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?
If you’re interested, the May/June Writer’s Digest has an article-“Your Web Presence: 3 Keys to Connecting With Young Readers Online,” by Lee Wind. In the article Josh Green’s Vlogbrothers is touted as a way of “doing it right.” I read that last night and your opinion this am. My head is spinning! Thank you for making me dig deeper on this. ..
I would disagree that John and Hank Green are profiting solely off fannish, impressionable teenage girls. And I hardly believe what they are doing is as malicious as you make it out to be. They began as two brothers trying to stay connected via the internet, and thought online videos were the way to go. Now, not only are they still doing that, but they’re helping to educate many people about such hot topics as net neutrality and the like. The fact that John’s passion is to write books and Hank’s passion is to write music, does not mean they’re trying to coerce young women. The fact that they’ve built an online community whose acronym means “Don’t Forget to be Awesome” speaks to their hope and optimism that there are good people out there wanting to do good things. They’ve donated thousands to charities thanks to gathering their online community together.
Yes, information has surfaced that there are members of the DFTBA community who are victimizing others. Yes, those people deserve to be outed and punished. And yes, the overlying community has stated they are not in support of such behavior. John and Hank were appalled and confused by the reported behavior because it was so against what they intended for their community. It is unfortunate a harassment policy hasn’t surfaced yet, but to say these men exploiting young women is ridiculous. They have supported many women vloggers, helping them rise to fame, encouraging them to speak about important issues such as women in science, sexual health and knowledge, etc.
The argument in this article seems confused. If the point is that the DFTBA community needs a harassment policy to protect itself and its leaders, focus on that. But don’t imply that the Greens are out to make money on impressionable young girls, because they’re not. They’re genuine people with creative passions hoping to bring other genuine, creative people together to make more good than bad in the world.
I feel like I’ve been living under a rock, because I didn’t know this video community existed. There’s something about it that reminds me like an expanded version of high school, though, and that’s an innate need in many teens (and humans in general, really), to look towards a “pack leader” figure to admire and emulate. I saw it in my school days with the jocks, the musicians, the theatre people… if you belonged to a social clique, there was usually someone acting as centre of that particular solar system; someone to be desired or whose qualities made one want to be like them. Of course, as you point out, many of these people did specific things (won sports championships, starred in a play) that signalled an achievement. But I guess these video stars also put in some work, even if it’s only the work involved to become famous for starring in them. I think many of us remember the popular girl/guy at school whom everyone followed around, often for no discernible reason than that they… were popular.
So yes, it seems like a global high school. Just, as you point out, with some creepier overtones. At least in school, we ran these social groups ourselves, and certainly wouldn’t have welcome adults meddling in them.
Girls really don’t have a safe space — when they build one it’s mocked for being stupid (because girls passionate about anything are just silly), and when it’s deemed to be of actual value it’s immediately taken over by older men. Just look at the “John Green Effect” in YA — it’s all about him despite women having been very successful in that genre for decades.
And no hate against him — I enjoy the vlogbrothers now and then, and I enjoy his books — but it’s really a case of something not being considered legitimate or valid until a man is involved. Ugh.
Disclaimer: I have watched quite a few videos of vlogbrothers.
The way I see it, there is a mistaking of ignorance for outright malice. Basically, the Green brothers have built an amazing community. Vidcon is considered as an opportunity to meet online friends, and develop projects and stuff. Which is great.
The problem is that they are straight white males. Therefore, even though they are aware of rape culture, they still see sexual harrassment and power abuse as something that comes from “outside”. How could there be a need for a sexual harassment policy if we are all good people?
Hopefully, they’ll learn from this latest incident.
“As much as teen idols like Justin Bieber seem vapidly self-destructive and unworthy of all the fan love, they produce something”
Is producing a vblog not an act of creation?
I see vblogs as the public-access TV shows of the internet generation.
Heck, many of them have larger viewerships than some TV shows.
I’m not condoning what is happening.
But these individuals have a fan base for a reason.
Don’t hate the format.
Hate the individuals abusing their power.
You say many true things. I feel like you get exactly how a format can be a thing of power in itself. Regardless of the intention or purpose behind Hank and John Green, or any other cishet male creating content on platforms like these, the results remain that they do not actively work to deconstruct their privileges in order to make their fandoms safe places. Rather, they recognize them but then act as though it is not within their power to do something when they have so much privilege.
What frustrates me is that people focus more on being angry about the Vlogbrothers being criticized or mentioned in this rather than accepting that good people can still be overshadowed by their privilege. Yes, they have created a convention people care about, but it is also a convention wherein people get easily taken advantage of – specifically teenage female fans – and then get their voices drowned out because of people defending the convention. The convention may provide many people with great, safe opportunities.
That doesn’t change the fact that we live in a culture that encourages a very high level of fandom amongst teenage/preteen girls and male celebrities. That doesn’t change the fact that we simply act as though it is acceptable that said girls are expected to put these males on higher pedestals, or that their stories aren’t taken seriously because of their involvement in a fandom that is constructed in a way as to make them have less power from the beginning.
Basically: it’s complicated, and instead of acting as though people involved with it should be without placement in the criticism, we should remember that this is a large institutional issue that needs to be addressed regardless of expressed outward intentions of the people involved with it. It’s still an issue, it’s still an issue that involves a level of power between males and females. It doesn’t matter if the intention is something else. Male Youtube celebrities are gaining levels of power and capital from their female fan bases, and that is something that is going on regardless of whether or not they aim to do that directly. As a result, they are taking part in what is going on and should be aware of that and trying to absolve it rather than being given a free pass because their intentions are good. Intention and reality are not synonymous.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say that John and Hank Green don’t provide substantive content. Their “crash course” series is a favorite with both my husband and my son, and the lively format doesn’t stop it from being genuinely informative.
@Binaebi Akah: I just want to make it clear that NOWHERE do I suggest *malice* on the part of the Green brothers or anyone involved here. In fact, I suggest NO motive whatsoever beyond commercial profit. In fact, the fact that we can’t seem to talk about these issues without getting into a discussion about what ‘good guys’ the Green brother are is indicative of the very problems I’m trying to address here – that is, the tendency to celebritize males primarily for a market of teen girls.
@Cynthia Sax: I would argue that it’s closer to what, say, the Kardashians are doing. They’ve basically become celebrities for, well, for presenting themselves like celebrities. Except that the fan culture is created and cultivated by adult men and primarily targets teen girls. Is this true for every single vlog created? I’m not going to argue that. But in general, I think the dynamics being created through events like Vidcon and Magcon are reflective of a troubling trend in the exploitation of teen girl enthusiasm.
And what I find especially troubling is that IMO there’s far more cultural energy worked up about how *adult women* are being affected by books (e.g. that we can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, blah blah blah) than how teen girls are being affected by this Vid/Mag phenomenon. I’ve always been irritated by the first, but I find the second downright baffling, and the combination disturbing.
Vblogs are big money. My kids follow the Minecraft YouTubers (they treat them as celebrities) and I was shocked when I found out those kids are making $2-3 million a year each. My children now think “YouTuber” is a legitimate career choice.
But the Minecraft kids aren’t specifically targeting young girls. I knew some of the YouTube stars had Menudo-type followings, but I assumed they were teen boys. I wasn’t aware that adults were aiming for this audience.
@Lindsay bronies don’t occupy the same space as discussed here, they are fans of the MLP:FIM franchise and are in it for the enjoyment they get from the show. I am not aware of any instances where they exploit teen girl fandom for their own purposes.
FYI, Alex Day is one of the accused sexual abusers. So he might not be the best source to quote in the post.
Jeanne: At first I read your comment and was like, ‘but that’s the whole point,’ until I went back and realized I had forgotten to add the reference and link. So thank you for for catching that!!
You start out by saying that a medium popular with teenage girls is literally devoid of content, which is both objectively wrong and snobbish. You contrast this with the community of Romance, in which there is dialogue. Then you go through the entire rest of the piece on con safety from harassment by focusing exclusively on the men. And the only direct attributable quote in the piece is from an admitted predator.
Perhaps the way to help is not to sneer at the interests of teens.
“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.”
I wouldn’t place all the blame on excess/accessibility, but do place some blame there.
Sure, teen girls have always swooned over movie stars, rock stars, and television stars. They’d line up for hours at hotels and concert halls for a peek at them and the hope of an autograph. But they didn’t have real access…and even their ability to “watch” them was limited to how many movie tickets they could afford, or how often the show aired/music videos played. Now they have 24/7 access, which is usually unsupervised by any adult. Directionless kids can waste hours feeding this addiction rather than channel that energy into pursuing their own hobbies and goals, or engaging with live people. I think this makes them more vulnerable to manipulation by adults looking to capitalize on that enthusiasm.
I serve on the board of a local non-profit organization focused on public health issues affecting families and childhood development. Our Executive Director is a Brown/Yale educated Ph.D. who will gladly recite numerous studies which illustrate not only the ways in which unsupervised, unlimited access to the internet and social media is adversely affecting teens’ ability to engage in socially healthy behaviors, but also the ways it affects actual brain development. Again, these factors would seem to contribute to the increased risk of exploitation.
The lack of substantive content you note speaks to a broader societal problem (like the Kardashian-effect). Since that isn’t really the main topic, I won’t digress!
These are issues I’ve been thinking about a great deal. My questions began when Hank Green, in the early days of the vlogbrothers, asked fans to help put John Green on the NYTimes best seller list for his birthday. The questions turned into outright concern with the reaction to the arrest of Lombardo and the subsequent allegations this year. (By this I don’t at all mean to equate making overt requests of young fans with abuse– but rather that the overall atmosphere in which power is left unexamined, and boundaries are seen as unnecessary, is one that I think can also enable abuse. ) I agree that in many ways we’ve entered uncharted territory in terms of power relationships between adult creators and young fans, and I thank you for this thoughtful look at a set of dynamics that I hope more people will start talking about.
(Also agree that the need to qualify the intentions of people like the Greens misses the point.)
I think what a lot of people are missing here is that it isn’t the fact that teen girls are interested, the fact that teen girls often develop intense fandoms, or the intentions of any of the YouTube celebrities that’s being criticized.
It’s that adult men who are not YouTube celebrities are using people who are to cash in on teen fangirl intensity with very little regard for the risks inherent in making the focus of that intensity an actual young man, instead of that young man’s art or onstage persona. Nearly everything presented in a primarily digital format is going to be less mediated than more traditional forms- with YouTube, it’s very clear that a major piece of getting a fandom is about attaching them to *you* and *your* personality – for example, it’s clear that a lot of commenters here are fans of the Green brothers themselves as much as any video they made.
What causes concern is when adult men (who really should know better) fail to consider that sometimes a little extra distance is wise. I know that if my teen idol when I was 16 (who was twice my age) had approached me I might not have had the maturity to realize it if what he was offering was inappropriate. It never came up, because he sold a persona, and any event where I would have interacted with him was designed to showcase the persona not the real dude, which meant a certain degree of distance was naturally a part of those events.
Where that distance isn’t natural, it’s probably wise to consider finding ways to insert it for the safety of both your celebrities and their fans and it’s horribly irresponsible to refuse to consider the risks because you’re blinded by the profit margin.