In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
When I look back at spring 2014, I think I’ll remember riding the subway home from work and stopping in front of the giant Bethany Mota poster leading down to the L train platform at Union Square. I didn’t know who Bethany Mota was a month ago, but like many New Yorkers, I’ve found myself unable to stop gawking at that now-ubiquitous image: a pretty brunette sitting at the edge of a tautly made bed, her hands joined into the shape of a heart, her head cocked to the side and frozen into a perfectly dimpled smile. A hand-scrawled caption on the poster reads, “Make confidence THE must-have accessory,” and as far I can tell, this advertisement for a YouTube show by a vlogger named Bethany Mota seems to be promising everybody who walks by just that: the sort of fun-loving self-possession that I tend to associate with American women who speak in a high-pitched sing-song and always pose for pictures with the whites of their teeth showing. I am not the kind of woman who always smiles with my teeth showing, but I felt instantly drawn to Bethany’s show, imagining it to be an informal, sisterly hangout with that unusually nice popular girl who wants to help you navigate the opportunities and perils of the locker hallway. Who doesn’t need a little, friendly pick-me-up now and again, even when they’re almost a decade out of high school?
As I would eventually find out, Bethany Mota’s is not a self-help show—at least not self-help in the usual, inward-gazing sense. Actually, it’s a somewhat glammed-up, higher-budget, better edited version of the still-popular YouTube “haul video,” where everyday consumers get in front of the camera to show off recent purchases they’ve made. In the first Bethany Mota video I watched, which I’d say is a fairly typical one, the 18-year-old, Northern California native gives viewers advice about how to “Look cute after PE/GYM,” walking viewers through her post-workout beauty routine over Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Mota’s recommended beauty regimen includes oil absorbing sheets, stick concealer with matt powder “to set,” two shades of crème eye shadow, lipstick, deodorant, perfume and dry shampoo. She calls out the brand names of each, providing little asides to explain her product choices: “Of course we cannot forget about mascara because we want our eyes to look flirty and fun… for that cute boy, duh.”
Most of the videos on Bethany Mota’s video channel (titled Macbarbie) are similarly dedicated to situation-specific makeup, hair and clothing tips, often for scenarios that you wouldn’t normally associate with beauty advice. There’s a video for “sick day essentials,” and others premised around looking good while you’re busy getting through finals week. Other videos instruct you how to make “DIY” decorations for your bedroom, or dress up like Carly Rae Jepson for Halloween. The thread tying together this wide variety of premises, of course, is Bethany Mota herself, a chirpy, at-times self-consciously goofy American teenager with a love for mass market items (Pacsun and Forever21 seem to be favorites), ostensibly permissive parents (clothing-wise) and a seemingly unlimited spending budget. If you fall down the Bethany Mota rabbithole, as I have multiple times this past month, you’ll notice her making herself more relatable by continually reminding us of her own idiosyncrasies, many of which paradoxically seem to point to how similar she is to the average American teen (her messy room, her tendency to oversleep her alarm, her love for Starbucks frappes and cake batter-flavored froyo).
While her videos will feel fairly cringe-inducing to a certain brand of feminist, Bethany Mota is extraordinarily famous. As of this writing, she has 6,279,058 subscribers to her YouTube channel, some 1,530,000 Twitter followers and 3,019,340 fans on Instagram. As Business Insider has pointed out, that’s more Insta fans than Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Glamour and Cosmopolitan combined. Bethany Mota earns an estimated $40,000 a month from YouTube ad revenue. While it is unclear whether she is also being paid directly by brands to rep their products in her videos, she has already been recruited to head up her own clothing line for Aéropostale—a development for which she recently embarked on a promotional #Motavatour to malls across America. The reason why I’ve been seeing Bethany Mota’s image everywhere is because YouTube has chosen her as one of the faces of its first-ever ad campaign promoting individual content creators. As though to underscore the inherent profitability of instructional videos for the young female demographic, the other featured vloggers are “nerdy nummies” baking expert Rosanno Pansino and make-up artist Michelle Phan, who similarly got her own L’Oréal cosmetics line last August. In Chicago and New York right now, you can even ride to work in Mota-Pansino-Phan-themed subway cars.
To be honest, Mota’s popularity doesn’t surprise me. If you follow her advice, you’ll learn how to do your make-up in a way that brings you closer to a certain, marketing-driven ideal of “cuteness.” Provided your budget (and body-type) allows, you’ll learn how to nail the gloriously average mall-rat fashions coveted by teenage girls who are looking to fit in through their successful incarnation of a mass-produced, personal stylishness. Her channel has an addictive quality, one stemming partly from its promise of visual self-improvement, and partly from its somewhat voyeuristic point of entry into Mota’s own life, which we seem to know everything and nothing about. On the one hand, she details for us every single action in her daily routine, down to the items she packs into her lunch box in the morning and the first things she does when she walks in through the door after school (sit down on the stairs and unlace shoes, partake in an after-school snack while checking Instagram). On the other hand, we know very little about Mota other than the things she likes wearing, eating, and applying to her skin and hair. We don't even know the name of the Northern California city in which she lives.
More than “Make Confidence Your Must-Have Accessory,” or “Fight Bullies with Style” (the YouTube campaign’s other downright bizarre tagline for Mota), an appropriate slogan for her channel would probably be “How to Live.” What I find troubling about this latent mission statement of Mota’s show (in its obsessive detailing of Mota’s own life) is the implication that if one were to live “the right way,” one would live exactly as Mota does. That to be like Mota, a shopping-obsessed Northern California female, is simply the only way to be—or, more problematically, look. (Michelle Phan’s YouTube makeup tutorials, by contrast, present a more mutable notion of female identity: “Life is too short to have one look. Experiment! Try lot of looks and find the different sides of you.”). Although Mota has professed a desire to create a resource that emphasizes the sort of beauty that doesn’t require buying things (“I really want to be the base of my channel to be about inner beauty, and still feeling confident when you don’t have makeup on and you’re not all glammed up,” she says in one welcome clip), her videos do little to contradict the notion that confidence is something you obtain upon successful execution of a very narrowly defined ideal of young American womanhood. In some ways, you couldn’t get a better example of this than the “fight bullies with style” line; if you want to survive high school without sustaining fundamental damage to your self-esteem (either via direct bullying or run-of-the-mill social and romantic rejection), then transform yourself into someone so perfectly “Bethany” that you’re impossible to bully and impossible to reject.
The irony here, of course, is one of the sadder footnotes in Bethany Mota’s creation story, which is that she was inspired to create her video series after being cyber-bullied in her early teens. She discusses the experience in a video titled “Strength in numbers,” a question-and-answer clip about bullying and confidence-building that is more along the lines of traditional self-help. It’s a humanizing moment in her videography, if only because it reminds us that Mota, like ourselves, has also had her share of adolescent suffering. It also makes me wonder whether in some ways, Mota sees outer beauty less as an end in itself and more a kind of protecting armor—a way of shielding yourself from the cruelty of others, and effectively navigating an unfortunately cruel and superficial world.
In some ways, this aspect of Mota’s career reminds of “Memoirs of a Non-Prom Queen,” a 1976 Rolling Stone article by the late, great, feminist music critic Ellen Willis, recently compiled in a retrospective tome by University of Minnesota Press. Part of why I love Willis is that she was never afraid to argue an unpopular point of view. In “Memoirs of Non-Prom Queen,” looking back on all the trauma she suffered in high school as a result of being hopeless at seducing boys, she makes the somewhat surprising assertion that she wishes that, instead of rejecting “all the rigamarole surrounding clothes, hair and cosmetics” as frivolous and unfeminist, she’d been more willing to “play the game.” “As I’ve learned from comparing notes with lots of women, the popular girls were in fact much more in touch with the reality of the female condition than I was,” she writes. “They knew exactly what they had to do for the rewards they wanted, while I did what a lot of feminist organizers called denying the awful truth. […] Paradoxically, I was consumed by it much more thoroughly than the girls who played and played well. Knowing what they wanted and how to get it, they preserved their sense of self, however, compromised, while I lost mine.”
That’s the thing about Bethany Mota’s confidence assertion: maybe the experience of being a teenager hasn’t changed all that much since Ellen Willis’ days, even if brands have become better and better at capitalizing on our insecurities to sell products. Maybe we still need to be armed with “beauty survival tips” in order to get through high school (and even adulthood) with our self-esteem intact. Maybe to refuse to “play the game” would be to deny the reality of the female condition, to deny the fact that our society still lags behind where a lot of us would want it be in terms of our ability to freely define and represent ourselves. That’s why, even though binging on her videos has the simultaneous allure and discomfort of binging on food that isn’t good for you, I think there’s a case to be made for Bethany Mota. Not because I think that Bethany isn’t complicit in making it “okay” for hoards of young women to define themselves by what they consume, but because, somewhat depressingly, Bethany Mota is necessary.