“She’s so funny!”
That’s what I heard from behind me when My Drunk Kitchen‘s Hannah Hart accepted her Grace-ful (badum, chssh!) introduction from Daily Grace‘s Grace Helbig. And let’s be honest; it’s true. Hannah Hart is a rising Internet phenom with her inebriated cooking videos quickly becoming part of the online zeitgeist. Over the course of a year and several hairstyles, Hart has become the paragon of what happens when charming people put great content on YouTube.
In fact, that can be said about all the talented panelists at Rooster Teeth Expo‘s Women of YouTube talk last Saturday. Featuring the aforementioned Hart and Helbig along with Justine “iJustine” Ezarik and Live Prude Girls‘ Stevie Nelson and Milana Vayntrub, moderator and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries producer Jenni Powell takes us through an hour-long conversation with this crew of funny, smart, and amazing content creators.
And as Nelson points out, “notice I didn’t say ‘woman,'” which, though originally said jokingly in her introduction, is quite pertinent. These panelists aren’t just women on YouTube; they are people that make content on YouTube and they happen to be women. Their gender is not a hindrance to them and, for the most part, doesn’t become a factor when they make their videos save for the most ancillary of ways.
“I think of myself as a content creator, I don’t think of myself like ‘I am a woman in this space,'” says Hart. It’s not that doing so would be self-defeating or exceptionally enabling but rather that there is no difference when it comes to being a creator. Helbig likens it to being a brain surgeon:
“The thing is you’re either good at what you do or bad at what you do. A doctor is either good at doing brain surgery or really bad at doing brain surgery; it doesn’t matter if he’s a man or a woman doing brain surgery.”
Which is a good point that seems to be lost on some of the more ignorant online masses and, in fact, a lot of the general public. Helbig notes that, as a female comedian in Brooklyn, she is frequently asked about how she feels being a woman in what some consider a man’s space. But being a stand-up comedian is a lot like making these videos in that it’s about drawing “from your own personal experience with the world and whether people can relate to that or can’t relate to that.” It doesn’t matter what your gender is as long as you can be relatable.
And that is an intrinsic quality to any good entertainer that no one can define, that certain je ne sais quoi about a person that makes them not discretely interesting and yet wholly engrossing, and these six women have it in spades. Vayntrub says “the fact that we’re a bunch of girls sitting up here talking to a room full of guys says something about the women’s movement,” but I think it also says a lot about how strong they are at capturing your attention as speakers and as entertainers.
But that’s not to say they haven’t experienced the differences in being a woman on the Internet. There is something empowering about being in the gender minority and being just as or more successful than a lot of those attempting the same thing as part of the majority. The quick quip came up (“boobs!”), but it is representative of greater vindication that Ezarik mentions in being a positive role model for younger girls.
Ezarik admittedly grew up a bit nerdy. She actually skipped her high school prom and instead opted to attend a LAN party and played Unreal Tournament and Quake. During her time as a child and teenager (and long before, as well), growing up liking technology and video games and board games was not cool, but somewhere along the way, things shifted. The likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Kevin Rose made it okay to be interested in those things by making technology cool and by making money being involved in nerd culture, and now Ezarik feels she can provide the same avenue of acceptance for young girls.
“Seeing these little kids go out and embrace technology and not be afraid to be like ‘I want to be a computer programmer’ and not feel like they’re being judged for that.” Her heavy involvement with things like Call of Duty XP and attendance of Internet-born community events and conventions says to these girls it’s okay to explore these spaces, that you don’t need to feel out of place for being a female.
But Helbig says it can go further. It’s not just about women and technology but rather women and accepting themselves. She, both admittedly and observationally, is a paragon of self-acceptance. Clearly evidenced in her videos as when she is wearing pajama pants while doing awkward dances and indulging in self-deprecation and silliness, she advocates being different. Helbig wants girls to “be awkward and funny and weird and think about being a girl in a different way than shopping and putting on makeup.”
And it’s already happening. The morning before the panel, a young girl was waiting outside of Helbig’s hotel to get her signature (to which, in the panel, she replied with “I AM ONE DIRECTION!”), an interaction that defines the Internet celebrity. They are, by most counts, much more accessible than traditional television or music stars. Ezarik compares it to these kids watching the likes of both Miley Cyrus and Shane Dawson on YouTube while not quite clearly differentiating between the two and yet Dawson is infinitely more responsive than Cyrus.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all roses being a woman on YouTube. Nelson points out that just by being women in a public space, people find the need to compare and contrast the duo, often something along the lines of “Milana is hotter! Stevie is way weird-looking!” as she says. The problem, aside from being superficially critical, is that you don’t see the same things being said about male entertainers. As Hart says, “you definitely do not find two male comedy duos like Abbott and Costello and they’re like ‘FUCKIN’ LOSE SOME WEIGHT, BUDDY!'”
And she’s right. Although you and other creators may not make it a point to lay out plainly who is what gender, many viewers find it a necessity, almost as if it was a prerequisite for living because it happens so regularly. But it happens from both the misogynistic and the feminist sides. Comments like “get back in the kitchen” crop up almost as much as when someone questions their integrity as a woman, going so far as to “call you a dumb bitch and say you’re setting the women’s movement back.”
But, of course, these people are, by and large, free to say these things. They may not be right or acceptable things to say, but they have the freedom to say it, as pointed out in separate interviews I conducted with the panelists.
It has been a whirlwind in the recent months across the Internet regarding misogyny, Internet fame, and the like. Going even further back, you could include the debacle with Capcom’s Cross Assault reality show, and it’s now come to include how women are used at E3 (such as Nintendo’s body-based 3DS stand), Ron Rosenberg’s comments about wanting to “protect” Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, and Felicia Day’s incident with (former) Destructoid writer Ryan Perez.
While tech-savvy, most of our panelists are only tangentially informed about the other incidents, so we focused on the Felicia Day one both because it seemed most relevant and was most recent.
When asked about the levels of exposure going both ways—both towards the celebrity and away from them—the answer came back astutely, accurately, and unilaterally as them’s the breaks. “The Internet is a public space,” says Hart, “if you post anything, it’s like—it’s self-policing.” By making something public, you are inherently taking a risk; you are inviting a response. And whether that response is good, bad, constructive criticism, or hateful vitriol, that is the natural way of freedom of speech. There is a very direct cause and effect; if you do or say something, someone is liable to do or say something back.
Which is to say that the aftermath of the Ryan Perez incident doesn’t have to do with the fact that Felicia Day is a celebrity and she has millions of followers—some of whom also have millions of followers—but rather that sometimes things simply have consequences you couldn’t have foreseen (though in Perez’s case, it seems like he should have seen this one coming. Attacking a well-liked public figure such as Day never ends well). Day and her friends and followers simply defended her against Perez’s opinion, and when your job is based on providing your opinion, that can bring on a frightful retribution.
It’s something Helbig calls “Opinion Mountain” where opinions pile up and if two opinions collide and and one is found to be lacking foundation in the mountain, it’s kicked off. Perez, in this case, was kicked off the mountain.
And that’s a very natural, Darwinistic way to approach it, but it seems very apt because this is not a special, isolated incident. “You can’t take an incident like this and pretend like it’s any different from anything else that happens on the Internet,” says Hart. You are responsible for your own words, and if the person you attack defends him or herself, that’s what happens. Celebrity or not, they have no obligation to you. In an almost unified voice, Vayntrub and Nelson both stated (in my opinion) correctly, “nobody has any obligation to protect anyone.”
Naturally, the question then comes up of how to fix it. Nelson continues to say, “I think most people in life are just seeking attention and then it’s your choice to either give it to them or not,” and mentioned previously in the panel, it seems most of these trolls and haters are largely doing what they do to seek attention or, as Hart points out, to vent their frustrations from their daily lives of work, ex-girlfriends, mothers, or whatever.
“I understand that people use this as their outlet, but that doesn’t make it okay. We shouldn’t fight back against someone’s negativity by being like ‘let’s make fun of this guy or let’s be really mean to this guy.’ Let’s be like ‘wow, I’m sad that this anger exists inside you.’ I can promise you assuredly that I have never written a flame on anything. I stopped watching it and moved on with my life because I would rather feel positive and happy than watch something that makes me feel that angry.”
It seems that sometimes giving them the attention works, though, because it is ostensibly so unexpected. The commenters quickly come to the realization that these are still human beings they’re talking about, not just entities that exist on their computer monitor. Vayntrub says, “if you respond, people almost never write back…They’ll just be like ‘oh, it’s a human,’ or they’ll just be honored by the response or insulted by the response or whatever, but it very rarely turns into a conversation.”
In my own experience, this seems particularly true. My first feature for my first newspaper was an editorial on comparing and contrasting Macs and PCs. That was also the first time I received death threats over something I’d written, but responding to these e-mails and comments quelled almost everyone’s rampant indignation.
And this is something Ezarik is familiar with. Her first interaction with online video was in a Yahoo! talent show in 2006. Most of the responses were along the lines of “wanting [her] to die,” some people going so far as to find her phone number online to deliver the threats Alexander Graham Bell-style.
Which causes Ezarik to question just when exactly do things go too far. Hate-filled comments happen, but when someone goes beyond the effort exerted by these YouTubers to hide the details of their personal lives such as addresses and phone numbers, what can be done? Can legal recourse take place or is the anonymity of the Internet too great for our legal system to beat? It’s unfortunate that, as Ezarik points out, LA is pretty much based on violating privacy, and defending yourself on both fronts of online and real life can often be overwhelming.
In an earlier panel with the Rooster Teeth crew, though, co-founder Burnie Burns brought up that they now employ a Troll Filter on Rooster Teeth comments. Instead of the usual ban hammer tactics where a username or IP is blocked from even accessing the site, accounts marked as trolls can do everything they’ve always been able to do, but no one else can see it. Any comments that are made simply go unseen by every other upstanding member of the Rooster Teeth community. As Burns says, “what’s more hurtful than being ignored?”
And that is a point that Hart lands on saying, “the opposite of love is apathy,” and though filled with rage and often times rage-inducing, these comments are another way of saying “I am thinking about you, I am paying attention to you, I am criticizing you, and I have these thoughts and opinions,” the root of which is because they people care about what you’re doing and saying.
Which is fine; people are perfectly suited to hate certain things or like certain things. A homogenized world of opinions is not necessarily something to be sought after, as Helbig mentions, but Hart brings up a good point as well: “I am also entitled to have my response which is ‘ouch!’ Like, you’re hurting me, and it’s not my responsibility to like ‘oh please keep spewing vitriol on me! I love it!'”
But the interesting thing is that though these are six women speaking from a woman’s perspective on the topic, these issues are not necessarily born from a place of misogyny (though it often ends up there). The distinction of genders between YouTubers is largely an arbitrary one, an aspect that is reinforced subliminally and consciously by the panelists’ answers.
For instance, when Powell talks about being a producer for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, she notes that while the project is largely staffed by women, it is not an aspect that drove her to the project. She simply thought it to be a good project to work on. “It’s not like we were ‘this has to be all ladies!’ It just naturally turned out that way and that’s how I’ve always felt as a female producer, like when I put that on my résumé, I don’t put ‘female producer,’ I say ‘producer.'”
But when Powell directs the question of what advice the panelists would give to a sixteen-year-old girl starting out on YouTube, the advice they give isn’t necessarily specific to being a woman in the online space and is instead just about being a creative person in the world.
Helbig said, “do it, and do it consistently and don’t be afraid to spend time finding your voice and how you think of the world. A lot of what makes YouTube so interesting is because you get to see very intimately people’s points of view on things and life and topics and people and that’s interesting.”
Hart related a story of telling her sister about entering the online video arena, saying, “you can do it, but I want you to know that, you know, I love you, and you need to love you and you need to figure it out and be there for yourself because once you put yourself out there in public, everyone else’s opinions are gonna come your way, and you need to have a solid understanding of yourself and a solid opinion of yourself before you can handle that kind of exposure.”
Ezarik empathized the difficulties of trying to survive the pressures and criticisms of becoming a public Internet figure while dealing with the harsh reality of middle and high school.
Vayntrub told attendees to stick to their passions, that “just do what you love. Whatever tickles you, like if puppet shows are your jam, make puppet shows because…You’re constantly gonna be watching whatever it is that you’re doing, so you should love it.”
And Nelson related an old adage that her father used to tell her of “find out what you love and then find a way to make money doing it.”
You’ll notice none of these are prefaced with “for a young girl to succeed on YouTube” or “if you want to do well as a woman,” but rather that these are bits of advice that they’ve learned by being nonspecific content creators, not female-centric video bloggers.
Granted, there are still cases of hate-mongering happening against women online and in real life, but for these women, they are not just women; they are creators. They create things for people to consume and find pleasure in not as females but as entertainers through and through. Being a woman can give a unique perspective on certain things, but that is not an inhibitor; it is simply another facet of these already fascinating people.
Also, Stevie and Milana are crazy good at making you feel awkward.