By Asha Dinesh
The rise of the YouTuber era has been increasingly documented across mainstream media. What is unique about these self-made celebrities is how they put a new spin on the rags to riches story: they did not start out with a talent competition, a record label or production powerhouse, but instead, more simply, with a video-camera and a YouTube account. What makes the average 20-something YouTuber so marketable is the vast influence that they have on their legions of loyal, impressionable young fans, in some cases replacing popstars who previously held the mantle for these age groups. Companies and brands are taking notice and are eager to utilise the influence of these video bloggers to reach their target markets.
The role-model status of the celebrity is not always welcomed – the argument being that while they may have chosen to pursue a profession which casts them in the public limelight, they did not choose to publicise the private aspects of their life. This argument has less weight in terms of a YouTuber, since the very nature of the platform encourages a much more personal setting, with the stars interacting directly with fans across social media, unfiltered by publicists.
This new path to fame and fortune – and most importantly influence – raises some interesting questions about gender inequality in society and the role of new media in perpetuating or fighting gender stereotypes. For young boys and girls who fervently follow every movement of their favourite YouTubers, these celebrities play a major role in influencing thinking, attitudes and aspirations, whether unwittingly or not. Through their content and actions, they have a huge impact on how young people think about the ‘Gender Issue’.
Many of the most popular female YouTubers, such as Zoella and Bethany Mota, focus on fashion, makeup and beauty. This could be criticised as being a backward step since they encourage young girls to focus on materialistic aims, such as their appearance. At the same time, however, as independent business strategists who have successfully built marketable (not to mention bankable) brands, they are reinforcing the notion that feminism comes in all shapes and sizes. Furthermore, several of the biggest female names on YouTube are comediennes and activists (see Superwoman, Grace Helbeig, Hannah Hart).
The darker side of the power endowed by fame is a narrative unsettlingly common among A-listers, B-listers and musicians – not to mention long-dead TV-presenter-philanthropist-paedophiles. YouTubers, despite the close connection to their fanbase, still enjoy a slightly elevated status and position of power in relation to their followers who are mostly younger.
The sinister underbelly of YouTube fame was highlighted most recently by the sexual assault allegations associated with Sam Pepper and some other popular bloggers. It started with furious online backlash to a prank video in which Pepper pinches women’s bottoms while pretending to ask for directions, which he later tried to claim was a ‘social experiment’. This opened the metaphoric floodgates, with several women and even some fellow YouTubers coming forward with claims of sexual assault.
The whole saga illustrates two things: firstly, since YouTubers are more accessible in many ways to fans than movie stars and pop stars that they admire, young fans are therefore more ‘accessible’ to people like Sam Pepper who exploit their instant celebrity status. Secondly, the power of the online community was clearly demonstrated when the build-up of accusations led to the destruction of Pepper’s brand and a police investigation. By distancing themselves from Sam Pepper, other prolific YouTubers have sent a strong message that they do not condone sexual harassment in any form, even if it was for a prank/misguided ‘social experiment’.
What is clear is that YouTube and other platforms will play a major role in inspiring the ‘social media generation’ of feminists, most noticeably the male and female tweens of today (and while we are on the subject, check out this hilarious video of the mini-feministas dropping the f-bomb so much it could rival the Wolf of Wall Street, all in the name of gender equality). YouTubers can and probably will shape the attitudes of young people regarding the treatment of women’s bodies in the media, violence against women, and the gender pay gap, to name a few issues. Maybe they are the ones who can change the nature of a media which puts women under incessant, unforgiving scrutiny even when they try to conform to standards imposed on them by society. Maybe they can even encourage a feminist narrative where it is needed most: in a circumstance like the Pistorius case, for example, where the focus is entirely on the male perpetrator and the murdered woman has no voice at all.