Why TikTok is the language of the post-American Dream world.
Is TikTok a threat to our national security? Are we all being secretly monitored by China? How do you get long eyelashes?!
These three pivotal questions of our modern times collided when a Muslim-American teenager woke up Monday morning to find that her TikTok account was suspended. Word quickly spread that 17-year-old Feroza Aziz was banned from the platform because of her popular video in which she feigns beginning a beauty tutorial about getting longer eyelashes and ends up making cutting commentary on the Chinese government.
"So, the first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler, curl your lashes, obviously," Aziz begins her 45-second video. "Then, you're gonna put them down and use the phone you're using right now to search what's happening in China, how they're getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there... This is another Holocaust, yet no one is talking about it." She ends the video by leaning in with her lash curler to get down to business: "Please spread awareness, so yeah. So you can grab your lash curler again...
i always wondered how girls get they eyelashes so curled up and everything https://t.co/PFmk5bOWEa— ⚠️ (@⚠️)1574591600.0
Later, she explained, "People don't care at all that this is happening. All they care about is what the trend is, the new fashion trend, who's dating who, what new YouTuber there is. [So], I thought, 'Why don't I speak about what they want?' A lot of people want bigger lashes, let me reel them in. Let me pretend that this is a lash video they can watch and then I'll hit them with what really matters, what they should really be caring about."
With China unlawfully detaining approximately 1 million members of its Muslim Uighur population in "vocational centers" that are documented to be little more than prison camps, Aziz's video was a refreshing reminder that Gen Zers are indeed politically conscience and engaged–if only ironically.
TikTok: The "Frontline in America's Ongoing Culture War"
TikTok has boggled boomers' minds since its U.S. debut in 2016, when it absorbed the lame app Musical.ly for a whopping $1 billion and soon spread faster than an outback bushfire (aw, too soon?). Known as Douyin in China, where it was developed, the app has since been downloaded over 750 million times worldwide. In the U.S. that means it's time for the Committee on Foreign Investment to assess whether the app sending user data to China. Lawmakers voicing concern over its threat to national security include Senator Marc Rubio and Senator Chuck Schumer, the latter of whom called TIkTok "a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore." He also stated that "apps like TikTok—that store massive amounts of personal data accessible to foreign governments—may pose serious risks to millions of Americans."
Of course apps like TikTok are of great concern–considering homegrown American companies like Facebook can't even stop themselves from selling users' personal data. Whether or not TikTok is "a Chinese Cambridge Analytica Data Bomb Waiting to Explode," as Quartz's David Carroll questioned, remains unknown. Carroll even investigated (read as: responsibly stalked) TikTok staff in charge of answering privacy questions. They explained, "It's important to clarify that TikTok does not operate in China and that the government of the PRC has no access to TikTok users data." The (okay, alarming) caveat of his findings is that user information collected before February 2019 "may have been" processed in China—but what demands attention is the fact that TikTok, as of this writing, has not been caught illegally sharing data or systemically deceiving its users.
But do they censor content? Aziz's ban clearly seems to be a punitive measure in response to her criticism of the Chinese government. Aziz said, "I still find it suspicious that TikTok took down my video right when my posts on China's concentration camps were made. Doesn't sound right to me." The company's Chinese developer, ByteDance, has repeatedly refuted the claim. "We don't remove content based on sensitivities around China or other governments," TikTok's director of creator community Kudzi Chikumbu told CNBC. Another statement from the company added, "We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period."
Submitted by @JqmieBzZ https://t.co/rTT2LqCHMj— Ironic Tik Toks (@Ironic Tik Toks)1541359997.0
Gen Z Irony: Why Life Is a "Dark Humor Joke"
Rather, TikTok claims that another one of Aziz's ironic videos is what prompted the ban. "A previous account belonging to this user had been banned after she posted a video of Osama Bin Laden," the spokeperson explained, "which is a violation of TikTok's ban on content that includes imagery related to terrorist organizations. Another account of hers, @getmefamouspartthree, and its videos–including the eyelash video in question–were not affected and the video continues to receive views."
Aziz was unaware of TikTok's justification until she spoke to reporters on Tuesday. She clarified the nature of the "dark humor joke" she posted about Bin Laden: "As a Muslim-American growing up in a country that ridicules me … I've been told, 'Why don't you go marry a terrorist, you're a terrorist yourself," she says. "So I thought OK, I'll make a TikTok of me saying a terrorist is cute. Obviously I'm joking about that … but it's taken down, it's taken out of context, and I didn't mean for it to be taken out of context at all like that." But Aziz adds that she's had multiple other videos deleted from her account. "All the videos taken down were my Muslim videos," she said. She says that she makes the videos to "cope with the racism [she faces'] every day," but those are taken down, "me making jokes Muslims could laugh about, relatable Muslim content. That's just how TikTok is. There's always people that report things."
But that's exactly the problem with a "dark humor joke" online–sure some people won't get it, but more specifically, jokes on TikTok have unique potential to become politically charged. Artist and writer Joshua Citarella recounted TikTok's early days as the "frontline in America's ongoing culture war," with comparisons being drawn between the app's irreverent tone and edgy trolling and toxic online spaces like 4chan. He writes, "While millennials earnestly tweet about the stress of their student loans and freelance precarity, Gen Z TikToks in joyous nihilism, mocking a society in which self-determination and upward mobility have long since collapsed."
So I made another video that describes me and a few more of us. Who has a #TikTok? Let me know! https://t.co/VuZH37VJ3Q— RougeGunner00 (@RougeGunner00)1574738911.0
This video literally sums up my entire life.... #tiktok https://t.co/903IONtv5i— Jack Tenney (@Jack Tenney)1574743599.0
But of course coming-of-age amidst climate crises, heinous abuses of power exposed by #MeToo, televised trials of corrupt government officials, and the deepest political divides between parties in decades would make you a little nihilistic. Irony may be the only mode of language for Gen Zers to communicate the deep paradoxes and embedded lies of the American Dream; we're so clearly living in the creepy computer simulation that the American Dream turned out to be. Speaking in memes and ironic expressions of self, "Milennials, and Gen Z after us, adopted irony as a cultural strategy," Citarella writes. "Irony allowed us to continue life under late capitalism while psychologically sheltering ourselves from the demoralizing reality."
Sure, there might be disasters-in-waiting as a result of speaking in ironies and irreverent hot takes, such as the irony poisoning at the root of TikTok's misunderstanding of Aziz's Bin Laden video. Mocking an ideology by appropriating it for a joke can lead to real proliferation of those ideas, which, yes, is bad. But in a post-American Dream world, so many ideologies have become such mockeries of themselves that the best way to communicate their flaws is through a "dark humor joke."
"As a Muslim girl, I've always been oppressed and seen my people be oppressed, and always I've been into human rights," Aziz told Buzzfeed News. In a follow-up video posted to TikTok, she explained why she bothers posting videos. "Generations before us don't have the same power we have now, and that's technology," she says. "Our voices can do so much."
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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