Under the Influence: Watch(wo)men

We watch the (women) influencers watching the (heavily female) influencing industry, but the men aren’t entirely in the dark.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 |  7 minutes (1,716 words)

Part three in a three-part series on the influencer economy. Read part one, “White Lies,” and part two, “Deeper than Beauty.”

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“I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson.” Imagine PewDiePie — the Swedish influencer who at one point was the most-subscribed user on YouTube for literally just playing video games while spewing alt-right fodder, the guy name-checked by a mass shooter yet little scrutinized by anyone, let alone himself — saying that. “I saw the gap widening between the story we told and the situation on the ground.” Imagine Logan Paul , another YouTuber whose popularity is barely examined perhaps because his Jackass-lite routine suggests there is nothing to him beyond the denigration of all living things from rats to suicide victims, saying that. Those quotes, both published in The Cut, come from women, both of them influencers: the first is Tavi Gevinson, whose success as the founder of the teen magazine Rookie has been parlayed into an acting career fueled by Instagram; the second is Caroline Calloway’s ghostwriter Natalie Beach, who exposed her employer as a largely empty vessel filled by Beach’s own talents. Theirs came in a long line of critiques recently piled onto the influencing industry (and those within it), critiques that seemed to be overwhelmingly delivered by women like Gevinson, like Beach, even like me.

I notice male influencers interrogating video games, superhero movies … even women. What I don’t notice is male influencers interrogating this interrogation. But is it really only women who are contemplating this industry and their roles within it? Who are capable of thinking a little, instead of constantly doing? According to Crystal Abidin, who has been studying influencers for more than a decade, the lack of clarity starts at the source, with the word itself. “I think the politics of naming and self-branding contributes to the perception that there are more women scholars or more women influencers looking at these things,” says the author of Internet Celebrity (2018), “when I don’t actually feel that this is the case.” The case is what it always has been: We watch women as they watch themselves, a Matryoshka doll of reflection and self-reflection, and we watch men as they watch themselves, with little more than a passing glance.

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On its face, influencing is visibly feminine, which tracks if you think about what an influencer actually does. “You are basically in the business of persuading people to like you,” says Abidin. While women may not be considered authorities on much, they are certainly expected to have a handle on likability. Some women in the influencing industry even feel they have an advantage over men, since the job lends itself particularly well to the emotional-labor savvy. That the most successful influencers tend to project the most empathy explains in part why queer male influencers do so well in the lifestyle niche (one of the industry’s most lucrative) — their emotional acuity tends to exceed that of many straight men, who have never been forced into introspection by oppression.  

But being introspective can also be a liability — it’s harder to function online when you’re reflecting on how every decision might impact you. At the BBC, #vanlife-r Brianna Madia presented the calculus this way: “How vulnerable can you be? What piece of information can I expose about myself? How wide can I rip my chest open for all of these people?” Any potential balance is something of a myth since the “authenticity bind,” identified by media and communication professor Jefferson Pooley in an essay in the 2010 book Blowing up the Brand, ensures that female influencers lose out either way: They are shameless if they share and a sham if they don’t. Gevinson’s essay described internalizing just this dilemma, dividing her life into “the part of myself that had learned to register experience as only fully realized once primed for public consumption, but that was monitored by the other part of myself, the part that knew the actual sharing of these specific moments would appear inauthentic.”

Women subject themselves online to a sort of identity fracturing on two levels, internal and external. Not only do they actively present themselves through a medium designed for the male gaze, but we actively receive and process them from this same vantage point, one that views them fundamentally as sex objects. Female influencers are siphoned into more visual platforms (Instagram, Facebook) where they deal in subjects requiring more visual expertise (beauty, fashion), while the text-based spaces (Reddit, Digg) that emphasize more expansive subject matter (politics, tech) are more hospitable to men. Ultimately, authenticity is not the only bind women find themselves in — they are also primarily valued as a gender by the qualities we devalue as a society. They are pressured not to perform “real work,” but instead to do emotional labor, to be more personal and intimate. It’s virtually the only arena in which they can succeed, for which they are simultaneously undervalued and overvalued. 

Even women’s content is secondary to their physical appearance, however, since this all falls under the male gaze, remember, and the male gaze objectifies first. “Your body is your calling card” is how Abidin explains it. Regardless of your skills, if you gain weight, like queer beauty influencer Mina Gerges did, you lose value. If you are expected to be single and you are suddenly coupled, once again, your value drops. The constant scrutiny of women’s personal lives impels them to do the same, deconstructing themselves in a way they might not were they left to simply live without constantly being dissected. But any woman in a world that surveils women is familiar with this everyday tyranny, so it follows that female academics would recognize it. As women experiencing the same repression offline, they gravitate toward studying it in a way that men, who are free of this quotidian analysis and self-analysis, don’t. “There’s a lived experience there,” explains Abidin. “We are trained to specifically look out for these things.”

Men are trained not to look at anything but the work, whether it’s offline or online. “There’s this tremendous culture of toxicity around being vulnerable,” says Gerges, “and around sharing real things and talking about our emotions and about talking about our struggles.” The same way female academics may have more of a personal interest in fashion and beauty, male scholars are likely inclined toward male-coded subjects like gaming and tech. Regardless of the actual gender breakdown in these two arenas, women are perpetually believed to be a subculture within them the way men are believed to be in lifestyle, despite the number of male makeup artists and stylists who dominate the sphere. So while it’s been reported that women make up 75 percent of the influencing industry, Abidin is skeptical: “We have to consider the politics of vocabulary.” Since the standard beauty influencer is female, both because beauty is associated with women and influencing is too, any males within this sector are identified by their gender. Gamers, however, shed the influencing moniker entirely and are popularly referred to as e-sports players or online streamers — no gender marker required, because the standard is male — while scholars (as well as the industry) classify them as content creators in the online creative industry rather than influencers in the influencing industry. “They’re conceptually a bit more distinct for academics who are giant nerds,” quips Abidin, “but in essence you are looking at the same thing.”

Despite the increasing number of women leaders in the influencing industry, particularly in Asia, men overwhelmingly hold the highest paid positions on the business side of things — they run media conglomerates, platforms, and even agencies scouting for talent. “So much of the money, so much of the power is still traditionally modeled after the tech industry,” says Abidin. “It’s men-heavy. You still get the same old boys clubs, you get the same gated networks.” These men make as many if not more decisions about what you see on their platforms as the women making the content, which is to say they are shaping the conversations around influencers, they’re just doing it a lot less visibly. The real question is whether they are at least hazarding some answers to the concerns — from pay gaps to opportunity hierarchies around race and gender — that appear to be predominantly surfaced by women. Abidin thinks they’re aware of the quest for equality, but if it affects their bottom line, in an industry that is particularly transient, they are less likely to react. From her work on the ground, Abidin senses that the women in charge “are the ones pushing for the change,” because they see their treatment in influencing as a symptom of their treatment in workplaces as a whole. Perhaps predictably, in Abidin’s experience, environments where there is more gender equity offline — Nordic countries, for instance — see men on the business side more open to reflecting this balance online.

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“Amid all the self-worth-measuring that has made up my experience of the internet,” wrote Gevinson, “I believe there was also self-actualizing, and that there still can be.” This self-actualization has been the arena of the women who are exposing the sexism and racism inherent in the influencing industry, increasing its transparency and uncovering the need for parity at the top. Women of color seem to be particularly enlightened, with Valerie Eguavoen launching the Instagram page You Belong Now to promote overlooked influencers, and Shannae Ingleton-Smith and Tania Cascilla founding Facebook group The Glow Up to support black influencers.  This seems to have had a sort of trickle-up effect in which women in charge have realized that the inequities faced by these influencers are just another example of discriminatory labor practices. Outside of that, female academics are parsing the effects of this dynamic on the industry. “I think the beautiful thing is that a lot of women have pushed against that unrealistic standard that has been sold to women for so long,” says Gerges. “Unfortunately for men, there’s still so much shame about talking about these things.” But the same way female influencers have established agency within the industry — for instance, making a living wage while rearing kids — similarly non-stereotypical male influencers like Gerges are introducing an alternative. Perhaps he too will inspire those within and around the industry to do better. He is an influencer after all.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.