Queer performance, youth and YouTube

by Ron Gregg

Sample YouTube page with video, comments, links and other information.

“The ‘magic’ of the Internet is that it is a technology that puts cultural acts, symbolizations in all forms, in the hands of all participants; it radically decentralizes the positions of speech, publishing, filmmaking, radio and television broadcasting, in short the apparatuses of cultural production.” — Mark Poster

"In the evolution of the individual, there is a moment in which rationality gives way to visionary impulse, when the logic of our actions gives way to an extreme desire for freedom, a desire destined to be swallowed up by the infinite rules of the social game." — Francesco Bonami

In this paper, I analyze videos produced and performed by youth on the video sharing website YouTube which feature queer performance, particularly cross-dressing and/or same sex eroticism. I began this study before Oct. 2006, when Google paid $1.65 billion for YouTube.com. What drew my attention was the incredible freedom expressed in the youth’s uninhibited and very public performances. Like many queer youth of my generation in the 1960s, I lip synced popular tunes myself, often adopting the cross-gender persona of Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, one of my divas, sometimes even engaging in a bit of cross-dressing to inhabit that persona. But I kept such performances in the private space of the bedroom. Also like most of my peers, we never discussed it outside of that bedroom.

The web has changed this by encouraging youth to make private performances public. YouTube offers adolescents what Francesco Bonami calls a “moment in which rationality gives way to visionary impulse, when the logic of our actions gives way to an extreme desire for freedom, a desire destined to be swallowed up by the infinite rules of the social game.” I wondered when I started this project, if it was possible that this destiny might change for these young producers recording and uploading their “impulses” to this virtual public sphere and connecting with a large network of vocal, like-minded friends. Would these young performers find themselves less “swallowed” up by and change the rules when they enter the adult world? Or would the corporate and moral authorities successfully discipline such youth and reassert their “rules” in this public space?

Without a doubt, the media attention that made YouTube a cultural phenomenon, the Google purchase, and the increasing clash of different ideological forces have changed YouTube. Many of the videos that I looked at more than a year ago are no longer available. There are any number of possible reasons for these changes: the producers boredom and withdrawal from YouTube; after seeing what their teenagers have uploaded and shared with the world, parents ordering them to remove the videos from YouTube; or maturity—they grow out of their YouTube videos with new interests and more freedom outside of the home. Others may have been scared by denigrating, anti-queer responses to their videos or by sexually suggestive come-ons by older viewers and exited the YouTube community in response. In some cases, the producers have shifted their videos from a public site to a private site, only available to those granted permission.

A few producers had their “user accounts suspended,” clearly for video content that was flagged as inappropriate or used copyrighted material. These suspensions suggest that Goggle increased the surveillance and removal of erotic and copyrighted material. But Google does not want to repress the creative and invigorating youthful energy that has helped to make YouTube the phenomenal success that it is. Thus, YouTube negotiates between youthful energy and conservative corporate and moral interests and continues to be a major site for adolescent queer speak and culture. Although some videos have disappeared, they have been replaced by an even greater number of new ones. They are also no longer just from the United States; YouTube is creating a transnational virtual community.

Since its founding in 2005, one of the most astonishing things about YouTube — and one of the ways it most fulfills Poster’s hope that the web will provide a forum to those usually excluded from cultural production — is that, at least, in its pre-Google days, evidence suggests that 12-17 year olds were YouTube’s primary producers and consumers. YouTube has provided amateur filmmakers and performers a virtual space where they can easily upload videos they have produced themselves and which they and/or their friends perform, making them available to a larger virtual community.

Many adolescents find that the sharing, response, and linking nature of YouTube builds a supportive community for their art and/or behavior. After sharing a self-produced video with the YouTube community, the young producer receives responses and ratings from viewers, which sometimes leads to discussions about the video’s aesthetics and content. Out of these discussions, small communities of like-minded “friends” connect and pass on video favorites between themselves, the larger YouTube community through their personal YouTube webpages, and to other linking sites. Each video’s webpage indicates how often the video has been viewed, lists comments by viewers, and links the viewer to other videos by the same producer as well as to her/his favorite videos by other producers.

Example of including a note explaining that the performers are “not gay” in the About This Video section.

MySpace, YouTube and other sites have created a vast and unprecedented public sphere where youth can express themselves and communicate with one another, including adolescents who challenge gender conventions and embrace queer identities. I mean queer in a broad sense. I am not calling these adolescents gay or making any predictions about their future sexual identities—but at this moment in their lives, they seem comfortable with queer performance. And their performances are read as queer by a part of the YouTube community, as evidenced by viewer comments. Some producers know and accept this and continue to turn out provocative videos. A few producer/performers directly challenge the more denigrating comments, calling these viewers homophobes or haters. Other producer/performers disavow such viewers’ responses by adding descriptions that state, “I am not gay.” Some move away from queer performance completely, suggesting that the recognition of normative labels shuts down their public queer play.

The genres of this youth-based queer video are varied. There are numerous original or not so original parodies, tributes to and montages inspired by queer films such as Brokeback Mountain, cable shows such as Queer as Folk, and media stars, such as Ellen Degenres and Rosie O’Donnell. However, my focus in this paper is specifically on queer performance associated with popular music and blogging.

In a vast number of self-produced videos, performers lip sync and dance to new and old music by Madonna, the Backstreet Boys, Shakira, Aqua and others. Drawing upon music that has a link to queer culture, they either imitate their favorites or re-conceive the song or dance, turning it into a campy parody, provocative performance, or more complicated critique. Many have no inhibitions about crossing gender in their performances.

A boy in drag dancing to a pop song

In this paper, I have not named the performers in my primary examples or linked the reader to those videos which are still accessible, because many of them have received denigrating comments about their performances and their direct or implicit responses suggest that some were surprised or upset and do not want to be saddled with a queer label.

One of the most popular forms of queer performance is lip-syncing and dancing to pop songs with easy dance beats and sexually suggestive lyrics. One of the most popular pop groups to inspire this kind of queer interpretation is the Danish-Norwegian pop group Aqua, in particular their two songs Barbie Girl and Lollipop (Candy Man). For instance, in a self-produced 2006 video, one self-identified 17-year-old female producer performs to Aqua’s Lollipop. The song consists of male and female vocalists with stereotypical sexual roles and sexually suggestive lyrics—in a high, girlish voice, the female singer asks the “Candy Man” to be her lollipop, and in response, he invites her to “bouncy-land.” The female producer in this case uses a sped up version of Lollipop (“Alvin and the Chipmunks” style) and lip-syncs and performs both male and female roles in the song.

Two teenage girls dancing to a pop song by David Bowie, one performing in male dress.

For the two genders, she creates unique characteristics through dance styles, facial expressions, and dress. She leaves her long hair loose and bouncy for the female role and pulls it back behind her ears, keeping it in check for the male. She wears a “Bimbo-esque” smile for the female and a tough-guy frown for the male. While wearing the same shirt and slacks for both characters, she lets the shirt hang loose and flop freely (like the hair) for the female and then ties the shirt in a frontal knot constraining it to again suggest a tough young male. (I would note that the hair and clothing seems more “butch” than male, but she identifies the two as male and female). She has also choreographed simple dance steps that suggest stereotypical female and male movements—bouncing, loose movements for the female and a barely moving body and tight-fisted hands suggest the male). She meticulously cuts back and forth between the two characters, matching female action and lip sync to Aqua’s female voice and the same for the male, and cuts between close-ups and medium long shots of her two characters. Although sexually tame, the video and her performance suggests a humorous, mocking take on the stereotypical gendering suggested by the song’s voices and lyrics, but also the performer’s enjoyment of the song as an inspiration for queer play.

YouTube sensation Chris Crocker discussing “What is Normal?” with over one million views.

This producer/performer’s video is still available and continues to receive very positive reviews—and since she has maintained the video on YouTube, she is clearly pleased with the video and enjoys engaging with her small, but growing audience. When I first took notes on this video in Spring 2007, the video had been seen nearly 4000 times, favored 16 times (and when I last checked the numbers had increased to over 6000 views, while favored 22). To give a sense of what these numbers mean, this is more viewers than the entire population of the small Missouri town that I was raised in, but much less than the over one million views for gay YouTube phenomenon Chris Crocker’s take on “What is ‘normal’?” [Click here to see video in new window]

Alternatively, in a more provocative 2006 video that is no longer available, a self-identified 15-year-old boy produced and performed to Aqua’s Barbie Girl. This song sets up a similar sexually suggestive conversation between its female and male vocalists; the female sings about being a “Barbie Girl,” who offers herself for “touch” and “play,” while the male asks this perfect, plastic female object to “go party.”

Popular YouTube duo Syncsta performing as two gay men with shirts tied bra-like to The Gay Barbie Song, a parody of Aqua’s Barbie Girl.

With a stationary camera and a single long take and medium shot, the 15-year-old performs only the female role marking the character’s Barbie-ness through fake Jayne-Mansfield large breasts, tight T-shirt to enhance the roundness and largeness of the breasts, and makeup, particularly bright red circles on the checks to suggest a doll. His lip syncing perfectly matches the female voice in the song and constructs a consistent “Barbie Girl” character by putting on lipstick, erotically stroking his breasts and faux nipples, and smoothing his hair when the song mentions that you can brush “Barbie’s” hair. His “Barbie” consciously performs for the camera, often directly looking at the camera and sometimes leaning in, moving into close-up and smiling, thus teasing both the male character in the song and the YouTube viewer. He never breaks out of this character.

Two boys dancing in carnivalesque costumes.

This distinguishes his performance from most adolescent male YouTube performances of the same and similar songs. The majority of adolescent cross-dressing performances are produced in pairs, with one male teen lip-syncing the female part and another male teen performing the male voice. As with the 15-year-old’s version, many of these duets play up the sexual innuendo of the song, although not teasing the YouTube viewer as the 15-year-old does in his more intimate, solo performance. In many of these duets, however, the “female” performer often finds a way to ensure that we know its only a performance, carefully marking his masculinity by either keeping on his everyday male-based clothing, not wearing makeup or disguising his male haircut, laughing and breaking in and out of character, or a combination of these and other ways to ensure the viewer that he is not sexually queer and only doing it for laughs. In their highly successful version of “Barbie Girl,’ with almost two million views, the male duo Syncsta directly solved the problem by writing in their video description, “P.S. WE ARE NOT GAY!” [Click here to see video in new window] At the same time, they appear to have appreciated and acknowledged their gay fans. (See the gay on-line magazine ohlala’s short article on Syncsta.

Syncsta lip syncs Barbie Girl and writes “P.S. WE ARE NOT GAY!” in their “About This Video” description.

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