As a platform, YouTube has opened up new opportunities for filmmakers, writers, pop culture critics, and other creative talents to share their work with the world. For female creators, YouTube and internet culture has often been a double-edged sword, allowing them to bypass the usual gatekeepers but often exposing them to hateful feedback online and even harassment in real life. In this new series Ladies of YouTube, I sit down with writers, camera women, and prominent personalities to discuss their work as well as the advantages and disadvantages of YouTube culture.
Lindsay Ellis is most well-known online as the Nostalgia Chick, and her reviews of film, TV, and even junk food of her childhood have earned thousands of fans. In recent years, her videos have branched out to more experimental projects like 50 Shades of Green, a web series that in its first season asked its viewers to help Lindsay and her co-host Antonella “Nella” Inserra in developing their own romance novel.
Recently, Lindsay sat down with The Mary Sue to share her thoughts on the rise in production quality on YouTube, the entitled attitude of internet commenters, and her deep, abiding love for Cabaret (and the great Alan Cumming).
The Mary Sue: Could you tell us a little bit about your education, your background, what it was that led you to doing pop culture criticism? What were your influences?
Lindsay Ellis: Well, I’d say the biggest was college. I studied it when I was at NYU, and you know, that was kind of what I was trained in. Which makes it kind of frustrating because I think most people have a knee-jerk reaction against looking at film within its societal and historical or whatever context. They say, “No, it’s just a movie!” But I think it served me well. I studied it in college and then graduated, and then that happened to be when I met Doug Walker [of the Nostalgia Critic] and they needed a girl. And that is the story of my life! They needed a girl!
TMS: That was going to be my next question, how exactly you got involved with Doug Walker.
LE: Yup, they needed a girl. That was it. Done. [Laughs] They had a bunch of guys, and they were like, “We need some women,” so they hired me and two others at the same time. I was Doug’s counterpart. One became one of the anime girls, and the other one eventually left, but two out of three are still there.
TMS: I saw that your videos are available on YouTube but you also use Blip on your site Chez Apocalypse.
LE: If you see them on YouTube, it’s probably pirated. I don’t like YouTube, but I’m having to learn to like it, like since we got bought out. Blip got bought out by Maker Studios, and we had a contract with Blip, and Blip doesn’t really exist anymore. Like the name Blip does, but the company has been bought by Maker which was then bought by Disney, so now I technically work for Disney. It’s weird. Before that, they started up a channel on YouTube which was meant to drive traffic to Blip. I never had to deal with that, and I kind of like it that way because YouTube is kind of a hive of scum and villainy.
TMS: Yeah, I wanted to ask about some of the advantages and disadvantages of YouTube as a platform.
LE: Well, now that – see, Maker was primarily YouTube, and our YouTube channel is very much in the process of being restructured. It’s sort of like this e-mail tag-team, back and forth, what they are going to do with it and how they are going to incorporate it into Maker, and now that Maker is owned by Disney…I honestly don’t know how the Disney thing plays into it, but Blip was always my primary platform because I had a contract with them. YouTube was always extremely secondary. We do get paid for YouTube, but it was more of a commercial, like basically YouTube exists as a commercial to drive traffic either to Blip or to our website which was Chez Apocalypse — which is separate from That Guy With the Glasses – but also to That Guy With the Glasses, so the intention was, we were using YouTube less as a money-maker and more as an audience-getter, more as a traffic-driver to places we wanted people to go.
The comments section on YouTube is one of the reasons why I wanted my own website. I could delete comments with impunity. I want my website to be one of the few places online where you don’t have to be afraid to read the comments because I delete all the stupid ones. It’s like frolicking through the fields, picking flowers, deleting comments, whee! Although sometimes I leave the really stupid ones, like I pin them to the top. They are almost works of art, they are so stupid. I had one the other day, I want to put this in a museum, like just frame it. It’s beautifully stupid!
There’s also a real culture of entitlement where commenters are concerned. It’s so strange to me, this entitlement culture where people think they can come into my house and insult me and that I’m just going to leave those comments. You know, I pay for the hosting, and I’m just going to leave that there? Nope, delete. This free speech culture, it has to stop. It’s maddening, and people buy into it. That’s the worst part. You can’t be angry and getting it wrong, that’s not what free speech means. I don’t have to listen to you either, that’s my free speech.
TMS: Do you think that other women that are thinking about getting into online video criticism, like what you are doing, will see what happens to female creators like you and be dissuaded from getting into it?
LE: That they would be or should be?
TMS: That they would feel, “Well, I don’t really want to go through that because then I’ll have to deal with these idiots.”
LE: Absolutely! I mean, a lot of women, especially young women – I was an only child. I didn’t have any brothers, so my parents were very, I wouldn’t call them feminist, but they were egalitarian. They kind of put these expectations on me that was like, you’d better pull your own weight and open the f—king door for other people, be they male or female. So when you’re kind of raised with that, which I think women are these days, you’re genuinely shocked at how awful people are to you for no reason other than gender. And I’ve seen this happen time and time again. Usually, they are younger than me, teens or early twenties, and it will happen where they will say something or speak out against some guy. I won’t name names, but I’ve seen this happen several times where some guy would say something f—ed up, and some girl would call them out, just like, “Dude, not cool.” Not even make a big deal about it, and the backlash would last for years and is still happening in some cases.
It all comes back to gender, even if you don’t want to believe it, and it’s really hard for a lot of young women to come to terms with that. If you were raised in a sort of environment where it’s like, “Well, who cares about gender?” and then you go onto the internet and that’s all there is and that’s all that matters…I feel like, it is a measure of expectation, you know, especially when you’re really young. You don’t go in expecting to be shat on the way you will be, especially if you’re on video, because a lot of people come to you with expectations of, “Your purpose in life is to be physically attractive to me, and you are not succeeding at this. That is your value.” Going home with that, stepping away from that and realizing that’s what they think. You’re never really exposed to that except for in the media, and that’s like in the background noise. But then when you go online and you have people say, “I didn’t like the way you looked in this video,” and you’re just sort of like, “That’s what you think of all women.” And I’m having to push past that. Nothing can quite prepare you. Even actresses in Hollywood, they have a barrier, there are gatekeepers. On the internet, there is nothing, and people treat you like, “This bitch, she’s fat, she needs to shut the f— up,” and obviously that’s not all of it, but it’s like a higher proportion than anyone is expecting. And when you grow up without that expectation, it is shocking, and I could definitely see where a lot of young women would be put off it forever, just from a little tiny amount.
TMS: Changing subject a little bit, could you describe what goes into a typical episode? There were some episodes that have these storylines –
LE: Oh, I stopped doing that a long time ago. [Laughs] Ah, I feel like I’m too old for that. It’s different now. I feel like it’s…this used to be my only means of income, and now it is one of several. I wouldn’t say I put less effort into them, but I try to make them shorter and more digestible. I used to do the storylines just as an experiment, but now it’s more like I try to make them more YouTube friendly where each individual one you can jump into and not know anything, which is important for getting new viewers. I guess I spend a lot more time writing and less time editing. I’ll do like two full episodes a month, and I’ve been doing Game of Thrones recaps lately.
TMS: On that same note, what do you think it takes for a YouTube personality to become successful, as far as gaining a viewership and keeping it?
LE: I’d say the biggest thing is personality. Screen presence, such as it were, because you can kind of fake all the rest. You look at John Green, and he doesn’t write his s—, he doesn’t edit it, he doesn’t light it – well, I guess he used to do the Vlogbrothers stuff, but now he doesn’t do any of the technical stuff. I think the biggest thing is an engaging personality. Otherwise, write. Otherwise, blog or do something else, some other form of media. And I wouldn’t say that I have the most engaging personality, which is why I’m not a superstar, but then again I don’t live or die by YouTube. Also, have interesting stuff to say. Try to be original, but then again, that can be writing.
TMS: Had you done a lot of performing before, like theater or speech team or anything on camera?
LE: No, I’ve always been a writer or an editor, behind the camera. Even still, the reason why I am still on camera is, when you write your own opinion, you can’t put it on someone else, like, “Obviously, Spielberg is trying to say this with the plot,” you can’t have someone else say that on camera. But I definitely prefer behind the scenes stuff. It’s not even because I don’t like the comments on my appearance, although I have definitely trial-and-error streamlined the way I look on camera over the years to be as plain as possible, as sex-less so that people are kind of forced to comment on the word-mouth and not the make-up.
TMS: Like the Charlie’s Angels episode?
LE: That got some backlash! Even still, I’m sort of like, I don’t want to go one-hundred percent either way because a lot of people, they had a good point, but at the same time, it’s such a gendered thing. Is it a cultural thing or a gender thing? It’s both! You can’t say it’s one without it also being the other. I wore a niqab to cover myself, saying, “F— it, I’m just going to wear this from now on so you a—holes can’t talk about what I wear and how I look,” and some people were like, “Cultural appropriation!” and I’m like, “I know! I know that!”
TMS: How has the production of the videos changed since you first started? You said you do all the writing and editing.
LE: It’s changed a lot. I’m a professional editor now, freelance, so that part has gotten a lot easier. I just switched to Premiere today, but it also depends on what it is. The Nostalgia Chick episodes are very carefully scripted, and then there is the book show which we just renamed to Booze Your Own Adventure where we drink things and review books and create our own young adult paranormal romance dystopia with the help of our commenters, and it’s a lot of fun but that one is super-duper hard because it is extemporaneous. That one has a multi-camera set-up, and I have to edit. So that one is still a learning experience because we have two real cameras and one iPhone that we use, and it causes its own form of technical problems to make those look homogenous.
It’s mostly the technical stuff that has changed. You have to look professional on YouTube now. Of course you can shoot a show with your phone, but now you have to be on par with television. You kind of have to go to film school now or spend those years with a learning curve. Right after I got the Nostalgia Chick job, I went to USC for about two and a half years. While I was sort of building an audience, I was also at film school, so that helped, and that is a slight leg-up. It’s a much bigger help in the professional world than in the YouTube world. People are going to hire you for like HBO or something, like I work for Pokemon. They don’t give a single f— about YouTube, they’re more like, “Oh, okay. You went to school. You know this program, you know Avid, good enough, hired.”
TMS: Right now, you’re doing the book show, the Game of Thrones recaps, these other projects…if money and resources weren’t an issue, what would you want to do as far as your film criticism?
LE: I feel like I’m fine with my film criticism. I’d like to work for more professional publications honestly. I don’t think I’m funny enough to do AV Club, but something like that. Even the book show, that is a labor of love because the views we get, I’d say it is on average ten to twenty percent of the amount of views per episode that I would get on the Nostalgia Chick episodes. It’s not heavily viewed because…I don’t want to say that people don’t read, but it’s kind of like, I’ve been trying to figure out for years what the intersection is between the discussion of books and new media, and that is still a work in progress. I can do that one if I can afford it. Can I dedicate this many hours per week to doing this little show when we don’t get much money from it? Even if we make the Cthulhu-Twilight thing, which we sold, that got us a little money, but it almost becomes a hobby because it brings in so little money.
TMS: Do you follow a lot of other online personalities? Is there anyone that you particularly enjoy?
LE: Yeah, but I tend to know them. I like John Green, and I don’t know him. Let’s see, who don’t I know? It is a rather small community, especially with video. Well, there are a couple of my underlings. Folding Ideas and Needs More Gay, they are two on Chez Apocalypse, and they are really good. MovieBob on The Escapist, he’s very good. I think it’s also because I tend to agree with him more than I don’t, but he’s a good ally. Being male, he can get away with saying things that women can’t, and on that note, Anita Sarkeesian. She’s a friend of mine, and I really like her content, and I feel like I step into an alternate universe every time someone says, “But you agree with her?” and I’m like, “But she’s not saying anything weird!”
TMS: It seems like so many female critics with some presence online have some crazy story or backlash over some comment or review.
LE: I feel like I’ve learned to keep my head down. All I’ve really had to deal with is weird stalkers. The worst thing that happened was I did a review of Dune, which in fairness to my detractors was not well-researched. It did lead to a lot of fake-geek-girling, like, “You don’t know s— about Frank Herbert,” and I’m like, “No, I do. I just f—ing hate this movie.” But they were right. I didn’t research, like I didn’t realize that the vagina monster in the movie was also supposed to be this thing that’s in the book as a guy, like a human guy. Anyway, that was kind of the worst that I’ve got. I’ve watched people like Anita and other women I know, and the most important thing people can learn is to keep their private life private. Do not talk about your boyfriend. If you do talk about your boyfriend, keep it light. Never, ever bring fights online. Never bring fights with friends online. If you ever have a tiff with someone, never bring it online.
TMS: On a last note, I wanted to mention that I first discovered you and your work was because of your Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark review.
LE: Oh really?
TMS: I just really hope you do more musical theater reviews because that review made me laugh so hard. I don’t even know how many times I’ve watched it.
LE: I would if it wasn’t so expensive! I was planning on doing Cabaret this month, but I went on the opening night of previews, and he is so good! Alan Cumming, you know…because Cabaret was my favorite musical when I was in college, and it’s like ten, fifteen years later, and I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s him! I’m crying!” They only cast that one guy as Littlefinger because they couldn’t get Alan Cumming. Alan Cumming would be so perfect for that role.
Rachel Kolb is a Disney fangirl, Swan Queen shipper, and life-long Broadway nerd with an encyclopedic knowledge of original Broadway cast recordings. She is currently a staff writer at JustPressPlay.net and a contributor to Sound on Sight, and she is the creator of LudusNYC.com, a website celebrating Broadway theater and offering tips to make theater-going more affordable. Since fall of 2013, she has also been a regular co-host on The Disney Film Project podcast, a show dedicated to reviewing every film released by the Walt Disney Company from the classic animated features to Pixar and LucasFilm. She can be found on Twitter @rachelekolb and @LudusNYC.