How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube

This is a piece I wrote in 2012, but couldn’t get the Daily Dot (and then ReadWrite) to run. I felt it was too important to not publish somewhere.

“I want to both have sex with her AND strangle her to death. But in which order…?”

That’s the disturbing question user menace8012 posted recently in the comment section of “I Gotta Feeling,” a Black Eyed Peas parody by YouTube star iJustine, originally uploaded in July of 2009.

The responses? A few joking replies chiming in. Not a single person objects or scolds the users. No one even clicks the “dislike” button on menace8012’s comment.

This gross comment is not atypical, but evident of a larger culture on YouTube, where sexist attitudes towards women run unchecked. It’s not just the trolls or haters in the comments section of videos; all YouTubers have been hating on women for gendered reasons since the site’s inception.

Menace8012’s comment, and the community’s response (or lack thereof), may seem extreme to the casual YouTube community safarian, but it also perfectly portrays why so few women have found success on YouTube. Many women on YouTube try to avoid this prevalent sexist culture by cloistering themselves in the beauty section, but that does little to combat the anti-women sentiments running rampant throughout the rest of the site.

YouTubers who silently upvote, or in this case “like,” menace8012’s comment are implying iJustine deserves the threats and derogatory comments she gets, daily, because of the way she looks and dresses. This is standard rape apologist & victim-blaming ideology. Sometimes, when the blonde, blue-eyed iJustine wears a tank top in her videos, that clothing choice sends both genders into a sexist frenzy.  

Vlogger iJustine is one of the very few women whose YouTube success has crossed over into mainstream entertainment by way of the occasional (but small) cable news hosting gigs and cameos in popular TV shows. Mashable once called iJustine, whose total views on her videos amount to more than 250 million, a “YouTube mogul” but how far she’s taken her mostly independent six-year YouTube career matters little to dozens of vloggers who call her a “whore.”

One YouTuber who goes on passionate tirades about iJustine to the tune of 30 thousand views gave her the nickname “iWhore” a few years ago, and the derogatory term stuck: young teens and women  were still using it in 2012 to refer to iJustine. More than 200 videos tagged “iWhore” existed in 2012, and that’s not counting the hundreds of videos hating on iJustine and her tank tops under other nicknames.

iJustine’s cleavage isn’t even as offensive or robust as some of the reply girls, the opportunistic women who use their breasts to make thousands of dollars off spammy videos. In fact, men have been using women in various states of undress, more scandalous than iJustine and some reply girls, for profit and click-candy on the Google-owned site for years.

Ray William Johnson and Philip DeFranco, two top male YouTubers making more than six-figures off the video sharing site, have many critics who call their use of racy thumbnails and provocative content sexist and misogynistic. Despite the criticisms, the two men have been allowed to operate on the Google-owned site in relative peace. Unlike the reply girls scandal I dubbed “Tittiepocalyspe,” the YouTube community did not try to collectively bully the two men off the site for their boobilicious and arguably “vapid” content.

“There are double standards regarding sexuality on YouTube,” Aimee Davison, a thirty-four year old single mother and creator of the One Hundred Jobs project, wrote in an email. (Davison is also in the process of writing a book about her press-attracting experience working 100 different jobs.)

“Whereas many male producers are allowed to be as sexually explicit as they desire in order to appeal to audiences (like Bart Baker’s “Pussies,” which still has ads enabled despite graphic language and sexually provocative content),  the moment an attractive woman dances around in modestly revealing attire, she is often flagged by the Youtube community, age-restricted from running ads and is buried by the search algorithm because of “mature content,” she writes. In other words, if the community finds a video of a woman dancing around in a bikini top, (or showing off her sexuality in a way the community doesn’t like), out of spite they can remove her ability to make money of those videos by age-restricting them. YouTube does not run ads on age-restriced content. Not only can these women not run ads, the video is then hard to find via search.

Very few women have been able to walk this thin line of being remotely sexy, or acknowledging their sexuality, without attracting the ire of the YouTube community.

Jenna Marbles, who utilizes both her wit and her cleavage, became the very first woman to break into the top 10 most popular YouTubers list (based off subscribers) in February of 2012.  Even though the Bostonian-turned-LA vlogger mocks the tit-centric YouTube culture and makes videos poking fun at both genders to millions of viewers, Marbles still gets labeled a “slut” by women for showing some skin.

“Why are you girls calling her a slut?” xXCloudsOmnislashXx asks on a provocative Jenna Marbles video. “She’s comfortable with her body…maybe you should do the same…?”

It’s not just women that show off their femininity: women that don’t actively showcase their sexuality are still singled out and derided for having a vagina.

“I’ve found that viewers are less willing to take my music seriously because of my gender,” wrote Allison Goertz, an aspiring musician whose D&D songs have been retweeted by Hollywood comedian Patton Oswalt, in an email.

“I have many people who comment on my videos saying I’m intentionally appealing to the nerdy-male population in order to make money,” Goertz said. “The music I write is something I approach genuinely, but the motive of my work is questioned because I am female.

“I’ve found that many viewers believe women have an agenda when posting videos or sharing their voices,” Goertz added.

She thinks this distrust has to do with both men and women being “intimidated” by female YouTubers who aren’t doing a more traditionally feminine video, like make-up tutorials.

“These people see female YouTubers and, be it out of jealousy, or fear of succumbing to commercialism or sex appeal, seem to fight their enjoyment of well crafted, smartly written videos” Goertz said.

“It seems to me, that women Youtubers are written off for “having it easy” because of their appearances, when in my own opinion, they are put at a disadvantage.”

Alejandra Gaitan, one of the most infamous of the reply girls and a non-native English speaker, did take the easy route, and makes her YouTube money off her breasts. Her method has come at a price; she regularly gets death threats and derogatory comments on all of her videos.

Despite the reply girl controversy dying down months ago, YouTuber thewinekoon wrote recently in a top liked comment on Gaitan’s newest video about using social media:

 “I had a dream where you were doing your normal shitty reply videos but [I] was there next to you, just slowly slapping my cock on your left cheek.”

Gaitan thinks “women aren’t taken seriously” on YouTube for a practical reason: fewer women make videos, she says, and fewer bother to learn editing or video production.

“If you look at the statistics you’ll realise that those who study video production or something related are guys” Gaitan said, citing a gender gap issue well-documented in the film industry, both on screen and off.

Davison’s theory is also that fewer women are involved on the production, and the promotion side of YouTube videos. “I think women have proven themselves less inclined to form teams or production companies with other female creators, unlike their male counterparts, who instinctively form teams and take advantage of the division of labor and cross promotion that their alliances provide,” she wrote.

When Davison talks about “teams” and “alliances,” she is is explicitly referring to collaborations, which all (male) YouTubers boast of. Viral video maven, model and San Francisco entrepreneur Prerna Gupta also noted the importance of collaborations when producing viral videos in an interview earlier this year. (Gupta is the creator of the Songify app, the one YouTubers use to make their autotune videos.)

The one area that women have found considerable success, and peace in, is in the female-oriented style and how-to video section of YouTube. Davison calls it women “confining” themselves to the “glitter pink ghetto.” It’s like Reddit’s women-friendly section, r/twoxchromosomes, but for YouTube. Incidentally, the style and tutorial section of YouTube is blooming with advertising and sponsorship money.

This safe haven for women is devoid of misogynist comments, despite being based completely on how a woman looks, because the community actively polices each other. It’s not as if men don’t leave comments like “get back to the kitchen,” but at least here among the beauty tutorial girls, they get down-voted immediately.

When the most successful beauty expert Michelle Phan gets comments from haters responding to her choice in anime, other women hit the “dislike” button without a second thought effectively censoring the offending text within minutes. (I watched this happen during a 4chan raid) No one threatened Phan with rape, and yet her fans reacted with speed and bravado.

It is important to note here that women in how-to and style videos rarely show cleavage. Reply girl Gaitan admitted via Skype she doesn’t know anything about the beauty tutorial girls and seemed uncomfortable by said admission, as if it’s a failure on her part.

Life in the “glitter pink ghetto” isn’t always sunshine and roses though, because girls are mean on the Internet too. In 2009, UK beauty guru BubzBeauty made a video addressed to all her haters some of which were calling her a “stupid chink.” The bulk of BubzBeauty’s 12-minute vlog, however, is focused on the fan accusations of BubzBeauty being a Phan knock-off and copycat, (BubzBeauty is Asian, like Phan), and the hate channels and hate sites young girls and friends made about her.

As the 38th most subscribed YouTuber on the site, Phan is the queen of the “glitter pink ghetto,” as evident by the hazing BubzBeauty received when she first started her tutorial career. Phan’s tiara is no ordinary one though: she’s literally one of the first YouTube beauty gurus and a founder of the now multi-million-dollar web video-based beauty industry on YouTube.  Phan alone has collected more than 789 million views on her 273 videos in seven years, and is employed by Lancome as a spokesperson at the time of this writing. Phan is a commercial and financial success but it’s unlikely she’ll ever break into the top 10 YouTube slot given her gender-biased content.

Phan doesn’t seem to care and is content in the niche audience she has nurtured and built. In fact, Phan shows no signs of slowing down production of her well-edited, produced and professional looking videos, or of branching out to different series. (It is important to note that Phan has edited her videos the same way for five years). Google thought Phan and her formula professional enough to include her in their multi-million dollar “premium content” investment along with mainstream celebrities. Phan’s new channel is FAWN Inc, a lifestyle web show just for (young) women.

Outside of Phan’s beauty kingdom, Jenna Marbles’ success as the highest ranking female YouTuber to date has inspired Goertz, despite the demoralizing gender-centric comments left on her body of music.

“Youtubers such as Community Channel, Daily Grace, and Jenna Marbles are paving the road for successful women Youtubers and I am excited to see what the future holds for the women of Youtube,” said Goertz, who if she were a knock-off would be a nerdier version of Hollywood’s current “It girl” Zooey Deschanel.

26-year-old aspiring comedian Grace Helbig, known on YouTube as “Daily Grace,” wrote in an email she thinks Jenna Marbles is “great and deserves to be in the top 10,” but as a long time YouTuber, she was hesitant to bring up sexism, perhaps because YouTubers in general are very young.

“Being successful on YouTube is hard no matter what gender you are” wrote Helbig, because “[i]t takes consistent effort and a strong voice. Kids like following someone they can rely on for a certain POV on a regular basis,” which requires “a lot of work,” Helbig added.

Hannah Hart, one of the few openly gay women on YouTube and the 25-year-old creator of the My Drunk Kitchen series, compares the difficulties of being a woman on YouTube to trying to make it as a female stand-up comedian.

“Like most things, it’s mostly a male dominated market” said Hart, who seemed overly optimistic about YouTube as an “online space.” We skirted darker, misogynistic tangents over her appearance or lesbianism in our in-person interview. “As time passes more women will join the market,” Hart said, confidently. “It’s acceptable for men to be goofy, funny, and unattractive, but times are changing. I think we’re leaving that behind.”

That couldn’t come soon enough. “Stick to what you’re good at Hart- gettin drunk and eating pussy!” Airstreamer69 wrote on a Hart video that doesn’t have her drunk and cooking, titled “What to Do When You’re Bored.”

Glossing over the sexist comments hurled at women as simply coming from  “trolls,” “haters,” or “kids who don’t know any better” ultimately comes off as a disservice to women everywhere on or off YouTube, as does the act of not acknowledging them.

Keeping women segregated on the video-sharing site, or calling their havens “ghettos” or other derogatory labels, doesn’t solve the problem either.

Determining why YouTube is so uncomfortable with women’s sexuality, and their cleavage, might be a lost cause; men around the world still decide women’s health care rights and dominate the discussion on domestic violence. The problem is larger than YouTube, and clearly, even larger than the Internet.

YouTube was unresponsive when reached for a comment.


4 Comments on “How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube”

  1. […] How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube (fruzsinaeordogh.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Felix Ray says:

    Boxxy (Catie Wayne) was still an underaged girl when 4chan was flooded with phtoshopped Boxxy bukkake porn, and the same comment (I would shut her up with my dick in her mouth) appeared over and over in her youtube comments several times a day,

    And Anita Sarkeesian… Jesus, they’re obsessed with her! Some youtubers have released dozens of videos criticizing her vlog, “Feminist Frequency”, which examines video games from a feminist perspective. A lot of the criticism of Sarkeesian revolves around the fact that when her videos recieved a flood of rape threats in the comments, she disabled comments. Apparently this is a violation of some imagined constitutional right to troll.

  3. I’m incredibly impressed by this well written article. It’s well researched and it must have taken a long time to write. As a blogger, I’m grappling with whether or not I should use my real full name online. Ideally, I’d like to be authentic and use my real name but the amount of hate women face online is insane. Using a pseudonym won’t change that, but it does help prevent some types of attacks. The internet should be a safe place for women and unfortunately it’s become just the opposite.

    • Thank you BellyAdventures!!! Yeah, it did take me at least a week to write and transcribe, with interviews spread out over months.

      I wish the internet was a safe space for women too! I understand your reasoning behind wanting to use a pseudonym (I use male sounding ones when playing video games all the time) for this very reason, and only use my voice on servers I trust. You do what you have to do. If my line of work didn’t call for me to use my real name, I wouldn’t.


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