The video platform is complicating the relationship between users and creators
Earlier this week, a story published in The Wall Street Journal warned parents of TikTok: “[The] fame is catching teens off guard, leaving many girls unprepared for the attention they thought they wanted.”
I was struck by that line, but here’s what I’m willing to wager: even if the attention makes those teenage girls uncomfortable, they continue to chase it. TikTok, like most of social media, creates a feedback loop, though perhaps even more perniciously. From the moment a user clicks ‘record’ on a video, their face is instantly touched-up before a filter option is even available. The ‘you’ one sees on TikTok is the ‘you’ of one’s imagination (i.e. with a slightly smaller nose or clearer skin). Choose from one of their myriad filters and you are further transformed with elaborate make-up, bigger eyes, bigger lips — the menu is infinite.
But that’s not where it stops: when you unleash this idealised version of yourself into the world, even ‘smaller’ accounts can receive in the thousands or hundreds of thousands of engagements. And when it comes to videos of young women displaying their body, much of this attention comes from men commenting on their beauty or appearance. Suddenly, these young girls are caught in a whirlwind. The attention feels validating, but you’re not quite sure what it means, what it does for you, where it can take you, or if you even want it. So you continue to chase it.
None of this is to say that women — or young girls — deserve to be the subject of unwanted or inappropriate sexual comments — they don’t. Nobody does. But in 2022, we still don’t know what to say about the role of male validation in women’s lives. All that remains is a series of conflicting messages, simultaneously telling young women that they don’t need it and yet that it’s empowering to receive it.
In the 2010s, the culture resolved to ‘empower’ women by putting them in the driver’s seat. Have sex like a man, and they won’t be able to hurt you. Of course, for most women, ‘having sex like a man’ usually amounts to little more than uncomfortable or unsatisfying casual sex we would have been better off not having (as amply evidenced by the genre of tweet and think piece dedicated to the author’s complaints about all the bad sex they’re having). Sometimes this sex is had with the hope of finding a relationship in a torrent of discomfort, but if we’re to believe statistics about single women, that hope is often in vain.
The irony, the distancing, the shallow proclamations of empowerment: they all ignore several important and fundamental problems. Women and girls end up in a confused relationship with male attention, even when it’s not quite clear what their modus operandi is in chasing it. This results in two dominant archetypes: the man-eating bimbo and the man-hating feminist. The party line for both is, “I wish I wasn’t attracted to men, but I am.” And thus begins the feigned self-deprecation, “Aren’t I trash for showing off my boobs and being a giant slut?”
Of course all of this is amplified by TikTok — and how couldn’t it be? The sheer volume of people that every user is exposed to is bound to have a desensitising effect in which every person (especially women and girls) is reduced down to their looks.
But when it comes to sex, social media isn’t the core problem. These issues remain unresolved elsewhere, too. TikTok only presents a version of it on steroids. Instead of a few boys in your class, or a handful of men you know in real life, or the gentlemen at the bar during a night out, it’s everyone, all the time.