We were all disturbed by the ice-cream licker – the infamous woman who licked a tub of ice cream and put it back in the shop fridge.
Copycat acts followed. Pretty soon, people were swishing mouthwash, drinking tea and spitting it back into the bottles. All in the name of clout or online fame.
While it’s easy to brush off these ‘pranks’ as disgusting, asinine acts, it’s curious why so many young people are taking part.
Of course, there’s the obvious answer – for purely anarchistic reasons; a YOLO (you only live once) mentality symptomatic of youth culture.
Those kinds of frustrations manifest in strange ways, even into something as silly as licking an ice cream and putting it back.
Could young folks taking part in these viral trends be making social and political commentary with their defiant tactics?
There’s clearly the viral, online outrage factor — people chasing social media fame by doing more and more outrageous things. In this sense, it seems apolitical.
But if we include the context in which this happens then we might get a richer picture.
A lot of these incidents are happening in large retail chain stores like Walmart.
Whether a subconscious effect or an explicitly thought out choice, these pranks could be read as anti-capitalist protest raging against big corporations.
Lukas Slothuus, who is writing his PhD on protest and dissent, tells Metro.co.uk that multiple things seem to be going on at once here.
‘Most of these incidents are happening in Walmart- the epitome of American consumerism,’ he explains.
‘In this sense, there’s something political going on. Most people I’ve spoken to would distinguish sharply between the morality of stealing from Tesco or Starbucks versus stealing from your local independent shop.
‘I know plenty of people who think it’s fully morally justified to steal from large corporations, particularly those who don’t pay their tax. And I think that’s actually a fairly easy position to defend from both a philosophical and a practical standpoint.
‘Not all defacing of public goods is equal.’
you bitches with no oral hygiene could take a hint pic.twitter.com/IaMOC1caid
— Bameron Nicole Smith (@bameronkaii) July 3, 2019
Whether or not the perpetrators intend on making political commentary, this can be a byproduct of their actions.
The ice-cream licker – a young black woman – was met with calls for her arrest. Before she was identified as a 17-year-old, Texas police said she could face 20 years in prison on a felony food tampering charge.
Many social media users drew contrasts on punitive attitudes towards white and non-white transgressors.
They noted that in comparison, Oxford University student Lavinia Woodward famously stabbed her boyfriend and was spared prison, which some argue was a result of white privilege.
The black teenager who licked ice cream was immediately met with a barrage of abusive comments. Bameron Nicole Smith, a trans person who spit into mouthwash, was inundated with transphobic comments. Gay Youtuber Larz was the target of homophobic abuse after he scooped out some ice cream with his hand.
Lenise Martin III, who was said to have copied the original ice cream licker, spent two nights in jail despite having CCTV proof he had purchased the items.
Would accused white people have faced the same severe response?
By virtue of existing as a minority and daring to transgress, these figures become political, even if they don’t intend to.
I love ice cream pic.twitter.com/CWA1aNBmJU
— LARZ (@GAYSHAWNMENDES) July 3, 2019
One of the people wrongly implicated in the trend is Shiloh Greaves, the Arizona tea spitter. The 25-year-old is a wrestler who had purchased the item before spitting in it for a wrestling promo.
He filmed his video months before the ice cream licker and yet was faced with a barrage of abuse when people thought he was part of the movement.
Shiloh, a biracial black man, tells Metro.co.uk that he thinks our political and social climate influences these behaviours.
‘It leads to people questioning their own self-worth,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to be a celebrity now. Everyone wants to be rich. Nobody cares about changing the world anymore. Everyone just wants that higher social status.’
He notes a double standard in outrage to minority delinquents in comparison to white pranksters.
‘I had a lot of hate mail saying the n-word,’ Shiloh says.
‘There are people who have done much worse things on camera than I did and nobody calls for them to be locked up for 20 years. Nobody called for them to be murdered.
‘I wasn’t given that benefit. Even after I gave my explanation saying it was for theatre and was cleared by LAPD, I still wasn’t given that benefit.’
The video making the rounds of Shiloh Greaves is a clip from a promo he did last year on ‘Big T’ Thomas Moore for a promotion in the midwest. Here is the full video: pic.twitter.com/GI2U0cdSuL
— SoCal UNCENSORED (@socaluncensored) July 9, 2019
Civil disobedience in supermarkets is nothing new. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is all about campaigning against goods produced on occupied lands in Israel.
The ice cream licking trend doesn’t have the same clearly articulated political message as BDS.
Instead, it achieves a message through entertainment (outrageousness is still entertaining).
Writer Jamie Bartlett tells Metro.co.uk that in this way politics and entertainment are becoming indistinguishable.
‘It makes it very hard to disentangle because they follow the same logic of outrage and being on the same platform, politics and entertainment are becoming indistinguishable.
‘In the noisy environment we live in standing out is harder, therefore, people need to do ever more outrageous things to get seen and heard. I.e Donald Trump and people who film themselves planing on top of skyscrapers.’
Jamie adds that it’s not surprising that activism is starting to take this form.
‘It is inevitable that people’s mode of political protest changes. Professional politics itself is becoming far more performative, presentational, and memeable.’
Perhaps the people engaging in the action find it difficult to place the blame for the discontent they feel today.
This is just their way of raging against the system.
‘Sometimes people don’t have the kind of political language available to them that means they can make demands,’ adds Research Fellow Lukas.
‘So it could be that these people are voicing a more general discontent with the world and society they live in. Sometimes such action happens in an unruly, even irrational way.
‘Political action is spontaneous, arises from some inner feeling of being pissed off but without being able to place the blame on anyone in particular.
‘In the Middle Ages, you could take a swing at poisoning the king if you didn’t like your situation. But today it’s harder to identify who’s responsible for all the misery and suffering we witness.’
Think of that political misery like mental trauma that manifests in the body as physical ailments – it has to surface somehow.
Throw in the role models young people are presented with today, who earn online success through outrage, and it makes sense that a choice method for rebellion is making a bizarre attack on public items – all recorded on camera and shared online.
The more interactive or involved your viewers are, the more viral it goes – even if that means inspiring anger.
People watching are led to wonder whether they’ve consumed any of the defaced goods. Has any of the ice cream we’ve eaten contained someone else’s saliva?
Whatever justifications, if any, can be made for these pranksters, it’s worth looking at what’s going on behind the decision to lick some ice cream.
The YOLO nihilism portrayed in these clips speaks to a general malaise of our time. We have mounting frustrations in a world that doesn’t make sense.
We’re living in a peculiar moment in history that breeds confusion and discontent.
When we don’t have the power or the political language to voice our existential angst, no wonder young people are reacting to the nonsensical state of the world by rebelling in bizarre ways – licking ice cream included.