Celebrity activism is so well established in our culture that it’s become a fertile field for scholarship. But what about YouTube celebrities? With millions of channel subscribers, can a YouTube star make a difference for a cause? And if they step out of their normal role, does it risk their relationship with an audience any more or less than a Hollywood icon?
Last month, three YouTube stars gave us a hint at the answer. Cassey Ho, Michelle Phan and Hannah Hart each did either videos or accompanying blogs that took on topics, respectively, of body image bias, human trafficking and the Affordable Care Act.
There was no clear coordination of efforts between them, though a YouTube spokesperson did point the connection out to me after I asked for examples of women YouTubers who were building audiences around social issues — in the mode of The Representation Project. Phan, Ho and Hart are not building their video brands on that premise — they are wildly popular for creating exercise videos, makeup tutorials and drunken cooking shows. This makes a shift to another, potentially controversial topic, all the more risky.
“If I worry about offending this person or that person,” Ho wrote in an email interview, “I go nowhere and no change will ever be made.”
Target, Thigh Gaps and The Body Balance
Ho’s role, however, as an exercise instructor is especially tricky. Finding the balance between helping her audience reach a level of fitness — without falling into the trap of body hatred — is no easy task. Consider the conversation she had with her community over a Honey Boo Boo post. Or if you missed it last month, Ho helped set off a viral moment around a poorly photoshopped Target ad that added a “thigh gap” to a young model in a swimming suit. Target later apologized and fixed it. [To read an extended interview with Ho, go here.]
“I was browsing the Target website for a new bikini when I saw one with a cute print and decided to zoom in,” Ho wrote. “It was at that point that I saw the jagged lines and missing crotch in the model! It was shocking. Upsetting.”
Upsetting, yes, and complicated. Ho in fact, had created a “printable” about how to create a thigh gap a few years back.
“Back then, thigh gaps weren’t a viral online obsession,” she writes, “but rather more of a ‘how to get flat abs’ kind of a question. So I made it for my fans. Little did I know that a couple years later, the printable would resurface and be used in online news segments as an example of how getting a thigh gap was the latest unhealthy body image craze!”
Now that she has grown as a producer, and knows her audience better, Ho says she works hard to balance the health-image issue.
“Like if a client asked ‘How can I slim my thighs down?’ I would say run, eat clean, and do these 5 thigh toning moves,” she wrote. “But since the gap became an obsession, it’s not as easy to answer those questions without being judged for instigating body image issues.”
Modern Day Slavery
While body image is a terribly dangerous area for young people, it seems manageable compared to being sold or kidnapped for the sex trade. That’s an issue that motivated Michelle Phan enough to make one of her high concept, high production videos that she most often employs for make-up tutorials.
“The message behind all of my videos and my work is to empower young women,” Phan wrote in a statement to Forbes. “I want to inspire them to be brave and remind them that they have the freedom to dream. ‘The Remember the Girl’ video is an example of that same message – I believe that by sharing one powerful story you can not only turn negativity into positivity, but you can also ignite a movement around empowerment.”
The video has received more than 1 million views and the response has been largely positive. However, sifting through the comments section, it becomes clear it was a risk. Phan is criticized for the story she included about herself as well as the organization she chose to support, Love146, which the commenter claims harbors anti-LGBTQ sentiments. (For the record, Love146 posts on its site that it serves people, “regardless of religion, political preference, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or gender.”)
Phan declined to answer questions about the relationship with Love146, but concluded in her statement, “The goal is always to create a supportive, positive community for those looking for or in need of it.”
Health Care for Young People
Hart’s activism started pretty simply.
“I got an e-mail from the White House asking me to come and chitty-chat for a bit!” she writes in an email interview.
But it got complicated enough afterwards that Hart felt the need to respond to a lot of criticism (which she highlights early in the video — some NSFW).
“Frankly, I was happy that there was discussion in the comments at all,” she writes. “I think that everyone has the right to voice their opinions and seek answers to their question. Free and open discourse is the path to progress.”
While Hart laid out a statistics-laden case for ACA, she did it in her usual quirky style. And certainly did not apologize for getting mixed up in politics on a comedy channel. Just in case you were wondering, there’s more on her mind.
“I would like to see our nation reform it’s current policies (or lack thereof) regarding mental healthcare,” Hart wrote when asked about other issues that would spark similar advocacy. “I feel that homelessness in America could be greatly reduced if the government would revisit its approach to provision of care for those who have a debilitating mental illness.”
It’s certainly not the first time YouTube has been used for advocacy, both by traditional and YouTube celebrities. But it offers interesting insight into how YouTube-grown celebrities have evolved in their relationship with audience. Recently YouTube started a traditional TV campaign highlighting channels like Phan’s to show how millions of viewers have not only tuned in, but connected with these video makers. That platform is powerful and precarious. And perhaps another place for celebrity activism.
“I think YouTube provides a platform for discussion without gatekeepers or incentivized opinions,” Hart wrote. “I’m very proud to be a part of this moment in our media history.”