bebe zeva and overcoming the hatred of the american teenage girl

i’ve known about young internet fashionista, writer and persona bebe zeva for about three years.  my familiarity with bebe began by following her on hipsterrunoff.com, a blog by anonymous  ”carles” whose writing has evolved into an honest assessment of the way the internet has changed the music industry through the exploitation of hipster, or niche, culture interests.  bebe appeared as one of carles’ first true fans, genuinely reenacting the meme machine that carles described being essential to building any band or person’s “personal brand.” carles often showcased freshman bebe to show the way in which a younger generation was becoming increasingly savvy about their own imagery and persona, and understood how to use the internet to perform themselves as a means to gain an audience. 

at first, bebe started off as just plain cute and endearing.

carles continued to use bebe to promote his blog’s “personal brand” over the next few years. he enlisted her to be the model for his clothing line of tshirts. as bebe grew older, she tried to be cute, and that was cute.

more recently, bebe has begun to make a name for herself on her own, independent of carles, through her blog (which has gotten her featured in teen vogue and seventeen magazine), tumblr, as a contributor to thought catalog,  twitter and lookbook (where she currently has one of the top rated pages). she tried to be sexier, more grown up (and succeeded). and that was cute too.

i dont mean to be patronizing, but my guess is that many women can recognize bebe’s progression as similar to their own. we realize, at some point, we’re not kids anymore, and we have to make the transition from garnering attention by using our cute kid appeal to one where we use our new found sex appeal. while attention isn’t everything in this world, it certainly is something. and in this age of attention currency, the better you are at getting attention, the more one tends to believe their existence is validated by it.

barbara kruger wrote “I shop therefore I am.” and while that may have been true for the 80s, today’s slogan would be closer to “I am watched, therefore I am.”

i was fortunate enough to have met bebe zeva back in march, when she came to nyc for the screening of a documentary made about her by writers, husband and wife team, tao lin and megan boyle. bebe was outgoing, confident, funny, smart, super cute, fashionable, articulate, self aware and so on. she was also self conscious, vulnerable, searching for approval and unsure of her burgeoning adulthood. pretty typical feelings for a teenage girl. 

bebe was kind enough to extend an invitation to me to the screening. a successful camwhore in her own right (and i hope she knows i use that term in the highest regard) bebe has become a mysterious figure within the internet community. we are inundated with her photos via hipster runoff, her lookbook and her fashion blog, but videos from bebe are rare. we have never seen her talk or act. if this documentary was an extension of her online “personal brand”, what would she give us?  i was excited to see it. i hate to fetishize her internet celebdom, but bebe had created such a potent presence on the web, that those were truly the feelings i felt. 

as a film, the documentary was pretty bad. tao lin and megan boyle are mainly known as writers, whose detached voices often illustrate the loneliness and disillusionment many young people feel about our current era of internet interactions and increasing police state. they are also known for their internet exploits, which have made them notorious as famewhores. Bebe Zeva, The Documentary is another piece of content that furthers their aims of showing lonely, hip youth culture in a provocative manner. but what tao lin and megan boyle as amateur film makers did correctly was choose an engaging subject (bebe). and she carried the show for 90 minutes. that’s not easy.

in the documentary, tao and megan meet bebe for the first time at her home in vegas. they go to tao and megan’s hotel room, to the mall, meet up with bebe’s friend travis, briefly back to bebe’s house, drive around, swim in the hotel pool and so on (not necessarily in that order). 

along the way bebe talks about her life being home schooled, her isolation, her philosophy on life and the internet and her strange family situation. the best moments are when bebe talks candidly about her unusual life, which is focused on her internet presence, or makes comments that shows us she knows exactly how ridiculous it is. bebe says “I understand that life is bleak and you can either kill yourself or donate yourself to social commentary. I’m just a brand. I’m just shit. All of my content regarding my personality is available.”

but what is most refreshing about bebe is how much she feels things. tao lin’s brand of illustrating today’s youth involves an inordinate amount of apathy. despite being thoroughly engaged with the isolating system that is the internet, bebe shows little of it. she is fully aware of the “bleakness” of the world but still feels immensely towards her friends, people she encounters irl and online and especially towards her idols, tao and megan. 

the most disturbing parts of this film are when tao and megan project their own apathy onto bebe. for example, at one point tao instructs bebe to open her mouth and he fills it with whipped cream until it covers her whole face. then he smushes it into her hair. at another point, tao tells bebe to steal a bebe brand clutch which she does. bebe goes along awkwardly, especially at first. obviously uncomfortable but eager for tao and megan to accept her.

after the screening i decided i enjoyed getting a glimpse into bebe’s world but was also slightly disturbed by the way tao and megan treated her. however, i became upset when in the week after the screening i read this review of it on the vice blog.

the author focuses on (and criticizes) bebe’s obvious teenage insecurities, using them to discount her successes, her insights, her openness. certainly i agree with the undertone of the review, that we are a society obsessed with teenage girls, but to place the blame on the girls themselves seems misplaced. 

in the same month that rebecca black became the most despised 13 year old for making a silly music video and a jersey school superintendent called out young women as being the central problem for today’s schools, the vice review of bebe’s documentary showed that as a society, we love to villainize teenage girls (duh).

obviously, society’s problem is not teenage girls, rather what society views its problems to be often become fully embodied by the teenage girl. in other words, the teenage girl has become a mirror, in which we see everything we believe to be bad about our culture and ourselves—excess materiality, a desire for fame, vapidity and so on. as a young woman it can be close to impossible to avoid taking on these qualities when our society values our beauty over our intellect and the services we can provide rather than our contributions.

if we blame young women for their seeming superficiality, desire for fame and unstable emotions, we can assign them fault for a society which perpetuates over sexualization of them and violence against them. these young women are just “asking for it” aren’t they?

what is unique, special and hopeful to me about bebe zeva is that she has achieved a level of success on her own terms, carefully crafting her persona, rather than happening into viral fame like rebecca black or boxxy. however, this requires a level of skill beyond most teenagers. the author of the vice review, who accompanied bebe in her cab ride home after the screening, wrote about bebe at one of these crucial moments in a young woman’s life, when one decides not to simply blend in, but to stand apart and it is obvious bebe felt vulnerable for how she put herself out there. rather than focus on the gross displays of control and manipulation that bebe was subjected to during the making of the documentary, the reviewer focuses on bebe’s ambivalence about the experience, assigning her guilt for it. 

all too often teenage girls are thrown into the limelight to benefit whoever is tossing them in there. my hope then, is that people will stop hating teenage girls and instead focus on questioning the attention economy that creates insecure girls in order to exploit them and then shame them. 

  1. yesbuti reblogged this from therealannhirsch and added:
    Reading Tao Lin’s newish book, Taipei right now and was really happy to read this from 2011.
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    this made me tear up
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