But when the aquarium recently snapped a picture of Abby lounging on the ground, the angle made her look more like a throw rug than a nimble sea creature. The aquarium decided to have some fun on Tuesday.
“Abby is a thicc girl,” the aquarium’s account tweeted along with the picture. “What an absolute unit."
The cuddly snap started burning up the Internet, with well over 17,000 likes and 4,000 retweets, as of early Thursday.
Then, the backlash started.
On Twitter, the aquarium was called out for describing Abby with language straight from memes originating in black culture and African American vernacular English (AAVE).
“I’m certain that @MontereyAq didn’t realize that they were basically comparing Black women to animals by using AAVE developed to talk about Black women’s bodies to describe an animal,” Chandra Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of particle physics and cosmology, wrote on Twitter.
The outrage reached such a pitch that the aquarium issued an apology on Wednesday.
“If our tweet alienated you, please know that we are deeply sorry, and that we offer our sincerest apologies,” the aquarium’s Twitter account stated. “In particular, several terms referenced originated from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and specifically reference Black women’s bodies. Using them in a sea otter meme without that background makes insinuations we never intended.”
Over the last year, every nook and cranny of culture and media have been raucous battlegrounds between differing interpretations. Where someone might see a prom dress, others might see cultural appropriation. What one viewer sees as a Super Bowl halftime performance, another might consider it an endorsement of police brutality. And one person’s body-positive magazine cover comes off to someone else as a promotion of unhealthy living.
Everything today is immediately catapulted into an ongoing debate — one about political correctness, out-modeled ways of behavior, microaggression and cultural appropriation.
And now, Abby, the (healthy-sized) sea otter, is the latest viral topic.
Criticism of the tweet seems mostly to be tied to the use of “thicc.” The phrase — slang for a curvaceous woman — does come from AAVE. “Absolute Unit,” however, is spun off a picture of a large British gentleman. “Chonk OH LAWD SHE COMIN,” stems partially from a cat joke.
“Organizations that are not Black run or specifically focused on Black audiences: don’t do things like this,” Prescod-Weinstein wrote. “@MontereyAq, this tweet contributes to a hostile environment for Black people, including Black scientists. AAVE isn’t a meme for white consumption.”
The criticism over the Abby picture falls into the debate over cultural appropriation, the colonial legacy of stripping symbols from one culture and reposing them in a way that’s unmindful of their origin. Over the last year, the charge has been leveled at numerous companies, publications and people.
In May, when Utah high school senior Keziah Daum decided to go to prom in a traditional Chinese dress, she was blasted online. “My culture is NOT your …. prom dress,” one critic tweeted. Another person wrote: “you just don’t wear it if ur not. chinese … it’s not something to play dress up with," according to The Washington Post.
Speaking with The Post, Daum explained she was not trying to be racist or discriminating. “It’s just a dress,” she said.
Vogue issued an apology in October after previewing a November photo spread featuring Kendall Jenner. The 23-year-old member of the Kardashian family, who have been frequently accused of cultural appropriation, was featured with teased-out hair, prompting some to complain it was an approximation of an Afro.
“If y’all wanted a model that didn’t look white y’all could’ve booked a girl of colour,” one critic wrote on Twitter, according to Page Six.
The magazine issued a statement explaining the image was a reference to big hair of the Edwardian style. “We apologize if it came across differently than intended, and we certainly did not mean to offend anyone by it.”
Last week, Canadian pharmacy chain Lawtons was forced to pull merchandise from its shelves after an insulted consumer took to social media. The woman noticed the stores sold totem poles featuring Canadian hockey teams, sparking a wider outrage. “These are in really bad taste. Akin to selling a crucifix with Jesus wearing a hockey jersey,” one person wrote.
The chain quickly responded.
“We want to sincerely apologize for this!” the Lawtons account replied. “We’re pulling this product from our stores immediately, our team is on it.”
The controversies have not been limited to issues involving race.
For its October issue, Cosmopolitan magazine featured plus-size model Tess Holliday on the cover. The image quickly ignited a firestorm when television personality Piers Morgan criticized the magazine’s choice. “Apparently we’re supposed to view it as a ‘huge step forward for body positivity,'” Morgan wrote on Instagram. “What a load of old baloney. This cover is just as dangerous & misguided as celebrating size zero models.”
Even events that are seemingly only tangentially linked to culture-war hot spots have a way of being eaten up in the storm. Pop-rock band Maroon 5 is rumored to be playing the Super Bowl in February. According to the New Yorker, the band historically has been friendly toward progressive causes.
Even so, a barrage of criticism has lapped Maroon 5 over the possibility of playing the event. Some wondered why a Los Angeles band of white musicians would play the Atlanta game, when the city has such a famous black music scene. Also, given the tensions between the league and players over police violence protests, a Super Bowl performance to some seems like an endorsement of the league’s position. An online petition has started asking the band to “Drop Out of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.”
It has over 75,000 signatures.
As Abby was churned up in viral controversy, she had both detractors and defenders. The Oakland Zoo found its own way of nodding approval, posting a picture of an intent looking sea otter below Abby.