Youtube and the Alien Interests of Teenage Girls
Last month, I read a really frustrating interview in the Sunday Times with popular Youtubers Dan Howell and Phil Lester (aka danisnotonfire and amazingphil).
The article of course starts with a description of hysterical teenage girls, overwhelmed by the possibility of meeting their idols, and takes on an inevitable “only sane person in Wonderland” perspective, where the Totally Normal reporter marvels at the strangeness around him. As the article insists, no-one other than a hysterical teenager or the parent of a hysterical teenager could know who these two people are, and the Youtubers themselves are trapped in a kind of eternal teenager-hood in appealing to these girls. The interviewer (who states he is in his mid-twenties) generally acts like the world of Youtube is an alien beast that he’s barely even heard of before, and everything he encounters there is ridiculous in the extreme.
To which I have to wonder… how? And why? Admittedly, as a young adult novelist, I might be a bit more in touch with “things teens like” than a lot of people in their mid to late twenties. But the “lol, Youtube, what is that? Teenage girls are so weird” tone doesn’t match the world I see. Pretty much everyone I know my age watches Youtube. Everyone I know watches different things on Youtube — make-up tutorials and fashion hauls and video game reviews and Let’s Plays and vloggers and singer songwriters and comedy channels and cooking shows and on and on — but they’re certainly familiar with it and use it regularly for casual entertainment. It’s a very different sort of engagement from what you’d expect from the stereotypical “teenage fangirl,” but it’s real.
And this is backed up by data. A study of Youtube watcher demographics in March 2015 showed that 31.8 million viwers were aged 18-24, while 41 million were age 25-34, and 19.4 million were over 65. The gender of Youtube watchers is also split 50/50, unless gaming videos are taken into account, in which case male viewers dominate.
And yet, whenever I see Youtube discussed by the British media, it’s as this incredibly strange and foreign concept that’s exclusively followed by screaming teenage girls, and is mocked and dismissed as such soon afterwards.
Dismissing anything liked by teenage girls as vapid, immature and ridiculous is par for the course. But recently, there’s been a trend to not just to dismiss things that are almost exclusively popular with teenager girls, but to pretend that generally popular things aren’t generally popular, but solely a stupid girl thing that’s completely alien to the “normal,” non-screaming fangirls among the population., in order to demean their interests.
The most obvious example, of course, is the much-discussed Pumpkin Spice Latte. At this point, the “PSL” is the stereotypical drink of the vapid, useless “basic bitch,” and ordering one is inherently mockable. With this has come the idea that getting a Starbucks is a similarly ridiculous female thing, despite the fact that Starbucks is so popular that there’s one on every street corner, and that for many years its been the stereotypical domain of the college student and male freelancer. Now it’s somehow become female, and so mockable, even as the entire world can blatantly see that it’s nothing of the sort.
And Youtube is seeing a similar effect. There are a huge variety of channels out there, and a huge variety of successful stars, but apart from the occasional “how Pewdiepie conquered the world” article, the mainstream media mostly focuses on vloggers and beauty gurus, with the angle of “what the hell is this thing and why are these stupid teenage girls screaming about it?” This, despite the fact that gaming videos and their pre-teen male fans are arguably even more of a powerhouse on Youtube, and the fact that these things don’t get the same ridicule and confusion.
So this Times article disdained the teenage fans, implied that the stars themselves have nothing of genuine value to offer, and made no effort to truly understand what was going on except from a “bemused outsider” perspective. But it also created a fake narrative of “us” and “them,” the alien world of teenage girls and the normal world of the rest of us, in order to mock teenage girls for enjoying things that, actually, aren’t exclusively enjoyed by them at all.
And despite being clearly untrue, it has an effect on how we think about things. How many people now feel defensive about ordering a Pumpkin Spice Latte, despite the fact that it’s just a drink, because of its “vapid girl” connotations — guys who hesitate to order one because they don’t want to be “girly,” girls who hesitate because they aren’t “that girl”?
As it turns out, teenage girls’ passions and interests aren’t as separate from “grown up” and “male” interests as a lot of people would like to believe. But as that doesn’t fit the narrative society wants to tell about them, and so the media has to create a new reality, where even common interests are freakish and niche, and no self-respecting, sensible adult could ever possibly understand them.