Last week was big for the YouTube world. Jim Chapman hosted a BBC3 documentary about the ‘rise of the superstar vloggers*’ and Zoella – possibly one of the most recognisable faces of UK vlogging – hit 10 million subscribers, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the mainstream media.
It was disappointing to read one of my favourite media commentators, Roy Greenslade, speak so disparagingly about the young content creators who are changing the rules of the entertainment industry and building careers by being approachable, savvy and incredibly determined.
The first sign in the Evening Standard piece that Mr Greenslade really knew very little about the world he was criticising was when he selected a Zoella make-up tutorial to cynically break down into derogatory soundbites.
‘She proceeded to identify every product that she used in her make-up routine. In other words, it is a naked commercial exercise,’ he writes.
A bit of research and consideration would have made clear the ridiculousness of this statement. It might be hard for a middle-aged man to understand this, but makeup tutorials feature the names of the products used because otherwise they’d be pretty pointless to viewers, not because they get paid to do so. Obviously, sponsorship is a key part of monetising a YouTube career, but it doesn’t look like this, and it’s certainly less disingenuous than the previous incarnation of beauty-related content, which involved overstretched journalists pandering to the needs of PRs and advertisers with half-hearted reviews and ill-informed lists of best-ofs.
Clearly, by virtue of relating mostly to women, any mention of ‘beauty’ is met with a patronising response, presuming the superficial nature of such content over and above anything a ‘real journalist’ would find value in. But imagine for a moment, Mr Greenslade, that you live in a world in which you are being told from every media outlet that much of your worth is based upon your appearance, which will undoubtedly be improved by the purchasing of ever more confusingly complex and prohibitively expensive gunk to spread on your face. Welcome to the western world as experienced by women.
Do I like it? No. But when I’m going to spend £30 on 100ml of foundation (that’s the beige stuff that covers up the bags under my eyes which are likely a product of the stress of going about my life being policed by men who think they have a right to constantly judge my body), YouTube videos showing me what will work in what way are most definitely my friend, and I suggest anyone who is not in this position reserve judgement on the value of the content.
There have been endless op-eds dissecting Zoella’s success, proclaiming it a sad indictment of the state of society and the epitome of a consumerist, media-obsessed young audience. It seems both hypocritical and short-sighted to imply that because these are young, self-employed people utilising technology it’s in some way any different from what we’ve seen in the past.
Billions of dollars are circulated around Hollywood for the purpose of creating vacuous movies which depict worlds in which most people are white, middle-class, straight and pander to unrealistic standards of beauty. Topping the box office we see film after film in which women are depicted purely as objects of aesthetic value, men are presented as laughable parodies of masculinity and relationships are one-dimensional exercises in self-validation based upon outrageously unrealistic sex. And the worst part? The profits are going straight into the pockets of millionaires, who use their fortune and influence to continue to vicious cycle of entertainment products, which present constant double standards and questionable values that don’t resonate with actual humans.
Mr Greenslade launches into his diatribe by describing his shock that his 12-year-old grandson’s interested in Zoella. ‘Little boys should be interested in footballers, not silly girls rambling on about make-up!’ he seems to be implying.
Footballers. Hm. Let’s consider that for a second. We’re talking about an industry worth over £10 billion. Yes, BILLIONS. And what does it show for it? A glorification of extreme competitiveness, a mentality shrouded in hooliganism and excessive drinking; ‘role models’ who repeatedly turn out to be homophobic, racist, ignorant and violent, who can be convicted of rape and teams actually consider welcoming them back with open arms. Are these really the heroes we want our youth worshipping?
The vocabulary used in the article – which focusses exclusively on Zoella, despite the many male YouTube stars with parallel careers – is problematic on a number of levels. It’s reminiscent of the age-old rhetoric that women who are successful for speaking to other women about issues mostly affecting women are in some way both silly and cynical. Mr Greenslade refers to Zoella as “artless but cute”, whilst using leading language to imply he doesn’t quite buy her story that she simply stumbled upon success, labelling her “shrewd”. He breaks down her success to an ability to provide “a monologue that seems as if it’s a dialogue” and turning trust into a “commodity”.
It’s as though Mr Greenslade can’t quite decide whether to dismiss her as a silly young girl, or a cold, cynical business-woman with a cleverly calculate fake persona. This is a question presented over and over again when it comes to female successes, whilst their male counterparts are criticised on the basis of merit. It’s the same reason every female novelist is instinctively categorised as chick-lit, every female-written script is considered a rom com and female politicians and business people are asked about their outfits and family life. Women can be successful while still being humble, they can be intelligent while being genuine and they can talk about make up without making them superficial – even if you don’t necessarily get it.
I can see how old-school media types might feel threatened by the changing habits of content consumption, but let’s be clear: people under the age of 25 who have become successful thanks to years of hard work and the incredible ability to build a brand without the help of massive production teams molding them into personality-deprived puppets is something we should see as hope for a bright future where creativity, individuality and genuine humanity is what tomorrow’s society will value.
Update: Roy Greenslade has since said that his intention was not to criticise Zoella. The original article is here, if you want to make your own mind up:
— Roy Greenslade (@GreensladeR) February 8, 2016
*Google is still trying to tell me ‘vlogger’ isn’t a word, which is bafflingly ironic. Sort it out.