I was at the True Colors Conference at the University of Connecticut recently, waiting for the opening announcements/welcome speech to begin, when my friend beside me asked me why I was scoffing. I was looking up at the big screen and saw Belle from Beauty and the Best traipse down the streets of West Hollywood in Los Angeles, California as a bunch of relatively well known queer people sang a parody version of “Belle”, rewritten to reflect WeHo’s gayness. The crowd of innumerable LGBTQ youth went wild, and my scowl grew. There was YouTube star Todrick Hall – the black queer singer, quasi-director, choreographer, content creator of vial videos, and any other number of hyphenates – and his coterie calling Belle “a real fish” and reveling in (mostly) white gay culture, as if to present a revisionist Beauty and the Beast.
Perhaps without the intention of doing so, the videos of Todrick Hall have marked the limits of postmodern remixing, or at least, popular postmodernism – the easy mix and match of texts and ideas to ostensibly create something new, maybe with the intent on commenting on the original thing. Where postmodernism once could be used to critique or comment on the very contexts, conventions, and tropes it was utilizing through subversion, Hall’s videos stop at a funny kind of shallowness that looks superficially subversive. Hall, who has racked up over 2 million subscribers on YouTube, uses a particular formula for his most popular videos: Take a well-known property—one that appeals to his Millennial audience—change its racial and sexual identity dynamics. In videos like “Hocus Broke-Us”, “Bitch Perfect”, and “Beauty and the Beat Boots”, the ostensible goal is to point out the straight whiteness of these properties, while offering a fun nostalgia trip and cultural commentary. But the problem is that Hall’s subcultural in-jokes serve as little more than that; they are potentially incendiary pieces masquerading as fun viral videos, and yet deeply unsure of whether they want to pack a political punch.
The conversation around identity politics often sounds very dismissive, the primary notion being that teenagers and culture writers are too ready to write off anything as “problematic”. It’s a shallow idea of what identity politics is or can be, so it’s weird that Hall’s videos seem at once ready to engage in a nuanced exploration of the subject but distance themselves from it all the same. Such critique of his videos, or any videos that intend on peering into the relationship between identity, politics, and culture, seems warranted because of the new platforms for influence that exist and, perhaps most importantly, the way that we have, on a grander scale, begun to recontextualize our identities in capacious ways.
Hall’s relationship to those politics is complicated. Take, for instance, his complementary videos “Mean Gurlz” and “Mean Boyz”, whose reappropriations of Mean Girls act not as biting commentary but perpetuations of clichés and tropes of both male queerness and female blackness. In the former, the Cady Heron-stand in (still white) moves from Korea to Compton, all of its characters (MLE Smoots, Rhiyonce, etc.) reconceived as black people, and is submerged within black culture (from which, perhaps ironically, gay culture appropriates). “Being with the Black Barbies was like leaving the real world and entering a 2Chainz video,” Cady says. In the latter, “Cody” moves from Indianapolis to West Hollywood, and again, Hall rewrites characters, but as gay men, the small town gay being submerged in a mainstream gay culture with jokes about bottoming and Grindr.
And yet, for the remixing these videos do with subcultural specific references, both are coy to acknowledge the politics of reclamation or identity. Reclaiming images, words, etc. is inherentlypolitical act, but one not without its limitations, especially if the reclamation feels surface based.
To compare, Justin Simien’s Dear White People – a film about racism on an Ivy League college campus – and Fifty Shades of Black – one of a long line of Wayans Brothers parodies – are more concerned with ideas beyond resituating blackness and/or queerness within straight white spaces. They not only key in on a similar brand of camp and absurdity that Hall’s videos have traces of, but have an explicit dialogue with the very white/straight spaces they ostensibly critique. Fascinated with the institutions that oppress people, Dear White People references iconic films – a canon made by the majority – to do so. Fifty Shades of Black investigates code switching, both why and where it’s done.
Perhaps the reason why these two videos seem as depthless as they are is the acute lack of understanding of what it means to subvert a source text. “Mean Gurlz” drops Ebonics and KKK jokes, but while one serves as provocation (look how oblivious this white girls is), the other is quickly forgotten, as if it never happened. And femininity in queer men is object of punchline rather than an understanding of gender performance. But Mean Girls is about, amongst other things, the social implications of class and status and the role constructing one’s identity has on one’s friend group. Mean Girls itself is from a particular perspective, elaborating on the experience of young white women. That’s fine. Hall (accidentally) conflates parody and satire, maintaining broadly the stylistic approach to the film and substituting various conventions for other ones, given the particular theme.
But “Mean Gurlz” doesn’t examine, or imply to examine, what kind of cultural differences there would be for a young white woman to live in Compton, and “Mean Boyz” doesn’t really explore a similar kind of culture shock for a gay kid from Indiana to move into West Hollywood. For “Mean Gurlz”, subversion is set up but never followed through; the KKK jokes, playing on the Halloween scene from the film, tardily establishes both cultural differences and white privilege, but rather than being the thesis, it becomes a throwaway moment of shock. The end product walks a line between reclaiming blackness and making fun of it, despite the potential to critique the systematic structures of whiteness, even with that one joke.
Both videos are more concerned with lobbing buzzwords and easy jokes at the audience, and the videos reveal that they have nothing to say about the structures and frameworks within which they operate, unlike its source text. His performers put on affectated voices and exaggerate their articulation, but it seems lost and directionless, even vaguely apologetic. The videos give the impression that they don’t know to what degree it wants to be satirical, as opposed to being parodic: it’s the difference between being pointedly political and merely joking about style. The videos also have a tone that they are mad for a mostly white and straight audience, which makes a lot of the subcultural humor swing back and forth between the specific and the incredibly broad. (Ebonics is the primary joke convention of the former; femme-ness in the latter.) This means that the indecision makes it feel like it’s the subculture itself that’s the joke, as opposed to the complexities of that subculture contrasted against a white norm. If his audience is mostly white, there’s an impression that Hall is disinclined to make hard critiques of whiteness or white institutions for fear of offense.
“…I’m hoping and praying that I’m a voice for – not just African American people, and not just for gay people – for any artist or anybody who’s been told that they couldn’t do something or what they weren’t good enough,” he said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. While political and ideological implications of that quote are somewhat broad, it opens up the possibility for these videos to be subversive within a larger cultural context that’s homogenous, to act as satire with specific intent, and to create a dialogue between the audience and the culture.
But the problem with Todrick Hall’s videos is that they don’t work well as dialogue between the audience and the creator, or the video itself. Hall’s videos aren’t asking you to engage in what the implications are of the straight, white, maleness of popular entertainment, nor is he asking you to talk about the role of assimilation or separatism. They do not ask you to consider what role masculinity or femininity have in the queer community or within identity itself, nor race, nor class. They do not ask you to consider black femininity and its paradoxical cultural estrangement and appropriation by white people. They are content with distance and non-confrontation.
Perhaps it’s unfair to lob the complaints at him; one doubts if these are supposed to be politically charged. Not every artist of any identity is necessarily beholden to the responsibility that some of their audience think they should have, and to place it upon them without their natural inclination to do so of their own accord can seem entitled. To live as an artist of a marginalized identity and be able to produce widely seen work is, in a way, commendable in itself. Though he changed his tune relatively recently, British crooner Sam Smith was incredibly reticent to embrace this idea of being a spokesperson for the gay community. “I’m not trying to be a spokesperson,” he said to DigitalSpy in 2014. But, while Smith backtracked on those words, if there’s a difference to be made between Smith and Hall, it is in the way that they explore identity. They both do it, and they’re both personal about identity through their own voices, but Smith engages on identity on an intimate level pertaining to himself; Hall’s videos suggest he wants to explore it on a more macro level, to include not only himself but other people as well.
However, it feels like there is ambivalence about respectability politics, a push and pull in his videos where the niceness and tacit nature to his persona, which heavily has informed his videos and overshadowed the pseudo-behind the scenes MTV show Todrick, wins out over a real assertion of embracing identity. In the age of everyone obsessing over identity, where social injustice has newfound levels of visibility, Todrick Hall’s videos are a coy, cloying cop out obsessed with identity’s artifice, not it intricacies.
Hall’s videos are the product of a culture that watches RuPaul’s Drag Race and/or (maybe) Paris is Burning, but cherry picks the easy stuff: the funny terms, the style, the humor, without the realization that both properties exist to amplify particular aspects of culture that are infrequently visible: politics surrounding race, class, gender performance, and queerness. The videos use them as objects and accessories, not statements or tools with which oppressive systems could be commented upon. Ironically, they’re as guilty of the same kind of tokenism and erasure as the gay community at large can be. In short, his videos are both all about and not about otherness in society.
Todrick Hall’s depthless pieces of branded content have the potential to address identity the way that few do: his substantial audience will watch them, caught by the delectable elevator pitches (it’s Titanic, but black; Chicago’s show stopping “Cell Block Tango” but with Disney villains). His position as a queer person of color by no means obligates him to make statements about identity, but he has visibility that few queer artists of color do and his videos already (in)directly address those ideas.
More and more artists like Key and Peele, Amy Schumer, and Beyoncé are either becoming hyper-cognizant of the role identity plays within their work or have long made identity politics integral to their work. Much of the original texts he’s parodying are fundamentally about these ideas.
His massive social media presence, with a combined following of more than 810,000 users on Twitter and Instagram, is representative of his new media savvy, with his videos continually picked up by other outlets and publications, and his networking abilities – cajoling stars of both mainstream (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lance Bass) and niche (stand up comedienne Fortune Feimster, Drag Race contestant Laganja Estranja) fame to make appearances in his work – exhibit a strive to make as much impact as possible with these videos. He will be a guest judge on this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. He is even “taking his brand on tour”, as the website for his concert Todrick Hall Presents THE TODDERZ BALL reads. In 2014, he made a PSA called Alice in WeHoLand (which is pretty self-explanatory) in partnership with The City of West Hollywood. It isn’t only that he’s the YouTube star epitome of what Jia Tolentino called “the age of sponsored content”, but he is so visibly, proudly out as a black queer artist, and one with a platform.
The potential to be subversive, to really make a point about both identity itself and the politics surrounding it, are often set up within the videos, just never carried out. Yet, Hall remains too reserved or inarticulate to address them, in spite of the fact that it wouldn’t take a big step to make his videos pointedly subversive. For now, they’re just for fun.
Kyle Turner (queer cis male, he/him, Asian-American) is a freelance writer, editor, and transcriber who has contributed to Esquire, MUBI, Playboy, Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine, The Film Stage, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar, and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.