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Soraya Roberts
I am a writer based in Toronto and the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life.

Under the Influence: Watch(wo)men

Jacques Benazra

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.

Under the Influence: Deeper Than Beauty

courtesy of Jakiya N. Brown / courtesy of Mina Gerges

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 |  8 minutes (2,145 words)

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

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It’s hard to find an influencer who doesn’t fit the profile. I could’ve spoken to a blond female beauty Instagrammer easily. Or a blond male gamer, even. Everything else was a nightmare. Try coming up with a tech influencer who is not a man. Or a man of color who is anywhere near grooming but not drag. In order to find the Travelingfro, Jakiya Brown, an African American woman Instagramming the globe, I had to go to a series of black culture sites. I might have discovered Mina Gerges, who lives in Toronto like me, if I ever walked rather than ran through a Sephora (he’s in the new Canadian campaign), but it was a Twitter callout that eventually brought us together. Surprise: “gay, genderqueer Egyptian beauty influencer” isn’t much of an archetype. Now I’m actually questioning whether being an influencer is a real thing either.

“You don’t do influencing,” Brown explains. “That, to me, that’s not a job.” She sees influencing as a side effect of admirable skill in one area (or, in the famous cases — from Kim Kardashian to Gigi Hadid — of having a name already), a way of selling brands on the attention you already have. She remembers working in beauty marketing several years ago and getting a flood of barely legible, text-style emails from beauty bloggers demanding free products. It was an easy no every time. Speaking of easy nos, I slogged through a sea of influencer-speak — I am now immunized from ever using the word “journey” again — to parse how Brown and Gerges slogged their way through a sea of sameness to get the influencing industry to say yes to them. Here’s how they got past the filters by appealing to reality.

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You may already know Gerges for his “celebrity recreations,” a series prompted by a break up. Some guy ditched him in 2014, but not before mocking Gerges for being effeminate, and the first thing he thought of was that image of Beyoncé with mascara running down her face from her “Why Don’t You Love Me” video. “So I did that,” he says. The response was polarized. Social media stars were big with The Youth at the time, but they weren’t as pervasive in the mainstream as they are now. Gerges had some people thinking he was hilarious, others thinking he was weird: “When I saw peoples’ reactions, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m on to something.’” So he went nuts, producing scrappy imitations of everything from Kim Kardashian’s intricate Cavalli at the 2015 Met Gala (beige curtain, paint) to Beyonce’s twinkling Givenchy (garbage bag, rhinestones). In January 2015, Buzzfeed’s David Mack picked up his site — “Bow down, Instagram bitches” — and that was it. Gerges’s discount replicas were everywhere from Time magazine to Kim Kardashian’s fingertips, and people even started to copy them (that part was annoying, he says). He began to think he could make a living from this thing.

At the same time, Gerges was in recovery, having started his account while struggling with anorexia. “It became so amplified by the culture around Instagram,” he tells me. “Thin, muscular, white men having hundreds of thousands of followers.” He was proof that looking right could make you popular. As if to double down on this cliché, as he got well and gained weight, commenters stopped praising his work and started criticizing his body. It got to the point that he couldn’t look at his own reflection without comments like “What the fuck happened to you?” running through his head. He searched online for other men who might be struggling like him — nothing. “I realized there were no men talking about it,” Gerges says. “We’re conditioned to just take it and be quiet because men shouldn’t be vulnerable.”

He tried to figure out a way to work with Instagram so he didn’t have to hate both the platform and himself. After five months, on February 19, 2018, he had it: Gerges posted a series of images of himself shirtless and disclosed his eating disorder to his followers. He explained how he got sick at the age of 20, how he would starve himself, how he would spend hours at the gym, how he never felt satisfied. The post was covered in Teen Vogue and Paper and has since received almost 11,000 likes. “It took a very long time, because I was horrified to do it,” Gerges explains. But it wasn’t a fairytale ending. A year later he was considering deleting his Instagram account entirely. His work had turned increasingly vulnerable and he was increasingly bullied. And he would later find it impossible to make a living off his site, having sent out media kits and getting rejected left and right. He had a bad experience with an agent (he jokes that he’s now both Kris Jenner and Kim Kardashian in one). On top of all that, he felt discouraged watching all these white cis influencers constantly being hired. “There was not a single brand that wanted to work with me,” Gerges says, “not a single one.”

Then the brands got a kick in the ass. As the media awoke to representation, it confronted various industries, including the fashion and beauty machines, on their lack of diversity. Up-and-coming designers of color were more inclusive in their campaigns and on the runway, and old-school companies were shamed into progress. Fashion magazines started approaching Gerges; he landed the gig with Sephora and, more recently, an underwear campaign with Calvin Klein. That which had isolated him then — his gender, his sexuality, his race, his body type — now made him indispensable. In the aftermath of the Sephora campaign, Gerges told me he was researching Egyptian culture through history in order to come up with ways to queer traditionally straight historical narratives. He plans to get a friend to photograph him on film — “I don’t edit any of my photos,” he says, “I think that’s another way for me to introduce an element of vulnerability and honesty” — which he hopes to unveil as an Instagram series, probably at a scientifically suboptimal time for maxing out the likes. Because aside from not Facetuning his images, he doesn’t rely on apps to tell him when to post or how to hashtag. “My value is not that I have, like, a, fucking whatever percent engagement rate,” he says. “My value is my story, my value is who I am.”

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Before Jakiya Browne started @travelingfro, she had a lucrative marketing career in New York with L’Oréal and Coty, for which she scouted talent online. “I would stay on YouTube, like, all day watching these bloggers,” she tells me. But even back in 2014, finding influencers who weren’t interchangeable was a bit of a chore. “The ‘I just got out of college, I fell into YouTubing, now I’m a millionaire’ — we didn’t really want those types of girls,” Brown explains. On one of the influencer trips she hosted, however, she met the kind of woman she realized she herself wanted to be, the kind of woman who creates and sustains a brand outside the confines of an office. “It wasn’t like, ‘I want to become an influencer,’” she clarifies (she will repeat this a few times during our interview), but she was tired of the corporate grind and wanted to travel.

Brown quit her job in 2016. She roamed the world for a year, which sounds impossible, but she supported herself with the “substantial” savings she had amassed over her career and supplemented that with consulting gigs for smaller beauty brands. Still, she had a strict budget: $1,000 a month. In places with a lower cost of living, like Mexico and Eastern Europe, it wasn’t hard to stick to that. Otherwise, she stayed with people she had met during her marketing career. “I just started getting scrappy,” she says, “which is like: creative on how not to spend money.” Once Brown grew a following, her room, board, and transit were covered by sponsored posts. “People were always like, ‘How did you get these brand partnerships when you had like 3,000 followers?’” she says. “I know how to convince them that it’s more than just numbers.” That she was a black female traveler was “low hanging fruit” — there weren’t that many women of color in the travel space — but her high engagement helped too. She only had a few thousand followers but got hundreds of comments per post, which means that a brand could appeal to a market that wasn’t entirely white, and this market would bring sustained attention. Brown thinks she earned her audience’s loyalty by being honest not only about the good, but also about the bad, like whether or not she had the stamina to keep traveling indefinitely. That, and she was good on camera (Brown was an early Instagram Stories adopter), which many influencers weren’t: “If you couldn’t talk to your audience like your friend, and you were super awkward, people disconnected.”

The Travelingfro is now a brand that has had more than 100 clients, offering courses, consulting, and workshops to help “tired nine-to-fivers” find the freedom to “do the things they love, like travel the world.” Last fall, Brown took some time to refine her brand, which included researching literature on digital marketing. In that time, she realized she could marry her marketing and social media experience in order to teach influencers the business side of things. As she wrote in a recent post sponsored by Numi Organic Tea, “Keep building. Show up even when no one shows up. Keep going when everyone thinks you should stop. Keep following whatever it is inside that keeps you from giving up. Watch what happens.” Why a tea company? Because tea is part of her morning routine. Brown only works with brands as long as they work with hers. “If you’re working with, like, detergent one day, and then like plant food the next day, and then like these boots the next day, and then AmEx cards the next day, you’re a walking billboard,” she says. “I’m not about that.” She’s about keeping expenses down, rolling contracts, spacing out your earnings to account for dry spells — in short, being practical. “No exchanges,” she adds. “Like a backpack? I can’t eat that.”

As a marketing veteran, Brown used to know the industry standards, such as they were — companies apparently have piles of cash for influencing that they divvy out arbitrarily — but she doesn’t care anymore. She prices according to how much time and work goes into her posts. “If I feel like I am worth $2,000 for two Instagram stories, that’s what I feel,” she says, to which I say: Jesus. But that’s not even on the high side: at one point, Brown revealed that within a recent quarter she made $50,000, which happens to be my annual income. “You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, things are great, I’m rich,’” she says. “Then something happens and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m broke.” (Usually I’m just broke.) Apparently influencers serially undervalue their worth, particularly influencers of color who see an overrepresentation of white faces. Brown thinks the opposite should be true — in any other industry, the rarer something is, the more valuable it tends to be.

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Neither Brown nor Gerges set out to be influencers, which is probably why they are so good at it. Instead of conforming to the industry standard, they exploded it. Gerges injects the beauty field, which has been largely marketed as white and female, with Middle Eastern queerness. Brown, a black woman traveling the world, also dominates a space that has been overrepresented by white bodies. Which makes her all the more savvy about how precarious it all is. “Instagram can pack up and go any day,” she says. “You do not own that space. You don’t even own the content on there.” I hate to use this term (especially since she didn’t), but Brown diversified in order not to stake her entire livelihood on one platform. Most influencers, however, in her experience don’t have a plan B — a book or a workshop or some other source of income. “They’re all kind of riding this wave,” she says. “Until there is no more wave.” Gerges is doing everything he can to ensure that he is not one of those people. For him, the work goes way beyond appearances. “It’s not just an aesthetic or a filter that you toss on every photo,” he says. “It’s about a larger idea.” Whether or not anyone else can see that is out of his control. But influencing on its own is definitely precarious considering the dilution of the industry by superficial infiltrators who pose as something more. “I hope that people can get to a point where they can differentiate between what’s actually authentic,” Gerges says. “And what is just fabricated to look authentic.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Under the Influence: White Lies

Photo by Benne Ochs / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

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.”

* * *

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. 

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

End of Discussion

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 |  8 minutes (2,066 words)

This will be impossible to tweet. It always is. How do you siphon 2,500 words into 280 characters? More importantly, how do you turn a measured thesis into something interesting, and by interesting I mean shareable, and by shareable I mean divisive. It’s one thing to say, I don’t know, “Todd Phillips is a no-talent ass clown;” it’s another thing to imply that over more than a thousand words analyzing the bottomless lack of depth in Joker. “It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker,’” the director told The Wrap in September, his defense against accusations that his film intentionally glorified a character who many considered an incel antihero. And it wasn’t just the critics. Victims of the 2012 Aurora shooting, which took place during a The Dark Knight Rises screening, even asked for donations to survivor funds and gun violence intervention programs. Phillips was confused by the controversy. “Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence?” he asked. “Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?”

It’s not a bad thing, except this isn’t a discourse. To have a discourse you need a modicum of intellectual humility on both sides, which is to say, both sides need to have some idea that what they believe might be wrong in order to actually be receptive to the opposing opinion. Neither Phillips nor the social media mob he was taking issue with were having a discourse. It’s hard to blame the latter, since the thing getting in the way was not so much them as it was the medium. It’s easier to blame Phillips, whose party line is that he broke the mold by taking a simplistic trope and turning it into a profound piece of art that explores contemporary fears, when, in actual fact, it only signals depth while remaining superficial. In a similar display of contradictions, now that his clown movie is being swept up into a complex discourse, Phillips is refusing to engage with it, instead opting for reductive dismissal that mirrors the online critiques he so openly disparages. Read more…

Grow Up

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | September 2019 |  8 minutes (2,168 words)

There’s a scene not quite midway through Mermaids, the ’60s-set coming-of-age drama starring Cher and Winona Ryder in which the mom acts like a kid and the kid acts like a mom, where Ryder is walking through her small town just after JFK has been assassinated. She passes adult after adult, each of them staring at the ground, shell-shocked, mourning. Then she comes across a bunch of children playing in some dead leaves and her voiceover breaks the silence: “It feels like there isn’t a single adult left on the entire planet.”

No kidding. I’m an adult but that is exactly how I feel right now, and it must be worse for kids: For Mari Copeny, now 11, as she sits cross-legged, alone, holding up a sign: flint mi has been without clean water since april 24th, 2014. For Autumn Peltier, now 14, the First Nations Canadian who confronted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016 about his continued support of oil pipelines: “People my age are starting to notice how adults are treating the planet.” For the tens of thousands of students in Hong Kong who attended demonstrations instead of their first day of school in order to stand up for democracy amid violent protests. With no future, there’s no need to go to class, one sign read. For the sea of kids who took part in the March For Our Lives to call for U.S. gun legislation in the wake of a cascading number of school shootings. For all the children who continue to strike alongside Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist initially inspired not by the adults finally taking action, but by the kids calling out their inaction.

Most of these people can’t vote, remember. Imagine how that must feel. Imagine knowing what to do but not being able to do it. Imagine how frustrating that must be, how powerless. Now imagine being the person who can do it. And imagine laughing instead. Asked for her message to world leaders at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York earlier this week, Thunberg said, “My message is that we’ll be watching you.” Delighted, the audience laughed and clapped. How adorable! But Thunberg remained stone-faced. Then her eyes reddened, then she started to cry. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” she seethed. “Yet you all come to us young people for hope? How dare you!” Her anger came from knowing that, despite sounding scientists’ climate alarm for the millionth time, there would be no solution, because, “you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.” And this is where it’s at right now as we face the end: The children, who have no power, are the only ones who know what to do with it. Read more…

Cahiers du Post-Cinéma

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | September 2019 |  9 minutes (2,452 words)

The new release I most wanted to see during the Toronto International Film Festival was Unbelievable, the Netflix series that is neither a movie nor was it screening at TIFF. I was more taken by this miniseries, based on the ProPublica and Marshall Project investigation of a number of real rapes in Washington and Colorado, than by any of the movies I saw. But then, I have a particular affinity for this kind of mid-budget drama: real-looking people solving real problems in a real world, wading through the complications of humanity — “God shows up looking for someone to be of service, clean things up a bit, and he says, ‘Whom shall I send?’” — this is my shit. It’s the kind of thing you saw regularly at the cinema in the ’70s but that now tends to be relegated to streaming sites. I wonder how much of my affinity for Unbelievable — eight hours, three days — had to do with the fact that I could watch it at home. Alone. For free (well, Netflix-account free). Whether if all other things had been equal, but it had been playing at TIFF, I would have felt the same. Would I have felt the same had I chosen it over something else, doubt over my decision percolating in the background? Or if I were watching next to critics who liked it much more than I did, or much less? Or if I’d had an anxiety attack because I was assigned a middle seat (aisles only)? When the stakes are high, it’s harder to see past them. Read more…

The Myth of Making It

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  7 minutes (1,849 words)

I think maybe I thought I made it a couple of times. Both of them had to do with jobs. Both were fleeting feelings — very much tied to age and stage of life — and I’ve never felt the same way again. I don’t know what “making it” would even look like now: maybe having enough money to buy a house (see: acquire an “asset”) and not be immediately broke? I’d probably still feel dissatisfied because I didn’t write some book or win some award or, like, live around enough trees. That lack of internal contentment, I think, is the problem. It’s what makes grasping at outside validation so fruitless. An already mythical idea, “making it” becomes ever more elusive when measured externally — by accolades, wealth, any sort of acquisition. It becomes as fungible as those things are, whether according to your own circumstances or to the world’s. You’re either competing with yourself to outdo what you’ve already achieved, or you’re competing with someone else for a bigger share of some pie (and there’s always someone else). Or maybe you aren’t consciously competing with anyone; you just have this kind of profound insecurity that follows you from triumph to triumph, serving only the market you buy into, in order to stave it off, but no one else.

Take Tyshawn Jones, who’s only 20 and has already been named Skater of the Year by Thrasher magazine, but who can’t stop talking about what he doesn’t have. Or actress Kirsten Dunst, who’s been nominated for award after award, but still feels uncelebrated. Or Bill Hader, whom The New York Times Magazine recently confronted about his show’s success. (It received 17 — 17! — Emmys nods.) The Barry creator conceded the win, but also acknowledged the difference between external praise and the way he berates himself internally. “It never ends,” he explained. “That’s the thing.” That’s the thing with making it, it sows the seeds of its own destruction. Because implicit in the promise that you’ll succeed is the assurance that you never will. 

* * *

If the god in On Becoming a God in Central Florida is ambition, then the devil is an alligator. In the first episode of the Showtime series, which takes place in a 1992 that looks like 1982, a sweaty, mulleted version of Alexander Skarsgård named Travis Stubbs gets pulled into a pyramid scheme that obsesses him to such a degree that he can’t sleep. Starved of rest, he hallucinates a glowing white moose in the middle of the road (idk) and crashes into a swamp, where he is promptly consumed by a gator. Before his soul is claimed, his wife, Krystal (a big-haired, heavily lacquered Kirsten Dunst), balks at the millionaire idols he flashes in front of her face, accusing him of buying into a fantasy. In their wood-paneled bungalow, their newborn asleep, Krystal motions to their surroundings and says, “I know this is inconceivable to you, but this is more than I ever expected.” As irony would have it, the show arrived around the same time as an interview in which Dunst expressed dissatisfaction with a career that her character would likely be barely able to conceive of. In the viral clip taken from her appearance on SiriusXM’s In Depth with Larry Flick, Dunst confessed she had never felt empowered in her three decades of acting. “I’ve never been recognized in my industry. I’ve never been nominated for anything,” she said, adding, “I just feel like, ‘What did I do?’” As if to prove her point, Reuters tweeted and then deleted a post about her Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony, describing her as “best known for her role as Spiderman’s girlfriend.”

The truth is that Dunst has been recognized. She’s been nominated for multiple Golden Globes (the first at age 11!), for Cannes Best Actress, for an Emmy. She just got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for god’s sake. “I know that all you have is your work at the end of the day and that’s all people really are about,” Dunst told Flick. “I’m, you know, intelligent enough to know that and have perspective.” But she’s worked for three decades and what does she have to show for it — $25 million and a few award nods? Equivalent actress — this isn’t a science, but bear with me — Anne Hathaway is seven months younger, has worked 10 years fewer and has an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy. Oh, and apparently she’s worth $35 million. As Dunst said, “Sometimes you’re like, ‘Mmm. It’d be nice to be recognized by your peers.’ You know what I mean?”

Yes, I fucking do know what you mean. Because I am you, but much much poorer and much much less famous. In her SiriusXM interview, Dunst wondered whether she played the game enough, but then admitted she always does what she’s supposed to. “It’s not like I’m rude or, like, not doing publicity or anything,” she said. Her frank bewilderment was achingly familiar. I have had the same conversations over and over and over again. I do good work, I show up, I promote. But I never get awards. When a stranger says they know my writing, I am genuinely shocked. From where I’m sitting, Dunst has made it. But then: Hathaway. In North America, wherever you’re sitting, you’re always aware that someone else is doing better. 

The cliché is that money can’t buy you happiness, but it’s increasingly obvious that what can help make you happy is not knowing how much more everyone else has and not storing your value in your savings account. This year’s World Happiness Report named Finland the most contented country on the planet despite it trailing both Canada and the U.S. in gross domestic product. The highest-ranking countries had not only healthy incomes but also robust social support systems, freedom, and generosity, none of which have much to do with making you feel accomplished but are rather about making you feel as worthy as everyone else. In Scientific American, Finnish well-being expert Frank Martela explained Finland’s position in the context of human beings’ impulse to compare. “If everybody else is doing better than you, it is hard to be satisfied with your life conditions, no matter how good they objectively are,” he wrote. “By not displaying, let alone exaggerating, their own happiness, Finns might help each other to make more realistic comparisons, which benefits everybody’s happiness.” 

The American Dream, that anyone can work hard and ultimately come out on top, is like an anti-happiness plan: A good life is not measured by social support or freedom or empathy, but by material gain. Showing off your wealth shows off your success, which shows off your value as a human being. This goes double for artists, whose livelihoods are that much harder to secure. Triple for marginalized communities, who have to work that much harder than everyone else. While all of this striving is a boon for capitalism, it’s a disaster for the people living under it.

I don’t want to add patriarchy to this whole thing, but why not. It’s the part that genders success so that Dunst complains about recognition, while men complain about money. It makes sense if you think about what guys are traditionally supposed to be: powerful breadwinners. This is where Tyshawn Jones lives. In a sprawling profile this weekend, The New York Times Magazine called him New York’s first skateboarding superstar. But even though this kid barely out of his teens has claimed the highest honor in his field — Thrasher’s cover and Skater of the Year Award — won a sponsorship deal with Supreme, cofounded a hardware and apparel company, opened a restaurant, and even designed his own shoe, none of it is enough. He doesn’t have a Vogue cover, for one thing. That’s power. And he doesn’t have Nyjah Huston money. “Everybody don’t like him, but I respect him,” Jones said. “He one of the only niggas who really got rich off skating, like really rich, like $2 million crib, like Lamborghini — I think that’s tight. There’s skaters who can’t even get by with $500 a month.” There’s a big gap between $6 million (Huston’s reported net worth) and $6,000, but Jones isn’t comparing down, he’s comparing up. That’s what successful people do. 

So it’s either about recognition or it’s about money, money or recognition. But both come second to the end goal of making it, the Platonic ideal of the Valuable Citizen. Self-actualization, community, autonomy … those things are nice, but they aren’t particularly profitable for a capitalist society. Material is. And measuring success materially keeps success perennially elusive because the standard of comparison is always shifting under your feet. This insecurity keeps the gears of patriarchal capitalism turning as we stumble over one another to feed them and ourselves. The market exploits and perpetuates the constant feeling that we’re not good enough, or, in Jones’s case, not secure enough, by convincing us it has the answer. Every payday or product whispers to us that we’re that much closer to making it — whatever it is — without ever actually allowing us to get there.

* * *

“Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face / My feelings can’t describe it / Finally it has happened to me right in front of my face / And I just cannot hide it.” The 1992 CeCe Peniston song “Finally” is about love, but in On Finding God it’s about making it. The dance hit blasts right after Krystal decides to take over her husband’s dream, the one that turned him into gator food. The animal now lies skinned in her garage, but what might have acted as an exorcism has instead resulted in transference. If the alligator was the devil claiming Krystal’s husband’s acquisitive soul, Krystal now appears to have inherited it. But this time around she’s not the one being sacrificed; she’s all in on the scheme, and everyone around her serves as the oblation. 

This is success in America now, where the closer we get to whatever its manifestation is — whether it’s wealth or acknowledgment or something else — the further we get from our humanity. The only way to get out of it is to fundamentally understand that making it is a myth. Rather than making a pact with the devil, which is to say, buying into validation we know will never be enough, we have to reject the premise of the pact. Bill Hader, as insecure as any of us, chooses to coexist with his self doubt. While this may be disappointingly human to some, his is not a fantasy life based on comparison — it’s him at his most honest. As renowned dancer Martha Graham famously observed, it is here that an artist’s magic resides: “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Rock Me Gently

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  9 minutes (2,273 words)

I have no reason not to believe Rolling Stone when it calls cover star Harry Styles a “21st century rock star.” He certainly looks like one: shirtless, tattooed, his hair a tousled mess, and a smile that may not say big dick energy but definitely says he knows what to do with it. He could be 1977 cover star Peter Frampton, when he was named “Rock Star of the Year.” There’s even a tagline to the left of Styles’s nipple promising sex and psychedelics. But then you start reading, and the setup begins to break down. Sure, he has a reputation for fucking a lot, but it all sounds very consensual and age-appropriate. He also seems unfailingly polite, not to mention sunny. I mean, he gets sad — his new album is “all about having sex and feeling sad” — but he’s not broody and doesn’t seem like he’d ever trash a hotel. This is a guy who appears to sort his problems out the way therapists tell us to: friendships, meditation, even work. “I feel like the fans have given me an environment to be myself and grow up and create this safe space to learn and make mistakes,” he tells the magazine. He describes himself as vulnerable and loose (the mushrooms and weed can’t hurt). Rolling Stone describes one moment as “rock-star debauchery” but all he did while tripping was bite off the tip of his own tongue — the only person he bled on was himself. As for everyone else, he just wants them to feel loved. “I’m aware that as a white male, I don’t go through the same things as a lot of the people that come to the shows,” he says. “I’m just trying to make people feel included and seen.”

The classic ideal of the rock star — the depraved renegade with infinite hotel bills, addictions, and infidelities — is dead. The charismatic young white man (it was usually a young white man, sometimes several) who rebranded selfishness as revolution has been overthrown, taking with him a part of the individualist, white, patriarchal capitalist system he came from. In his place, new rock stars, sometimes white and male, often not, have sprung up to nurture rather than destroy — instead of shutting us out, they let us in. Read more…

White Looks

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  8 minutes (2,132 words)

 

They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness,” even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think.

—bell hooks, Black Looks (1992)

 

I’m experiencing some deep angst about this essay. That anxious feeling where you’re standing on the edge of a cliff on a perfect day — no wind, no sound, no bird of prey — and you’re almost certain you’ll throw yourself off. Every time I email a black critic for this article, it’s even worse because I can’t even tell if I’ve jumped or not. Like I’m dead at the bottom of that cliff, but I have to wait for a reply to be informed. That I’m dead. This is what white people call “white fragility,” right? “Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race,” Robin DiAngelo wrote. (As book critic Katy Waldman noted, many people of color could have written White Fragility in their sleep.) I am in fact biracial — my father is white, my mother is Pakistani (she grew up in England) — but I pass. I barely identify with my Pakistani side, except when I see a group of Pakistani people. Then I’m like Hey. I know you. (Even though I don’t.) I don’t think this when I see a group of black people. Although, what’s that line in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist? “To be an antiracist is to realize there is no such thing as Black behavior.” To be an antiracist is to realize there is such a thing as White behavior.
Read more…

It’s Getting Hot in Here, So Take Off All Your Constructs

Bone Collector / Juicy J, Photo by Elsa / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2019 |  7 minutes (1,984 words)

 

The album art for Megan Thee Stallion’s “Hot Girl Summer” has her riding a bottle of Hennessy like a bronco, with Nicki Minaj strapped in behind her. Both rappers have their arms up, their boobs out, their hair down. The flames around them are redundant. Before it was a song, Hot Girl Summer was a meme, with the 24-year-old freestyle genius dropping the mixtape Fever a month ahead of the summer solstice. That art is even better, a throwback to the flyest of fly blaxploitation: “She’s thee hot girl and she’s bringing thee heat” (more redundant flames surround her). Named Stallion for her statuesque beauty and with fans known as Hotties, Megan rebranded the aestival months as Hot Girl Summer. In the August issue of Paper magazine, she calls it a movement. The rapper told The Root that being a hot girl is not about being a certain type of sexy — it’s about “women, and men, just being unapologetically them.” But there are clear parameters here, which encompass a look — 5’11’’, hourglass — and a personality: “You definitely have to be a person that could be like the life of the party, and, you know, just a bad bitch.” Hot Girl Summer isn’t Taraji P. Henson in spectacles quietly doing actual rocket science, it’s Halle Berry in an orange bikini popping up out of the surf as Bond gawks. While Hot Girl Summer rejects the idea that a woman, notably a black woman, has to be answerable to anyone — a poignant reminder in a climate of rampant misogyny — the movement still implies a sexy young object of someone else’s desire. Read more…