© KATHERINE STREETER
From The Archive
Lucy Ellmann
No. 29  October 2015

Distressed Cut-Offs

 The morning angst 

© KATHERINE STREETER
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How convenient for capitalism that the self morphed so easily into the cellphone. The doomed and dying use selfie sticks to record their every car accident and shark encounter. But the web is also awash with cheery self-promotion, from glossy offerings like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Jerry Seinfeld interviewing fellow comedians and advertising cars on the side) and Freunde von Freunden (where arty Europeans show off, in text and photos, their carefully curated homes, offices, and dogs) to many other types of bragging: terrorist training camp highlights; photographic compilations of thimbles, thumbtacks, antique weaponry, or corkscrews; glitzy performances of culinary tasks; more or less frank discussions of periods and tampons; and goofy videos of boys trying on bras. The web is for lonely, needy, greedy show-offs and obsessives, and the people who love them.

Those most enamored with the technology of self-absorption are also the most self-conscious (and most unhappy) people on the planet: teenage girls. These people live in terror of the society in which they find themselves, and their main aim is to reach adulthood without being raped, shot, manhandled, or murdered. Their self-protective strategies take some odd forms, and they have now carved out for themselves a whole safe, insular online world in which they record their sheltered existences and get examined, adored, and minutely “hated” by other girls, whom the video girls welcome (in the virtual sense only) into their bedrooms. This is the barefaced, bug-eyed, belief-beggaring, bullshitting self—if not exactly a work of art, at least a work of nascent commerce.

The main aim of teenage girls is to reach adulthood without being raped, shot, manhandled, or murdered.

Product placement is the sinister inspiration behind much of what these girls inflict on themselves and one another. They seem to want to be your pal, but it’s really the attention of multimillion-dollar companies they crave. Starbucks looms large. Even half-drunk frappuccinos from yesterday are still worth tenderly videoing on their bedside tables. Among the humbler categories of the girlie video world is the shopping “haul,” in which the girl sits chummily on the floor of her bedroom, displaying bags of clothing and her encyclopedic knowledge of everything on offer at chain stores, while emphasizing that all the stuff she bought is cute, awesome, and really cheap. Everything, according to teenyboppers, is super-duper cute. In a baking video, two cute girls make cute cupcakes out of cute ice-cream cones—but how mercilessly would they mock any girl who thought of eating one. Bulimia’s cute too.

Men should be forced to watch this stuff, to see what they’ve done to women.

Hairdos on Demand

The makeup tutorials feature deceptively amateurish product shots, with shaky close-ups of every lip gloss, shampoo, perfume, and itty-bitty container of wrinkle cream. They can seem endless, with the juvenile “tutor” spending twenty minutes at a time basting her face six ways from Thanksgiving. Ever forget to brush your hair, or apply lipstick, deodorant, nail polish, jewelry? These girls don’t, and by example they encourage other girls to spend hours of their lives every day on self-conscious self-abasement of the same kind. They even pretend this is fun: they’re always smiling while they administer the gunk. They have a real ball trying to hide their acne. Then there are the sisterly talks, in which we’re told that friendship is a two-way thing, unhappiness a waste of time, water necessary, and that bees yeah! make the world keep going. In cloyingly solipsistic Q & A sessions, the apparently fascinating fun-ette answers questions about herself from viewers, such as, What’s your favorite item of makeup; your OOTD (outfit of the day); the craziest thing you ever did? In “Mom Tags,” the mother is interrogated about the craziest thing the girl ever did. There are also whole videos of hairdos, created in response, supposedly, to viewer demand. Or, now and then, you get a ten-minute video on “What’s in My Purse”: the depressing contents of a purse (let’s face it, the contents of purses are generally depressing, because there’s rarely enough money in there) are dumped on the floor so that our hostess can mull over, and explain, yeah! the mind-numbing purpose of each object. I wish they’d dump out what’s in their wastepaper baskets instead: come on, let’s see the roaches, needles, and prophylactics. But drugs and sex have nothing to do with this particular web niche. These are rich, pretty, and artfully self-censoring princesses, showing off their regalia.

This is the barefaced, bug-eyed, belief-beggaring, bullshitting self—if not exactly a work of art, at least a work of nascent commerce.

The most curious thing about these displays is how alone the girl is. Despite the vague and occasional evidence of moms, it seems more likely that the girl was incubated and hatched in her bedroom by remote control, with no connection to the outside world at all. The bedroom is surprisingly neat, the walls white or lilac, with the emphasis on the bed, her pedestal. She’s surrounded by scented candles and electronic devices. As the girl studies herself, all available screens—the TV, the laptop, the smartphone, and the “meer” (or mirror)—become interchangeable. The house is brand-new, ostentatious, and ferociously hygienic, with a comically well-stocked fridge, and the girl seems to be in sole command of this empire (an adolescent’s dream come true). Not much sign of parents or siblings, and certainly not of the retinue of servants that must keep the whole shebang afloat. Outside sits a BMW she claims is hers.

But what does she need a car for? Many of these self-chronicling shut-ins are homeschooled and hardly go anywhere. Their idea of going out is to sit on the balcony, where they complain that people in the outside world make noise. This interferes with the video project, forcing them to retreat indoors. Little Kaspar Hausers, their only abiding interest is in looking, sounding, and yeah! acting cool, so as to receive “thumbs up”s on their vlogs. They are dolls come to life: they move their limbs, chatter, and change their clothes a lot, their bodies smooth, their skin (almost) blemish free. Other lonely, less affluent girls are allowed to benefit from this shamanic conformism. They can learn, for instance, how to carry on a ditzy blow-by-blow monologue while applying the daily dolly mask that ensures they will prematurely age and require multitudinous cosmetic purchases for life. Vita brevis, Noxzema longa.

Amazeballs and Awesome (or: What a Beautifying Morning?)

These girls have all mastered the Valley Girl accent and manner, even if their valleys lie in Minnesota or Pennsylvania. Or maybe Transylvania. Their forced cool is completely standardized. It’s always Christmas in July for them. But distress abounds, and not just in their high-waisted denim cut-offs. Most of these young women are sinisterly manipulated, fearful, and cranky—however serene their foreheads may be—and they market to fellow sad sacks an intimidating set of criteria for being acceptable. They’re like all the girls you hated at school, and their pretense of happiness is one of the most exasperating things about them. They should all be out saving whales, planting trees, building railroads, dismantling Guantanamo, or just reading a real book. Instead, they’re half-listening to audiobooks of recent Hollywood offerings and staring at themselves in the meer. They pretend to be cosmopolitan and “crazy busy”: they always have to “grab” a coffee, a bottle of water, their boots, or their car keys before they’re “good to go.” But they have fenced themselves off from our collective impending implosion and yeah! banished any hint of it from their speech, their looks, their demeanors, and their boudoirs. They live in envelopes of arid nonchalance. They have no time for negativity (negative vloggers are hard to find—they must have all been burnt at the stake), and the prissiness is beyond belief.

The web is for lonely, needy, greedy show-offs and obsessives, and the people who love them.

One of the strictest formulae these young women have created is the “Morning Routine” video, which issues from their YouTube “channel” (they dwell on this word: they may believe they own whole TV networks). The Morning Routine sometimes begins with an intro, in which the kid flings her arms around a lot and wags her head from side to side in a sphinxy way to make sure you know she’s cute, alarmingly so. Now the routine blasts off. The convention is that she’s asleep in bed. Her cellphone buzzes, she drowsily silences it, and then proceeds to spend a good amount of time lying in various poses on the bed texting people and yeah! checking social media. A memo of the midteen midriff. Sometimes a purse-dog or bunny rabbit joins her to be cuddled (bunnies are big in this world, though the bunny itself must be small). Then, abruptly forgetting all about her squiffy pet, the girl stumbles into her private bathroom.

No one excretes in this fantasyland. Instead, at the sight of a new meer, she starts dancing excitedly to her favorite music. Soon she’s trotting, still in her cutesome pj’s, through the echoing mansion to the fridge, which handily houses a camera so that we can see her yeah! exact facial expression as she opens the fridge door. She embarks on a breakfast—yogurt, granola, fruit, and coffee—that hints at constipation (see above). Then we’re back upstairs to watch the exhaustive makeup routine. It’s the worst sleepover you ever attended. To liven things up a bit, she may take a shower, since she has at least four soapy liquid products to delightedly present. In the shower, Morning Routine girls wear bikinis. This is never explained. Perhaps, like certain nuns of old, the girls have been ordered never to look upon their own naked bodies, for fear of some unfortunate Edenish awakening that might lead to the collapse of this purdahed pubescence in which everything’s cute except boys.

They should all be out saving whales, planting trees, building railroads, dismantling Guantanamo, or reading a real book. Instead, they’re staring at themselves in the meer.

For every Humbert Humbert who may be watching Morning Routine videos to see budding starlets in bikinis or in bed, there are at least a dozen female contemporaries avidly soaking up the atmos, thrilled to be spoken to nicely by anyone, even a complete stranger or a complete idiot. Artificiality is a given: despite the pretense of intimacy, truthfulness, and autonomy, most of these video artists obviously have a lot of technical help. The more energetic the camera angles, the more ruthless the editing, the more vivid the lighting, the more maniacal the colors, the more hotel-like the domicile, and the more joyful (and savage) the dermabrasion, the happier the sponsors. You should see all the jars of brushes and eyebrow pencils, the array of eye shadows and eye shadow concealers, the eyeliners and eyelash curlers and earlobe accentuators, the lipsticks, the lip exfoliators, the lip-zippers, the cold cream, the foundation, the ointments, the unguents, the mists and sprays and monsoon mud packs, the scissors, the tweezers, the sponges and cotton balls and foam pads and pad foams, and yeah! the amazeballs hair-curling and hair-straightening and hair-knuckle-under machines. It’s enough for the army of makeup artists on a Busby Berkeley picture. The shelving alone deserves an Oscar, with many little totalitarian drawers of very well-organized stuff. With such pigments and priorities, these adolescents could be painting the Sistine Chapel! But Morning Routine art is ephemeral, and all wiped away twelve hours later by the Nighttime Routine.

The Hall of Meers

There’s a confessional element to the before-and-after cosmetic transformations: these girls are admitting to their viewers that channeling Barbie takes work. To show they’re human, they may even venture into a little irony (of the easy Friends variety), presenting some stagey awkwardness or a little self-parody in the requisite blooper reel at the end. Otherwise, they’re continuously upbeat—since unhappiness is such a waste of time. They are product placement cheerleaders, with blusher brushes as their pompoms, the purse-pup as mascot, and the bedroom a field of dreams. Some of these walking advertisements are under sixteen, though, and therefore child laborers. They’re exploited, and they in turn exploit, varnishing their sponsorships, hoodwinking their public, and luring the unwary toward their deranged music videos, which they also want to sell. So, yeah! these homemade stars lead freedomless, eventless, nourishmentless, and odorless lives—apart from all the fumes from the promotional perfume and toner with which they hourly douse themselves. Though vulnerable to “thumbs down”s across the globe on account of their asses (fat) and eyebrows (thick), their resolutely pally personas are perfect avatars of capitalism.

The phenomenon isn’t new. As Shirley Jackson put it in the 1950s:

From the time my daughter gets up in the morning to brush her hair the same number of times that Carole up the street is brushing her hair to the time she turns off her radio at night after listening to the same program that Cheryl three blocks away is listening to, her life is controlled, possessed, by a shifting set of laws. . . . The side of the street she walks on, the shoes she wears to walk on it, the socks, the skirt, the pocketbook . . . even the jacket and the haircut are rigidly prescribed.

But baby-boom popularity-seekers were spared the extra barbed wire of social media. Will our pampered slave-girls break free? Their current YouTube, Instagram, Keek, and Vine experiments could turn into real girl power—if these ostriches could only find time for it, between the waxing and the waning of their beauty regimens. A little light activism might brighten the bleak days of their dotage, for surely they can’t remain apolitical narcissists forever, documenting their own disintegration.

Lucy Ellmann’s novel Mimi contains The Odalisque Manifesto, which proposes a peaceful revolution leading to worldwide matriarchy.

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