March 5, 2013

Call-Out Culture, Girl Hate, And Being A YouTube Celebrity: An Interview With Franchesca Ramsey

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Franchesca Ramsey
Franchesca Ramsey

Though she may be most widely known as the creator of the hugely popular video “Shit White Girls Say To Black Girls,” Franchesca Ramsey — YouTube handle chescaleigh — has carved out a huge online presence for herself over the past few years. Making videos on every theme from pop-culture humor to hair care to serious social commentary, Ms. Ramsey has the uncanny ability to handle a seemingly endless array of topics with wit, charm, and a distinct humility that makes every pill (no matter how much of a wake-up call it may be) a pleasant one to swallow. And when we sat down for a long, winding conversation that would prove to cover just as diverse a range of topics as her videos, it became immediately clear that her understated grace is not a persona put on to promote her ideas and come off as theater-ingenue earnest. She really is just that cool.

Thought Catalog So what have you been up to these days?

Franchesca Ramsey Well aside from [my videos], I’ve been doing a lot of general acting stuff. I’ve been in other people’s videos, I’ve been doing some voice-over work, I’ve been going on a lot of auditions for commercial work. I do a lot of speaking at colleges — things about social media responsibility, videos, things like that. I’m also a graphic designer, so I have a lot of freelance work.

TC And you also have your hair channel — that’s a lot! Wow.

FR Hehe, thank you.

TC Do you feel like people are more demanding of you on your beauty channel, like expecting more updates and new videos frequently?

FR I think that people on the internet are demanding in general. The thing is that they think they know you, and they don’t… at all. I mean, there are so many parts of my life that don’t get included in my videos. And I actually started out doing hair blogging, and it wasn’t until I realized that a lot of people had no interest in hair that I started moving into comedy and kind of expanding what I did. And at first I thought that I could do both on one channel, but I started losing people, because I would post one or the other and they’d be like “That’s not what I’m here for.” So it can be very demanding in terms of content.

TC Do you think that some people would look down on you for beauty blogging, like it’s shallow or superficial?

FR Yeah, I’ve gotten a few of those comments, which again goes back to the fact that “Yes, I make videos, but I do so many other things in my daily life which have nothing to do with hair or beauty.” I do it for fun, I do it for me. I mean, even my fiancé Patrick doesn’t care about my hair. He liked it when it was short, when I had no hair. So I really do it for me. But some people get mad about doing beauty stuff — they jump on it right away, like “Shut up!”

TC But I feel that overall, you have a very nice, smart following. Do you agree?

FR My followers are the best. They are so supportive and so smart. I mean, I’ve been making videos for six years now, and I have people who’ve been watching for all six years. And I’ve developed relationships with them through email, and I get stopped in the street on a regular basis, and every time it happens I have the greatest conversations with people. And they don’t let me get away with shit — they really call me out and keep me in check. It’s great.

TC That’s good, because I’ve noticed that some of the YouTubers have fanbases that seem not that nice… and not that intelligent.

FR Yeah… I have been lucky in that most of my viewers are a little older, and the overall YouTube demographic is very young. I mean, I do comedy, but I try to do a lot of socially conscious stuff, and for whatever reason, 14-year-olds aren’t really into that kind of thing. So my fans don’t really have time to be stalking people on Twitter, or making up hate pages, or any of that stuff. And on the one hand, it’s great because my audience is really smart. But they’re not fanatics, so they maybe don’t share as much as some other fans.

TC One thing that’s also struck me about you is that I feel like when you make videos, you do them as yourself. It seems like a lot of YouTubers have characters, and they speak in a very affected way. For example, Laci Green is someone who, to me, seems like she is putting on a kind of persona for her videos and being very affected. It feels like it’s not her. Or even Jenna Marbles, or Philip DeFranco, they all seem like that. And you feel like yourself.

FR Yes. I’ve gone to a lot of cons and meetups and things, and that has always bothered me. I feel like so many people act one way online and then are completely different in person. And that’s just not me. It’s never been me. It means a lot to me when people meet me on the street and tell me that I am the exact same way that I am online.

TC Do you think that being more natural in your delivery helps with having the smarter, calmer fanbase? Because I’ve noticed that some of the YouTubers who put on these big characters have fans who seem to emulate them and be as “out there” as the star.

FR You are so right. And even in the way they’ll talk to each other in the comments, they will talk exactly like whoever they’re trying to be like. Even when it comes to, like, attacking. I mean, I had a lot of Jenna Marbles fans who came for me after I talked about her slut-shaming video, and I noticed that the way they spoke was very “SHUT THE FUCK UP BITCH, RAH RAH RAH,” and I was like “Why would you talk like that? Oh, wait, because Jenna talks like that.”

TC Speaking of which, did she ever issue a response to the critiques? Did you ever speak with her after your video?

FR I didn’t speak to her, no. And all she wrote was a message on her Facebook that just said “If you had a problem, re-watch the beginning of the video and calm the fuck down.” Which I really dislike, because all she said at the beginning was that it was just her opinion, and she liked provoking conversations. So I thought it was just kind of ridiculous that she asked for people’s input, and people went out of their way to make sure that they weren’t attacking or bashing her when responding, and apparently that didn’t matter.

TC Do you think you reached a lot of new people with your response video to Jenna Marbles?

FR I reached a lot of people on Tumblr, yeah.

TC Regarding Tumblr, I know I’ve seen you call a couple people out on there, like Tyler Oakley and perhaps Laci Green, though I’m not sure if you weighed in when people were talking about her. And I’ve noticed that Tumblr can become a real echo chamber for criticism that starts to lose its focus and can become really, really brutal. Sometimes it’s hard to even pinpoint what the initial problem was.

FR Yes. I mean, with Tyler, you had people just posting pictures of his face with “FUCK YOU” written over it and some of them didn’t even know exactly what he had done. Personally, I feel like if you’re going to call someone out on their bullshit, it should be constructive. The person should learn something. You shouldn’t attack the person, you should attack what they have said or done. Because people make mistakes, people mess up. And because Tumblr makes it so easy to pass on and share, it can get out of control so quickly.

Until I got called out on Tumblr, I wasn’t even really aware of the “call-out culture.” I mean, I got ripped to fucking shreds because people were upset that I went on Anderson and they felt that I didn’t do a good job explaining microaggressions and racism. But to be fair, when I was there, I didn’t have a PR person or prepared speech, and I was edited to here and back. They changed so much of what everyone was saying and how people were responding. It was the week the video went viral and everything was happening so quickly, and I had no idea how big and important things were getting. So I got ripped a new one on Tumblr. I had black people calling me the N-word, calling me Uncle Tom, just unimaginable shit. I was devastated, I was bawling. I couldn’t understand it.

But through all of the nasty things, one of the people who called me out actually messaged me and offered to talk to me about why people were so upset. And now we talk all the time, and I have learned so much from her. So at first I was so upset because people were coming after me, but I really did need to hear and learn about a lot of it, no matter how profanity-laden it was. It made me think “What are better ways to call people out?” Because when you start screaming at me and calling me names, I shut down. So maybe that is why I really feel torn about the “call-out culture” thing.

Even Laci Green made a great list of, like, “Dos and Don’ts of call-outs” and — oh, I see you just made a face [laughs].

TC Yeah, I did see that, but I saw it in the context of also getting ripped to shreds across Tumblr.

FR [Laughs] Yeah, it did get ripped up. But I think that’s because she missed a lot of opportunity to talk about what she specifically did wrong and focused too much on the etiquette side of it. So, again, you have to talk about what you’re actually calling out — you can’t get too lost in semantics. It’s a tough thing to do in practice. But I mean, I saw that you did articles talking about how you had gotten called out for slut-shaming, and I think that is a good way to go about taking ownership, I think we could do things like that more.

TC To be fair, though, I didn’t write a follow-up article until a year after the fact, and I didn’t write that most recent one until nearly two years. Whereas I feel like a lot of this call-out, response, defense cycle is happening in real time. People are sort of scrambling to change their minds and unlearn things and take back what they said immediately, when it takes a lot of time in reality. So I had the luxury of time, and a lot of the people being called out don’t have that.

FR Yes, but I still think that it’s a matter of the approach. I think that if you point out something that I did or said which was problematic, and you do it in a thoughtful way, I can really process that pretty quickly and think about how to be more conscious in the future. It doesn’t have to be that totally forced “Oh you’re so right and I’m wrong and I’m totally different now,” but I think you can make an effort to change and think more.

TC So changing gears here for a bit, I know you do recaps of TV shows now — how is that going?

FR It’s going great! We’re doing Girls and Scandal so far, and I’m doing it with my best friend. It’s really awesome.

TC You know I’ve got to ask you about Girls. What do you think of it?

FR [Laughs] Yeah… I don’t know. I kind of hate-recap it. I don’t hate it that much, but I just… I feel like I knew those people in high school, and I hated them in high school, and now they have a TV show. And I’m just like, good for you. You got a show. But then you’ve got the whole culture of “It’s un-feminist to criticize another woman, we should all just be happy that a woman is on television and leave it at that. You guys are just jealous.” So if you say anything that’s critical or against this, you’re automatically painted with that brush. But being a woman doesn’t mean that you’re absolved of any and all criticism — you can still fuck up, and still need to be called out.

But I think that the problem is that people really do identify with Lena Dunham, and so they feel that rightful criticisms of her are somehow a criticism of them — which it often is. I see a lot of the same middle-class, white feminists defending her because, to them, she is finally a chance to see themselves in a more unique, real role on television. She really is doing it for them. But it leaves so many people out of the conversation, and to paint Girls as finally being a story for everyone is so unfair.

TC That’s a good point.

FR I think that having to admit the things that Lena Dunham is doing or saying wrong also means looking at those things in yourself, and no one wants to do that. So it’s easier to defend her in saying that, if you criticize her, it’s because you have a problem with women. It’s the painless way out. And yes, a lot of people have gone in on her, but that’s because for months leading up to the show, they hyped it up so much as the show that was going to change everything. And personally speaking, I don’t think it’s lived up to any of its expectations. I don’t think that it’s nearly as funny as people have been saying, or as different. But again, it’s not a criticism you can make because it is “un-feminist” to make any judgments on it.

But just look at the marketing they do — a 45-dollar set of promotional nail polish, one for each girl on the show. You’re supposed to buy those as a fan. Who the fuck buys 45-dollar nail polish? And they did, like, free blowouts at this really nice salon. Who are they marketing this to? Like, this is not for me. Whoever this was directed to, it is absolutely not me. You are clearly targeting a certain type of person — they know what they are doing. And that’s fine, you have your demographic. But then don’t fucking turn around and tell me how universal your show is and how it’s speaking for everyone. Because it’s not, and you know it.

TC Well, it’s the kiss of death for any show to bill itself as somehow being universal — even if that were possible, it would still be absurd to promote it that way.

FR Everyone is trying to reach young women right now. Everyone. And they think that this is the best way to go about it, but we can obviously see through it when what they’re pushing is dishonest or inaccurate. We’re not stupid, and we’re not going to consume something just because you tell us it’s what we want to see. TC mark

 

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