Naming and ShamingWhy The Gorilla Glue Discourse Took Hold

Tessica Brown (Photo credit: Instagram/@im_d_ollady)

On February 3, Tessica Brown, a 40-year-old Louisiana woman, uploaded a now-infamous video to her TikTok account in which she explained that her hair had been stuck in the same hairstyle for more than a month. After running out of Göt2b Glued hairspray, Brown sought a replacement product that could hold her intricate do intact. She turned to Gorilla Glue, an industrial-grade Gorilla Glue spray, and that’s where her troubles began. An American brand popularized for its polyurethane adhesives, Gorilla Glue is best known for sealing woodwork and furniture fixes. Once applied to Brown’s hair, the product expanded and dried, locking her hair permanently into place. After a series of failed attempts to wash the water-resistant glue out of her hair, Brown turned to the internet for help—and was met with a world’s worth of suggestions.

As her video went viral—it has more than 5.2 million likes on TikTok—the public response to Brown’s hair gaffe inspired cultural discourse composed of cruelty, concern, and conjecture in equal measure. In some cases, writers and cultural critics compared Brown’s use of the industrial adhesive to the longer history of Black women’s hair politics and the trials of texturism. Many people encouraged Brown to profit financially from her circumstance, even going so far as to spread the rumor that she intended to sue the Gorilla Glue corporation and that she had (undisclosed) plans to turn her five seconds of fame into a lucrative business venture. Though Brown said she has no intention to take legal action or gain clout from this ordeal, public assumptions about Brown’s desire to profit from the incident overshadowed her own concerns and motivations, leading her to explicitly state the reason she chose to share her ordeal online. “Who in their right mind would say, ‘Oh well, let me just spray this in my head and become famous overnight?’ Never!…. Who would want them to do that? I needed somebody to tell me how to take this off, that’s all it was,” she told Entertainment Tonight.

Still, the public’s desire to either clock Brown as an opportunist or urge her to become one reveals how social media has primed us to see public humiliation as a means to an end. Social media fame has created notoriety and opportunities for individuals who have had both the luck and the misfortune of going viral during rather traumatic moments in their lives. With this media landscape in mind, those who read Brown’s case as yet another incident of social media humiliation and clout chasing may have, in fact, been reading the room: After all, capitalism, not unlike the glue that seized Brown’s hair, has a seemingly unbreakable hold on many of our political and personal imaginations, so it’s unsurprising that we mapped and projected so much on to Brown’s ordeal. In an effort to articulate the growing influence of capitalism on a culture consumed by celebrity, creativity, and cunning, Wired infamously dubbed 2018 “the year of the scammer,” a title which sought to encapsulate a period in which popular culture was filled with con artists, scammers, and grifters who managed to get over on a system that hoards wealth and resources. Given that we’re not too far removed from the year of the scammer, it’s telling that so many read Brown’s outcry as a ploy, splitting consensus between those who read her actions as foolish and those who read them as fruitful.

Noting the ways in which widespread social media use has trained many of us in the art of branding one’s self, Emily Beater wrote in a 2019 article for The New Statesman about the importance of self-branding within a precarious economy. “Self-branding outsources the responsibility of monitoring our behavior to our innermost selves,” Beater writes. In a society shaped by capitalism, surveillance, and neoliberal investments in individualism, monitoring and consumption are constant; self-branding merely allows us to shape how we will be monitored and how we wish to be consumed. This being said, the work of self-branding is often more communal than we acknowledge. Sometimes, it’s so communal that it may not even be consensual. Regardless of our intentions when posting online, online audiences determine the social capital we can accrue and how the content we share will be categorized by the masses.

Online consumption and popularity is overdetermined by a host of factors outside of our control and thus, social media’s alleged promise of democratic exchange and digital self-determination goes unrealized for the majority of users. Brown’s story reminds us that social media’s capacity for branding relies heavily on the communal work of naming and shaming, which gives virality its teeth. When Brown’s video went viral, her experience was expertly condensed to a single hashtag and name: “Gorilla Glue Girl,” and that virality kept Brown bound to the narrative as it evolved. The attention became so great that Gorilla Glue Corporation issued a statement on February 8 that read, in part, “This is a unique situation because this product is not indicated for use in or on hair as it is considered permanent.” The company’s statement only heightened the skepticism about Brown’s predicament, leading some people to replicate Brown’s use of Gorilla Glue simply to disprove her claims.

Tessica Brown’s story reminds us that social media’s capacity for branding relies heavily on the communal work of naming and shaming, which gives virality its teeth.

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In truth, the virality aided Brown in securing the medical resources and funding she may have otherwise been unable to receive. Concerned followers defended Brown online and researched how to remove the glue without causing further damage. One beauty writer, Darian Symoné Harvin, even dedicated a section of her Substack newsletter to updates on the Brown case. After gaining the attention and support of celebrities such as Chance the Rapper, as well as hair care help offers from celebrity stylist Neal Farinah, Brown started a GoFundMe and sought medical care. On February 12, Michael Obeng, a Ghanian American plastic surgeon and chemist performed a procedure that successfully removed the glue from Brown’s hair. He didn’t charge Brown—a mother of five without health insurance—for the $12,000 operation. Whether she desired fame or not, social media exposure enabled her to get what she originally desired in the first place: relief.

Now that the so-called Gorilla Glue saga has ended, we’re left to make sense of the discourse it spawned and the social glues that congealed amongst various camps. Just as, in the words of Obeng, “any compound can be broken down,” the same is true for the social elements that shape these kinds of internet trials. Social media compounds inequalities that plague our reality and obscure these differences through rituals of mass consumption. And though this technology has allowed us to create landscapes of digital proximity, the real geographic and demographic differences between various populations persist. As a result, we’re invited not only to reproduce ourselves as content, but to create content through the communal work of condemnation, judgement, and narrativization about people we’ve never met. By sharing her story on TikTok, Brown exchanged her anonymity for assistance. On her quest for aid, the public reminded her of all ways she might profit from publicizing her trauma. And as her story reminds us, in a capitalist society, the road to care is more tumultuous and taxing than it ever has to be.

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by Jordan McDonald
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Born in Washington D.C., Jordan McDonald is a writer, editor, and student from the DMV studying history and English at Dartmouth College.  Her essays, criticism, commentary, reviews, fiction, and poetry has been published in HuffPost, Artsy, The Offing, Africa is a Country, Bitch Media, Smithsonian Voices, Baltimore Sun, Teen Vogue, and more.