On YouTube Celebrities and Blurred Consent
Once considered niche performers, YouTube vloggers are increasingly jumping off our computer screens and becoming celebrities in the real-world sense. They play concerts around the world, have clothing lines and makeup collections, have meet ups that are attended by thousands, and make millions of dollars (case in point: Justin Bieber). YouTube as a company, instead of solely providing a platform for this unique celebrity formation, has recently decided to more actively participate in perpetuating this new celebrity culture: they are currently featuring some of their stars, such as Michelle Phan, Rosanna Pansino, and Bethany Mota, in nation-wide advertisements.
This new type of celebrity is predicated on the idea of accessibility. Unlike the movie stars we only access via orchestrated interviews, YouTube stars seem far more accessible. The entry-barrier to YouTube stardom seems low: anyone can start a YouTube channel and (ideally) hit it big. The very nature of the content also seems to create a more direct relationship between stars and their audience because videos are created by users for fans as opposed to by a studio for mass consumption. This accessibility causes users to feel like they know content creators, who they perceive as being far more candid and real than old-school celebrities. Viewers can go to Vidcon and meet their favorite YouTubers, DM them on Twitter, and/or access them on a daily basis through their YouTube channels. It's easy to develop crushes on cute YouTubers based on this presumed accessibility and personal relationship.
To be honest, as someone who has loved YouTube and YouTubers since middle school, I always bought into and supported this culture. But recently, various scandals have shed a new light on the community and, specifically, some detrimental gendered dynamics at the core of this perceived accessibility.
The first shocking instance came in February of 2012 when popular YouTube musician Mike Lombardo became the target of a federal child pornography investigation that focused on his alleged exchange of naked photos with underage female fans. Like a lot of male musicians on YouTube, his audience was comprised predominantly of pre-teen girls. All three of the victims of his actions were underage female fans (the youngest of whom was 14). According to the FBI, one victim was instructed by Lombardo to strip and masturbate for him. Lombardo is currently serving a five-year sentence in prison for his actions. The YouTube world was shaken, as the popular artist (whose music was available on John and Hank Green’s DFTBA label) seemed to violate the trusted, intimate relationship between viewer and content creator that makes YouTube function.
Lombardo's abusive actions, however, turned out to hardly be an aberration. On March 11th, 2014, a blog post written by Tumblr user Olga launched allegations against Tom Milsom, a popular YouTube artist also signed by DFTBA records. In a subsequent post, she revealed that their relationship began when she was 15 years old and he was 21 years old. She detailed being forced to send him nude pictures and to have sex that would leave her “bruised for like days...like literally everything hurt so bad and I told him that.” She recalls that he would cut himself in front of her and threaten suicide, causing her to feel pressure to stay in the abusive relationship.
In revealing her experiences, Olga inspired many others to do the same. More allegations regarding Milsom emerged, as did allegations against other YouTubers, such as Alex Day, of the popular channel “Nerimon.” Day grew to popularity not only for his music, but for videos that recap his chapter-by-chapter experience reading Twilight (which attracted a predominantly young female audience). As many as thirteen girls have come forward with claims against Day who, though he initially attempted to defend himself, eventually stated in a (since-deleted) blog post, “Until yesterday, I thought that I had had only appropriate, though occasionally manipulative relationships with women. However, the model of consent that I followed, not that I specifically thought about it at the time – was that only ‘no’ meant ‘no.’ That is not what consent is…. I spent a long part of my life doing shitty things to good people and barely ever realising or acknowledging that I was doing the shitty things.”
Lombardo, Day and Milsom are hardly isolated examples: Alex Carpenter, Ed Blann, Danny Hooper, Tom McLean, Corey Vidal, Adam Roach, and Luke Conard have also been involved in similar situations. Most of these musicians are in the same circle of YouTubers who talk about (and sing about) Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and also have predominantly younger female audiences. Videos of girls discussing their abuse continue to pop up and it has become clear that this is a problem that has plagued the website and its community for much longer than most users were aware of.
The question of whether or not YouTubers and “fans” -- especially male YouTube celebrities and their young female fans -- can have consensual relationships has become highly debated. If one person adores, watches, and thinks they know a person based on a ten-minute video of scripted and meticulously edited content, the power balance in play surely isn’t even. Moreover, in the vast majority of these cases, the victims in question were underage girls. As Hank Green, an incredibly popular YouTube video producer, himself accurately states, “sexual relationships need to be equitable and they can’t be when people are in dramatically different life stages or when one person enters the relationship as a fan of another.”
I personally don’t believe that an underage girl is always able or comfortable enough to say no in a sexual situation with someone significantly older -- especially someone she has intensely admired and with whom she might even perceive an (imagined) personal relationship based on unique YouTube fan dynamics. While there may be certain advantages to YouTube's unique platform, there needs to be more transparency and discussion about the very real division and distance between content creators and viewers (especially underage viewers). While it's great that young women may be able to find video creators who speak to and inspire them in unique ways, boundaries in that relationship must be clearly delineated and respected.
More articles in WMC FBomb by Category: Education, Feminism, Media, Violence against women
More articles in WMC FBomb by Tag: Sexuality, Sexualized violence, Sex education, Social media, News, Books, Rape, Music