The Bullied Boy and the Milkshake Duck
The phrase Milkshake Duck comes from a famous Tweet from Ben Ward, the brilliant Australian cartoonist behind the online comic One Giant Hand, that reads, “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”
Like Harris Wittels’ Humblebrag and my own Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it’s a phrase that quickly became almost annoyingly ubiquitous because it so adroitly nails a fairly widespread phenomenon, in this case someone, preferably non-famous, winning the public’s adoration, and then almost immediately being exposed as having beliefs that are problematic, if not flat-out racist, sexist and homophobic.
Kenneth Bone was a quintessential Milkshake Duck. He won our hearts with his unusual fashion sense, memorable name and novel interest in our political system, then was almost immediately exposed as a pervy dude with a long and unfortunate history on the internet the public can access.
More recently, a boy named Keaton Jones became instantly famous when a heartbreaking video of him discussing the bullying he’s experienced went viral. Celebrities and athletes quickly raced to Keaton’s defense, offering to lavish him with gifts and trips as a way of compensating, karmically, for all of the abuse that Jones had suffered at the hands of pint-sized sadists.
I did not watch the video even though I had been bullied in elementary school and high school (giant shocker there, I know). Or perhaps more accurately, I did not watch the video because I had been bullied as a child. My emotions when it comes to online stuff can get feverishly hot; it embarrasses me how angry I get from hate-reading even a few Tweets or Facebook posts from Trump worshippers.
Sure enough, in true Milkshake Duck form, the enormous, seemingly culture-wide outpouring of support for Keaton Jones was quickly followed by reports that Jones’ mother was, like Milkshake Duck, was racist. In her Facebook posts, Keaton’s mom posed defiantly and proudly with a gun and Confederate flags while saying awful things about folks like Colin Kaepernik. In a Facebook post shared around the world, Jones wrote, “Dear butt hurt Americans, If you aren’t bleeding, no bones are sticking out & you can breathe, STOP crying! For the love, some folks clearly never picked a switch. And before y’all start talking to me about metaphorical, emotional, financial or historical blood & brokenness, Don’t. Join a group.”
That in itself is alarming; what’s even more disconcerting are reports that Jones might have been bullied for being racist himself. I have no fucking idea what the truth is, and in the days since Jones’ video went viral, the truth has somehow gotten even swampier and more confusing. There were reports that Jones had apologized for his mother’s racism, which seems like an awfully precocious gesture for an eleven year old to make.
Sure enough, the Instagram account that delivered the "apology" has subsequently been deleted. A GoFundMe campaign for Keaton raised over 55,000 dollars for him and his family but has consequently been paused. A seemingly clear-cut case of a sad, bullied little boy crying out for compassion in a cold world is now filled with troubling questions.
The Milkshake Duck phenomenon speaks to the best and the worst in us. It speaks to our desire to help people, to use our collective power to right wrongs and help people who are suffering.
We want stories to be as simple and emotional as they appear to be. When we see a child in visceral pain, speaking out against the cruelty and sadism of the world and his peers, we intuitively want to help that boy. We want to ease that pain and let him know that the world consists of more than just bullying and hardship. We want to do that for ourselves as well as him, because we also want to believe that the world is not fundamentally cruel and cold.
We want to believe. We want to believe the best about people, so we choose to ignore that the world is complicated and dark, and few things are ever as simple as they seem. This isn’t just true of people like Kenneth Bone and Keaton Jones. It’s true of famous, powerful figures like Louis CK and Al Franken as well. We want to believe that these people are who they profess to be, and who we want them to be, and it is heartbreaking when that turns out not to be the case.
It is a beautiful thing to see a child suffering and want to help them, to want to ease that pain. The problem with the world and our society isn’t that we’re too kind and loving. It’s closer to the opposite. But the urge to lift people up is the flip side of our urge to tear them down. The answer is not to be less loving or less compassionate but to be more careful and more cautious, because things are seldom as simple or clear-cut as we imagine, but that’s no reason to tune out our better angels and give in to our cynicism.
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