When news broke of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, State Senator Tiara Mack, Democrat of Rhode Island, decided to try a new way of raising awareness for abortion access: She created a TikTok account.
Drawing on her experience as a state senator who works directly with a local abortion fund, Ms. Mack, 28, made videos explaining how individuals can help fund abortions in Rhode Island and throughout the United States. Abortion remains legal in Rhode Island, and Gov. Daniel J. McKee recently signed an executive order to protect access to abortion in the state.
But Ms. Mack wanted to highlight the barriers to abortion access that still exist in Rhode Island, citing the impact of the Hyde Amendment — which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion — on low-income people seeking abortions. In a phone interview, Ms. Mack said that she joined TikTok to “create a larger conversation around body autonomy.”
Now, Ms. Mack finds her own body at the center of a whirlwind online debate and media coverage. On July 4, she posted a TikTok video of herself in a bikini at the beach. In the eight-second clip, she twerks upside down while doing a headstand on the sand. The clip ends with her facing the camera. “Vote Senator Mack,” she says with a smile.
When The New York Times tried to view Ms. Mack’s TikTok profile on Tuesday afternoon, the app displayed a message that read “Account banned.” In a text message, Ms. Mack said she was not given a warning beforehand and had not known that her account was down. On Tuesday evening, a representative for TikTok told The Times in an email that Ms. Mack’s account had been restored. The company did not comment on the reason for the apparent ban.
The twerking video quickly gained traction and has since racked up over 220,000 views and 3,000 comments. Some celebrated what they viewed as joyful self-expression. One TikTok user praised Ms. Mack, commenting, “If more politicians acted like they were normal people, I would feel more able to trust them.”
Others condemned the post. Tucker Carlson mocked Ms. Mack during his show on Fox News, and Lavern Spicer, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida, wrote on Twitter that the state senator had “disgraced herself and disgraced every Black woman running for public office.”
Ms. Mack said she had not anticipated that the video would go viral. But instead of shying away from the spotlight, she chose to embrace the momentum. She posted more videos on TikTok, wrote an article for Newsweek and started the Twitter campaign #TwerkFor to highlight the core tenets of her political platform. “I #TwerkFor joy, abortion justice, body autonomy, trans rights and intersex rights,” she wrote.
Ms. Mack is emphatic about her right to experience joy on social media. “I still get to be a nerd and watch anime, crochet, read fantasy novels and have a full and vibrant life outside of politics because joy is important,” she said. “We don’t give up our identities when we decide to serve. We’re real people.”
“You can lead with twerking — and still fundamentally change policies in your state,” she added.
Ms. Mack said her main goal was to inspire a new generation of community leaders who reject standards of professionalism, not to respond to critics from the opposite side of the political spectrum. “I’m unapologetically Black and queer,” Ms. Mack said. “I’ve never catered my message to folks who wish to detract from leadership that looks new and that is bold, vibrant and young.”
Olayemi Olurin, a public defender at the Legal Aid Society in New York City and a political commentator, posted a clip in which she addressed the backlash from conservatives. “A party that elected a president who 18 different women accused of sexual assault doesn’t get to express moral outrage over a twerk video,” Ms. Olurin wrote.
Ms. Mack has faced some criticism from within the Black community. “She isn’t helping to dispel stereotypes about black women,” one Twitter user wrote. “Some decorum is necessary.”
“If I’m setting back the race literally by existing and being joyful,” Ms. Mack told The Times, “that’s because white supremacy has already told their constituency that we don’t belong.”
Nadia Brown, a government professor and the director of the women’s and gender studies program at Georgetown University, has studied Black women state legislators for over a decade. Her book “Sister Style: The Politics of Appearance for Black Women Political Elites” is about how “Black women candidates and elected officials have to balance this very thin line of what Black communities think Black women should look like,” she said in a phone interview.
According to Dr. Brown, there is a history of some Black people using “respectability politics” to combat racism and sexism, which may explain some of the criticism directed at Ms. Mack’s TikTok video. “This was a politics of saying: ‘If we can outperform white middle-class standards, norms, behavior, look and dress, then you should treat me the way that you would treat any other woman that carried herself that way,’” she said.
“This was wholly a resistance tactic that starts after enslavement,” Dr. Brown said, “but it turns into this vicious cycle of Black women policing other Black people’s bodies and behavior.”
Ms. Mack said she would continue using her platform to promote a policy of “justice for all,” and said she hoped her #TwerkFor hashtag would take off on all social media networks.
“Now that people are talking about it,” Ms. Mack said, “might as well get them to twerk about it.”
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