a trigger warning: this clip contains violence against women, racism, and is probably the dumbest thing you'll see all day. After calling Bernice a "sir" multiple times, one frat brother tells Bernice that she probably doesn't even know what a soiree is, while a sorority girl informs her, "this is a Pimps and Hos party, and not some ghetto bitch party." And then, the racist party-goers at the racist party break the window of Bernice's truck while she's inside. On the one hand it's nice to see the racist party goers get their comeuppance, but it's only after Bernice loses her temper, starts shouting and cursing and throws a chair.
South Beach Tow is a fake, staged show. The events are based on "real" events, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Bernice actually walked into a Pimps and Hos party. The producers are free to construct parts of the show, and shape the narrative around Bernice, and the narrative they're going with is the "Sapphire" caricature — like the Mammy but more aggressive. If you've seen one of Tyler Perry's Madea movies then you get the idea (also, sorry). Here's how Dr. Carolyn West, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, defined the "Sapphire" caricature in an essay on black women stereotypes. See if it sounds familiar (emphasis added):
During slavery...the traditional standards of womanhood were not applied to Black women. They were characterized as strong, masculine workhorses ... or as aggressive women.
The Sapphire image implies that Black women's anger, their justifiable response to societal injustice, is dangerous or funny. The Sapphire image has to the potential to influence how anger is expressed and experienced. Although some Black women perceive this image as powerful, they may be using an angry, self-protective posture to shield themselves from discrimination, victimization and disappointment.
West isn't saying that black women shouldn't be angry. In fact, the danger is that women will be so afraid of falling into the Sapphire stereotype that they won't get angry, even when the situation warrants it. "What can be done? I believe that we need fewer tongue-in-cheek, humorous accounts of Black women's anger, and more research should be focused on Black women's daily experiences
with anger, which is often fueled by racism and lack of power, control, and respect," West writes. In that context, the blatant racism Pimps and Hos party guests, and Bernice's violent reaction, doesn't seem so lighthearted. And yet that's how it's treated. "You can totally tell this is all staged bc the 'frat guys' are terrible actors but its still funny," soduhpressed wrote of the video. "SHE DOES NOT TAKE ANY SHIT AND IT IS FABULOUS," wrote paraprosexian. It's hard to celebrate the revenge fantasy aspect of her beating up the frat guys without also acknowledging that her violent reaction (sparked by grown men attacking a woman) is a negative depiction of black female disenfranchisement. But the Internet is managing.