Under the Influence: White Lies

When you read “influencer,” do you think “white woman”? That’s not a surprise: the stereotypes originally established offline are reaffirmed on social media by the same systems.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 |  9 minutes (2,302 words)

Part one in a three-part series on the influencer economy.

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When I hear “influencer,” I think Caroline Calloway: a tepid blond with tepid thoughts who fulfills the minimal standards of idealized American femininity, a woman so forgettable I had to look up her name multiple times while writing this essay even though she dominated the media for a week after her ghostwriter blew the whistle. In my mind, which has only been exposed to the influencer industry by osmosis, the influencer — anyone who uses social media to sway their audience — is always a woman. She’s neither too beautiful nor too smart nor too edgy nor the contrary. From what I can see, if she’s not a basic bitch, she’s parked pretty close. You could say she’s a grifter — she has nothing worth buying, apparently, but she sells anyway — but that suggests a level of intrigue and premeditation that the woman floated in front of me fails to embody. On every level she appears pedestrian. And that’s why she’s so divisive. This fictitious prototype’s banality is what makes her appealing to so many people with marginal dreams, and so repulsive to those of us whose nightmare is that this dream is all there is.

When I hear “influencer,” I don’t think of the men, the people of color. The influencer industry is populated by a significant number of successful athletes and gamers and entertainers of multiple races and genders, but you wouldn’t know it; the big-i influencers, who get the most play and the most pay for acting out the most insipid stereotypes, dwarf the small-i influencers who don’t. Though engagement rates for sponsored posts have dropped 1.6 percent over the past year and a number of fraudulent interlopers have eroded the public trust, according to Business Insider, by next year the influencer marketing industry’s value is estimated to reach as high as $10 billion. And that money flows the way it always has — men at the top, white women below them, and everyone else at the bottom. 

This isn’t about who is better at influencing, it’s about who is allowed to influence: who has the right look, who knows the right people, who lives in the right place, who has the right means. Check any of the top 10 most successful influencers lists and Calloway is nowhere near it, nor are a number of other icons of the influencer economy that paint a limited portrait of its totality. Yet they’re all we see: Tavi Gevinson on the cover of New York magazine analyzing how Instagram has fractured her identity; Natalie Beach, also in The Cut, disclosing her thankless history as Calloway’s ghostwriter; James Charles (the rare male beauty influencer) squabbling with someone named Tati Westbrook (also covered in The Cut). We see attractive, upwardly mobile white people showing off their best angles and causing drama — a Jane Austen novel without the self-reflection.

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“With it you win all men if you are a woman — and all women if you are a man,” announced Elinor Glyn, who popularized the concept of the It Girl, the pre-influencer influencer, in 1927. Clara Bow embodied the term that same year in the appropriately titled film It, in which she played a lower-class shopgirl who is nonetheless irresistible to her upper-class boss. From then on, “it” became synonymous with “young attractive white woman with a certain je ne sais quoi.” From Eve Babitz to Chloe Sevigny, the It Girl’s innate talent, whether writing or acting or some other romantic art form, is buried beneath her persona, to the point that all that is visible is the way she plays chess or how she parts her hair. It’s a paradoxical concept: The one woman we want to possess cannot actually be reduced to something that can be. Instead, her accoutrements — Twiggy’s androgyny, Joan Didion’s cigarettes — act as a stand-in for her humanity. With men, it’s the opposite. There are cool men, of course, but their talent, the work they do, always comes first. Their persona, their bad behavior often, is only a token of something more indelible. They are defined by their product, while the women are defined physically. We remember Edie Sedgwick for her dimples, for being a constant on Andy Warhol’s arm. We remember Warhol, meanwhile, for his profound weirdness, yes, but more for the art he left behind. The social media influencer falls into the same tradition as Sedgwick, except this time the public-facing woman does not need to be in close proximity to celebrity for her abilities to be eclipsed by her body.

The stereotypically successful, ultimate big-i influencer online is the stereotypically successful woman offline: blond, attractive, open. Stanford professor Rosanna Guadagno, who is writing a book on the psychology of social media, tells me that the kind of retrograde gender dynamics you see in rom-coms tend to play out online as well: The male heroes are average Joes, while the women are the (white) hotties they want to fuck. Not only that, the pay gap applies here too, with men reportedly earning 23 percent more on average than women despite the latter making up more than 75 percent of the industry. Women perform best, according to a number of social media studies conducted with support from the MaLisa Foundation, when they hew to traditional femininity: getting personal about their lifestyles, showing their bodies in their private spaces, being vulnerable with others. When they try to break away from this formula, they are criticized. Influencer Rachel Sullivan, for example, who is known for her hoop dancing on Instagram, was harassed for writing a post supporting immigrants. She blames misogyny for how she’s been perceived. (“As soon as I started stepping back and seeing them not hating on me but hating on women in general,” she told The Chill Times, “I was able to step away and approach it from a more analytical place.”)

Men, meanwhile, are encouraged to cover more subjects — from politics to gaming — and to shoot depersonalized images in public spaces, to remain professional, stoic, and unemotionally informative. As Emma Grey Ellis has noted in Wired, “James Charles is a ‘male beauty influencer,’ while any woman who streams herself playing videogames on Twitch is a ‘female gamer.’” Per her point, last year Forbes released a list of the most successful influencers divided by area of interest. Men dominated the substantive, professionally-coded categories, like tech and business, while women were overrepresented in what are regarded as the more superficial, personalized categories like fashion. The implication seems to be that men work, while women work on themselves. And if you digress, you’re small-i, and once you’re small-i, good luck finding fame and fortune.

This has a lot less to do with how men and women are, and a lot more to do with how men and women are encouraged to be online. As Guadagno deadpans: “Facebook started as a ‘hot or not’ website.” Ten years ago, influencers were better known as bloggers or YouTube stars, even Vine stars. But companies, run largely by white men, found it more efficient to market on closed platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which consolidated all the influencers into one visual space, producing more easily verifiable content faster. That is likely why 25 percent of the sponsored posts on Instagram are fashion-based, while all other categories trail much farther behind, and why there is such a thing as big- and small-i influencers now — it’s a crowded space and the tried and not-true rise.

Cornell assistant professor Brooke Erin Duffy, author of (Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media, and Aspirational Work, tells me that a lot of small-i influencers are “not thrilled” that the market has pushed them onto Instagram. They found blogging more thoughtful, more autonomous. Now it’s all about image and competition, with each of them jockeying to produce the sexiest selfie. Which is how “influencing” becomes a euphemism for selling out, and why Duffy and so many others prefer “content creator”: Calling people influencers “elides a lot of the creative work that these individuals do.” Still, you can’t separate the work from the money. Duffy says the word influencer was “essentially hijacked” from marketing, which is itself attached to femininity. Shopping is still traditionally considered a female pastime, with many women having internalized the belief that they are natural-born consumers and that consumption is a path to self-actualization. Of course, in this case, self-actualization is only accessible to the big-i’s; the small-i’s, regardless of their work, regardless of their popularity, face a glass ceiling, though this one is clearly frosted — black plus-size blogger Stephanie Yeboah revealed in one interview that she once earned 10 times less than the white influencers on the same job. Just like our society offline, online influencing shuts out diversity unless it comes in a familiar form.

The most successful influencer in the world is the big-i who masquerades as the small-i: Kylie Jenner is white, but she passes for nonwhite, cornering the market in a way Calloway can’t. Like the rest of the Kardashian clan, she highlights her big lips, big curves, and tanned skin, and even sometimes goes all-out with cornrows. “How popular the Kardashians are speaks volumes and can’t be overlooked,” Instagram influencer Ericka Hart told NBC last month. “They have been able to capitalize off black bodies, and people will want to emulate that.” Last November, writer Wanna Thompson observed a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “niggerfishing”: white women basically performing beauty blackface and earning accolades in the process. “Black women are constantly bombarded with the promotion of European beauty standards in the media,” she wrote in Paper magazine, “so when our likeness is then embraced on women who have the privilege to fit traditional standards yet freely co-opt Blackness to their liking, it reaffirms the belief that people desire Blackness, just not on Black women.” Even when they are not trafficking in appropriation, white influencers catch breaks where their peers of color do not. In Metro this summer, Yeboah criticized the lack of diversity in marketing campaigns: “By exclusively using white influencers to tout holiday experiences, beauty and skincare products and fashion pieces, the story being told is that these experiences are only available to white people.” The irony being that black women spend nine times more on beauty products than white women, according to a 2018 Nielsen report, which explained, “if a brand doesn’t have a multicultural strategy, it doesn’t have a growth strategy.”

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I couldn’t see a way to fix influencing — the male-coded and female-coded areas of influence, the pay gap between men and women, the pay gap between white women and women of color, the wider power divided along gender and racial lines — without correcting the systemic issues that are affecting everything right now. I thought maybe it would be best to just burn the whole thing down and start again. But the academics I spoke to were less hopeless. Duffy believes the solution is transparency, correcting the false narrative that influencing is a fuss-free way to make an easy buck. While we lavish attention on successful influencers and mock those who slip up, we rarely talk about the work involved (or, in a case like Calloway’s, the help received). The individualization of the influencer industry means we are not privy to the emotional labor it requires, nor the money, nor the risks, predominantly for marginalized groups. “They’re constantly dealing with hate and criticism and harassment and the devaluation of their profession,” Duffy says, pointing out a site I had never heard of called GOMIBLOG (Get Off My Internet), which buys into the narrow, big-i view of the influencer and which polices authenticity on women’s sites. This gendered monitoring of social media extends to how interpersonal relationships are covered by the mainstream press. While the fight between Charles and Westbrook was all over the internet for days (Westbrook is currently being pitted against Jeffree Star — whether they are actually feuding is unclear), you don’t often see male influencers making gossip news the same way. Smaller spats are ignored entirely until the men are caught up in serious shit — PewDiePie being named-dropped by the Christchurch shooter (“subscribe to PewDiePie”), Logan Paul filming a dead body — which is then treated soberly.

In order to mitigate online stereotypes, Guadagno prioritizes increased diversity at tech companies. These biases are not only perpetuated by the predominantly white men creating our social media platforms, however; a similar demographic also dominates marketing teams. Last year the brand Revolve was criticized for using only white women on a series of press trips, triggering the hashtag #revolvesowhite. In response to the glaring oversight, blogger Valerie Eguavoen launched the Instagram page You Belong Now, which promotes content creators who are otherwise ignored. Two Canadian influencers of color, Shannae Ingleton-Smith and Tania Cascilla, have also founded The Glow Up, an invitation-only Facebook group that provides support, in the form of transparency, for black influencers (money is one of the major topics of conversation). This is one of the rare spaces online in which white women like Calloway do not have carte blanche. “The point of The Glow Up has never been to exclude other women,” blogger Coco Bassey told Forbes in March, but, she said, “sometimes these conversations need to be had in the absence of others, so we can get real with each other and get down to our unfiltered truths.”

Behind all the Calloways being pushed into our paths, the influencing community is clearly mobilizing, one of the many microcosms of the larger global move towards equality. While the big-i’s unknowingly pose for their latest selfies, if you look closely you can see the small-i’s poised in the background, ready to claim their rightful place. 

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.