This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the “What are those?” meme’s legacy. Read the other side of the story.
On June 14, 2015, Sergeant Sean Fenner laced up a brand new pair of bulky, black (objectively awful) work boots. Little did he know that the fashion faux pas, which he thought looked “pretty sharp,” would follow him for years to come.
Fenner is the unsuspecting star of the massively popular “What are those?” video, which was recently referenced in Marvel’s record-breaking superhero movie, “Black Panther.”
Originally filmed in Berkeley, California, in 2015, the famed video captures the moment an Instagrammer named Young Busco, aka Brandon Moore, approached a police officer, Sgt. Fenner, in the middle of arresting someone to comment on his particular choice of boots.
“Officer, I’ve got one question for you,” Busco declares from behind his camera phone. “What are thooose?” he bellows, as he zooms in on Fenner’s feet.
The video was later uploaded to Vine, and it took off from there, garnering millions of views and inspiring imitators far and wide. Even Michael Jordan was sucked into the meme’s popularity when a kid interrupted a question-and-answer session at his Flight School summer camp in August 2015, asking the NBA legend, yep, “What are those?”
In an interview following the premiere of “Black Panther,” Busco told HuffPost he can’t stand the meme now, but Fenner is reveling in the fact that he’s become “lightweight famous” because of it.
“[A kid] called me lightweight famous,” he explained in an interview this month, his first since the meme hit the internet. “So all around the police department, that’s what they say.”
He gets recognized all the time, he added.
“I go along with it, and I take photos with [people],” he said.
Now that “What are those?” is in “Black Panther” — an “iconic movie,” according to Fenner — his notoriety has only risen. And for that, he’s thankful.
“It’s gonna live forever. So it’s pretty cool,” he said.
The “What are those?” reference occurs early on in the film, as Shuri is showing her brother T’Challa around her lab, and constitutes one of the first big laughs in the movie. But, according to “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, it it serves a pragmatic purpose, too.
“The idea with Shuri is that she rarely leaves Wakanda,” Coogler told HuffPost. “She’s connected to the outside world through the internet, through youth culture on the internet.”
But for Fenner, the joke is much more than a minor plot point.
“For them to put it into ‘Black Panther,’ which right now is the first black superhero movie, the No. 1 grossing movie of 2018, and maybe as it’s going, of all time...” Fenner said, “for them to just go ahead and put this bead in there, it’s like it enshrined it in pop culture.”
These days, as the police officer contemplates retirement, Fenner said the “What are those?” video stands as the most memorable moment of his career. All in all, he was happy to finally answer the question on everyone’s minds: What exactly are those shoes?
Read our full interview below:
What’s it like being a meme?
I’m not from the social media era. When the meme came out, my son texted me and says, “Hey, Dad, do you know you’re a meme?” And my daughter goes to college so everyone on her college campus had already seen it before I saw it, and I just played along with it. I just thought it was fun. What happens when you’re a police [officer] and when we police, a lot of things we see every day are dark. To have a moment that was just fun ... I even went and put it on my license plate: “What are those?”
You’re kidding. You had “What are those?” on your license plate?
One of my friends said to me, “You should get the license plate ‘What are those?’” So I went ahead, put the little numbers in, and sure enough they had it, so I had that on my vehicle for a little.
When did you realize the meme was blowing up?
When the meme came out, I was still in my 40s, but all the guys that work for me, they’re in their 20s, and they live with social media as an anchor to them. It was almost daily that I would get, “What are those?” if I was in lineup, if I was in a restaurant locally. I worked from Richmond down to Berkeley when that meme came out, and everywhere I went, people would say, “What are those?” They were pointing at my boots. They wanted to take photos. If I did a career day, all the kids, when they found out I was the “What are those?” guy, they didn’t even want to ask me questions about policing. It was all about “What are those?”
And the boots. “Where did I get the boots from? Why did I wear those boots?”
So, what are those?
I have them boxed up, but I [had] just bought those shoes like a day before for work, because I like to keep a brand new pair of shoes. As soon as they get scuffed, I get a new pair. I’m a military guy, so I like to keep the boots shiny, and I got them from Work World. I don’t remember the exact name of them. I did, but I don’t now, because I’ve had so many pairs since then.
I can’t believe you just bought them.
Well, it’s funny, because I thought the shoes were pretty sharp. I’m an old guy, so you know the young people ― they wear all the new fashionable tennis shoes. Most of the officers that work for me, they wear really lightweight — they’re almost like sneakers or tennis shoes-type boots — so they could run. I’ve been in policing over 22 years, so when I came on, you’d wear a nice pair of rugged boots, because you never know what you were going to get into. I’ve been wearing those type of combat boots for the last 20 years.
Did you ever change your shoes?
No, no, I continued to wear them. It was funny, because what started out to be a little joke, a little slight, turned out to be [big] and for that first year [after the meme], it was like the most popular YouTube, Vine video of 2015.
Take us back. What happened that day?
I was responding to an officer who was attempting to take an intoxicated female into custody right at that corner of Adeline and Ashby. If you know that area, there are some steps and a ramp for handicap that go down into the Ashby BART station. She was sitting on the steps, and the officer had some dialogue with her, and she was not necessarily listening to him, didn’t necessarily go along with the demands that he was giving her. So a little crowd ensued, and so in this crowd ... we’re in the times of when everybody records, so everybody out there had their camera going.
You can see in the little meme video that we were walking the woman to the car, trying to get her in the car. I was just at the end of the car, just trying to keep the crowd back, because maybe there was a crowd of 10, 15, maybe 20 that were piping off and saying different things: “Why are you arresting her?” All the different things that go along with an arrest. The officer was putting the female in the car, and that’s when Young Busco came up to me and says, “Hey officer, I have one question for you,” and then he panned down to my shoes and said, “What are those?”
When he did that, what did you think?
I had to catch myself, because during that time period we had just went to a camera system, and so I was going to say something to him, and then I thought, “Oh, I have my camera on. I can’t say just anything that I want to say,” and so that was the look [you] got when you saw my face and my tongue was out of my mouth, and I looked like I was bedazzled. That instant moment that I was like, “Oh.”
Oh, wow, so have you seen the bodycam footage?
No, generally we look at the bodycam video when we’re writing our reports or we have some type of evidence or something we need to pull from it for our reports. But usually if it’s not a significant case ... I was there, like I said, just to approve the arrest.
Will you ever release the bodycam video?
I don’t know what happened with the lady that was arrested, but if she hasn’t had her case adjudicated, BART generally doesn’t release video.
[A representative for BART denied HuffPost’s request for the video’s release. Sorry, we tried.]
Do people recognize you?
I was just last year at the [Golden State Warriors] parade in downtown Oakland, and I was standing in a crowd of thousands of people me, and a lady looked at me and she said something to the group of friends that she was with, asking, “What are those?” And I said, “Are you talking to me, because you know I’m the ‘What are those?’ guy?” And she looked at me, and she said, “No way.” And she pulled [the video] up on her phone, and she looked at me and she looks at the phone and she’s like, “Oh my God.” So everybody in her group wanted to take selfies with me. It’s just cool being in the police department and getting such a bad shake all the time, then to have a fun memorable moment that has just struck pop culture.
Were you self-conscious of your shoes after that?
Oh, no. Like I said, I play along with it. The shoes that I wear are functional, and I’m from the era where you want to be ominous. You want to look like you can handle business, and the boots actually give you an inch-and-a-half lift, so I’m already 6-foot-1, so it makes me look like I’m 6-foot-2-and-a-half.
If you were a shoe, what shoe would you be?
I’d probably be an athletic shoe because I’m an athletic person, but I’m a functional person, so I believe in protecting yourself. You’re on your feet as a police officer for most of your day, so you want to have comfortable shoes. You want to have comfortable shoes, durable shoes, waterproof shoes, and those boots were all of that.
Describe your style in one word.
What’s your advice to others who’ve had “What are those?” said to them?
I say: just be true to yourself. Whatever is your style, just do you.