“Nice girls” are the new YouTube heroines

YouTube has created a new global heroine and anti-bullying spokesperson in 13-year-old American student, JoJo Siwa. Her signature accessory is a giant colourful hair bow, and her hit video is called “Boomerang”. It’s all about not letting the “mean girls” get you down, and it’s received more than 200 million views.

She’s recently signed a hugely lucrative deal with Nickelodeon, the American satellite television network, which includes consumer products, original programming, social media, live events and music. She’s being marketed as the ultimate tween Miss Congeniality. “Don’t let the haters get their way” is one of her taglines. But it’s the outsized hair bows that Siwa wears that have really caught on. The little star says she’s worn them since the age of four. She’s never caught without one on, in any of her many YouTube appearances.

The media darling recently said in an interview: “I’m 13, and I like being 13. A lot of people my age try to act 16. But just be your age. There’s always time to grow older. You can never grow younger.” Siwa’s hair bows are particularly popular in the UK, where one school banned them outright, and another caved in to student demands, saying the bows had to be in school colours. Siwa and her bows are powerful online anti-bullying tools, say some child development experts.

Shauna Pomerantz, a sociology professor at Brock University in Ontario and the author of Smart Girls: Success, School and the Myth of Post- Feminism (University of California Press, 2017), says in a world where tweens and teens are exposed to complex media messages about sexualisation, “JoJo stands for being nice.” Siwa is part of a trend that sees young girls documenting their age-appropriate activities online. Twelve-year-old competitive US gymnast Annie LeBlanc, aka Acroanna, has had a YouTube channel since she was three, racking up over 174 million views of her doing things like cleaning out her purse.

Her whole family (named “Bratayley” on YouTube) has 3.9 million digital followers and a host of sponsorship deals. Several YouTube channels focus exclusively on the behaviour of “nice” young girls. Their identity is protected, but the stars of “Seven Super Girls”, “Seven Cool Tweens”, “Seven Awesome Kids” and “Seven Twinkling Teens” continue to pick up legions of fans every week as they record what some may deem peculiar videos of, say, walking through imaginary forests. Emily Long, director of communications and development at the Lamp, a media-based literary group based in New York City that teaches youth, parents and educators to comprehend, create and critique media and technology, is one of many people who find JoJo and co perturbing.

“It’s troublesome to me when I see this being celebrated as the herald of what our young girls should aspire to,” Long told the New York Times. “That you, too, can go from being a YouTube star to having your own deal on Nickelodeon.” Long is more interested in girls like 12-year-old Marley Dias, who is an online heroine for other reasons. In 2016, Dias started the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign last year after recognising a scarcity of online black-girl video makers. “Marley Dias doesn’t sell giant hair bows. Marley Dias sells social justice and social causes and writing and nerd culture. And there’s plenty to market there,” says Long. 

Category: Book Reviews, Winter 2017

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