Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ron Gregg: Queer Performance, Youth and YouTube

Queer performance, youth and YouTube
by Ron Gregg
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“The ‘magic’ of the Internet is that it is a technology that puts cultural acts, symbolizations in all forms, in the hands of all participants; it radically decentralizes the positions of speech, publishing, filmmaking, radio and television broadcasting, in short the apparatuses of cultural production.” — Mark Poster

"In the evolution of the individual, there is a moment in which rationality gives way to visionary impulse, when the logic of our actions gives way to an extreme desire for freedom, a desire destined to be swallowed up by the infinite rules of the social game." — Francesco Bonami

In this paper, I analyze videos produced and performed by youth on the video sharing website YouTube which feature queer performance, particularly cross-dressing and/or same sex eroticism. I began this study before Oct. 2006, when Google paid $1.65 billion for What drew my attention was the incredible freedom expressed in the youth’s uninhibited and very public performances. Like many queer youth of my generation in the 1960s, I lip synced popular tunes myself, often adopting the cross-gender persona of Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, one of my divas, sometimes even engaging in a bit of cross-dressing to inhabit that persona. But I kept such performances in the private space of the bedroom. Also like most of my peers, we never discussed it outside of that bedroom.

The web has changed this by encouraging youth to make private performances public. YouTube offers adolescents what Francesco Bonami calls a “moment in which rationality gives way to visionary impulse, when the logic of our actions gives way to an extreme desire for freedom, a desire destined to be swallowed up by the infinite rules of the social game.” I wondered when I started this project, if it was possible that this destiny might change for these young producers recording and uploading their “impulses” to this virtual public sphere and connecting with a large network of vocal, like-minded friends. Would these young performers find themselves less “swallowed” up by and change the rules when they enter the adult world? Or would the corporate and moral authorities successfully discipline such youth and reassert their “rules” in this public space?

Without a doubt, the media attention that made YouTube a cultural phenomenon, the Google purchase, and the increasing clash of different ideological forces have changed YouTube. Many of the videos that I looked at more than a year ago are no longer available. There are any number of possible reasons for these changes: the producers boredom and withdrawal from YouTube; after seeing what their teenagers have uploaded and shared with the world, parents ordering them to remove the videos from YouTube; or maturity—they grow out of their YouTube videos with new interests and more freedom outside of the home. Others may have been scared by denigrating, anti-queer responses to their videos or by sexually suggestive come-ons by older viewers and exited the YouTube community in response. In some cases, the producers have shifted their videos from a public site to a private site, only available to those granted permission.

A few producers had their “user accounts suspended,” clearly for video content that was flagged as inappropriate or used copyrighted material. These suspensions suggest that Goggle increased the surveillance and removal of erotic and copyrighted material. But Google does not want to repress the creative and invigorating youthful energy that has helped to make YouTube the phenomenal success that it is. Thus, YouTube negotiates between youthful energy and conservative corporate and moral interests and continues to be a major site for adolescent queer speak and culture. Although some videos have disappeared, they have been replaced by an even greater number of new ones. They are also no longer just from the United States; YouTube is creating a transnational virtual community.

Since its founding in 2005, one of the most astonishing things about YouTube — and one of the ways it most fulfills Poster’s hope that the web will provide a forum to those usually excluded from cultural production — is that, at least, in its pre-Google days, evidence suggests that 12-17 year olds were YouTube’s primary producers and consumers. YouTube has provided amateur filmmakers and performers a virtual space where they can easily upload videos they have produced themselves and which they and/or their friends perform, making them available to a larger virtual community.

Many adolescents find that the sharing, response, and linking nature of YouTube builds a supportive community for their art and/or behavior. After sharing a self-produced video with the YouTube community, the young producer receives responses and ratings from viewers, which sometimes leads to discussions about the video’s aesthetics and content. Out of these discussions, small communities of like-minded “friends” connect and pass on video favorites between themselves, the larger YouTube community through their personal YouTube webpages, and to other linking sites. Each video’s webpage indicates how often the video has been viewed, lists comments by viewers, and links the viewer to other videos by the same producer as well as to her/his favorite videos by other producers.

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