Monday, May 20, 2019

"I'm in front of the camera and not behind it"

Here's a video that a lot of people will be familiar with and a lot more people will have never heard of.

As often happens with me, the only reason I know about this bit of pop culture is because Ann Althouse commented on it. She says in her post comment that, "Something very big or very small appears to have happened." And that catches the spirit of the thing. This is like watching the head mean girl from your high school explaining why she felt the need to crush some other kid, destroy them, in front of everyone else. Only this isn't a high school student, Tati Westbrook is married woman in her thirties who has the emotional and moral intelligence of a 17-year-old. That has a lot to do with her success. The beauty and entertainment industry has long been dominated by people who are older than the audience they appeal to; it has long been dominated by people who are driven by a desperate need for love in the form of fame.

The quote in the header to this post appears at about the 40 minute mark. And I get her point: she's 37 years old and she's a beauty icon. That's unusual but not unheard of. On the other hand, the notion that a woman would be big in the beauty industry by working in front of the camera is not exactly revolutionary. You could argue that the teen-aged boy she is slapping down is far more revolutionary in being a gay man in front of the camera although even that is not nearly as new as people like to pretend.

(Doris Day, who died last week, achieved her greatest fame in the years from 37 to 46. And she was a cultural giant who dwarfs all these YouTubers put together.) 

Bottom line: everything we see in this video is the height of conventionality: it's a feud between an ambitious and manipulative woman and an equally ambitious and manipulative gay man who have teamed up to promote unrealistic expectations for young women to motivate them to spend billions of dollars on products that promise more than they deliver. That describes the beauty industry from 1870 to 2019.


What really struck me though was a Vox article Althouse linked to that takes sides in the feud under the guise of explaining it. More precisely, I was intrigued by the way the article used the concept of authenticity.

Authenticity is a weird notion and it's especially odd to find it coming up in this context for authentic is not what Tati Westbrook is. She doesn't even fake it as the old entertainment business joke goes. Everything about her is a performance. I don't criticize her for that. Authenticity isn't what she's aiming for. So why is the word being used?

Here is how Vox brings it up.
But the Charles-Westbrook feud is also as good a look as any into the lucrative ways YouTube works. The platform may reward authenticity and encourage gurus like Charles to open up about their personal lives as well as their work. Yet the YouTube audience can just as easily flip the script and turn on their favorite personality — and decimate not just their public image but their entire livelihood.
The platform rewards authenticity? What the hell are they talking about? That's a serious question because they are talking about something. It just isn't authenticity.

If we look at the quote, authenticity appears to be about opening up about your personal life. Well, you can see Westbrook do that above. Except that she's performing. And she's not hiding the fact that she's performing. She's overacting to a degree that is staggering. That's not opening up.

The second aspect of "authenticity" as Vox sees it is that it's tenuous. The audience could flip on you and turn against you. But authenticity, whatever it is, is said to be a quality about you. Impressions can be wrong and they can, indeed, flip in a second. But if authenticity means anything at all, it has to mean something stable about the person who has it.

The word shows up three times in the article. The second and third are in one paragraph.
BeauTubers’ authority is born out of a perception of authenticity, and many gurus underline this authenticity by opening up about their personal lives onscreen. They reveal their darkest secrets, talk about their miscarriages, or detail their plastic surgery. They continually reassure their subscribers that they wouldn’t have gotten this far without them.
I've left all the links in that just in case you have a desire to see people spill their darkest secrets in a terribly conceited way as part of a pathetic struggle for fame. If we look past that, we see an interesting shift. It's not authenticity that YouTube rewards but "a perception of authenticity". And the stars of the medium "underline this authenticity by opening up about their personal lives onscreen."

Suppose you woke up decided you wanted to be authentic. Would opening up about your personal life in a public forum be a good way to do that? I would think not. I can't imagine a better to way to ensure that you'd lie and lie and lie than doing that. Just the pretense that you'd make yourself vulnerable to people who don't know you in that way seems nonsensical.

I say "seems" because there are clearly people who believe it. Reading about these YouTube stars inspires pity. Someday we will be reading about deaths by suicide. Or, more likely, not as their being completely forgotten will be a factor in those suicides.

Authenticity is a very slippery notion.

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