Content note: This article will discuss transphobia, nonbinary erasure and transmedicalism/truscum
“[T]he backlash to the “star” system in effect encourages the very kind of individualistic nonresponsibility that the movement condemns. By purging a sister as a “star,” the movement loses whatever control it may have had over the person who then becomes free to commit all of the individualistic sins of which she has been accused.” – Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness
In her article The Tyranny of Structurelessness, feminist Jo Freeman discusses the many problems that arose in the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s as a result of a lack of coherent structure or organisation, including what she termed ‘The “Star” System’, the situation where, due to a lack of any “official” spokespeople, individual women were elevated to the status of “Star”, given unaccountable and unasked for influence and weight by media. Freeman highlights that this was a net negative for both the wider feminist movement and for the Stars themselves. The movement finds itself represented by unaccountable figures (who are likely to be representative of the most privileged sections of the movement, since such voices are treated as more credible by default), this creates resentment towards the Stars, who in turn come to resent the movement, who, seeing the Stars as unwanted representatives, may be harshly critical of them.
This phenomenon has a new manifestation in the rise of BreadTube – a loose collection of YouTube video essayists producing leftist or left liberal content, sometimes also called LeftTube. While BreadTubers are generally not elevated to their position by mainstream media like Freeman’s Stars, they share many characteristics in common.
The YouTube channel is, to some extent, an inherently very individual and personal thing. Channels grow off the back of the personalities behind them and the aesthetics, in-jokes and style of a particular YouTube video essayist are as much a part of their appeal as the ideas expressed. Additionally, the bar to entry is higher than it might initially appear; while in theory anybody with a webcam can produce YouTube videos, the sort of highly produced content popular on BreadTube requires expensive equipment, costuming and a degree of expertise in production and building a personal brand. Most big YouTube channels will start out with years of small viewership and too small an income for anybody to reasonably live on. Further, minority voices that see the most success will necessarily be those that can appeal to at least some section of the majority. Because of all of this, BreadTube is innately an individualistic project fronted largely by white, middle class perspectives.
The tension between movement and Star is perhaps best seen in the discourse around popular BreadTuber Natalie Wynn and her channel ContraPoints. With its high production values and high camp, arthouse aesthetic alongside Wynn’s willingness to appeal to cis het audiences both by explaining 101 concepts and a sense of humour that at times leans into mocking the broader trans community’s lexicon and ideas, ContraPoints quickly became an extremely popular and influential channel, with over 750,000 subscribers and 1.7 million views on YouTube over the last 30 days (Social Blade, retrieved 20th Oct 2019). If we consider Wynn as a Star, then the movement she originates from is broadly speaking the left, but also specifically the radical LGBTQ+ movement.
Early ContraPoints videos focused on responding to/mocking specific reactionary figures and movements as well as providing short introductions to various leftist or trans related topics, such as the meaning of terms like genderqueer or the experience of gender dysphoria. Recent years have seen a shift away from introductory 101s towards articulating Wynn’s own analysis and thoughts on gender. It is at this point that the rift between the broader radical LGBTQ+ community online and Wynn begins to become apparent.
Wynn’s analysis of gender performance, “passing” and what, if anything, makes an individual their gender (articulated most directly in her video The Aesthetic) has been widely criticised for erasure of nonbinary people and its invalidation of non cis passing trans people. This has not been helped by Wynn’s presence on Twitter, where she has expounded upon and doubled down on many of the controversial aspects of her analysis and her recent collaboration with Buck Angel, a trans man who advocates transmedicalism, belittles nonbinary people and has been described by arch Twitter transphobe Graham Linehan as “fighting the good fight”.
Wynn’s views and behaviour on social media have been extensively criticised already and the purpose of this article is not to relitigate these conversations or to engage in moral condemnation of individuals, but to examine the broader structural issues posed by the social media conversation around Wynn, also known as Contra discourse.
Like all social media discourse, Contra discourse plays out in an ever repeating cycle:
- Wynn will do or say something problematic, such as the previously mentioned collaboration with Angel or expressing puzzlement at trans women she deems to be in “full-on boy mode” using she/her pronouns
- Hundreds of people will respond with, variously, justified criticism, understandable anger and some truly unacceptable behaviour ranging from harassment to attempted doxxing
- Wynn responds by becoming upset or angry, often withdrawing from Twitter for a short time to escape the backlash
- Days or weeks of interminable arguments around the incident, the backlash and the backlash to the backlash ensue
A frequently expressed sentiment among radical LGBTQ+ people responding to Wynn is that she is irresponsible with her platform; that as a relatively well known and popular trans woman speaking on trans issues and earning a respectable income from doing so, she has a responsibility to the wider movement to be accountable and consider the impact of her actions. Wynn, for her part, appears to deeply resent the suggestion that she has any such responsibility, seeing herself as an individual expressing her own views in a creative fashion. Thus the rift between movement and Star deepens.
This situation is often treated as a contemporary phenomenon resulting from the evils of “cancel culture” and/or alleged oversenstivity on the part of trans and nonbinary people. I would argue that instead the problem is structural and reflects the same tendency highlighted by Freeman almost 50 years ago.
The radical movement for queer liberation is currently largely structureless. We lack coherent, consistent organisations through which we can organise and represent ourselves, forced instead to rely on either liberal NGOs like Stonewall or to attach our need for representation to prominent individuals, neither of which can provide us with what we truly need.
Ultimately, the fraught and at times deeply toxic relationship between BreadTube and wider radical LGBTQ+ audiences is, structurally speaking, the result of a failure of our movement. The desire for accountable voices that are responsive to the concerns of the movement is a reasonable one rooted in a genuine need, but not one that can be satisfied by isolated individuals making their living on YouTube. Truly accountable and representative media is something we have to organise to create for ourselves.
Addendum 17/08/2020 – Since originally writing this almost a year ago I have seen more discussion of it on various corners of social media than I ever anticipated. I have written a short Twitter thread clarifying some common misconceptions about this piece, which can be found here.