Beauty for girls, pranks for boys – it’s the same old gender stereotypes for YouTube stars

YouTube stars Zoella and PewDiePie. YouTube

We are living in an age where becoming a full-time YouTuber is now a credible career option. So much so that a recent survey found that 34% of young people consider it a dream job.

Famous YouTube stars include Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg – better known by his online pseudonym PewDiePie – a Swedish web-based comedian and video producer.

PewDiePie has been in the headlines recently because despite having 57m subscribers, he has faced a backlash against his use of racist slurs.

Then there is the sweetness that is Zoella – real name Zoe Suggs – a beauty vlogging sensation. Her perky “Hi guys” greeting, pug dog, make-up tips and rose-gold aesthetics have made her a household name with teenagers across the world. And this popularity has seen her publish three books, sell a line of make-up in Superdrug, and have her name featured as the punchline on TV sitcoms such as Peep Show and Gilmore Girls. She is, as they say, à la mode.

These two YouTubers are united by their rags to riches origin stories – they both created their own success from their bedrooms. Pewdiepie grew his gaming channel after dropping out of university in 2011 – the story goes that he initially funded himself by selling hot dogs. Zoella, meanwhile, started her beauty blog during a boring internship.

Both these stars are often held up as examples of how platforms like YouTube have shaken up pathways to media entrepreneurship. And with the next generation poised at the keyboard, a crop of vlogging schools, such as Tubers Academy in Exeter, have recently sprung up to help young people achieve their #YouTubeGoals.

But despite these new age entrepreneurs making huge waves in the video world, it seems this new media wonderland has the same old glass ceiling and pay gap of yore.

Women on top?

In this way, most YouTube vlogs in the UK replicate stereotypical gender roles and themes that have long existed in the rest of the media. Zoella is a woman, and a beauty vlogger – she is sweetness and light with no hint of any controversy or scandal. PewDiePie, on the other hand, is a man who has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, while making videos about gaming and comedy.

Similarly, the most popular male vloggers, also make a diverse range of content covering science, comedy, animation and “prank” vlogs.

To analyse these trends more fully, I used SocialBlade to identify the 30 most subscribed to YouTube vlogging channels in the UK. PewDiePie doesn’t count, because despite living in Brighton, he has listed his channel as based in the US.

I found that only six of these 30 channels are run by people identified as female, and four of these female identified vloggers are babies and children. So, of the 30 most subscribed to vlogs in the UK, only two are run by adult women. In fact, they are run by the same adult woman, they are Zoella’s first and second YouTube channels.

Zoella has recognised this solitary positioning in the most visible ranks of YouTube, telling Blogosphere magazine in 2016:

When it comes to a YouTube UK female, the spotlight is on me.

The second most popular woman below Zoella is another beauty vlogger with the same management, Tanya Burr, who has 3.7m subscribers – a third of Zoella’s 12m followers.

Gender pay gap

Of course, being a YouTuber can mean big money for some stars – and recent reports estimate that Zoella earns on average £50,000 a month. But despite these high numbers, in her new book studying influencer employment, Brooke Erin Duffy suggests that only eight per cent of fashion, beauty and lifestyle bloggers make enough money to actually live on. This means that most beauty vloggers are probably supplementing their income, or working part time to make ends meet.

On the other hand, the most famous male YouTubers are much more likely to helm channels that bring in millions of views. Gaming videos can be turned around quickly, so these channels can amass a huge volume of content, which YouTube’s algorithm treats favourably. They can also land lucrative sponsorships – British gaming vlogger Olajide William Olatunji, otherwise known as KSI, has partnered with Kellogs and Puma. Minecraft vlogger Dan Middleton (Dan TDM) has a range of action figures entitled Tube Heroes.

On YouTube specifically, Google purposefully maintains an air of mystery around the income of creators in the “Partner Program” – these are the YouTubers able to monetise their videos. But estimates show it isn’t much – coming in at £1 to £4 per 1,000 views. So although this inequality is affecting top vloggers, they are the limited few that are doing this professionally.

For female vloggers, the ability to grow channels which aren’t about beauty doesn’t seem to be as easy. And when they do, it’s often considered niche. One example is Book Tube, a genre of (mostly female) vloggers discussing all things literature. But even the most popular book tubers have full time jobs, meaning a lot of labour is undertaken for free.

What all this shows is that despite the apparent democratic potential of new media platforms like YouTube, the stubbornness of gender stereotypes and inequality persist. Not a lot has changed, then, from the traditional magazine racks – where women’s magazines are about beauty and fashion and men’s magazine’s focus on technology, gaming and music.

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