Black Girls: Who Else “Owns” Your YouTube Video?

Body and soul, Black America reveals the extreme questions of contemporary life, questions of freedom and identity:
How can I be who I am?

— June Jordan

This summer i am using my Black Girls Who Twerk on YouTube research to teach my two intro to cultural anthropology courses. There is one black woman or black “girl” in each section. The rest include a Bangladeshi man, a Pakastani woman, a Russian woman who twerks and has shared that her boyfriend is/was black, men who identify as white–one who is Albanian, a woman who was born in Taiwan but has resided in Singapore and now NYC, a Puerto Rican man who has lived in Singapore who wants to be a professional writer, a recent immigrant for college from France who never knew much about black cultural identity and others. There’s 20 students in all. The two groups are nationally-diverse but their knowledge of black girls’ lives have been more or less limited…until now.

There is so much value from learning with people who have different perspectives of the world we share. We are starting to discover the power of doing ethnography and the unique things we can discuss by looking from different lens at black girls on YouTube. Our clashes of insight and sight reveal so much about how black girls are viewed, represented vs. how they represent themselves in ways. Both are distorted and affected by how others view black girls and women locally, nationally and internationally. Holistic or historical patterns of patriarchy (the views of boys/men), white superiority and beauty ideals, and a history of colorism or skin color politics within and without the black community are all filters for how we see black girls today. It’s hard for others in the public sphere to imagine much less appreciate the ideals and values of moving one’s hips in dance within many contexts of the black or African diaspora in the US and abroad.

Twerking in online video has somehow become the flipped imprimatur of black femaleness, meaning a YouTuber’s acceptance or guarantee that something is not of a good standard these days.

 

Watching Teen Black Girls Twerk on HisTube

In class this week, both sections got tripped up over the contexts that we take for granted on YouTube. That what we see is always the original online video of a black girl twerking.

A few students struggled over whether a video that we watched “belonged” to the young black girl dancing in the YouTube frame. I insisted it was not once I saw the channel and its owner. One student insisted like “can’t you see that’s really her in the video”. LOL. I helped her discover that there are number of videos most YouTubers may watch of black girls twerking that do not belong to the performer. Online videos are easily downloaded and uploaded as content to male creator’s channels. Most viewers do not check who published the video or who owns the channel. Most viewers mindlessly see just another black girl twerking from her bedroom or kitchen and add that to a list of things they think are deviant about the practice, making it public, not being respecable, or that girls diminish themselves by doing that dance. #respectabilitypolitricks

Many videos featuring a teen black girl dancing from her bedroom is not “owned” or “published” by her. The video below by subscriber dizzybundles806 is a case in point. Sometimes the performance isn’t actually twerking as is the case here despite the title. A title that lets us know what she’s doing is “ratchet” the code word for a lack of respect for oneself these days. But each of the over 9,000 views and 19 comments reflects a way in which a black girl stands in for all black girls in these views that are being generalized and collapsed into the latest stereotype of black femaleness. It is them freely promulgated by YouTubers like this one.

 

“WHO’S CHILD IS THIS: RATCHET BLACK GIRL TWERKING

“WHO’S CHILD IS THIS: RATCHET BLACK GIRL TWERKING.” YouTube. dizzybundles806 (4 videos, 56 subscribers), 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 20 June 2014. .

This problem is an example of what Mike Wesch, along with danah boyd, as “context collapse“.  While the young girl dancing above did make an online video, the one that appears on dizzybundles806‘s channel is actually a reproduction, a copy that looks just like the original but surely without her consent. It appears that the channel belongs to a male. Since YouTube, as someone I heard say, is actually like a public utility available to us all, it seems like she cannot lay claim to consent.

Context collapse often leads viewers to overlook that we read things differently because of different contexts. Knowing this as the original selfie with 9,000 views is different than when the online video of the girl is used on another channel to get views, to garner traffic and eyes. I’ll say more about his channel in a sec but this is not uncommon for males to repost videos by black women in some sort of free trade agrement on YouTube. Far too many twerking videos do not “belong” to the channel owner but may be read as if it’s just the girl. What’s one girls loss is another channel owner’s gain in social capital and perhaps even real currency.

Most girls who create these videos may or may not be hip to this. How do we become more media literate about it? How do we educate these lil’ sisters that their  original online video is potentially of more value to others than to herself? If she’s not aware?  In the YouTube media ecology consent shifts to really knowing how to own your own body image in online video.

There is another aspect to the impact of this recirculation. It produces a kind of cultural noise about the social capital among viewers (non-black and black) who find black girls’ revelry before the glass dot discordant with public opinion about everyday black girls. Then real black girls may find themselves challenged and reshaping their sense of self, around expressing their sexuality on and offline, not just with the booty backin that thang up to a YouTube webcam in their bedroom, but also in other public, and less virtual, spaces after boys and men have learned they can handle “them” any way they want on YouTube. The offline reality is this: they may not be safe anywhere.

A study conducted by The Black Women’s Health Imperative seven years ago found the rate of sexual assault was approximately 40%. – Brooke Axetell 2011 in Forbes Magazine.

Black female victims of sexual assault are, on average, eight years old when they experience their first incidence of sexual abuse (Carolyn M. West 2002: 28).

Approximately 40% of Black women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18.4….Stereotypes regarding African American women’s sexuality, including terms like “Black jezebel,” “promiscuous,” and “exotic,” perpetuate the notion that African American women are willing participants in their own victimization.”  http://womenofcolornetwork.org/docs/factsheets/fs_sexual-violence.pdf

The expression “possession is nine tenths of the law” is apropos here as rates of sexaul assault and rape increase in the lives of black girls today. You get to freely publish or broadcast yourself twerking but at a much higher cost than I assert non-black girls or those who are not twerking in their videos.

Blackness, black femaleness, shows up in certain lights that others don’t, especially in light of persistent racialized and sexualizing stereotypes about black teenage girls.

HisTube not HerTube

Here are thumbnails from the 4 videos on the channel. He earned almost 10,000 views from Miss Thang’s original video. That might have turned into a little bit of money if he had ads associated with his account but that is not guaranteed unless you really go viral.  And then it’s only about $2 per 1000 views (CPMs – cost per thousand impressions). That money, if any was earned, could have gone to the black girl who made the video.

From checking out his range of videos we see the distribution encompasses some fascination with objcctifying black girls’ bodies and one video about a rap battle turning into a gang fight. YouTube is all about this kind of shock value and when it comes to black girls, they are objects of drawing eyes to channels as deviant, out of place and out of bounds, youth or females.

How we assign or attribute ownership in YouTube without checking shapes the plight of our conception of black girls online. Yes, she made the video, but no that is not HER channel. She is not gaining social capital the way he is from reposting it and most young girls do not have the technical know-how to trace where their video images end up. Most people don’t. So that’s what we are up to this week.

After a year of study of YouTube videos featuring black girls who twerk and to a lesser degree black women rappers, I am just starting to understand what is going on in the media ecology of YouTube. More to come from what we discover this summer. I intend to vlog once a week about this from now on. Be on the lookout for my vlogs.

Spreading Ideas by Black Girls

Black girls can colloquially mean a young or older black girl to signify the sisterhood we share and perhaps to signify unconsciously on that time of life when we are least bound by the conventions of respectability, beauty and competition with men and other women.

Each week I want to share a TED Talk by a black girl.  This one speaks how our native orientations to English make a difference and point to differences. I spoke last week about linguistic productivity — the ability to make new meaning with words and ideas in our discourse. I want to start a movement of black girls who take twerking videos and start thinking about producing new ideas with them. Adding their voice and speaking texts or poetry with their own dance. Remixing Beyonce or feminist speeches by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or June Jordan to their own videos. Remixing empowering ideas whether visual, textual or aural with twerking videos to learn to play with new narratives about themselves.

We deserve to make our own meanings! Let’s bring curiosity to our own sites of practice on YouTube.

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