Jussie Smollett and How Victimhood Sells

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sabrina Bui
Staff Writer

Within weeks, Jussie Smollett went from successful TV actor to sympathetic victim of a hate crime to a possible convicted felon. Once the story came out, politicians and media outlets were quick to jump on; however, at this point, the Chicago Police Department has more or less confirmed the entire rouse was a hoax to further Smollett’s career.

The incident has become quite the “W” for conservatives, at least on social media, with President Trump’s tweet on the issue garnering more than 200,000 likes. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s undeniable that the case has received a lot of attention from both liberals and conservatives.

And that’s for a simple reason: in such a politically divided, racially tense time, a case like this boils down to one thing — clout. But clout-chasing and politics make for a terrible combination, and Smollett is a prime example of that. In an age that is fueled by attention and clicks, it’s become a way for people to survive, and in the right circumstances (not Smollett’s), it’s a beneficial tool.

As someone in the limelight, Jussie Smollett is acutely aware that clout tokens are a viable currency in today’s age. With a family history tied back to civil rights activism — Smollett’s mother worked with prominent members of the Black Panthers and other civil rights leaders — a large portion of Smollett’s image is based on his activism.

In a New York Times interview, Smollett’s sister stated, “It makes it hard to be just an actor and to sell your soul, because you have a conscience … [T]hat’s why I say no to projects, that’s why Jussie says no to projects, and that’s why we fight for the ones that we’re told ‘no’ to.”

In other words, Smollett has always been a fighter. That’s his brand. People love that type of story, and it appears Smollett does too. In his “Good Morning America” interview after he went public about the alleged attack, he claimed that people were coming after him because he “comes hard” after the current administration. He made it a point to talk about how if the attackers were other minority groups, there would be more support.

Looking at the interview and his behavior post-arrest, we see a man who made an orchestrated attempt to be seen as a great activist, or the poster child for what activism should look like. Smollett called himself the “gay Tupac” at a concert shortly after the alleged incident took place; he preached about how he wouldn’t allow this incident to define him.

People responded well to that because a story of victimhood is one that sells. In an age where power dynamics are being called out more than ever, a story about oppression or having the big guys come after the little ones makes for impactful news.

But alas, the whole situation was theatrical from the beginning. And while theatrics are great in “Empire,” they’re not great in real life. While Smollett’s story may have gotten him clout, it was at the expense of others. While people may circulate memes and use the case as a chance to further their political agenda, this is a loss for everyone across the board.

“As everything has gone down, it’s really upsetting to see someone try to take advantage of very heightened issues in our society and take advantage of something so emotional,” Leslie Garcia, a fourth-year political science and Middle Eastern studies major and president of UCSB Republicans, said in a phone interview with The Bottom Line. “It makes me angry that he would bring something to light that had happened and make other people question situations that truly did happen.”

It’s a case where we have let extremes take over and, ironically, allowed them to cloud our judgment. Yet, all we seem to talk about is how the case can help our side, our platform, our beliefs. So now we’re here: giving a man who faked his own hate crime the clout he always wanted because deep down, that’s all we really want to do.