We have all have friends who share TikTok videos on their social media timelines just to hate on them. This is an interesting dilemma for TikTok creators, where on the one hand they gain popularity but on the other hand they are not respected for the content they create.
In the most recent social media drama YouTubers like CarryMinati and Khujlee Family roasted a TikToker named Amir Siddiqui when he posted a video explaining why he thinks TikTok is better than YouTube. More important than what these roasters said, is what they implied about why we find TikTok cringy. The two upper-class, heterosexual, male YouTubers are in a sense representative of the people who usually find TikTok cringy. The mentality behind finding TikTok cringy is worth analyzing because it exposes many deep rooted biases in our society. This piece explains the two main reason for why we find TikTok cringy and what this says about our society.
The first reason for this is our inherent classism. The process of content creation, especially content that makes it to High and Pop-culture, has been an exclusively upper-class activity. Earlier, the only content considered worth watching in our home were high budget sophisticated movies or TV dramas produced by an oligarchy of production houses in Pakistan. With the rise of social media, these same producers started uploading their content on platforms like Youtube and as expected, gained a lot of popularity. The most subscribed YouTube channels from Pakistan are either the big news channels or popular drama channels. Similarly, the most popular and respected independent YouTubers that come to mind are probably people like Irfan Junejo and Taimoor Salahuddin (Mooroo).
These are people who can comfortably afford expensive drones, cameras and editing software. They can invest their time to make a career out of YouTube, a luxury that not everyone who aspires to make content can afford. More importantly, these people portray a culture that’s similar to ours. They represent ideologies that many of us, in the upper class, subscribe to, have backgrounds that we relate with, speak the English that we find characteristic of our elite identities, make travel logs of places we have been to and so on.
All of these privileges allow them to set the standard for ‘worthy’ content and also maintain their exclusivity over popular content. This is probably why we see so many young aspiring YouTubers trying to copy these creators thinking that copying them is perhaps the only way to ‘make it’ on YouTube. But since they don’t have access to all of the privileges mentioned above they never really get to that level of popularity.
TikTok, has challenged this exclusivity by levelling the extremely unequal playing field for content creators. The 15 second-video format and inbuilt editing tools of the application make having a drone, an expensive camera or sophisticated editing software redundant. Tiktok came in as a proletariat movement of sorts and literally gave creators from all socio-economic strata the “means of production” of content. Access to a huge audience depends more on the personality and creativity of the creator than their privileges. This is also why the TikTok vs YouTube debate supremely ironic. TikTok is to YouTube exactly what YouTube was to Tv and film producers: a challenge to their monopoly over content creation.
This democratisation of content allowed creators from poor and middle classes to finally gain some popularity on social media. What we find cringy about TikTok is the representation of the culture and humour of middle and lower classes. Obviously there is a hierarchy within TikTokers as well. The more a TikToker conforms to euro-centric beauty standards, the more American trends they follow, the closely they relate to our identities the less cringy we find them. This is exactly how we treated Punjabi movies and stage dramas. Despite all the problems of misogyny and transphobia in that content, a big reason why we label Punjabi theatre as vulgar and not comedians like David Chapelle or George Carlin is because of the class difference. It’s the same story when we only find it only slightly arrogant when rich kids show off their wealth on their farewell parties but laugh with arrogance and find it tawdry when a poorer kid makes a video in front of a fancy car.
The reason why Vine, a video format quite similar to TikTok, was not looked down upon in the same way was because it was perceived as a platform of the elite. Vine was introduced in Pakistan through American content creators like Amanda Cerny and The Logan Boys and our colonial hangover has taught us to look up to western artists. TikTok, on the other hand, became popular in Pakistan through viral videos from lower-class Indian TikTokers, consequently it is perceived as a platform of the poor and we refuse to respect them in the same way.
A common argument through which we mask our hatred for TikTokers is that “they don’t put in enough effort to merit any praise”. There are two responses to this. First, the standard for ‘effort’ is doing what the YouTubers mentioned above are doing. Producing long-form video, taking multiple shots, shooting at exotic places, using good lighting equipment etc. Such a definition just puts more barriers to entry in the world of content creation because obviously not everyone can afford these. Secondly, the reason why I say we mask our classism with this argument is that “putting effort” was never a criterion for art to be considered worth consuming. Especially given our short attention spans on social media we rarely stop to notice the hard work that goes into making a piece of content. If we find it appealing we stop to watch it if not we just continue scrolling. We employ this argument because we are too ashamed to admit the real reason why we find TikTok cringy and maybe that’s a good thing.
But if not liking TikTok is classist, should we be ashamed of it? No, liking or disliking TikTok, like any art, is subjective matter and people cannot be shamed for making this choice. People with different background and experiences will have different preferences too and that’s fine. But it is crucial for us to understand why we like the content that we do and dislike others. This is just a small part of recognizing our privileges and accepting our biases. Hating on TikTok is just one of the many ways in which we express our bias against the representation of the culture of other economic classes. We can start to reform ourselves by not publicly criticising content creators for classist reasons. And if we can encourage them to pursue their passions without the fear of being judged, that’s even better.
The second and equally important reason why we find TikTokers cringy is our deep-rooted transphobia. If you look at the content that we typically find cringy these are videos of young boys acting in ways that are associated with queer or trans identities. Whether that be boys putting on makeup, dressing up as girls, being too flamboyant or expressive in the videos or dancing in a feminine way. The reason why we find these things objectionable is that they challenge our traditional notions of masculinity. We have only seen hyper-masculine images of men on media and these young boys are challenging the way we represent male identities.
On the other hand, the media rarely dares (read cares) to show queer identities on media. Occasionally, when late-night comedy shows do represent trans identities, they do so in an extremely derogatory manner. The jokes made about them reinforce negative stereotypes about transgenders being involved in singing, dancing, begging and sex work. Trans representation on mainstream media invokes a feeling of disgust against them, at best a feeling of pity, in the minds of an average viewer. This reaction is mirrored when the same viewer watches a trans identity on TikTok. This transphobic hatred is particularly salient in many of the YouTube vs TikTok roast videos by people like CarryMinati and others who use queerphobic expletives like “Chakka” and “Meetha” to refer to TikTokers. While it is understandable that people take a certain expressive liberty in roast videos, these words still reflect the popular sentiment towards TikTokers.
As mentioned above, liking or disliking a certain content is a subjective matter and everyone is free to make their choice in that regard. However, disliking an artist is not a similarly subjective matter. It is obviously inherently wrong to hate on someone’s personal identity. But this is especially true in Pakistan where such hatred reinforces negative stereotypes about queer and trans identities and only works to alienate them even more from media and the society at large.
In a recent interview with TCM Originals, a trans rights activist, Julie Khan, explains how the mainstream media has negatively portrayed Trans identities. While highlighting our hypocrisy and double standards Julie says “Celebrities [dance] karain tou art, aur ham karain tou Kanjarkhana” and this aptly summarizes both the points. We have glorified the content produced by the privileged to the point where we find anything else cringy. The only way we can change this perception is by not policing people about the way they choose to express their identity. Social media provides a very powerful platform to challenge mainstream media and we as the most educated and “liberal” users of social media should encourage content creators to freely show their culture, lifestyles and identities without the fear of being judged.