Another day, another section of the internet outraged by something they don’t understand. This week, the object of much ire is Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, a 27-year-old YouTuber-turned-personal brand who put her name to a £50 advent calendar which is, by all accounts, a bit of a rip-off.
And her week just got even worse as someone has taken it upon themselves to unearth tweets she posted seven years ago and broadcast a number of rather ignorant and insensitive comments anyone would have wanted to keep hidden, had they had the lack of judgement to make them in the first place.
This isn’t the first time the YouTuber has come under fire – she was most notably criticised for having possibly used a ghostwriter for books released under her name – and there’s a lot to unpack in the visceral anger many people outside of Sugg’s main viewer demographic feel towards her.
With more than 12 million subscribers, Sugg is the queen bee of the YouTube world. The personality she portrays in her videos is endlessly upbeat, unapologetically ditzy and – crucially – entirely apolitical. She rarely mentions social issues or current affairs, and manages to lead an incredibly public life without ever alluding to how she may or may not have voted. I would be more surprised to find out she is deeply politically engaged that I was to hear she didn’t know who Bill Cosby is – and this doesn’t seem like a conscious brand-building decision.
Zoella has not positioned herself as a political figure. Even when she speaks about her mental health issues – one of the only “meaningful” topics she’s tackled – it’s from a purely personal perspective. And regardless, even some of the most socially minded twentysomethings would surely be mortified to have some of their pre-woke words from the better part of a decade ago become public.
She has since tweeted an apology to this effect, and will hopefully find solace amid the inevitably cruel and hateful backlash in the fact that Barack Obama opposed same-sex marriage in 2008 and is now considered one of the most important allies to the LGBTQ community in US politics.
But this desperate desire to “out” Sugg as a sellout or a bigot betrays a deeper problem in our attitude towards young successful women, particularly those we may not consider “worthy”, because their career isn’t one we can frame in traditional pre-internet terms. The fact that Sugg is a young woman, and hugely successful in an industry which most people over the age of 30 neither understand nor respect, cannot be ignored when looking at the vitriol behind all of these attempts to shame her into silence.
After the overpriced calendar debacle, Sugg was forced to film a video apologising, implying that she makes her products because she is “all about the creativity” rather than the money. That may well be so, but it should be irrelevant. Brands mark up products, they sell things for more than it costs them to make – that is the basis of our economic structure. Advent calendars in particular are a stark example of this: a £3 one from your corner shop will likely contain less actual chocolate than you’d get in a 65p bar of the stuff, but no multinational confectionery brand’s founder has ever had to film a video of themselves apologising for trying to make money from our hugely profitable obsession with the “Christmas spirit”.
Let’s not forget that it was Boots that priced the calendar, and as far as I can gather, its white, middle-aged, male CEO does not appear to be dealing with an onslaught of abuse from social media.
On the one hand, Sugg is shouted down for actually making a profit on her business, called cynical and fake for daring to act like every other entrepreneur in history; on the other hand, she’s expected to be savvy enough to sanitise her entire social media.
Unlike many more “traditional” celebrities, Sugg is fairly easily avoided. She very rarely makes appearances in mainstream media outlets, and can be unfollowed and forgotten about. Yet people choose to continue to seek out reasons to criticise her, holding her to a higher moral standard than any other business owner or reality TV star and creator, which is essentially what she is.
It’s time for us to accept that the concept of celebrity and fame has changed, and we now live in a world where a 19-year-old from a small town in Wiltshire can film a grainy video about her favourite lipsticks, and through hard work and intangible charisma make a living – or indeed get rich – from it. Entrepreneurship and creativity are values we should be encouraging, not demeaning. By all means unfollow Zoella, but stop trying to kill her brand just because you don’t understand the appeal of it.
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