This summer, in the height of quarantine seclusion, I caught up to Twitter discourse from a year ago and watched Succession. When I finished the second season, I felt my fingers, as if without my conscious will, pull up YouTube and click on a talk show interview with the actor who plays comically awkward cousin Greg. I watched him relay a slimy and likely fictional anecdote about meeting Bill Clinton, to which the talk show host responded with a humanoid laugh and an imitation of the eye crinkle exhibited by non-Botoxed beings experiencing joy. I shut my computer in horror at what I had just done, but it was too late. First of all, the only endearing character in the entire show was ruined for me. More importantly, though, I had entered the world of meta-content, and the doors were hopelessly closing behind me. I was now in the deep vacuum of marketing material-turned-entertainment, where streaming service productions begin their metamorphosis from mere TV shows into valuable franchises.
I can’t think of any real reason why I watched this completely useless video that added nothing to my understanding of an already good show with plenty of internal artistic merit. I simply saw a clip and clicked on it, because I liked the show and it was over, and YouTube invited me to see more of…not it, but something adjacent.
Television, especially in its current streaming service iteration, appears to be a remarkably self-reflexive industry. Type the name of any popular show into YouTube, and you’ll get dozens of interviews with producers and actors, casting tapes, behind-the-scenes shots, explainers, table reads, blooper reels, and costume fittings. This supposed transparency is alluring—it feels like being shown a secret peephole into reality in a world of charades. You may not want to know how a sausage is made, but you will certainly want to watch this seven-minute clip of Anya Taylor-Joy transforming via hair and makeup into sexy child chess prodigy Beth Harmon.
In July 2020, Netflix had around ten billion views and 54 million subscribers on its various YouTube channels, a number that has doubtlessly grown since. As Bloomberg writer Lucas Shaw explains, Netflix used to view YouTube as a competitor—another streaming platform that people spent time on at the expense of spending time on Netflix. But that was when Netflix was a tech company. “Netflix isn’t just a technology company anymore. It’s also an entertainment company that wants to build franchises that infiltrate every corner of culture,” Shaw writes. And that means welcoming cross-contamination with open arms. Netflix’s dozens of affiliate YouTube channels don’t just publish trailers and movie clips, they release all the “meta” content that ensures your experience of a show continues long after the credits roll.
But the eagerness to sell us this content seems to be a two-faced enterprise, shattering one illusion by opening a trap door to many more of them. A blooper reel or a shot of actors bonding off-camera disrupts the façade of fiction, but at the same time reinforces an equally ridiculous fantasy of access to the true, authentic essence of people you can only see through a screen.
Think of The Office. There is the popular NBC show, and then there are its dozens of quasi-fictional afterlives. They include everything from podcasts, to commercials where former cast members play their character, to a short-lived YouTube talk show by John Krasinski where much of the content was predicated on appearances by former cast members reprising their roles. In one episode with 15 million views, The Office cast recreates Pam and Jim’s wedding episode in a virtual wedding ceremony for a real couple. “All 9 Seasons of ‘The Office’ Now Available Exclusively on Tenor GIF Keyboard,” is a satirical headline that pretty much sums it up. In other words, the tidbits that were once supplemental to the narrative they were pulled from have transcended their referential role, becoming standalone content that integrates seamlessly into our “real” lives.
Of course, television was about maximization from the start, of content and profit alike. Its great financial genius was to resolve the most obstructive incompatibility between art and accumulation—endings. TV shows must end, yes, but only after they’ve extracted every last bit of aesthetic potential and popular appeal from their subjects, till their characters exist in as many seasons and intersecting universes as possible.
For years, all of this occurred within the confines, albeit expanding ones, of fiction, simply because there weren’t as many spaces where the real and the simulated could cohabitate. Before YouTube and Instagram, bringing fictional characters into the “real world” required someone like Walt Disney to buy up acres of land and erect an entire fake city where his characters could live beyond the television screen.
When “reality” itself becomes, like fiction, mediated through a virtual sphere in which you and I and Leslie Knope and Amy Poehler can exist all at once, the calculus changes.
In such a cultural context, where our technology and now our physical isolation propel us deeper into simulation, we seem to be desperately grasping at straws of authenticity, and not just via blooper reels. Every cultural product displays a similar obsession with self-reflection—from self-flagellatory autofiction and personal essays with privilege caveats to relatable vlogs and Instagram posts of size 0 models showing off their stomach rolls. The rules of highly curated performance still govern the images we project and consume—but hey, at least we’re all knowingly winking at each other in the process.
In a 1993 essay, David Foster Wallace wrote prophetically about the many layers of illusion underpinning television that now characterize so much of our existence. The illusion of voyeurism, of authenticity, of insight, of unmediated access, of watching alone alongside millions of other watchers, of watching someone else watch us watch them ad infinitum.
What’s amazing is that Wallace wrote all of this when online entertainment was mostly limited to television alone. He repeatedly references the statistic that Americans spent six hours a day in front of a TV screen—“second only to sleep.” This number sounds laughable today, when it could easily represent the time we devote to only one or two forms of digital diversion.
Wallace also points out the ability of television to neutralize and subsume its greatest critics, in part through an ironic self-awareness that feels relevant to today’s “meta”content. They know that you know that what you’re seeing isn’t “authentic,” it’s a play on your emotional attachments to fiction and usually a way to sell you something. And yet they also know you can’t look away. As we surf through the familiar faces of actors, characters, and franchises, the acerbic phrase known to every Netflix binger hangs over us: “Are you still watching?”
When the Barbies were liberated, it was on early-nineties prime-time television. A fringe, anti-consumerist group called Rtmark had carved into their silicon torsos, swapped out the dolls’ voice boxes for those of G.I. Joes, so that the things spoke in warmongering baritones, and returned them to stores for purchase. The group then filmed the whole operation and edited it to look like a newscast, attributing it to the supposed “Barbie Liberation Organization,” and sending it, of course, to Fox. The channel broadcast the stunt in furious awe.
That year, 1992, tabloid television was still at its zenith. Originally, the word tabloid referred to a pharmaceutical brand; a compressed medicine trademarked by industry tycoon Henry Wellcome at the end of the nineteenth century. When newspaper publishers co-opted the term, Wellcome sued them. Either way, both industries were booming then, and never stopped, culminating, perhaps, in Fox News’ brand of narcotic tabloid TV. It was Murdoch’s garish true-crime, his news cycle histrionics, that cemented yellow journalism’s place onscreen.
The Barbie liberation affair was tailored for spectacle, and was thus allotted extensive airtime on Fox’s A Current Affair—the sort of newscast drama that Rtmark was itself parodying. It borrowed the language of anti-imperial struggle, referencing the PLO in its title, elsewhere calling itself a “popular front.” It said it wanted the dolls to break free from the chains of mass production. In its coverage, Fox responded to this as would be expected, bringing on a “toy expert”—this was indeed her only title—to call the Barbie operations “a terrorist act directed against children.”
The stunt has been remembered as a sort of unsophisticated commentary on gender roles. Watch the original clip, though, where an unblinking doll declares revolt “against the companies that made us,” wielding a gun, and it’s clear why the media broke from its typical cycle of hero cops and grisly murders to fixate on dolls instead. It was a culture jamming tactic for a new medium, and would set the tone for Rtmark’s later work, as they continued to deride consumer culture, using its own mediums: what scholar Dennis Allen calls “activism without the activist, activism without identity”—where the only enemy is Barbie.
what we’re looking at
The Internet Didn’t Kill Counterculture—You Just Won’t Find it On Instagram in Document Journal Caroline Busta on counterculture in the age of tech hegemony.