Unspreadable Media (Part Two): The Best LGBTQ Youth Videos are the Ones You’ll Probably Never See

Lauren S. Berliner

The Best LGBTQ Youth Videos are the Ones You’ll Probably Never See

My current research began in the fall of 2010, in the wake of the highly publicized suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, and several other teens who had been bullied because they were perceived to be gay. At the time I was working with LGBTQ youth in a media production program that I had designed and was facilitating at a local teen center and was paying close attention to the rise of anti-gay-bullying discourse, and the ways in which spreadable youth-produced video was being exalted by educators, activists, and other allies a potentially emancipatory practice for LGBTQ youth.

Most notable has been the It Gets Better Project (IGBP) online video campaign, started by columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, in which participants give personal testimonies that encourage struggling youth to believe that their circumstances will eventually improve. The premise of each video is that life as an LGBTQ youth is inherently filled with pain and oppression, but if you just hold on, it will get better.

We can see from the high numbers of views of IGBP videos and its derivatives that participation in this form of production means sharing the virtual stage with the likes of Pixar employees, celebrities, and even President Obama. .And when reviewing videos on YouTube we can see that some of the most circulated by LGBTQ youth around the world follow in the step with the IGBP narrative formula. 

Across the hundreds of related videos that exist online, there are striking consistencies in the message (‘stop bullying!’ or ‘hold on if you’re being bullied, life will get better!’), the positive tone, the call to action, and the digestible approach to the topic of violence and oppression. I will be referring to these kinds of videos as pedagogical videos, which I define as pedagogical. Pedagogical videos share the following characteristics:

  •  Social value is located in the content
  • Message-oriented (similar to broadcast PSA campaigns)
  • Aimed at enhancing LGBTQ visibility
  • Often based in oppression-based narrative
  • Aim to be highly spreadable

At present, the “success” of LGBTQ youth-produced pedagogical videos is measured by the extent of its circulation. When videos circulate widely through peer networks and achieve notoriety on a global scale, as many of the most famous LGBTQ youth videos have, one might assume there to be a straightforward connection between the video content and its social, cultural, and personal significance.

But one particular video, made in 2011 by 14-year-old Buffalo native Jamey Rodemeyer, prompted me to question this logic.

So, how to read this video? Jamey’s words claim empowerment, but perhaps you’ll agree that there is something unsettling here too, as if he is trying to convince himself that it gets better. Sadly, it’s hindsight that confirms this reading because just five months after posting the video, Jamey took his life.

Why would someone like Jamey produce a video like this that didn’t reflect his lived experience?

Jamey’s video prompts us to ask how the prerogatives of spreadable media shape, and potentially impede, a maker’s narrative and expressive possibilities. I would like to suggest that video production that is intended from the outset for wide circulation in the pursuit of visibility encourages youth like Jamey to participate in a particular set of production practices that risk masking their emotional and resource needs. 

If we examine the guidelines the It Gets Better Project provides its contributors we can see content normalization explicitly encouraged. These guidelines outline the visual and narrative parameters of successful (posts that won’t be blocked) video contributions. These sanitizing guides and requisite “positive tone” are likely motivated by practical concerns, such as a perceived danger of posting videos that suggest justifications and techniques for LGBTQ youth suicide. 

Contributors are offered advice on how to achieve the highest quality sound and lighting for their video. These aesthetic suggestions are based on a normative framing--the testimonial, seated, medium shot documentary style that Savage and Miller first initiated. It is assumes that contributors will be shooting in a similar fashion and tacitly encourages such emulation. In addition, the IGBP website suggests “talking points” that contributors should cover. The broad categories include “’Positive Messages of Hope for LGBTQ Youth,’ ‘Using Safe Messaging Practices,’ and ‘Suggested Resources, Help, and Support.’ The campaign requests that contributors seek to “inspire” young people, while staying “positive” and “uplifting” and avoiding any “language that could be interpreted as negative or that specifically mentions self-harm.”

Disqualified subjectivities or pathologized subject positions cannot be contained by this dominant narrative form. One’s participation in such a video, therefore, inevitably becomes a performance of a particular position with regards to the pain associated with (LGBTQ) youth and suicidal ideation. When one films, views, or circulates a pedagogical video, one identifies as the “not-bully,” “the ally,” or “the survivor” while also furthering a master narrative about LGBTQ experience. The dominant narrative circulating on YouTube about LGBTQ youth describes this demographic as especially vulnerable to violence (particularly bullying) and suicidal ideation, in part due to the ubiquity and reach of LGBTQ youth pedagogical videos like the It Gets Better Project. These videos eclipse other types of videos by and for LGBTQ youth that achieve less visibility online.

Yet when we disentangle the spread and mainstream visibility that pedagogical videos enjoy from the sheer number of videos that exist for and about LGBTQ youth, we begin to see a profuse and diverse representation of LGBTQ youth life that effectually counters the homogenizing, oppression-based narrative that the IGBP campaign and its derivatives further.

A second category of videos can therefore be characterized as more informal, improvisational, and typically posted for an already-invested local public of viewers (rather than an imagined, homogenous LGBTQ youth public). These videos, which I call performative, are characteristically disjointed, non-linear, and work against any particular script. In so doing, they direct the viewer away from notions of any essentialized interiority associated with being LGBTQ. So rather than describing a universal narrative of what it means to be LGBTQ, as pedagogical videos are apt to do, performative videos actively enact LGBTQ publics. Through a multiplicity of narratives, styles, tone, and genres, the sphere of LGBTQ legitimacy and identity is cast much wider. This is not to say that LGBTQ youth contributors to YouTube always produce videos with the explicit intention of providing counter-narratives, but rather, that the sheer range of content produced, in aggregate, provides a multiplicity of narratives and representations that in effect contradict any attempts to homogenize LBGTQ youth experience. Indeed the filming styles, content, metadata, and circulation of performative videos consummate LGBTQ youth publics online, and in turn complicate the proscribed, teleological narrative that the It Gets Better Project and similar pedagogical videos further. It thus moves us away from monolithic narratives rooted in violence and oppression and towards multiple narratives of possibility.

Here are some of the kinds of performative videos we can expect to find online:

Emo boy hair swoop and my coming out story

 They range from from local community collaborations, informal peer-education video blogs, videos shot in the home mode of production, to what I call “slam-book videos” based on the middle-school fad of group journaling to a set of open-ended questions. Taken together, performative LGBTQ youth videos confound the narrative of a singular public that IGBP seeks to cohere. In so doing, they point to different forms of queer sociality and futurity, evidencing multiple queer publics that are responsive to change and invested in transformation. To wit, these videos encourage alternative ways of thinking about the potential role of participatory video in the lives of LGBTQ youth. As the sheer variety of performative LGBTQ youth videos illustrate, YouTube is a site where marginal positions, narratives, and experiences are performed and circulated. These appear to emerge from local publics that have pre-existing audiences and knowledges that are embedded in the production process.

It is for these reasons, such videos rarely circulate beyond an already-invested viewership. This is in part due to the sheer ubiquity of videos online, but also because most of these videos do not follow the templates that seek to ensure spreadability, as the pedagogical ones do. 

But as local LGBTQ youth publics continue to utilize YouTube, the multiplicity of narratives, coalitions, symbolic representation and mimetic re-imaginings they create can help form the basis for transformative social change. These videos realize a world in which many other possibilities and ways of being LGBTQ emerge; de-emphasizing bullying, violence and suicidal ideation as the most legible, shared narrative.

Pedagogical videos require spreadability because their social value is imagined to be located in the content (a message). Performative videos, on the other hand, are typically more directed towards representing community and LGBTQ diversity, while activating local publics. Performative LGBTQ youth videos take many forms, reflecting the overall diversity of existing online production genres.

If pedagogical videos work to reinforce cohesive narratives about LGBTQ lives, LGBTQ youth video blogs (vlogs) and webcasts confound them. Whereas pedagogical videos ultimately work to fix particular kinds of understandings of what it means to be LGBTQ youth, performative videos reflect varied and sometimes even contradictory ways of identifying as LGBTQ. The range of video representations produce a diverse set of meanings about what it means to be LGBTQ and in effect, realizes the potential for joy, connection, and social action, often precluded by pedagogical videos that center around violence and oppression.  While violence and suicidal ideation are indeed very real concerns for the LGBTQ youth population, they are not necessarily central to, or definitive of, the experience of being a young LGBTQ person. In this way, performative videos challenge the pedagogical video genre’s ability to speak to and about LGBTQ youth. Performative videos position themselves less as panacea for LGBTQ youth pain, but rather as just one of many possible outlets for expression, social cohesion, and perhaps even reflexivity. These videos perform the narrative multiplicity that exists among and between LGBTQ youth and in so doing, encourage us to divest in the master narrative of oppression-based experience that is proffered by pedagogical videos such as those of the It Gets Better Project and recognize the heterogeneity in LGBTQ youth experience.

Lauren S. Berliner is Assistant Professor of Media & Communication Studies and Cultural Studies at University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses on media praxis and participatory media culture. She is also a filmmaker and the co-curator of The Festival of (In)Appropriation annual showcase of experimental media. Her forthcoming book, LGBTQ Youth and The Paradox of Digital Media Empowerment, combines participatory action research with LGBTQ youth media makers along with textual analysis of youth-produced videos to examine how youth negotiate the structural conditions of funding and publicity and incorporate digital self-representations into practices of identity management.  Her latest research is a collaboration with medical anthropologist Nora Kenworthy on a project that seeks to understand the phenomenon of crowdfunding for healthcare, focusing on how Americans are utilizing participatory media to solicit new forms of care and support.