Read: The perfect quarantine joke isn’t about quarantine
Though driven most obviously by situational humor, these TikToks pull in other mediums to create complex story lines within minute-long snippets. Thoughtfully curating music is also one of many ways that their creators gesture toward shared experiences or cultural touchstones that register more meaningfully with Black viewers. More often, these videos pull in film or TV references, giving visuals to a shared language in part by utilizing dialogue from cult classics. That specificity is one of their artistic strengths, and also makes them harder to replicate without knowledge of the works informing them. Intentionally or otherwise, that protects them from being co-opted on an app where non-Black users frequently go viral by decontextualizing Black cultural markers. (Such viral videos often riff on dances or music made by Black artists, and the media often covers “Gen Z slang” without indicating that most of these terms are rooted in African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.)
Of course, some TikToks play on comedic tropes that are familiar to wider audiences: In one video uploaded last Friday, for example, a young man assumes the role of Melania Trump and delivers a dramatic monologue to her off-camera husband. “Gettin’ mad at me ’cause you lost! All I asked you is where we goin’, that’s all!” he yells, face scrunched up into a withering pout as he swings the arm that isn’t holding on to a suitcase. “And you got a attitude—that’s why we in the predicament we in now!” The speech draws on conventional gendered humor about directionally challenged husbands. But the real key to the video is how it plays on the meaning of the word lost in a way that requires knowledge of AAVE to immediately grasp: This Melania isn’t just angry with her husband for having been defeated by Joe Biden; she’s also calling him “lost” in the more habitual, characteristic sense. He may know where he is—the White House, at least for now—but, as a person, he’s utterly adrift.
That exit soliloquy is one of many post-election offerings from young people on TikTok that satirize the president’s reaction to the election better than almost anything produced by mainstream comedy outlets such as Saturday Night Live. Applying such a quotidian lens to the marriage of the current president conveys his incompetence more effectively than sketches that cast him as a blubbering fool. Alec Baldwin’s years-long SNL portrayal of Trump as a “garrulous blowhard,” as my colleague David Sims described it, is hardly edgy. Similarly, the comedian Sarah Cooper’s viral imitations of the president simply repurpose his own speech. No matter how subversive it might be to see Cooper, a 42-year-old Jamaican American woman, lip-sync his ludicrous statements, ultimately the joke hinges on Trump himself being entertaining. But the best TikToks from young Black creators aren’t responding to Trump by treating him as an interesting political figure. (Gen Zers, as has been widely reported, have been disproportionately endangered by and disenchanted with his presidency.) Instead, these videos defuse the president with understated comedy that portrays him as the thing he’s most scared of being: an un-extraordinary loser.
The “Melania” TikTok featuring a “lost” Trump (which has spawned several re-creations) undercuts the president in part by suggesting that even his irritability is prosaic. His wife may seem like she’s rooting for his downfall, but how different does that really make him from the sitcom husbands of yore? The lens is even sharper when applied to real-life men. Renderings of Trump as a former tenant, ex-boyfriend, or ex-employee desperately looking for excuses to prolong his stay aren’t just amusing because they lighten the lingering psychic toll affecting those who’ve been targeted under his administration. These depictions also implicitly paint the president as the same kind of lazy, deadbeat, ineffectual male figure that he has stereotyped Black and Latino men as being throughout his entire public career.