Does the constant drama surrounding influential beauty YouTubers reduce the LGBTQI+ community to negative stereotypes?
In a time not too long ago, celebrity-endorsements weld unparalleled sway over the beauty community. Once upon a pre-Kylie Cosmetics, "self-made billionaire" Kylie Jenner revealed her lip liner of choice in an interview — that's M.A.C.'s Lip Pencil in Spice, FYI — resulting in the product be out-of-stock for months. Lupita Nyong'O whipped out her Clarins lip balm at the Oscars in 2014, only for fans to turn it into a trending hashtag (#LupitasLipBalm) whereupon it sold out overnight. Lest we forget Angelia Jolie's gloss touch-up at the 2011 Golden Globes, which incited a lippie hunt spanning nations.
Recent times, however, prove that celebrities aren't the only ones holding clout within the industry. Enter YouTube beauty gurus counting subscribers and fans in the millions. Whether acquired through expertise, relatability, or sheer charisma alone, there's no denying that they are rapidly rising to become the trusted source of authority amongst the beauty community. This paradigm shift further evidenced by the surge of collaborations between beauty brands and influencers, such as Marc Jacobs with Nikkie de Jager, Morphe with Jeffree Star, and Covergirl with James Charles, spawned cult products aplenty. Few lucky ones have gone on to front their own labels as well.
That said, not all YouTubers are made equal. Several key names dominate the sphere — the general public have a lot of feelings (positive and negative) about bigwigs namely Jeffree Star, James Charles, and Manny MUA. Affectionately nicknamed 'beauty boys', their visibility and popularity inspired many to see beyond the rigid confines of gender, and subsequently opened the floor to discussions on masculinity, politics, and what it means to be male in society doing traditionally "unmanly" things. Their predominance over the industry continues to grow in 2019, along with the number of players emerging out of the woodwork to rule the roost. Besides an obsession with and passion about makeup, they share another common thread: they are all members of the LGBTQI+ community.
Coincidence? Probably not. You see, the beauty YouTube scene is largely run by queer folk. Self-proclaimed gay guru, Davey Wavey, explained the phenomenon in his aptly-titled video, "Why are so many YouTubers gay?" In it, he addressed the platform YouTube serves to "outcasts", and how finally, "loners, introverts, and the LGBTQI+ community have a place to be seen, heard, and commune."
A space that isn't just accepting — but welcoming — of LGBTQI+ folk is rare, particularly under Trump's administration as well as in Singapore, where our Penal Code criminalises sex between men. YouTube (at least parts of it) remains a sanctum. It is a bubble that shuns the bigotry, discrimination, and injustice that may run rampant in many parts of the world. There, everything from Pride makeup tutorials to Grindr challenges are regarded as valuable sources of information and entertainment.
The good is quickly eclipsed by the ugly. As it turns out, even the individuals who champion change can't always escape controversy, especially those of their own making — in recent times, the very diversity and acceptance the LGBTQI+ Youtube makeup coterie embrace and endorse have taken a backseat. In their place, some say, is the same brand of racist, transphobic, and body-shaming behaviour the community has itself suffered.
As with the discovery of Caitlyn Jenner's allegiance to Trump despite the US president's anti-LGBTQI+ stance, we can't help but wonder: have their very public theatrics unwittingly intensified the long-held damaging stereotype about "dramatic gay people"?
Movies such as G.B.F. (2014) and Do I Sound Gay (2014) tackle the harmfulness of such stereotypes with relative success, though it remains an ongoing issue faced by the group. Will YouTube's wide reach — and the notoriety of aforementioned influencers — further cement the prejudices they've criticised media for perpetuating? Do the very real LGBTQI+ individuals who don't always get to hide behind fanfare, glossy screens, and thick foundations feel misrepresented by the famed figures, if at all?
We set out to untangle this web by speaking to our favourite members of the LGBTQI+ beauty community to see where they stand.
Filment Ho, 20, freelance writer and aspiring beauty YouTuber
"I'd say that their drama has definitely impacted the way I am viewed by certain members of the heterosexual community. They believe that everyone within the community is always gossiping, talking sh*t about people... Some people who watch my videos call me Asian James Charles because that's all they know. People think that if I do makeup, I am him, which discredits my creativity.
It is harmful in a way for me because I feel the need to distance myself from certain behaviour or catchphrases to appear separate from these influencers and the image they project. But it is perhaps even more harmful to up-and-coming beauty YouTubers who feel pressured to mirror that "bad b*tch" attitude, cattiness, and sass because that persona is perceived to be representative of success.
At the end of the day, people have to understand that influencers are not the face of the community. They represent a part of the community — and a rather privileged one, in fact, where most of them are white and ignorant. They wouldn't understand the importance of racial issues. Even homosexual and transgender individuals can lack understanding of many issues. None of them are very intersectional about the things they talk about, and they should be."
Becca D'Bus, 41, drag queen
"It says a lot more about the people who choose to believe in such stereotypes than it does about these figures within the community. If we're going to look at people like Jeffree Star and James Charles, then somehow assume that they are representative of all queers... that's a very, very narrow worldview. I'd like to think that most people would recognise quite quickly how wrong that position would be, but it also speaks as to how little of the world somebody who believes that has seen.
The example of the Tati Westbrook and James Charles feud is particularly interesting, because if we want to look at how that has unfolded so far, some people might go, "Oh what does that say about queer people?" For all the reasons that I said before, I don't think that's a really fair position to take. But, I would also then have to ask you what you think the drama says about straight white women. More specifically, what does it say about straight white women and their relationship with queerness?
The question I just asked isn't fair, but it is literally the same question that is being asked about queer people solely based on several interactions. I mean, we could say, "Oh, here's another example of a straight white woman who uses gay people as a prop to feel good about themselves until it's no longer convenient." We could make a connection here with Taylor Swift. We could make a connection here with a lot of other people, but we don't. We instantly recognise how problematic it is to say that. But at the same time, it's thought of as a reasonable question when it's been rephrased to refer to gay people. It is an inherent bias in framing.
Ultimately, it's a mistake to think an issue like this is the end of the universe. It's entertainment for the most part. Does it perpetuate racism? Yes, very often. Does it perpetuate fat phobia? Of course. Yet, why are we not feeling the same indignation about Trump? It would remiss to point out that the world is a little bit bigger than what you stick in front of your face. If we are in a space of looking at beauty and watching YouTube, and ignoring the people who actually make policies that affect our lives, saying and doing problematic things, then turn off YouTube."
Shelton Chang, 25, skincare enthusiast
"If you're someone who is not really in contact with LGBTQI+ folk, your first impression might be something you glean from the Internet. But for the most part, I don't feel that heterosexuals see these YouTubers and influencers as a reflection of how the community is like. After all, it is apparent in the way these people document their lives that they're not the average person, so it would be unrealistic to assume that people would look at them and paint out the entire LGBTQI+ community to be exactly like them.
Yet, it is still very important that these influencers be mindful of their speech and actions because they do subliminally affect public sentiment to the community. I've had friends come up to me to ask me about the whole James Charles scandal, and I was shocked because I knew they have no interest in the beauty world entirely. If anything, this just highlights how social media is a mass tool, to the point where every bit of news trickle down to the everyday consumer. We have a responsibility to not take social media so literally — we should be making some sort of processing rather than making assumptions to huge groups of people because of it.
Ultimately, I'd like to believe that the exposure and popularisation of LGBTQI+ culture prevent people from passing judgements or assumptions on us. One can only hope."
Martin Mazuqi, 24, freelancer and makeup enthusiast
"Oh, I've definitely gotten a lot of flak since the implosion of all this beauty YouTuber drama. Some of my friends are like, "Isn't that how you are as well?" Hell no. You can't pin someone as the poster child of the whole community. That's also wrong because these influencers are not asking to be the face of the community either. Sadly though, they are prominent figures, and as people, we digest and believe what is most visible and "out there". That's just human nature, I can't fault people for thinking that way. People will always believe their eyes first, no matter what others say, you know?
Let's say you do fall into this stereotype of being a catty and dramatic gay person. To that I say, "So what?" Yes, I know a lot of masculine gays who go to the gym, and are really rough and tough, and sometimes they get annoyed when people pin them to act in a certain way due to their sexual orientation. I want people to know that this stereotype is not impossible to live or deal with. A lot of people — even those within the LGBTQI+ community — are afraid to be feminine because misogyny is still everywhere. They're afraid to act like women, or be seen as women, because they're taught their whole life not to be one. They go around posturing, "I suck d*ck, but you know, I'm still a man." We are frequently thrown under the bus by members within the same community, too.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that people should try to understand us as individuals. Be empathetic, be aware, and know that you can have two gay guys in the room for instance, and have them be on totally opposite ends of the spectrum. There is more to us than a stereotype."
Arya Dunn, 22, drag queen
"People are always going to have a negative perception of the LGBTQI+ community, with or without the drama related to these figures in the beauty industry. There's always this sort of pre-existing condition where you look at things in a certain way. When you're growing up, you're conditioned to a lot of things. And it takes a lot of effort to unlearn them. People resort to these stereotypes in the first place to understand things better, like when you watch a movie and see a jock, and he's a dumb blonde. Or a movie with an Asian female character, and she has purple streaks in her hair, so she must be rebellious. It's not entirely wrong to do that, but they have to realise that they aren't truly understanding that person so they can't — and shouldn't — hold them to it.
People do hold this stereotype without bothering to dig deeper. It's an issue everywhere, but it is particularly felt in Singapore's community because it's more judgemental than most. They don't say it, but you feel it.
In the end, though, it boils down to the responsibility of the individual to make an effort and educate themselves. It may be human nature to reject anything that feels too difficult, or to put it away for later, but people need to figure it out. They need to try to form their own opinion, instead of basing theirs on someone else's."
Zaza, 27, business development executive and makeup enthusiast
"Where these influencers are concerned, I believe they have a responsibility to be aware and informed before going around spreading "their ideals". A big chunk of their fan base proves to be young and impressionable — they are at an age where a lot of their opinions and beliefs are shaped by what they see around them. So what these influencers say, and what they do, can have a significance on real people's lives, which is frightening.
These individuals may very well project this perception they have on every queer person they meet, causing them to be confused or upset when you don't live up to them. It perpetuates this other harmful stereotype, which is that if you don't dress a certain way, or you don't look a certain way, then people are going to assume you're straight. They choose to disregard this entire part of your identity because you don't look or act like a stereotype. As someone who is bisexual and in a hetero relationship now, I'm tired of having to justify my existence constantly.
I tend to call this sort of problematic behaviour out when I see it, but only when I have the time or energy to do so. Influencers with larger platforms should be the ones stepping up for us, because their voices are able to reach audiences we don't have access to. Will they, though? Especially at the risk of losing investors, brands and their audience? We'll have to see."