Understanding Zola’s Empathy

Zolay Story NYMAG by Anna PulleyReading Anna Pulley’s, “The Zola Show and Why It Was Hard to Look Away” I am not only baffled by her conclusion but also angered. Pulley explores many angles of Zola’s twitter stripper-hoe narrative: social media responses, narrative style, sex-worker script, race, cultural desensitivity, story ownership and story veracity. She also acknowledges that, “we see depictions of sex workers of color (often tragic, often exploited — or living it up in a music video), but we rarely hear from them.” However, she concludes that though Zola’s narrative is compelling, it does not deserve praise and attention because it is missing empathy. Ending on such a sour note gives us more insight into Pulley than Zola.

In her synopsis of Zola’s 154 tweet story, Pulley misses the most salient point: Jess betrayed Zola. At every step of the story Zola notes the many ways in which Jess lied to her beginning in the car. Zola thought she was on a stripper trip not a trap (prostitution) trip.  After they left the strip club, Jess-at her pimp’s suggestion says she needs to trap because she didn’t make any money stripping. When Zola confronts Jess in the hotel room Jess says, “I didn’t wanna take this trip alone. Please don’t leave me. I would be so scared alone.” Jess trapped Zola in a web that could have led to her rape, entrance into a criminal life or death. Jess knowingly betrays Zola. Did she really ensnare Zola for companionship or for her pimp? In either case, is Jess the only victim in this narrative?

Though Pulley says, “she’s unapologetic, brassy, and infinitely retweetable… Zola explodes stereotypes and flips the sex-worker-as-martyr narrative on its head,” she does not recognize the harm that was done to Zola. She even mis-characterizes Zola’s agency.  Zola’s decision was not to trap even in the predicament Jess’ exploitation places her. She doesn’t want to trap, so she aids them in ways that will keep her as safe as possible. Had her actions not been profitable, there is little doubt Z would’ve dished out the same levels of violence on her as he had to Jess and Jarett. So when Zola says,“pussy is worth thousands” it isn’t about owning her sexual agency as Pulley states. Zola attempts to school Jess, giving her the knowledge she needs to assert her own agency, but as it is made clear in later tweets, Jess doesn’t have the skills or strength to assert her agency. In fact, Zola even says, “I pimped you not him” because Jess gives all of the money she earned to her pimp. There are no friends or trust in the game.

While Zola is no comic book hero, she is savvy enough to guard her person and interests. She took care of herself in ways that are familiar to her. Pulley doesn’t address any of this as she is more concerned with Jess as a victim than the ways in which Zola too is a victim. For Pulley, Zola’s narrative is questionable because it lacks empathy.

… I don’t begrudge Zola’s narrative chops. Perhaps the fact that we are talking about and thinking about the plights of marginalized women at all is reason enough for its celebration. But the praise and attention do give me pause, especially when Zola’s tale is missing a vital element of compelling storytelling: empathy.

Zola does leave Jess and her boyfriend arguing to go to the pool, accepts the $500 Z the pimp gives her, and worst of all (to Pulley) she tells this story, which is not hers alone to tell. This subject is difficult–to hear-watch-read. But the more difficult the story, the more necessary it is to tell it. Whether the story is true or not, Zola’s only misstep was in posting Jess’ image and name. This was Zola’s story to tell and Jess can tell hers too. Would Pulley have been more comfortable if Jess were telling this story? Does Zola’s story need to show empathy more than Jess’?

Zola understands this stripper-prostitution world, and she is always cautious but not smart enough to avoid it. She not only goes on a trip with people she does not know, but when the unthinkable happens, she does not leave. Though she is weary of Jess, she still helps her. On the car trip to Florida, she becomes anxious when she texts Jess, but realizes that the driver has her phone. She then has Jess follow her lead with Z, saying they did not make any money stripping, but Jess agrees to trap for Z. When she shows Jess how to make more money trapping, she is frustrated because Jess gives all the money to Z. At this point she realizes that Jess is too deep in the game for any help that she could provide. By the time Jess performs fellatio on Z in front of Jarrett to as Z says, ‘kill his manhood’ Zola knows that she can’t convince Jess to leave. However, when Jess is snatched into the room, Zola doesn’t abandon her, she gets Z who saves Jess. This is what empathy looks like in the sex-work world for the people in Zola’s story. This isn’t a high-end escort or a sex-worker asserting agency. This is down and dirty exploitation and this is what their empathy looks like. Zola has the ability to understand and share Jess’ feelings but she also has to take care of her own well-being.

Pulley accurately shows how we have responded to this story from the memes to the lack of outrage.  She even poses some rather weighty questions about coping mechanisms, story ownership and the overwhelming violence against women. However, instead of addressing these questions she focuses her attention on the value of Zola’s storytelling. Although Pulley characterized Zola’s style as, “… raucous narrative style, which is nonchalant, street-savvy, and blanketed in crying-from-laughter emoji,”  she refuses to applaud or embrace it because it lacks empathy. Her conclusion is flawed and disingenuous. A compelling story does not require empathy. Moreover, this story has empathy. Maybe the empathy is not familiar to Pulley, but it is there. Zola’s reactions and/or telling is filled with humor, authentic responses to horrifying events and above all self-preservation. It is disingenuous for Pulley to praise Zola’s ability to explode stereotypes and then be upset when the narrative does not fulfill her stereotypes, catch 22! Zola is not here for martyrdom or to save Jess. This is not a Hollywood version of sex work i.e. Pretty Woman. Like Matt Damon, Pulley talks of the marginalized, but when it is time to work with POC or accept them, the field goal miraculously moves. Had Pulley concluded that Zola’s story like James Frey‘s was ’embellished’ and thus tarnished, I would have accepted her premise. But to pull the empathy card as a justification in slamming this story is a cheap shot. I can’t argue the veracity of Zola’s story, but as fiction or non-fiction it is gripping and should be coupled with a book on the psychology of sex-work for those who question Zola’s empathy.



4 thoughts on “Understanding Zola’s Empathy

  1. This is so astute. You’ve really nailed it, that Pulley can’t recognize empathy in this situation because she can’t see past the end of her own nose– or in more literal terms, she is looking at this all in a very theoretical way, from her perspective as a white intellectual (full disclosure, this could be used to describe me too, but the difference between me and Pulley is that as a longtime drug user I’ve inhabited Zola’s world and know very well what the standard for empathy is there.) In a culture where a “real solid, stand-up, trustworthy individual” is one who’s never robbed you or anyone you know, empathy looks a little different.


  2. Pingback: Curated Ramblings

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