There’s no great revelation in the statement, ‘the comedy world is not the easiest place to be a woman’. While it’s dawning on some movie executives that funny female leads may actually be a draw to at least half of their audience ‒ comedies such as Bridesmaids and The Heat both found critical and commercial success ‒ mainstream comedy remains stubbornly male dominated. Women are still more likely to be wheeled out as eye candy than to generate laughs.
But while the ‘old media’ vanguard remains creaky in its approach to gender equality, it’s also very different to the way many young people are creating and consuming content. TV watching among under-25-year-olds is in steady decline, and ‘second screening’ ‒ consuming or creating additional content, usually on a mobile or tablet while watching the box ‒ has created a generation who see YouTube, Instagram, or Vine (the six-second film channel), as no less legitimate forms of mass entertainment than TV or film.
Of course, the internet is no egalitarian utopia ‒ you only have to glance at MailOnline or the abuse levelled at opinionated women such as Caroline Criado-Perez or Anita Sarkeesian to see that ‒ but it is an environment where we can be blissfully unaware of what the mainstream says we should be consuming.
The new celebrity
By steadily dissolving divisions between the mainstream and the ‘underground’, the web has not only created an entirely new cultural dimension between the two, but handed the keys over to anyone who wants them; rewriting the rules about what it means to be (and who is allowed to be) famous. Performers who might have struggled to get past producers in an analogue world now have the opportunity to float their talent on the open market of the web ‒ and see whether it takes off.
Simone Shepherd’s 2.1 million Vine followers track her every six-second move. She tells me, “Men always act like they own comedy. But with Vine there, I said: ‘No, I can do this myself. If you don’t want to acknowledge me, the world will.’ So [now] you have to.”
It would be clichéd to drag out Andy Warhol’s 15-minutes-of-fame prediction, but even he couldn’t have foreseen that, as the stages on which you could find fame multiplied and fragmented online, it would become possible to boast an enormous fan base while remaining, to 99.99% of the world, entirely anonymous. And yet YouTube, Vine and Instagram are full of the anonymously famous and the radically normal, scrambling the established ideas of what celebrity looks like, and where to find it.
From a bedroom in California
So for every leading lady still stuck in movies that don’t pass the Bechdel Test, there’s a Miranda Sings crooning horribly for laughs on YouTube, or an Issa Rae writing and starring in her own comic web series about being an Awkward Black Girl. For every Saturday night that ‘Holly Willoughbooby’ is being pawed at by Benny Hill-alike Keith Lemon on the UK’s highest rated entertainment TV show, there’s a Gloria Shuri Nava filming intentionally bad make-up tutorials or hipster comic Awkwafina, posting glossy rap parodies to YouTube about ‘Queefs’.
Shuri Nava – aka Glowpinkstah – found a million-strong audience on YouTube with her vlogs and sketches and aforementioned beauty tutorials filmed in her occasionally disorderly bedroom in California. Among her cack-handed makeovers are Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort (“If you’re wondering what I’m using to cover up my nose, I’m just using bits and pieces of people’s flesh!”), sea-witch Ursula from The Little Mermaid and, in one particularly ambitious project, The Human Centipede.
Taking her dry yet exuberant patter online has turned her YouTube channel into a full-time job and won her nearly 40 million channel views. Yet the only coverage of her you’ll find in the mainstream media centres around the supposed unlikeliness of her relationship with her boyfriend, who hangs out with her in some of her videos. She is overweight and of Mexican-Filipino descent. He is a skinny red-haired Scot. Not that she cares particularly about what people think: “I’ve always been a really big dork and I never was really scared to show that,” she said in an interview.
Then there’s Miranda Sings, the creation of 27-year-old Colleen Ballinger. Lipstick-smeared and frighteningly uninhibited, Miranda Sings is a mildly grotesque yet weirdly endearing parody of YouTube girls bidding for fame. She’s also a one-woman media empire with merchandise, tour dates and 70 million-plus channel views.
The secret block party
But it’s on Vine that web subculture really goes down the rabbit hole. Stumbling onto the six-second video app is like discovering there was a massive party going on in a house next door you didn’t even know existed. It’s not an Eyes Wide Shut-style seedy underworld, or even a hotbed of subversion aimed at tearing down the establishment. It’s just freakishly well attended (amassing 40 million users since its launch in 2013), with enough guests having fun just being themselves to have developed their own distinct house-party culture.
Memes develop, relationships blossom, cliques form. (Apparently, successful Viners socialise strictly according to their follower numbers ‒ so if you’re lagging at 40,000 odd, you’ll have to wait before the 50,000-plus crew will let you join in.) Most importantly, the Vine community doesn’t particularly care that the outside world hasn’t really noticed it exists. And, while the new video service from Instagram might have attempted to steal Vine’s thunder, its tendency towards heavily filtered lifestyle updates, which are carefully designed to induce envy, can’t compete with Vine’s distinctive hotbed of unvarnished, rapid-delivery tomfoolery.
“If Instagram is an art museum, Vine is a block party,” writes Matt Honen in Wired. “You’d have to be wilfully ignorant to not notice that those on Vine are distinctly younger, distinctly blacker, and distinctly, well, gayer than society in general.”
Without number crunching, it’s hard to say how accurate his observation is. But it’s not unreasonable to assume Vines might just appear strikingly diverse in contrast to a mainstream media that remains limited in its representation of people who don’t look like Holly Willoughby.
And that’s why Cathlyn Jones stood out on Vine ‒ simply because you don’t feel like you’d see her anywhere else. Eighteen and from Austin, Texas, her face transforms from wholesome American schoolgirl to the kind of tensile comic mask I won’t attempt to do justice to in words; the whole point of a funny face is that it’s abstract. After all, physical comedy is dumb, in the best sense.
And it’s not just her comic skills that are compelling. Like her bio ‒ “I love Jesus and making people laugh” ‒ there’s an unusual disconnect that keeps you scrolling mindlessly between clips; a curious mix of Bible Belt and Saturday Night Live. Jones has a big, wholesome Texan family, a glossy, comforting-looking house full of dogs, and total confidence about running around her school dressed like a cave woman, grunting and hitting people on the head with a club.
Letting their dork flags fly
“People had no idea how weird I was,” she told me over a transatlantic phone call, in which she seemed, very sweetly, a little bemused by my fascination with her unconventional fame. My list of po-faced questions about her ambitions and creativity were a poor mask for the sub-text of my curiosity: “YOU FASCINATE ME. Let me look inside your soul.”
“It’s tough being my age and wanting to fit in. And you have these people who are watching you and you’re making ugly faces and being goofy,” she explains, telling me her Vine fame began with her classmates before spreading through other Texan high schools, and then nationwide; a prospect I couldn’t help but imagine would be a mix of exhilarating and terrifying for a 17-year-old. But she seemed at ease with her newfound internet fame and, like Gloria Shuri Nava, had felt the liberating effects of letting her ‘dork’ flag fly.
“I became super-confident this past year with just throwing myself out there and having my whole school watch me do it.”
While her day-to-day life remains much the same, she has recorded a Vine advert for a local dance studio, in return for free classes, and appeared at “a birthday party for a bunch of middle school girls for 35 bucks”.
Jazmine Hood, a 17-year-old high school student from Little Rock, Arkansas, Vines under the name PerfectLaughs to more than 960,000 followers. After some to-ing and fro-ing with her publicist, she put together a slick video response to my questions, telling me how much she loved her diverse group of fans.
“I have young, old, in the middle, teenagers, black, white, Indian, Asian, Orange, Green,” she says. Brushing aside any suggestion that being a girl on Vine might be different to being a guy, she moved on to my question about the pressure as a woman in the public eye to look a certain way.
“There’s pressure in this world every day on women to be this picture-perfect ‘lady’. But, I mean, I don’t feel that pressure because I’m gonna be who I’m gonna be, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna say what I wanna say. I mean, only you can make you happy,” she says, breaking into a broad smile. “I’m happy to be who I am.”
These girls seem so at home with their online fame, not at all as freaked out as the novelty of their condition might suggest to older, less digitally naturalised onlookers. So why does seeing a teenage girl being herself and goofy in front of an audience feel so new ‒ radical, even?
From object to subject
Popular culture isn’t all that great at letting women be individuals. While we spend every day with the women who surround us clearly existing as people, with all the small quirks, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies the human condition demands, something weird happens when women transition from private existence to the public eye. They quickly become symbols, codes through which we attempt to figure out our relationship with womanhood.
Miley Cyrus’s tongue-waggling figure loomed large over 2013, not as a flawed human being, but as the embodiment of every cultural crisis on which newspaper editors could scrabble to commission a think piece. She was responsible for the sexualisation of young women and the death of feminism. She was the dos and don’ts of womanhood in a cream PVC bikini. You can be sexualised, but not sexual. Attractive, but do keep it classy. Let us look at you, but don’t touch yourself. Be a virgin and a whore. And please be kind enough not to draw any attention to those contradictions.
Telling a joke is a deeply powerful act. It’s about effecting a reaction. Even if they’re asking to be laughed at, comedians are inherently the subject of their actions, rather than the object. In a deeply visual culture where women are objectified more often than not, this is a rather striking position to adopt on a public platform.
Teenage hobbyists aside, even grown women who have built their careers around performing appear empowered on Vine, broadcasting their own, one-woman shows via their phones. Not that they don’t have to put up with negative comments. Kat Bateman, a 23-year-old Viner with 42,000 followers who met her boyfriend Michael LoPriore (a paid-up member of the million-plus club) on the app, told me about the criticism she has attracted from commenters.
“For some reason, people like to point out unusual attributes about you. So, people will say: ‘You’re a slut… and your eye goes in a weird direction’, or ‘Hey bitch, you really need to tan around your mouth. You have a white mouth’.”
Actors including Brittany Furlan and Simone Shepherd have turned Vine into their primary day job, putting out micro-skits on a daily basis, collaborating with other Viners and creating sponsored Vines for big brands. For them, it has been a profoundly transformative experience, catapulting them out of obscurity and opening up previously unattainable opportunities.
Simone Shepherd made the final stages of auditions for Saturday Night Live as part of their search for a black female cast member, after internet-driven criticism led them to address the show’s lack of diversity. Brittany Furlan went from being a struggling actor to being crowned the so-called ‘Queen of Vine’, with 4.6 million followers and appearances on Jimmy Kimmel.
I asked her how the app had changed her life. “I’m not going to lie,” she says. “My life before Vine was pretty lame. I was a struggling actor trying to get good representation, trying to get booked on more shows and I was running a small eBay business out of my house to pay the bills. It was depressing, I was bored, and then I discovered Vine, and I feel truly blessed for everything that’s come of it. How long is it going to last? I don’t know.”
A strange new existence
All the Viners I spoke to tended to say the same things about their success: “I’m blessed,” “I’m humbled,” “I’ve learned how much good there is in people, not just bad.” It was only Manon Mathews, a radiant Kate Middleton-alike who sings like a Disney Princess and dances like a crazy person, who seemed unnerved by the strange new existence into which she’d been catapulted.
Joyful and charismatic in her videos (and prone to endearing episodes of corpsing) she seemed saddened during our conversation by the numerous contradictions and challenges that have accompanied her Vine fame. She stopped herself from reading the comments on her videos when she got too upset by them, and was unsettled by the weird social rules of Vine meet-ups, which are dictated by follower count. Mostly, though, she seemed tired. After years on the audition circuit, she had finally won over an audience of almost a million fans, only to find find that the money men standing between her and the really big jobs were as immovable as ever.
“I met with an agent two nights ago and this is my selling point: I’m like, ‘I’m on Vine!’,” she explains, laughing a little at her own excitement. “And they’re like… ‘What’s Vine?’ And I’m like… What does that mean? Because in my head I’m like, ‘I got this’, you know. Now I can be an actor, now I can make money on TV shows.” She pauses, “…but maybe it doesn’t mean anything.”
Curious to see where her performance skills came from, I asked her about her Californian upbringing. “It was fabulous,” she said, noticeably brightening, if a little wistful. “My early childhood, from birth to ten, was the best. It was a flat street, there was a bunch of kids, I remember running around in the sprinklers, and I was friends with everybody, riding bikes. There were ice-cream trucks, 4th of July parades, Halloween parades. I really, really, really enjoyed myself.”
It’s easy to imagine the girl who shines on Vine, winning over the kids with her silly songs and natural physical timing. “Funnily enough,” she adds, “my dad had a video camera.”
I ask what’s the best thing that has happened to her since she has become a Viner. She is quiet for a moment, before replying with grave sincerity, “I had an email from a girl who was 14 and she said she never felt free in her life. She said because of my Vines, she finally felt free to be the goofball that she is.”