What we’re talking about when we talk about ‘shovel girl’


A still from the viral “shovel girl” video. (Break.com)

“Shovel girl” is, in some respects, the most perfect human meme. She is pretty and outrageous and foul-mouthed, like only the sleaziest reality stars can be. She is endlessly remixable, in the way of the more resistant Internet tropes. And she conveniently has neither a beginning nor an end: We don’t immediately know how this girl ended up in a yard in Ohio, or what happened after another teen hurled a shovel at her head. This makes her a character both remote, dehumanized and unsympathetic — she is just those six seconds, over and over.

The gasp. The shovel throw. The fall to the pavement. Repeat!

If all of this sounds like Greek to you, you have somehow missed out on one of Vine’s breakout memes: a 14-year-old girl so viral she’s spawned at least a dozen knock-off Twitter accounts, some 3,000 YouTube videos and a police investigation in Miami County, Ohio — where, it turns out, the original Vine went down.

In that  original Vine, we only see a shovel flying and hitting a girl in the head. In an uncut eight-minute video (warning: crude language), currently making the YouTube and Break.com rounds, there’s more backstory: The two young ladies argue over some boy in an unkempt yard with a cracked sidewalk and a loose clothesline; they agree to fight about it (rules: no scratching or hair-pulling; both participants must stand); they engage in a couple rounds of semi-comical slapping; and finally, one girl gets fed up and throws a shovel at the other. Voila! Even as she lays crying on the asphalt, “shovel girl” is born.

(“Shovel girl” will later go to the hospital, complaining of loss of hearing in one ear, and be diagnosed with a concussion. She will also report to a juvenile detention center for “an unrelated incident.” Does this still sound like comedy — or something much different?)

Whatever else it may be, the “shovel girl” video is everywhere. It’s not that difficult to see why — aside from the pure spectacle of the Vine, it has an amazing narrative. Reality show producers couldn’t script this stuff any better. Before the fight begins, the girls go back to a chicken coop to play with the shovel-thrower’s chickens. During the fight they pause to fix their hair, adjust their leggings and talk about the shovel-thrower’s cat, named Mittens.

The absurd juxtaposition of vulgar brutishness and normal teenage shenanigans is at once comical and disturbing. It also provides a sort of next-level intrigue for fans who saw the six-second Vine, projected all kinds of narratives on it (why are the girls fighting? Who are they? What are they like?) and then Googled for more detail. “You’ve seen the Vine sensation — now here’s the full story!”

To cap it off, it all fits, almost too perfectly, into a genre of exploitative reality spectacle we’ve all seen before: the uncultured-teen-as-entertainment. (Think MTV’s Buckwild, which earned plenty of blowback before the death of one of its stars prompted its early cancellation, or even “Honey Boo Boo” when she gets a little older.) There are few groups easier to dehumanize or condescend to than poor, rural, unsophisticated kids with regional accents and bad attitudes. They deserve our laughter and condescension — because they’re just dumb hillbillies, right? And even if that isn’t how we frame the video consciously, it’s certainly how we justify our mirth, unconsciously.

“We’re over here looking at this b****’s chickens,” laughs the videographer in the video, “and they’re about to get in a [expletive] fight!”

In real life, though, the shovel-thrower told local news she’s been bullied since she was in the fourth grade. Police are investigating whether they can charge her with a felony. The “shovel girl,” meanwhile, sustained a concussion, can’t hear in one ear and may need surgery. She has said she has “anger issues”; one of her ex-boyfriends purportedly told a gossip blog that she fights and parties all the time. She is — think about this — only 14.

Is that comedy, or something else? Online, it’s just the perfect meme.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 12