YouTube’s young fe­male celebri­ties want their day in the so­cial-me­dia sun

The Washington Post Sunday - - THIS WEEK - CAITLIN DEWEY caitlin.dewey@wash­post.com

“The worst thing you can do is con­form to what ev­ery­one else wants. That’s what we’re stand­ing against.” Andie Case, singer-song­writer who has racked up 850,000 sub­scribers on YouTube

It’s a Thurs­day night at the Fill­more in Sil­ver Spring and there’s hardly a guy to be found in the place. An amused man takes tick­ets from the girls who jos­tle at the door, not even both­er­ing to ask whether they’re of drink­ing age. In­side the venue, a few Cool Dads nurse beers and swipe their smart­phones, sur­vey­ing the knot of giddy pre­teens who have massed by the stage.

The dads know they’re in­ter­lop­ers at this par­tic­u­lar show, even more than they would be if they had chap­er­oned their daugh­ters to see Tay­lor Swift or One Di­rec­tion. This is the firstever na­tional tour of fe­male In­ter­net celebri­ties — and they are re­ally, re­ally amped to have their “Girls’ Night In.”

“I need you to scream as loud as you pos­si­bly can, ‘kay?” shouts opener Andie Case, a bleached­blond singer-song­writer who has racked up 850,000 sub­scribers on YouTube. “I want you to burst my eardrums for this snap. One, two, three — ”

The Cool Dads wince; the girls scream like ban­shees.

It’s a scene that has been re­peated a dozen times over since the Girls’ Night In tour kicked off in Ana­heim, Calif., on Sept. 22. The tour united six fe­male YouTubers in front of their largely pre­teen, al­most en­tirely fe­male au­di­ence. Eva Gutowski — the most suc­cess­ful of the bunch, with 4.5 mil­lion sub­scribers — spe­cial­izes in scripted com­edy videos with ti­tles like “How to Sur­vive High School.” The other young women — Case, Mered­ith Fos­ter, Alisha Marie, Sierra Fur­tado and Mia Stam­mer, all 19 to 23 years old — fall into a grab bag of pop­u­lar YouTube gen­res: mu­sic, vlogging, beauty.

In re­cent years, such women as Jenna Mourey, Michelle Phan and Grace Helbig have made se­ri­ous names for them­selves in those cat­e­gories. But by and large, fe­male YouTube stars have missed out on the up­swell of sup­port and in­ter­est that made some of their male coun­ter­parts main­stream celebri­ties.

Of YouTube’s top 50 YouTube-na­tive chan­nels, only six be­long to women; on the most re­cent in­car­na­tion of Digitour, the pre­em­i­nent tour­ing cir­cuit for pro­fes­sional so­cial me­dia celebs, all six head­lin­ers were men. (Gabrielle Hanna, of “The Gab­bie Show,” made just a hand­ful of West Coast ap­pear­ances.)

“We all come from the In­ter­net,” said Gutowski, 21, be­fore the Sil­ver Spring show, not­ing that the Web is a font of good and evil alike. “I think we just all want to rep­re­sent the pos­i­tive side.”

De­ter­mined to get on TV some­how, she started seek­ing a broad­cast jour­nal­ism de­gree at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity at Fuller­ton in 2012. Later that se­mes­ter, she be­gan post­ing YouTube videos to prac­tice how she’d speak on air. Gutowski’s early clips are ram­bly and un­der­pro­duced: grainy we­b­cam “haul” videos filmed in a messy bed­room with stacks of folded clothes piled be­hind her. But peo­ple liked Gutowski’s un­var­nished makeup and shop­ping tips. Within six months, she had 10,000 sub­scribers.

Th­ese days, Gutowski’s per­sona is a lit­tle more pol­ished: fewer makeup tu­to­ri­als, more airy, Buz­zfeed-style com­edy sketches. Her most pop­u­lar pro­duc­tion — a mu­sic video to the hor­rif­i­cally catchy song called “Lit­er­ally My Life” — was pro­fes­sion­ally pro­duced by the same guy who wrote mu­sic for the re­cent Se­lena Gomez movie. It has been viewed more than 14 mil­lion times and in­spired a string of de­riv­a­tive memes.

Gutowski wouldn’t tell you it’s all been easy; there’s a seg­ment in the Girls’ Night In show when each YouTu­ber tells a story about the in­se­cu­ri­ties that al­most stopped them from vlogging. Gutowski long suf­fered anx­i­ety about her body, she said; it’s ex­actly the sort of anx­i­ety that YouTube trolls live to pun­ish. Even her tamest videos tend to draw them out en masse: “your [sic] so ugly,” “she re­ally needs to gain some weight,” “god damn your f—— hideous!!!!”

Some­times, other YouTubers on the tour said, the be­hav­ior has got­ten worse: nasty e-mails and re­peat com­ments, death threats when they pose with cer­tain beloved male YouTube celebri­ties.

“It’s a toxic cre­ative en­vi­ron­ment,” said Rosianna Halse Ro­jas, a vet­eran vlog­ger who has mod­er­ated Vidcon’s “Women on YouTube” panel for sev­eral years. “So many women start YouTube chan­nels that have great po­ten­tial, and then see the abuse and stop. It’s hurt­ing fe­males on ev­ery level, from the ones who have thou­sands of fol­low­ers to the ones who have just a cou­ple hun­dred.”

Gen­der-based bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment are far from the only strug­gles that young women face on YouTube, Ro­jas said. There are also fewer spon­sor­ship and ad­ver­tis­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for fe­male YouTubers look­ing to go pro: Their op­tions are ba­si­cally fash­ion or high-end cos­met­ics. (“There’s noth­ing wrong with beauty and fash­ion,” Ro­jas in­sisted. “But aren’t we just repli­cat­ing on YouTube what the me­dia al­ready says about women?”)

On top of that, fe­male YouTube per­form­ers have strug­gled to es­tab­lish the kind of vis­i­bil­ity and pro­mo­tional net­works that de­vel­oped or­gan­i­cally for their male coun­ter­parts. Over the sum­mer, a group of fed-up lady YouTubers de­cided to push back: They es­tab­lished a hash­tag called #fem­tube, where they shout out their fa­vorite women’s YouTube chan­nels.

On Girls’ Night In, the shoutouts go down in real life: Hun­dreds of young girls scream af­fir­ma­tions like “I love you” and “Your hair is so pretty!” as Gutowski and friends play-act a sleep­over night. The con­tent is beige, if pleas­antly whole­some: There’s a lot of happy talk about “ig­nor­ing the haters” and “do­ing what you love.” Back­stage, the girls tell me that they think of their fans as their lit­tle sis­ters.

“We all re­mem­ber what it was like to be at that age, you know?” said Case, the singer-song­writer. “I re­mem­ber how in­se­cure and shel­tered I felt. . . . [Now we’re] able to be a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence and give th­ese girls con­fi­dence and tell them they can do what they want — things we never heard when we were that age.

“The worst thing you can do is con­form to what ev­ery­one else wants,” Case con­tin­ued. “That’s what we’re stand­ing against.”

And yet, at the very same time, Ro­jas and oth­ers have be­gun to fear that celebrity YouTubers are re­in­forc­ing the stereo­types of the main­stream. The women on the Girls’ Night In tour spend a lot of time talk­ing about boys and makeup. They’re all pretty and pole-thin. Gutowski is half Puerto Ri­can, and tour­mate Stam­mer was born in Ja­pan, but aside from that, there’s lit­tle di­ver­sity in terms of race or in­ter­ests. In a group in­ter­view, the six young women rarely dis­agree: They par­rot one an­other’s jokes about the nae-nae and the un­likely party line that their fans feel like “besties.”

In other words, th­ese women who gy­rate to the piped-in sounds of Fifth Har­mony on the Fill­more stage look more like pop stars than the “av­er­age girls” they avidly pro­fess to be.

But they’re self-made pop stars, the prod­ucts of their own hard work and savvy. And that, if noth­ing else, has got to count for some­thing.

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