When you’re an author, you hear, You should write a book about this! whenever anything out of the ordinary happens to you. It’s been a constant refrain for the past few weeks, and my reply is just as repetitive: “I already did. It’s out in April.” “Girl Gone Viral” is the title of my next book, and in a surreal life-imitates-art twist, now the title of my life.
I’ve gone viral before. It usually lasts about 48 hours, we all have some fun, I mute the tweet and move on with my life. Sometimes it’ll pop up later as a meme on BuzzFeed, impressing my college-age siblings way more than my being a published author ever has.
What happened this February wasn’t that kind of viral. It was daughter of a former president weighing in on my love life on the “Today” show kind of viral.
Quick recap: The day before Valentine’s Day, I met a guy for coffee. You know when you’re not really feeling a first date, so you focus on the most insignificant and absurd detail about the encounter to amuse yourself ― a detail that you feel kind of represents the whole thing? For me, that detail was cake pops.
The next day, in the hopes of making people bummed by Valentine’s Day chuckle, I spent about 30 seconds composing my now infamous tweet and hit send.
If I could change anything about that tweet, it might be that I’d take an extra 10 seconds to make it clear that my facetious last line was a rhetorical question. Because what soon erupted was an international debate about dating etiquette.
My silly anecdote landed on outlets like HuffPost, Daily Mail, Yahoo News, and Fox News. Then the morning shows joined in, with full segments dedicated to The Tweet on “Today” with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager, “Strahan, Sara & Keke,” and “The Talk.”
At some point, after a few days, I think I realized that the discussion was no longer about me or about cake pops at all. The cake pops were a metaphor ― for kindness, perhaps, or those small signs of courtesy and thoughtfulness that you seek in a partner or friend, the little things you hold on to. At least she makes me coffee. At least he shared his dessert. At least she texts me every day. I actually didn’t mind being a vehicle to get people thinking about what to expect from each other. In my books and in my life, I often speak frankly about setting the bar high.
Given that these people who were weighing in knew nothing about me, even the negative reactions were kind of funny to me: that I was too sensitive (my exes will confirm that with a guy I’ve otherwise liked, I’ve ignored much bigger red flags than not bringing enough treats for the whole class) or that I was a selfish gold digger (I’m an overachiever ― if I were a gold digger, I wouldn’t be holding out for a dessert that costs a stack of quarters) or that I’m the reason modern dating is so hard (um, please ― blame dating apps before you blame me). It was eye-rolling stuff that was easy to mute.
For the most part, the attention left me bemused but not traumatized. Like many things, though, the fun and games were all over once the angry men got involved.
I don’t think you can be a woman of color on the internet and not deal with online harassment, and if you add in being a visible romance author, there’s another layer of terrible to deal with. This backlash, however ... it hit like a tsunami.
There seems to be a large corner of the internet made up of furious people who are looking for someone to blame, possibly because they’re not getting whatever it is they feel entitled to, and I became their public enemy of the week. I was threatened with sexual assault and told to kill myself. I got called ugly and fat, a slut and a whore. I changed my cute profile picture to something that didn’t show my body because they were screenshotting it with commentary. I spent days feverishly deleting comments and blocking and reporting.
Just leaving the internet all together isn’t an option for me. Social media is how I find readers and network, how I make lifelong friends in a job that’s frequently solitary, how I remind people I exist during the nine months to a year between my book releases. It is literally the source of my livelihood. All I could do was temporarily deactivate my profiles and my website and hope that the torch-waving mob would lose interest.
Even after I locked down my accounts and had friends monitoring social media for me, I was jumpy. The truth is, I don’t really consider myself a tough guy, despite my occasionally snarky mouth. My main goal on the internet and in life is simply to make my audience laugh in a world that is frequently unfunny. I’m a soft marshmallow.
“Why, out of all the things online, had this enraged corner of the internet decided to fixate on a tweet about cake pops?”
At one point, when I tweeted about how stressful this was, a big bald guy who was holding a gun in his profile pic sneered at me, Bitch, you can dish it out but not take it. And I thought, Yes. I can dish out making a silly joke about dessert etiquette and not take physical threats. Any rational mind should be able to see that those things aren’t the same at all, and that level of concentrated, irrational rage scared me even more. Like most people who read the news, I am acutely aware that irrationally angry people do irrational and angry things.
Why me? I wondered. Why, out of all the things online, had this enraged corner of the internet decided to fixate on a tweet about cake pops?
One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I traced some of the worst harassment back to one of the sources. It was a YouTube video created by a shouty red-faced man. FEMINIST BERATES MAN, the 10-minute video screamed.
I didn’t watch it out of principle ― I didn’t want to give it another view. The cheering comments on it and in other forums were enlightening, though. How can she be a feminist if she expects a man to buy her food on a date? commenters asked. She got what she deserved, I read. Feminists were finally learning what happens when you ask for equality!
I do identify as a feminist. It’s part of my brand, even in my bio. My readers know that when they open one of my books, they’ll get heroes and heroines who may be flawed, but won’t be punished or humiliated for those flaws. My characters make a space for each other to navigate a world that may not have ready spaces for them. They help each other achieve whatever it is they want.
That’s feminism, in an overly simplified nutshell, to me. It means everyone, regardless of gender, can have the same opportunities to achieve their goals. It has nothing to do with treating someone to a snack. Or opening doors. Or giving someone your coat when they’re cold. Those are nice human things to do for people we care about. As a woman, I have done all those things for people I like and love, both romantically and platonically.
Reading those comments, I got it. I don’t think it was the cake pops or the date that made this corner of the internet mad. It was the fact that a woman said something on a global platform that a lot of people found funny and relatable, and in the most jokey of ways, that post happened to criticize a man’s behavior.
That’s what that bitter, angry corner is so bitter and angry about. They crowed about my getting my imagined comeuppance at the hands of a hero who denied me a cake pop when really they’re terrified at the prospect of a world where they might get their comeuppance. They’re scared that a group that has historically been able to skate by with little criticism might be held accountable, judged, made fun of or, yes, even berated for thoughtless behavior, no matter how big or small.
This is still going on? people ask me when I tiredly post another screenshot from a harassing email. This is still about cake pops?
Yes, because remember the cake pops are a metaphor ― a metaphor for kindness to some people and a metaphor for frightening change to others. And to the latter people, I’m not a person. I’m an evil witch to be fought.
There is a part in my upcoming novel, “Girl Gone Viral,” where the heroine wonders whether the person responsible for her miserable experience with viral fame considered the consequences or her feelings at all. I wrote the book and I left the question unanswered then, but now I know they did not.
If our life were limited only to the people in a cafe, maybe we would feel like we owed more to each other, even as strangers. I think social media, with its ability to put millions of people in our pockets, has created a culture where it’s easy to see people not as people but as characters for our entertainment. And when you’re a character, people don’t take the care with you that they might with someone they consider a real live human.
“Social media ... has created a culture where it’s easy to see people not as people but as characters for our entertainment. And when you’re a character, people don’t take the care with you that they might with someone they consider a real live human.”
Yikes, that’s depressing. What kind of rom-com author am I?
The kind who has hope, despite the ugly, vile words directed at me for the past few weeks, that we can flip this whole narrative around. We can individually decide that we do actually owe each other everything, despite being strangers, despite having millions of humans in our pockets, despite the existence of a population apparently willing to die on the hill of eating dozens of cake pops in front of their empty-handed companions like serial killers (that’s a joke).
If enough of us do that, perhaps that bitter, angry corner of the internet will shrink over time, unable to defend a world where they can behave badly with no consequences. Perhaps we’ll be more thoughtful on our first dates. Perhaps the next time some woman goes viral over something as trivial as cake on a stick, she won’t be the target of so much rage.
I never heard from Sir Cake Pops again. After that mutual ghosting, and with technology being what it is, it took me about 20 minutes, tops, to set up a date with another guy. That one went great, good enough for a callback. We decided on a movie for our second date (in case you’re wondering, I bought our tickets, I am truly the wooooooorst at gold-digging). I was running errands that day and I remembered that he’d mentioned he loved gummy bears. He laughed when I pulled the contraband candy furtively out of my purse in the theater, and then casually handed me the package of peach ring gummies — my favorite — that he’d snuck in for me.
The cake pops are a metaphor. It’s up to us to decide what they mean and what we do with them. I say we share.
Alisha Rai is an author and attorney whose novels have been named Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, NPR, Reader’s Digest, Amazon, Entertainment Weekly, Kirkus, Cosmopolitan and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her new book, “Girl Gone Viral,” is out on April 21. To find out more about her books or to sign up for her newsletter, visit www.alisharai.com.