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Not 'Cut' Out for Society: Norms, uncertainties and body culture on YouTube

12 minutes to read
Article
Alex Sinke
01/10/2018

The care of the Selfie is a paraphrase by Li Kunming and Blommaert (2017) of Foucault's original 'care of the self' (1986). It refers to an ‘elaborate complex of “ludic” practices aimed at constructing and performing an image of personality; in this scenario, online. These personalities are meant to show other social media users who you are, what your interests are and how you would like to be seen by others. These images of personality are often created within society's norms. Most of us are rather not judged or considered abnormal by others; there are certain social standards at play. Discipline, according to Foucault's historical and philosophical analyses, is a form of power that tells people how to act by persuading them to adapt themselves to what is 'normal'. He discussed this in, for example, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975).

The self, norms and abnormality

It is common that a majority of the people in a society will follow certain norms habitually or willingly. Often, personal content on social media is created within these norms. 'Abnormal' content is also present and attracts attention for shareworthy reasons. The abnormal and controversial have been popular discussion points. Confessional discourse and 'private' topics are commonly present in western culture. Take for example Cosmopolitan magazine, the largest-selling (young) women's magazine worldwide, which is popular and characterized by discussions revolving around topics such as sex, confessions, health tips and fashion. In the last decade, the process of digitalization has created a new social sphere and new platforms where these topics are discussed and shared, easily accessible for anyone.

YouTube is one of the biggest social media platforms out there these days and it is the largest video-hosting and sharing platform to date. The platform came to life in 2005 and in May 2010, YouTube videos were watched over two billion times per day. In February 2017, an average of one billion daily YouTube viewing hours was recorded. There is a superb range of content to be found on YouTube. This can vary between videos on doing makeup tutorials, to, say, videos of grandmas smoking weed for the first time. These people-oriented videos have a great number of views and are being shared via social media platforms. Videos are considered shareworthy when they go beyond the borders of existing norms, entertaining us in an unusual manner. These events go against the construction of a normal ‘’care of the selfie’’.

The YouTube channel called “Cut", fits the preceding sentences perfectly. The channel aims for its participants (non-actors) to expand their personal boundaries by exposing them to unusual and often highly uncomfortable situations. It's all revolving around norms, the abnormal, private vs. the public are to be found throughout a wide range of Cut's videos. 

Strange Buds

The first example from the channel Cut, is this video called Grandmas Smoking Weed for the First Time, part of a series called 'Strange Buds'. Strange Buds is a series that sets up diverse groups of three people for a smoke-session. In this particular episode, three grandmas are offered to smoke weed for the first time. Their actions and initial reactions are being recorded for the video, and the grandmothers are given some snacks for the munchies and play a game of Cards Against Humanity, while everything is being filmed. The participants of this video are not at all familiar with the weed culture and have never smoked weed before.

This video is a fitting example on how unconventional norms are being publicly tested in an era of digitalization, as these people all act outside of the bounds of the ‘conventional’ norms. In modern western culture, one could say it is not ‘usual’ or normal for elderly people to smoke weed. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the weed culture is largely dominated by youngsters. As seen in the figure below, drug use is highest among people in their late teens and twenties. In 2013, 22.6 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds reported using an illicit drug in the past month. From the category of people of 65 years and older, only 1.5 percent smoked cannabis in 2013. There is also a common stigma attached to cannabis use, (sometimes) associating the usage with criminality, drug abuse and addiction.

A graph displaying the statistics regarding drug use for ages 12 and above in 2012/2013 in the United States of America

The video starts with all of the grandmothers explaining that they have never used cannabis due to reasons in accordance with social norms, such as 'being too busy raising kids'. If we bear in mind the surrounding stigma and negative connotations, it is intriguing for many to see these grandmothers having a good time getting high together as it is not common that they would participate in weed culture otherwise. Their behavior is abnormal and therefore, interesting to society. The irrational and the abnormal are constantly being tested.
Norms surrounding smoking cannabis are evolving, and its legalization in some US states has increased its popularity. Thus, for an American YouTube account that revolves around society, norms, and the unconventional, it was a fairly logical move to test the boundaries and stigma around the use of cannabis. This turned out to be a successful move too, as the video has gone viral on Facebook and has reached over 29 million views as of April 21st, 2018.

Fear Pong and Truth or Drink

In their series “Fear Pong", a game of beer pong is played with a twist (you can find the video here). When the cup gets sunk, the player needs to decide whether to drink or carry out the dare-challenge underneath the cup. Each scenario varies; sometimes two exes challenge each other, or people on a blind date getting to know each other. The winner gets $200 cash and the loser has to 'make it rain cash' on the winner. This already clashes with Foucault's idea of the norm. Many of the dares the contestants are presented with are intimate in some way.

Two examples of such dares are when players are to remove all items of clothing except for underwear, or where they need to eat food off of each other’s bodies. Obviously, frequent nudity is also a good move in terms of increasing your viewership, since the racy thumbnails entice more people to watch the videos, which is a reflection of the society that is driven by spice and sexuality. It also contrasts with more conservative norms, which would be very much against this type of behavior. Moreover, there is a certain amount of stigma towards these activities and this would make it subject to criticism.

In another series, titled ‘Truth or Drink’, the participants are required to answer a question truthfully or drink alcohol. if the person prefers to not answer the question. It shows how open people can be when it comes to answering questions regarding very intimate details (on camera), sometimes simply to dodge the drink.

It also allows us a possibility to look into Goffman's concept of stigmatization, since some videos feature parents and kids partaking in the game and therefore talking about stigmatized subjects such as sex and drugs use, which can be viewed as inappropriate by some parts of society. It should also be said that this clashes with pre-existing norms. This is also the case in another video in which a girl is featured with her father-in-law. It is not normal for that situation to take place and therefore it is stigmatised, but it still happens.

The awkwardness in some of the videos proves that there still is a certain stigma present, especially surrounding topics like sexual activity. This could also be linked back to the Monsters idea which, by Foucalt's definition, is someone abnormal within society. Are these people monsters for partaking in such stigmatized activities? According to some, this is indeed the case. 

Kids Meet...

This particular Cut series exposes young children to people who could be considered Monsters by society. A Monster, as defined by Foucault, is an abnormal member of society. Abnormality is defined by either sexual interests, power, narcissism and the inability to repress their own desires (Foucault, 1986). Due to having engaged in various socially unacceptable activities like substance abuse, people have fallen outside of society’s norms and are therefore considered abnormalities. As a result, they are stigmatised because of their character traits or in some instances even physicality, causing them to be treated differently for something that they may or may not have control over.

In one episode, in which kids meet a 16-year-old recovering from addiction, the kids are exposed to scenarios unimaginable to them, such as smoking at the age of 9. As more scenarios unfold and more personal information is shared with the children, they ask more questions related to the situation. This video is a clear display of the difference in mentalities of people within the norms of society and those who have found themselves outside of them. The younger kids, who have never been exposed to someone that partook in substance abuse, tend to ask more basic questions like “what did you do” or “how does it feel to be recovering” whereas some of the older participants are asking for advice on how to prevent their friends from going down the same path. The 16-year-old is stigmatised in the sense that he attends a special school to aid him with his addiction, indicating that he is seen as belonging to a group of Monsters.

Following the concept of stigmatisation, there is also an episode in which kids meet a 'little person'. This person has been physically stigmatised because of her disease, which causes her to be just 3 feet tall. She begins by informing the children that the correct term for people in her situation is, in fact, ‘little person’, because everyone’s case is slightly different from the other. Therefore, simply generalising this physically stigmatised group as ‘midgets’ or ‘dwarfs’ is not accurate. After this, the children proceed to ask questions regarding everyday life and what that would look like for a little person. 

Both these episodes clearly display how different life can be for people that have found themselves outside society's norms, whether that's due to substance abuse or a physical disability. They have been, or still are, stigmatised by society because of either they partake in, or have partaken in, or a physical trait of theirs and they are educating children about their situation, to show them what life is like on their end. Letting kids sit down and talk with different people and learn about unusual or unfamiliar things, whilst spreading the message to millions of viewers, is a proper way of teaching kids and adults around the world to respect and accept all different types of people.

Lineup

Another set of videos revolving around stigma, identity, and stereotyping, are Cut’s lineup videos. The idea behind this video is that ten random people line up, and a person in front of them has to guess which person has which horoscope, or what their sexual orientation is, and so on. An interesting video is called  “Guess Who Has a Criminal Record”. The guesser’s answer is based purely on the first impression he gets; this concerns the person's looks as well as a very brief conversation based on some questions, without revealing anything.
It is a controversial social experiment which brings about interesting results, as it addresses stereotypes and prejudice about what criminals look like and how they act. Once again, Cut is testing people; the videos could be seen as experiments on social norms, stigmas, judgments, and perceptions. The following conversation can be found at the beginning of the aforementioned video:

Guesser: “Is it just like, shitty to say right off the bat, like I feel like you have a record…?”

"Random" man: “What do you think I did?”

Guesser: “I feel like if I say, I’m  gonna sound really rude, but there is like a part of me that feels that there is like a creepy side to you that like other people don’t immediately recognize..”

Based on her reaction, we could say that her first impression brings an existing stigma to the fore on what a certain criminal looks like, and thus associates the person with a certain image (the actual reason turned out to be federal tax evasion).

It is not the first time that a guesser stereotypes another person in a video. In fact, most of the guesses are based on judgment and personal perception, as the guesser tries to identify something in the unknown person in order to associate them with the most logical option. Cut has set apart many examples that surprise people with the unexpected, the illogical.

Did they make the cut?

Foucault’s lectures revolving around the ‘’Care of the Self’’ remain relevant and have proven to be a powerful tool for analysis of people, behavior, and norms in a digital age. The content published on Cut consists of experiments that test certain ideas and theories associated with Foucault. By highlighting the "monsters" or abnormal ones among us, and testing stigmas in society. The makers have also proven how successful and profitable it can be to make content that centralizes 'the self' in many different shapes and sizes. After all, it seems to have become the norm to test the norm; or at least watch others test them while we are conveniently taking it all in from behind our screens.

References

Crossman, A. (2018, April 9). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

Cut, (2014, November 19) Grandmas Smoking Weed for the First Time | Strange Buds | Cut [Video file].

Cut, (2017, August 9) Kids Meet Guys with Felonies | Cut [Video file].

Cut, (2017, November 3). Parents & Kids Play Truth or Drink | Truth or Drink | Cut [Video file].

Cut, (2018, January 10). Blind Dates Play Fear Pong (Christian vs. Ren) | Fear Pong | Cut [Video file].

Cut, (2018, January 23) Guess Who Has a Criminal Record | Lineup | Cut [Video file].

Foucault, M. (1986). The Care of the Self: Vol. 3, The History of Sexuality. New York, NY: Pantheon Books

HiHo Kids, (2017, August 30) Kids Meet A Little Person | Kids Meet | HiHo Kids [Video file].

HiHo Kids, (2018, March 22) Kids Meet A Kid in Recovery From Addiction | Kids Meet | HiHo Kids  [Video file].

Kunming, L., & Blommaert, J. (2017). The care of the selfie : ludic chronotopes of baifumei in online China. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies. Tilburg, The Netherlands: Tilburg University.