It is inarguable that Youtube launched off the backs of Asian-American content creators such as Wong Fu Productions and NigaHiga. Even outside of comedy, large Asian-American creators such as fashion icon Wendy’s Lookbook are given a voice, demonstrating the strength that the platform has in broadcasting minority driven images. In a way, Youtube created an Asian-American market and proved it through its largely Asian demographic (The Asian American Movement); yet, as the platform grew, its inclusionary aspects relative to class and race declined when confronted by hegemonic opportunities. This is visualized through the rise and fall of the most prominent, and arguably the most influential, beauty Youtuber: Michelle Phan. Phan’s decline from her original position as an uncommercialized and personalized Asian-American beauty Youtuber made room for white/white-passing beauty Youtubers to utilize their dominant group status to exude believable, false pretenses of inclusion that mimic offline neoliberalist discourses in covert manners. Though Youtube may have started as a platform for small independent artists to post free content, it has now become another manner in which racial hierarchies present in offline hegemonic structures have become digitized, making them appear intangible. This can be seen throughout several genres, but one of the most striking personifications is situated in the beauty Youtube community, a sector whose deceptive neutrality has rendered the platform indistinguishable from offline structures.
When Phan began in 2006, her videos consisted of poorly recorded makeup videos (relative to the technology of the time) with inconsistent makeshift backdrops and soothing voice overs. The low production value created a personal experience for viewers to interpret as less manufactured than traditional media. Coincidentally, when other makeup Youtubers became more recognized, Phan began to explore other ways of producing content, such as utilizing clean, consistent, and well-lit backgrounds, as well as animations and graphics, factors that increased the value of the videos and their cost. The increased professionalism within the videos motivated outside companies to request partnerships with Phan. As Linda Trinh Võ states, “She is one of the rare beauty gurus who has been able to transfer her Internet status to gain entrée into the mainstream beauty industry, as well as leveraging it to gain contracts to endorse other products and business ventures.” While this was rare at the time, partnerships like these have dramatically increased since Youtube’s economic potential was realized.
A sample of current mainstream (in terms of their online and offline impact) Youtube makeup “gurus” are Jaclyn Hill, Nikkietutorials, and Jeffree Star, all of which demonstrate Phan’s influences through their filming techniques and voice overs. What is peculiar about this group is the manner in which they deal (or do not deal) with racial politics within the makeup community, politics that ring eerily similar to those revolving around the idea of neoliberalist inclusion outside of Youtube. A digitization of the offline political economy relative to racial hierarchies is present here.
Creating an inclusionary environment is important for these Youtubers’ viewer and subscription counts, which factor into their personal profits and Youtube’s newly generated political economy. To do this, they take on a neoliberalist approach through the reiteration of the idea of hard work being the key to their success (which Jaclyn Hill never forgets to mention in every Snapchat story of hers regarding her “poor” upbringing when discussing her current successes), all the while neglecting to mention the intersectionality (or lack thereof) involving it, as if Youtube exists outside of the racial hegemonic structures that reality supports.
To avoid these structures, these Youtubers carefully select issues pertinent to them that reflect a certain degree of “oppression” that they too experience to create a relatable, humanized character, all the while still maintaining themselves separate from the political ideas surrounding race. Not only is this hypocritical, as the platform they utilize has been demonstrated to be founded on minority/minority-specific content, but it digitizes and immortalizes current neoliberalist views regarding the erasure of racial issues through hard work.
An example of this usage of oppressive narratives outside of race is Nikkietutorials’ descriptions of how she used to be bullied for being taller and larger than most of her peers in an attempt to evoke pity from her viewers. This is not to say that her situation is unworthy of sympathy, but when placed alongside the absence of racial discussions, it calls the integrity of the Youtubers into question in terms of the self-images they wish to construct. The only time race has been mentioned by Youtubers such as these are when they are being called out for their racist remarks, such as Jeffree Star’s continuous use of slurs and derogatory terms. This attitude was recently seen when Star called Black beauty Youtuber Jackie Aina a rat “who doesn’t pay her taxes”. Jaclyn Hill has also been called out for laughing along with fellow Youtuber KathleenLights who used the n-word on Snapchat.
Despite all these acts, racism is continuously brushed aside by these Youtubers’ fans. This careful selection of which racial narratives will be ignored and which will be commodified (as evident in the POC inspired big lip, thick brows, and self-tanning trends that they promote) further establishes their positions as the dominant group within the makeup Youtube community. Unsurprisingly, all of these creators listed are white (with the exception of KathleenLights, who is a white passing, Latinx individual), replicating the dominant groups seen offline.
As for Phan, the last video she created was posted nearly a year ago in which she explained how she would be leaving Youtube due to its increasingly restrictive and manufactured nature. While the video was a touching goodbye, it ended with Phan promoting her makeup brand Emcosmetics (under L’Oréal), whose initial failed release is being revamped to emulate other Youtubers’ makeup launches/collaborations, such as Hill’s and KathleenLights’. Unlike her Youtuber companions who pretend to be genuine in their exclamations that Youtube is their life (i.e. Hill), Youtube seems to have been one large stepping stone into the offline community for Phan, a possible conflicting notion for Asian-Americans. On one hand, Phan is still attempting to remain economically successful outside of Youtube, but on the other, the spaces that Asian-Americans have created have pushed their very own creators out due to capitalism’s realization of the platform’s potential for replications of the larger political economy and its dominant groups.
The platform seems to now require consistent content to appease viewers, professionally filmed videos, and a contradictory lack of political/racial discussions along with a selective, “inclusionary” environment to reach a wider audience. Youtube today, especially in regards to the makeup community, is not any more revolutionary or genuine than offline influencers, despite its history of independent artists. Even when minorities (e.g. Asian-Americans) create their own digital spaces of representation and communication, it seems as if they too are eventually subjected to an erasure led by a dominant group comprised of online white communities.
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