How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube

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

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

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

The incident is evident of a larger trend on YouTube, where sexist attitudes towards women run unchecked. It’s not just the trolls or haters in the comments section of videos; YouTubers have cyberbullied women based off their appearance 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 negative sexist environment by cloistering themselves in the beauty section of YouTube, but that does little to combat the anti-women sentiments running rampant throughout the rest of the site.

Like rape apologist ideology, 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. Sometimes in her videos, the blonde, blue-eyed and pretty iJustine wears a tank top and lip gloss, and that little bit of sexuality occasionally 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 via the occasional cable news hosting gigs and cameos in popular TV shows. Mashable once called iJustine, who has collected more than 250 million views on her videos, a “YouTube mogul” but how far she’s taken her mostly independent six-year YouTube career matters little to many on the Google-owned site, who only know her as 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, nor is iJustine the first woman to use her gender and looks for clicks. 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.

Critics of Ray William Johnson and Philip DeFranco, two top male YouTubers making more than six-figures off the video sharing site, have called 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 (for example, 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.”

Very few women have been able to walk this thin line of 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 for profit or to make a point are still singled out and derided for their private parts.

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

Goertz 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, 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 mostly off her breasts. Her living off YouTube has come at a price; she regularly gets death threats and derogatory comments for her line of work.

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.

“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,” Davison wrote, seemingly in agreement with Gaitan’s theory about fewer women involved on the production, and promotion side of YouTube videos.

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. (If anyone can make an advertisement go viral or comment legitimately on how to get millions of views, it’s Gupta, the creator of the Songify app.)

The one area that women have found considerable success, and peace in, is the female-oriented style and how-to video section of YouTube.

The style and tutorial section of YouTube is blooming with advertising and sponsorship money, and it’s probably because of what Davison refers to as women “confining” themselves to the “glitter pink ghetto.” It’s like Reddit’s women-friendly section, r/twoxchromosomes, but for YouTube.

This “glitter pink ghetto” is more or less a safe haven for women, and is almost always devoid of misogynist comments, despite being based completely on a woman looks.

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, the community actively polices each other.

When the most successful beauty expert Michelle Phan gets comments from haters, other women hit the “dislike” button without a second thought effectively censoring the offending text within minutes. No one has threatened Phan with rape, and yet her fans react with bravado, even if only to defend Phan’s choice in Japanese anime.

(Incidentally, 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 can be mean on the Internet too. In 2009, UK beauty guru BubzBeauty made a video addressed to all her haters some of which were shockingly called her a “stupid chink.” BubzBeauty’s 12-minute vlog, however,  focused more on the fan accusations of BubzBeauty being a Phan knock-off and copycat, (BubzBeauty is of Asian descent, like Phan,), rather than on the hundred-year-old racist slur.

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 one of the founders of the now multi-million viewed 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.  By most accounts, Phan is a success, but given her gender-biased content, it’s unlikely she’ll ever break into the top 10 YouTube slot.

Phan doesn’t seem to care about that level of success, more 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 a different audience. (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, and Phan’s new channel is FAWN Inc, a lifestyle web show just for (young) women.

Outside of Phan’s beauty kingdom, 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 of Hollywood’s current fading “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” Helbig said, 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” Hart said, who seemed overly optimistic about YouTube as an “online space” despite skirting darker misogynistic tangents over her appearance or lesbianism in an 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.”


“Stick to what you’re good at Hart- gettin drunk and eating pussy!” Airstreamer69 wrote on Hart’s video titled “What to Do When You’re Bored,”  which isn’t about cooking while drunk.

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, but I can’t help but think increased dialogue is the answer.

This is a piece I wrote in 2012, but couldn’t get the Daily Dot (and then ReadWrite) to run. Gaby’s Dunn’s piece today reminded me it needs to be published somewhere.

2 Comments on “How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube”

  1. […] How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube ( […]

  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.

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