My 2-year-old daughter Claudia cannot articulate r’s or l’s properly and falls asleep sucking on the ear of a putrid stuffed sheep. She’s usually easygoing by toddler standards, except in the mornings when she demands to strip off all her clothes and don nothing but a fitted dinosaur sheet. (“It’s not a sheet!” she screams. “It’s a sheet-dress! I wear my sheet-dress!”) Somehow, over the course of a few strange days last spring, this unassuming little person became the star of the Internet news cycle.
It was precisely her determination to transform inappropriate household items (not just fitted sheets but also dishrags, washcloths, even Chinese-takeout napkins) into eveningwear that rocketed Claudia to Internet fame. It was early April, and we had for once negotiated her into a dress-dress and escorted her to the White House to have her picture taken with the president before the annual Passover Seder that he has held since his first year in office.
Claudia, thoroughgoing 2-year old that she is, had no interest in this ritual. She didn’t want to be in the White House, whatever that was. She wanted to be in her bedroom, emptying out the drawers of her changing table in search of more sheets.
“I take off my shoes,” she told me.
“No, sweetie, not right now.”
“I take off my dress,” she suggested next.
“Claudia, if you could just wait one second—”
“I wear a sheet-dress.”
“I’m so sorry, sweet girl, but we didn’t bring any sheets tonight!”
My lack of preparation outraged her. That same instant, the hush associated with the entrance of the chief executive fell over the Red Room, but Claudia didn’t care. Claudia wanted a sheet, and she wanted one now. In her fury, she threw herself at the feet of the most famous man in the world. That same instant, Pete Souza, the chief official White House photographer, walked into the room.
I will say that I have met the president before. My husband was among the handful of campaign staffers who held an impromptu Seder in a conference room of a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Sheraton during the 2008 Pennsylvania primary. I have attended these Seders every year since I was pregnant with my now–6-year-old son. Also, not unimportantly, I follow the news, and like many news-following Americans I am sufficiently aware of Obama’s temperament to know that he’s not going to expend much energy judging the 2-year old at his feet or, for that matter, her parents. The explosion ended, my father (brought here for that express purpose) whisked Claudia and her brother off, and that was that. We thought no more of the tantrum until almost two months later when the White House photo office emailed me a photograph of the incident “for personal use only.”
The photograph was wonderful, obviously, but it didn’t for an instant occur to me that it would interest anyone beyond my circle of family and friends when I posted it on my Facebook page, as I do with every year’s Seder pictures. I then went off to the grocery store—my usual Thursday afternoon ritual. While I was there, my brother tweeted the photo, saying, “This really might be the best picture ever: my niece Claudia throwing a fit at Passover.”
By the time I returned with dinner, Claudia’s tantrum was all over the Internet. Entirely unrelated celebrities (Judd Apatow, Joyce Carol Oates) had retweeted my brother. By dinnertime, the picture was on the top of the Reddit home page, with 1 million views.
Over the course of the weekend Claudia’s tantrum was featured in Salon, the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post, CNN, the Washington Post, Yahoo Parenting (FYI, those moms are angry), the Telegraph, the New York Daily News, Time—I could go on. She was written about in Macedonia, China (and Taiwan), Argentina, New Zealand, Peru. Saturday morning, while shepherding my kids to a birthday party, I answered the phone from an unknown 212 number; it was Good Morning America. I declined to bring Claudia on the show, but they still ran multiple segments about her. She was on Sky News and the Today Show and the local station in the small French town where my brother was staying. And everywhere, everyone had a lot to say about Claudia.
I’m mostly disciplined enough to avoid the comments section of pieces I’ve written; what good can come of reading about how annoying/glib/uninformed I am? But with the Claudia picture, I couldn’t resist the comments, precisely because they seemed so completely disconnected from reality. Most people—the ones who’ve actually raised kids—were amused and sympathetic. They understood that my 2-year-old doesn’t care if the president of the United States has just entered the room. This contingent offered the same dorkily good-natured ripostes over and over again: “Guess she voted Republican?” and “So this is what it’s like dealing with John Boehner!” The Jews liked to joke that someone else had found the Afikomen.
But if the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that crazy people have a great deal of free time on their hands. And I was shocked by what they read into the picture. They saw my political beliefs and the pride I took in my inability to raise a child. (“The ‘she’s just a kid’ excuses are the excuses liberal parents make for their lack of parenting skills.”) They saw my income and my ethnic background: I was a “wealthy Jewish donor”—don’t I wish!—and my daughter a spoiled brat: “She doesn’t act like the sort of child that has ever heard the word ‘No’ let alone felt anything other than expensive clothes on her backside.” One commenter recommended thyroid medication to bring my daughter back in balance, but no one said a word about fitted sheets.
Perhaps these hecklers would’ve been satisfied if my face, in that split-second captured by the photographer, had conveyed more dismay, or I’d been in some way publicly chastised? Or maybe the president should’ve taken charge of the situation. I mean, he’s supposed to be a leader, right? “The kid has obviously used this to get her way before,” observed one Daily Mail reader. “Maybe POTUS should paddle her butt!” He was among many who endorsed beating the crap out of my child.
And speaking of Obama—I already knew, of course, that Obama, like any other president, has his professional haters. But Obama doesn’t have to be speaking out against gun violence or praising equal pay for women to provoke his opponents’ ire; just standing calmly above a distraught toddler is sufficient. Many commenters opined that Claudia was upset about the president’s reckless tax-and-spend ways (“She just learned that her FOOD STAMPS are going to be cut by 10%,” “She knows she won’t have Social Security,” “Obama took her Binky and gave it to someone he deemed more entitled to it,” etc.) and/or the First Lady’s healthy-eating initiatives (“The little girl thought she would be eating food from the First Diva’s school lunch program”). This cohort scorned me but felt sympathy for my daughter, because after all, who wouldn’t throw a tantrum in the presence of the “Prince of Darkness”? In short: “Only a truly innocent child can say what the entire World thinks of Obama & get away with it!”
As I pored over the comments, I was reminded that Internet stars are less humans than tropes: of heroism (black cop helping white racist) and villainy (Minnesota dentist posing next to Cecil the Lion) and everything in between. Actual living humans—in this case, my baby girl—are reduced to Grumpy Cat memes as every day the Internet offers up new canvasses where other people can project their fears and loathings. For almost an entire week, my daughter provided this grist.
For the meme herself, the most significant outcome of her brush with the big time may have been that, on Memorial Day morning, three days after my brother’s tweet, she woke up and announced that she was done with diapers. It was as if, as an international Internet celebrity, she suddenly felt compelled to up her game. And that was news I could use.