The rise of the female YouTube star
The first-ever national tour of female internet celebrities was held recently, with girls and their dads flocking to the "Girls' Night In".
"I need you to scream as loud as you possibly can, 'kay?" shouts opener Andie Case, a 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 dads wince; the girls scream like banshees.
It's a scene that's repeated a dozen times over since the Girls' Night In tour kicked off last month, uniting six female YouTubers IRL for their largely preteen, almost-entirely female audience.
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Eva Gutowski - the most successful of the bunch, with 4.5 million subscribers -
In recent years, women, such as Jenna Mourey, Michelle
Of YouTube's top 50 YouTube-native channels, only six belong to women; and on the most recent incarnation of Digitour, the pre-eminent touring circuit for professional social media celebs, all six headliners were men.
Research suggests that men are more likely both to watch YouTube videos and to make them. And as recent women's panels at the social media conference Vidcon have shown, female creators face unique, intractable problems in the space: from sponsorship pressure to harassment in the internet's most notorious comments section.
"We all come from the internet," said Gutowski before a show, noting - in her typically chirpy, wide-smiled way - that the web's a font for good and evil alike. "I think we just all want to represent the positive side."
The internet has certainly been positive for the 21-year-old Southern Californian, who once thought her parent's financial struggles would prevent her from becoming a performer.
Determined to get on TV somehow, she started a broadcast journalism degree. She began posting YouTube videos to practice how she'd speak on-air. Gutowski's early clips are rambly and under-produced. But people liked Gutowski's unvarnished make-up and shopping tips. Within six months, she had 10,000 subscribers.
These days, Gutowski's persona is a little more polished: fewer make-up 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's been viewed more than 14 million times and inspired a string of derivative memes.
Gutowski wouldn't tell you it's all been easy, of course; 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.
Sometimes, other YouTubers on the tour said, the behaviour has gotten worse: nasty emails and
Rosianna Halse Rojas, a veteran vlogger and the former longtime executive assistant to The Fault in Our Stars author and YouTube royalty John Green, remembers once posting a video under which thousands of commenters threatened to gang-rape her. She was 17.
"It's a toxic creative environment," said Rojas. "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."
Gendered bullying and harassment are far from the only struggles that young women face on YouTube, Rojas said. There are also
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 shout-outs 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.
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 make-up.
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 each other's jokes about the
In other words, these women who gyrate to the piped-in sounds of Fifth Harmony on the 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.
- The Washington Post