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Uses and Abuses of Girls

We all know that the teens represent one of the most powerful – if not the most powerful – consumer markets. Teen girls, especially, are the unremitting focus of advertising, in part, perhaps, because of their vulnerability to social messaging. The massive fandoms around franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games have generated lots of debate around how and in what way young fans might be influenced by certain “messages” conveyed by books and films.

However, at least in the case of these fandoms, there are actual texts to consume and discuss – in other words, there is a there there. There is actual content being produced, which creates, if not precisely a fair exchange, at least a substantive exchange.

Now, however, with the rise of YouTube and Vine, we have events like Vidcon and Magcon, which are centered on an ever-evolving collection of social media stars who have captured the imaginations and loyalty of young women, often underage teen girls, whose enthusiasm has created its own market, which many adult men are now exploiting. And there are some deeply problematic and disturbing elements to this cultivation of the teenage girl fan, from the lack of an actual product (aka substantive content) to accusations of sexual coercion.

We talk a lot in the Romance community about the social value of certain types of fantasies, and the vulnerability of adult women to social messaging. However, Romance is largely constitutive of women talking to other women about texts that address the overlap between social norms and core relationships (not just romantic, even though romance may reside at the center of the fantasy scenario).

Women’s fiction has long served as a cultural space in which women can contemplate issues relevant to the construction of social roles and expectations. In Revolution and the Word, literary historian Cathy Davidson talks about how American and English women in the 18th and 19th centuries would talk around their quilting, for example, about popular books, many of which were concerned with questions relevant to the lives of women whose most important life choices included their choice of marriage partner. Our choices may have diversified over the years, but the collective conversations we have about popular fiction may or may not be so very different.

In fact, one of the reasons I will always defend the female-dominated landscape of Romance is because I think that when women are talking to other women, you don’t have the same set of power issues and imbalances you can get when you have men talking to women about a genre that is overwhelmingly preoccupied with women thinking and talking about love, sex, and emotional intimacy.

Say what you will about the OTT nature of some of the fantasies themselves, and about the influence of patriarchy on the genre itself, there is still, I would argue, real value in having a cultural space carved out by women where we can contemplate our conscious and unconscious desires, fantasies, and thoughts/feelings about both. And having texts to mediate these discussions, texts that push against a variety of boundaries, may allow for a certain amount of mirroring and de-personalized discussion of very personal issues and feelings.

Contrast that to what’s happening with this relatively new online space, in which teen girls are directly, even intimately, targeted and marketed to:

But unlike Comic-Con, where the biggest stars are flanked by security or stuck behind the safety of a dais, the stars of the digital world have learned and live by one critical lesson for success in “new” media: engage the fans. Make them feel a part of your world, so you can remain a part of theirs. And those that do it well have millions (9 million across three channels, in the case of Dawson) of YouTube subscribers to show for it. Huge audiences that they can program or market to with the push of a button.

Participating in this new marketing machine are Hank and YA novelist John Green, fraternal creators of the vlogbrothers on YouTube, which epitomizes a new form of entertainment in which the process of filming the video log is its own content. Which, you might say, is nothing new – after all, everything these days is so meta, right? The problem, though, is that while there are celebrities among the vloggers, there is very little mediation between the vloggers and their fans — deliberately so. Celebrity is primarily a catalyst for teen enthusiasm, which is then optimized and exploited for its own sake, into events like Vidcon, where a new level of intimacy is encouraged between vlogging “stars” and their adoring audience. Given that most of these vloggers are adult men, and most of their fans are teen girls, at best this is a dangerous power imbalance, and at worst it’s an invitation to abuse.

Claims of abuse are starting to gain a public foothold, especially after revelations that Tom Milsom, a popular YouTube star, engaged in a “sexually coercive” relationship with a 15-year-old fan when he was 22. And despite Hank Green’s expression of surprise that someone signed to DFTBA, his co-founded music label that signs many of these YouTube celebrities, would do such a thing, Milsom’s story is not the only or the first accusation of improper exploitation of young female fans.

In fact, Alex Day, another celebrity within DFTBA who recently admitted to a pattern of inappropriate relationships, even noted the problems inherent in these face-to-face events:

“My recent experience of gatherings has been that there are two groups of people who go. People who make videos and people who want to meet the people who make videos. In many cases … the second group have a sense of fandom toward the first group. I don’t think this is conducive to a thriving community atmosphere when it’s placed in a live setting, and … there have been various examples in our community already of YouTube users taking advantage of such an atmosphere.”

That Vidcon still believes that there is no need for a harassment policy should be setting off warning bells across the Internet. Instead, Vine was planning its own version, called Magcon, which Gawker describes as 

Magcon stands for “Meet and Greet Convention,” a sold-out weekend-long traveling event—New Jersey, Austin, Chicago—showcasing 11 teenage boys and one accessorized girl. The boys aren’t pop musicians or actors or, for the most part, possessors of the sort of talent that would have made someone a teen idol in previous years. They’re social-media savants, famous and desired because they’ve built a successful feedback loop of fame and desire, among a mostly female online fanbase as large—and loyal—as Lady Gaga’s.

Interestingly, these Vine celebrities are not necessarily engaged in racy content. In fact, one of the most popular, Nash Grier, is a 16-year-old Christian whose videos satirized the Christian right. Aaron Carpenter became a celebrity on twitter by captioning photos. Much of the content is properly characterized as “wholesome.”

However, the emphasis here is not on content, but on the production of celebrity as a function of teen girl fan loyalty, a commodity generated by these young girls, and then commodified by men and sold back to them in the form of celebrity stand-ins. And that’s not so wholesome. It’s theater for the purpose of commodifying teen girl enthusiasm, and in the case of Magcon, the construction is one of “family,” with the “talent” consisting of teen boys, many of whom are represented by Bart Bordelon, who came up with the idea of a traveling teen idol event for the Magcon Family’s 25 million Vine followers.

Magcon has since fallen apart; however, the shows it did execute were characterized by racist and sexist imagery (and both the audience and the performers are largely white). So what content is there may reflect incredibly troubling social messaging, without any invitation to question, critique, and refute. In a distinctly ironic twist, Hank Green criticized the sexism of the Vine videos lionized by Magcon, which is pretty ironic considering the way he’s profiting off the fannish enthusiasm of young girls.

As much as teen idols like Justin Bieber seem vapidly self-destructive and unworthy of all the fan love, they produce something — music, films, whatever — that serves to mediate between themselves and their fans. So the idealized promise of romantic longing, exemplified in the persona of a teen idol, does not attach directly to the person himself. Instead, the product delivered to the audience provides necessary distance that only appears to provide intimate access to the person behind the product. And that simulation is an important landscape on which young girls can rehearse the more adult urges and emotions that they don’t yet have the wisdom and maturity to wholly manage. There is a certain ritualistic value in the traditional teen idol that does not exist in events like Vidcon and Magcon.

I know that there are many who will blame what’s happening on the excesses of the digital culture and the accessibility of new technologies. However, I don’t think it’s the technology or popularity of sites like YouTube or Vine that are responsible for what’s happening here. One of the things that’s most disturbing – and most explicitly consistent – is the way in which adult men are fomenting, channeling, and profiting off spontaneous, authentic, teen girl enthusiasm. And doing so without actually providing substantive content.

Sexual assault, coercive sexual relationships, and inappropriate sexual contact are very real dangers here, and what’s particularly creepy is the way in which parents may not even realize what’s going on, because the vlogging may not be sexually mature or explicit in any way. Beyond the obvious red flag of inappropriate sexual contact, though, is the reproduction of dangerous power imbalances aimed at girls at an age where they are more vulnerable to social messaging. Parents worry so much about the content of teen entertainment, but I think events like Vidcon present a more subtle and pernicious danger, because there is no overt content to point to as malignant. And in a society where men have historically run so many of the entertainment industries, it may not seem odd that they are driving this movement, as well.

And on an even more subtle level, there is, I think, an element of having men exploit the fantasies of young girls, feeding them back and profiting from their enthusiasm. It’s a dark, but nonetheless powerful, message for teenagers who are moving toward sexual and emotional discovery, that they do not own their own fantasies – that their fantasies are something that men can and do both control and benefit from. And because there is so little there there, I’m not sure there’s really any room for subversion, the way there is when you have an actual text that can be read and discussed in a variety of ways.

I know this vlogging phenomenon is not the only instance of such a dynamic, but I think it’s one that those of us who value the space created in the Romance genre for women to articulate, consume, and profit from female-driven fantasies (and no, I’m not discounting the influence of patriarchy, either on the fantasies or the industry), should find particularly worrying.

What can and should be done about it? I’m not sure. Is there something that the YA and NA communities can provide — or something that they are already providing? Not a certain type of book, necessarily, but an opportunity for engagement in a constructive way? And do we, as female readers, have any role to play in the way young girls are being used, often to make men more powerful and wealthy?