The case of Chair Girl: Examining a new morality of punishment

The case of Chair Girl: Examining a new morality of punishment


All the best news stories in Toronto are ultimately about real estate, so the first thing everyone wanted to know about Chair Girl is where it happened.

The answer is a south-facing 45th floor condo at York and Lakeshore, looking down on the Gardiner Expressway. Fancy place, next to where the Leafs play.

That is where, at about 10 am on a Saturday last February, Marcella Zoia, then 19, threw a patio chair and other items off the balcony of an Airbnb unit, a crime that was recorded in a brief video captioned “Good morning,” and for which she later pleaded guilty to mischief endangering life.

On Friday, a judge is to pass sentence on the Instagram model and bottle server who got kicked out of dental hygienist school in the ensuing uproar, according to her lawyer. The Crown is seeking six months in jail, in part because of its claim that Zoia herself posted the video, presumably to boost her own influence, which she denies.

Before police identified her, Zoia was tagged with the superhero-styled nickname Chair Girl, which stuck, placing her forever in an extended universe of randos who got famous online: Dart Guy, Fiji Water Girl, Crane Girl.

Even more than her runaway notoriety, it is Zoia’s punishment that sets her apart, into a rare league of criminals whose cases are so extreme, and so spectacular, that they illustrate a new morality of punishment.

An earlier example — more extreme, but similarly spectacular — is recounted by the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, in the opening passage of his 1975 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

He tells the true story of Robert-Francois Damiens, a servant who in 1757 stabbed and slightly injured King Louis XV, and was the last person in France to endure a rare punishment. His flesh was torn off with hot pincers. Burning sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil were poured on his wounds. His limbs were tied to workhorses who could not rip them off, so the sinews had to be hacked at, then the remains burned to ash.

It was nasty. Though efforts were made to bureaucratize and anonymize the executioner’s work, it was also shameful. A “confused horror spread from the scaffold,” Foucault wrote. Legal torture declined sharply in the late 18th century in western Europe and America, as publicity “shifted to the trial, and to the sentence.”

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Marcella Zoia aka Chair Girl leaves the Old City Hall courthouse with her lawyer Greg Leslie.

Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

A new style of justice arose in which punishment became “the most hidden part of the penal process,” no longer a public square event. Punishment’s effectiveness came to be “seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity.”

Watching the Chair Girl video, punishment seems inevitable the instant she picks up that chair, as sure as the gravity that hurtles it toward the street, where it lands off camera, near a woman with a child in a stroller, according to an agreed statement of facts. It was written into the actions of the performer, the unidentified video taker, and their audience.

The question, then as now, for judge and public, is what to do about it. What should the inevitable punishment be?

The decline of punitive spectacles like public executions and pillories marked “a slackening of the hold on the body,” as Foucault put it. The punishing authority started aiming at something other than the physical body, such as denial of liberty, or forced labour. It was through these examples of the “technology of power” that Foucault laid out his revolutionary theory that power and knowledge imply each other. Power is “exercised rather than possessed,” he wrote. Power is not the privilege of a dominant class, “but the overall effect of its strategic positions.”

This is how judgment came to be passed not only on crimes, but on “passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or heredity.”

“For it is these shadows lurking behind the case itself that are judged and punished,” he wrote. “They are judged indirectly as ‘attenuating circumstances’ that introduce into the verdict not only ‘circumstantial’ evidence, but something quite different, which is not juridically codifiable: the knowledge of the criminal, one’s estimation of him, what is known about the relations between him, his past and his crime, and what might be expected of him in the future.”

For a modern take, just make the male pronoun female. Imagine her in a short sequined dress at her 20th birthday party at a cool King Street spot, blowing out candles, as she posted on Instagram, while out on bail. Consider her punishment.

Everyone who knows about her has an estimation of Chair Girl. She invited it, even to the point of being verified on Instagram with nearly 50,000 followers, ten times what she had when she tossed the chair.

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Marcella Zoia, 19, better known now as ChairGirl, was all smiles as she exited the College Park courthouse in February 2019.

Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

She really leaned into the fame, posting images of Caribbean trips, parties and model shots. As she waited to learn her punishment, a video also emerged in which she is on camera, dressed to party, when a man off screen announces the coke has arrived, then clarifies he means “cocaine,” but she blurts out “Coca-Cola,” then a swear word, obviously realizing this all looks bad. She later took a drug test with a private clinic, and released results through her lawyer. For whatever that is worth, it allegedly came back negative.

There is no law against having fun on bail. Remorse can be a mitigating factor in sentencing that can reduce the punishment, and Zoia posted an apology for the chair. But lack of remorse, no matter how flagrant, is not an aggravating factor that would increase it.

She also recently got invited to a hotel opening in Miami, the true mark of an influencer on the rise.

Her lawyer Greg Leslie said she was invited “because of who she is.”

Modern penal systems do not just judge crimes. That was Foucault’s key insight. They also judge the criminal. They judge “who she is.” As they do, a whole new system of knowledge “becomes entangled with the practice of the power to punish.”

As the crowd shames her, or cheers, and the court announces her punishment, a new knowledge of Chair Girl emerges. Her sentencing is not only for her. It is for us who watch.

It is these shadows lurking behind the case itself that are judged and punished

Foucault’s study of prisons, power and knowledge revived an earlier idea of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for a special kind of prison with cells that face inwards to a central guard tower. This was the panopticon, Greek for all-seeing. There was one built in Goderich, Ont., the Huron County Gaol.

Bentham imagined the structure would allow jailers to scientifically study prisoner rehabilitation. For the inmate, being jailed like that would induce a sense of always being watched, even when the guard was not looking, to assure what Foucault called the “automatic functioning of power.”

The key, as Bentham described it, was that this power ought to be both visible (the prisoner can see the guard tower) and unverifiable (he should not know if he is being watched at any given moment).

The internet adds an important wrinkle to this vision of penal authority. The major dynamic of surveillance in the modern age has been the division of the watching eye. Online, there is not one prison warden looking out, but a billion wardens looking in.

It is as if everyone is in the guard tower, rather than the cells. Watching goes both ways. We all do it now.

Viewers felt a certain shame in watching Chair Girl’s viral debut, just as the executioner felt shame in executing. People felt shame in reading such tawdry nonsense. Even editors must have felt a twinge of disgrace in splashing Zoia all over the front pages.

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Chair Girl caught on camera throwing a deck chair from a high rise condo balcony towards the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, on Feb. 11, 2019.

Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Yet here we are. How could you not? What is in the public interest if not the criminal fate of a woman whom everyone in Toronto wants to either throw in jail or invite to their video dance party at Blue Mountain.

That was Drake’s people, by the way, who put her in a video, then removed her when people noticed, prompting Drake himself to describe Zoia as “certain people we don’t condone.” He added a chair emoji to drive the point home. You cannot buy that kind of publicity.

The thing had blown up. Chair Girl went viral. The entire world was watching. Daily Mail noted in all caps that she SMILED while leaving court. News reports got translated to Portuguese and Arabic and back again. Al Arabiya called her a “felon” and noted there were no “wounds.” CE NoticiasFinancieras noted that she threw the chair toward the highway “where several cars circulate,” and that she “is now awaiting trial for freedom, after having paid a bail of about 1800 euros.”

Bail was actually 2000 Canadian dollars, and Zoia was ordered not to have contact with four people who were with her at the time.

The Crown went so far as to ask for a condition that she not go onto balconies, but the judge refused. You might as well try to ban her from possessing chairs.

It was all so stupid, and as they watched, everyone knew they were also being watched, and judged. Surveillance goes both ways.

This was as true for Airbnb as it was for the average Canadian. It suspended an account associated with Zoia’s stay at the condo, and it was reported that the next guests had to check in late because the place was a “disaster.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory weighed in, unusually for a mischief charge, paternalistically noting that this was not a “lark gone bad” but “grossly irresponsible behaviour.” Police did not fool around in their scolding. One officer told the Canadian Press this was “a very callous thing. You could kill somebody. I don’t believe anyone looks at that and doesn’t say that’s ridiculous.”

Chair Girl was ridiculously spectacular, just like Foucault’s regicide. Her diminutive Kardashianesque body was a spectacle, no less than Damiens’ drawing and quartering in Paris. She set the image at court with those archly fashionable and awkwardly large black square sunglasses, and the white Porsche to take her away.

This week, when a judge said she was “astonished” Zoia arrived late to a hearing, one wondered if Her Honour had been paying close enough attention. No good spectacle starts exactly on time, so as not to inconvenience the fashionably late, the smoothly criminal, the tragically hip.

Zoia was all that and more.

Superheroes come from things that intrigue, inspire and terrify their audience: Spider-Man from nuclear power, Superman from space, Batman from the city.

Chair Girl comes from the internet, just as much as she comes from St Elizabeth Catholic High School in Thornhill, north of Toronto, having moved in Grade Nine from Brazil.

Today, one year after an IKEA folding chair fell through the cold air of a weekend morning in downtown Toronto, like a radioactive spider descending its silk, Marcella Zoia is transformed.

Chair Girl’s origin story is what the rest of us now share, an online context for our fears, and a brand new model for our punishment.

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