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Courtesy of Tana Mongeau

August 28, 2019

YANDAVA | Tana Mongeau, YouTube and Limits of Confessionalism

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After a mere two months of dating, YouTubers Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau tied the knot in late July. At the Graffiti Mansion in Las Vegas, which was spray-painted with their Instagram handles and #JanaForever, a convicted pimp officiated the ceremony in front of family, friends, strangers, hundreds of cameras, an MTV crew from Tana’s series Tana Turns 21 and exactly 64,091 online viewers. The very viewers who, paying 50 dollars each to watch the spectacle on a live stream, generated about $3.2 million for #Jana. 

Over the course of the couple’s relationship, viewers had been questioning how real, exactly, it all was. Did they love each other? Were there any genuine feelings at all between Paul and Mongeau? Was the marriage even legally official (no), or were they faking it all for the “clout?” After all, even their officiant had begun by stating, “We are gathered here today to join these social media juggernauts in holy cloutrimony.”

For these stars, however, such questions of authenticity may seem a little antiquated. In comparison to the earlier generation of YouTubers who typically made light-hearted content with low production value and built their platforms off of their image of relatability, garnering “clout” as a by-product, what Paul and Mongeau are capitalizing on is the very virtue of their money and fame not being relatable.

And indeed, they’re not the only ones who’ve traded authenticity for stardom potential. “Reality House,” for example, created by vloggers Kian and JC, puts YouTubers together in a Big Brother-style competition to win a prize of $25,000. By uniting the directness of YouTube’s creator-to-audience model with the bawdy excess and sensationalism of reality TV, these creators seem to have hit on a new direction for YouTube.

The so-called “Confessional” school of poetry that emerged in the 1950s might have been an early precursor of this peculiarly American narcissism. By taking the lyric “I” to its extremes and turning the focus on the intense emotional states and personal experiences of the speaker, poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass were able to strip the polite veneer off topics previously considered taboo, like sex and mental illness. Furthermore, these writers suggested that even the most shockingly personal of personal details was not unworthy material for something regarded as lofty as poetry.

While several later poets turned against this style for what they perceived to be self-indulgence, the assertion that everyone has something compelling to say about themselves and, moreover, the right to an audience for it, has come to serve as the basis of today’s social media platforms. Companies have since taken advantage of this ethos, using these so-called influencers to promote their brands in the hopes that the trust built between creator and audience will make people more amenable to buying their products. In turn, influencers use brand deals to make more money than they would with simple advertising revenue. 

Though most of these social media content creators are wary of destroying the fragile trust they have built with their audience by being too blatant about desire for fame and money, the very draw of Paul and Mongeau is that they revel in it unapologetically. In one episode of Tana Turns 21, Mongeau, having slept in past 2:00 p.m., shows up over an hour late to a meet-and-greet with fans who had been standing waiting for her.

In an interview, upon being asked about Confessional poetry and the performative aspect of reading these highly personal poems, Snodgrass stated, “There’s a difference between exposing yourself and displaying yourself. If you can’t do it without making a display out of it, I don’t think you ought to do it … if you let your ego get in the way of it, if you hunger for fame—the whole fame game is terribly destructive.”

For now, however, Mongeau doesn’t seem to share the sentiment. When confronted by her manager about how late she is for the event, she tells him she doesn’t want to have that conversation. Then, later, walking to the event, she intones into her iPhone, “I’m a reality star.”

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this year.