Marcella Zoia, seen here leaving a Toronto court house, has pleaded guilty to a charge of mischief endangering life after throwing a chair from a balcony of a high-rise condo. .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

What Freud tells us about Chair Girl – and ourselves

The case of Marcella Zoia — or “Chair Girl,” as she’s been dubbed by Toronto media — has captured the attention of the city for a year now. Each time Zoia makes a court appearance, the news cycle fills with pictures and videos of her walking to and from court, and #chairgirl trends on social media.

Journalists dissect every detail of her appearance and demeanour: the size of her sunglasses, the colour of her nails, her choice of outfit, the quantity and quality of her makeup and whether her lips are held in a “smirk” or “pout” are all considered newsworthy.

The viral video that led to the creation of #chairgirl.

On Feb. 7, Justice Mara Greene heard submissions on how the 20-year-old should be sentenced for throwing a chair off the 45th floor of a downtown Toronto condo building in February 2019 — an action that was captured on a Snapchat video that quickly “went viral” and was also shown repeatedly by mainstream media. Zoia has plead guilty to one charge of mischief endangering life, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

The prosecution recommended four to six months jail time, to be followed by 240 hours of community service and two years probation with a host of conditions including, among others, alcohol counselling and a ban on social media posting.

Zoia’s lawyer requested the judge consider a suspended sentence. This means that she would be given a term of probation with conditions attached and a criminal record. Were Zoia to breach her probation order, not only could she be sentenced to jail for her original crime, but she may incur additional charges.

Titillation and vengefulness

Social media has provided the public with an outlet for both its titillation and its vengefulness. Overwhelmingly, online calls for Zoia to face severe punishment have been accompanied with disdainful references to her gender and sexuality.

She has been referred to as “plastic-lipped, partying, and scantily clad,” a “dumb bitch,” “barely legal thot,” “fame whore,” “airhead,” “afterhours call-girl,” “as fake as her fake plastic boobs,” on so on. Her likeness even became a popular 2019 Halloween costume in Toronto.

Every time Marcella Zoia makes a court appearance, both mainstream and social media dissect every detail of her appearance and demeanour. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The groundswell of public opinion on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and elsewhere has called to #LockHerUp, “throw the chair at her,” shave her head and trim her nails, tar and feather her, remove her makeup, put her in a men’s jail, deport her “back to Brazil” and otherwise “make an example” of her.

Strikingly, it is not only male commentators indulging in misogyny directed at Zoia; women are a vocal part of the chorus as well. Toronto Sun columnist Michele Mandel, for example, recently demanded that Zoia “turns off her cellphone, stops preening and selfieing her puckered duck lips, and takes her ill-earned notoriety directly to jail.”

Punish and purify

Unravelling our obsession with Chair Girl can tell us a lot about the deeper social preoccupations of the day.

As Sigmund Freud taught, the social compulsion to both punish and purify is a mechanism that allows us to repress our deepest desires. Viewed through this lens, the figure of Chair Girl inspires both Freudian awe and aversion; she has come to embody both the “sacred” and the “unclean.”

In popular imagination, Zoia enjoys two markers of high, nearly untouchable, status: pornographied, elusive sex appeal and online fame (and, by proxy, the power and wealth that we assume attend these attributes).

In other words, the public is titillated by Chair Girl because it is dedicated to her punishment — and vice versa.

For some men, she represents “Stacy,” the “hyperfeminine, attractive, and unattainable” archetype popularized by the online incel movement, thus triggering a primitive desire to possess the female. For some women, she activates the longing to become the enchanting, prized object of sexual desire. Chair Girl has ascended to the throne of fame, having been anointed by Drake himself when he put her in his War video.

Chair Girl, however, is not a sustainable idol. She is reviled not because of her impulsive, foolish crime, but because of how it unexpectedly propelled her to instant internet stardom. In other words, people “love to hate” Zoia not because of what she actually did, but because of what they perceive her to have undeservedly gained.

Instagram poses not a crime

To be clear, in punishing Zoia, the criminal law is supposed to address itself to the conduct that makes up the offence: here, putting lives at risk by throwing a chair off a building. Her behaviour in the aftermath of her offence — whether posing in sexually provocative ways on Instagram or appearing in music videos — is simply not something for which the law is entitled to punish her.

Crown attorney Heather Keating acknowledged that posting the video to Snapchat was not a crime — Zoia maintains she did not post the video herself, and that she deleted it when she became aware it had been posted to her Snapchat account. Nevertheless, Keating was at pains to argue that merely “allowing” herself to be recorded at the time of the offence made Zoia responsible for “engineering the possibility” that the video of her crime could go viral.

Keating asserted that it was “ridiculous” for Zoia to claim she was unaware the video had been posted, and suggested that it is somehow in the nature of how we use our phones today that what gets recorded is intended for public consumption.

For the Crown, Zoia’s simple knowledge that she was being recorded was enough to increase the severity of her offence — and the appropriate sentence. A jail sentence here, Keating argued, would deter future fame-seekers from committing criminal acts on the calculation that online notoriety might be “worth” the cost of criminal sanction.

However, regardless of whether we accept Zoia’s account in its entirety, she simply could not have reasonably anticipated that the video would have exploded. In fact, with over 210 million active Snapchat users and 2.1 million Snaps created per minute (that’s over three billion per day) finding a needle in a haystack would be a surer bet than posting a video in the hopes that it would go viral.

Request for harsh punishment linked to fame

In this case, the Crown’s request for harsh punishment is a cipher for popular contempt. In arguing that jail time is required in order to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system, Keating pressed hard on the fact that Zoia “went from anonymity to fame” and “turned her notoriety into a brand.” But no evidence was presented to indicate Zoia materially benefited from her fame; in fact, her lawyer argued that her notoriety had caused her to lose educational and job opportunities.

Social media transformed Zoia into Chair Girl, but this transformation doesn’t aggravate her crime. Her improbable rise to fame does, however, activate envy and a certain social fear of contagion.

That Zoia should be venerated by Instagram “likes” after having done nothing in particular to deserve this attention — the prosecution pointed out that Zoia was immature, makes choices against her own best interest and is a poor student — is something that many cannot tolerate in a society in which we all secretly desire fame and fortune.

The public demand to harshly punish Zoia tells us far more about society’s innermost desires and insecurities than it does her crime. The misogynistic and hateful rhetoric around her case is so severe because it reflects the fear that if society doesn’t cast Zoia out by jailing her, it might be forced to look inward, thus recognising in itself those parts of Chair Girl that it seeks to emulate.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 100,700 academics and researchers from 3,219 institutions.

Register now