Yesterday the 16th Annual Webby Award Winners, i.e., for the year of 2011, were announced, with more than one hundred categories like Activism, Games, Humor, Science, Weird, and Law. Most Webby awards are not given to individuals, but rather to things like websites, blogs, ad campaigns, videos, and internet capable mobile apps from all around the internet. However, the Webbys give out Special Achievement Awards each year to specific people who they feel did particularly interesting things with or on the internet, typically with more standard Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony-like categories like Best Artist, Lifetime Achievement, Breakout of the Year, and Person of the Year, depending on who the Webbys see fit to honor and what they did. Last year, honorees included Dan Savage, for the It Gets Better Campaign, Martin Cooper for making the first mobile phone, and even the supercomputer Watson. This year, they include an award for Webby Actresses of the Year, jointly given to Juliette Lewis and Graydon Sheppard (co-creator of Shit Girls Say) for their work in Shit Girls Say. Graydon Sheppard, to clarify, is a man.
Lets talk about why this is problematic.
If Sheppard was being given a best “actress” nod for appearing as a woman outside of the context of Shit Girls Say, it might not rub me the wrong way, but I feel the two are inextricably linked in creating this feeling. And so, this discussion starts with a talk about how many people find Shit Girls Say to be problematic. If you haven’t seen the video, it, and its two sequels, can be watched here.
Sheppard (who, in the interest of being even more clear, identifies as a cisgendered gay man) says the idea for Shit Girls Say came when he asked SGS co-creator Kyle Humphrey to pass him a blanket, and they both agree that this was a “girl” thing to say. This started up a conversation between them that went back and forth on what that actually meant and whether phrases can be attributed to a gender, and that talk eventually culminated in the SGS videos and Twitter accounts. Sheppard has said that the project came from an interest in how “layered and complex” this sort of categorization is, noted the ultimate uniterestingness and lesser complexity of a Shit Guys Say video, and also that the phrases in Shit Girls Say are in fact things most people say and that he identifies with and that the strange arbitrary “girl”-ness of the phrases are what motivated the project. To his credit, he’s been absolutely open and welcoming of criticism of the videos.
Needless to say, intentions and outcomes don’t always align, and while the actual outcome or effect of any internet video, even ones that “go viral,” on our culture is many things (negligible, difficult to quantify, imposible to directly observe), the effect that the video had on me and other women I’ve talked to about it is pretty uniform. A couple chuckles here and there, but mostly an overall sense of uneasiness that somebody out there (whether the video’s creators or other people that like the video) might think that this dialogue was representative of everything women say (not to get all WEIGHTY ISSUES on you, but women have got enough trouble getting people to treat what they say as important). Sheppard has acknowledged that Shit Girls Say is really more like “Shit A Certain Kind Of Woman Who Has Been Socialized To Behave A Certain Way Says,” but of course that title isn’t as catchy.
I’m not here to say that Sheppard, Humphrey, and everybody involved should be hoisted by their own petards and shamed from ever doing anything again ever in any universe. They made a video with stated motives of investigating the weird way in which our culture considers non-gendered things to be gendered, and it went viral, not least because those motives were not very clearly presented in it and that likely allowed far more people to find it funny. And that viral boom of the video spawned a ton of imitator videos, some more successful than others, and a ton of internet and comedy discussion. And the Webbys, as an awards show for the internet, is fully within its rights and indeed may actually be performing its mandate quite well to acknowledge Shit Girls Say as the origin of the Shit _____ Say wave of Youtube videos of the past year.
But I think where that ends is in awarding Sheppard part of a “Best Actress” award. I appreciate that it’s the Webbys making a joke, and, as I said before, if Sheppard was simply being awarded for acting the part of a woman without the context of Shit Girls Say I’d probably chuckle along and go back to writing some other post. But Shit Girls Say was a problematic representation of “girls” for many people, a fact acknowledged and considered to be legitimate by Sheppard himself, and so giving him an award for representing women… that’s not so much of a joke to me as a depressingly sarcastic statement on the state of women’s representation, at least in comedy if not elsewhere. Last December, Sheppard told the A.V. Club:
At first we weren’t sure how long [the series and Twitter account] would be able to go. First it was just us gleaning what we had heard in the past, and not necessarily any specific women or people. I grew up with my mom and sisters in the house, and then, growing up, had a lot of mostly girl friends. It kind of comes from being around women but not being a woman.
I think that statement speaks for itself.
If the Webbys want to acknowledge the trend of videos kicked off by Shit Girls Say, which, as a professional internet watcher, I’m 100% in favor of, I wish they’d award some of the really interesting and eye opening videos on microaggressions that came out of it. The king (or queen) of the examples is undoubtedly Franchesca Ramsey’s Shit White Girls Say… to Black Girls, but you could also look at Tommy Edison (the Blind Film Critic)’s Shit Sighted People Say to Blind People, or, though I can’t find a link to it now, I also remember coming across the story of two young Hispanic girls creating an eye-opening video for their racial studies class, of the awkward, shaming, or outright ignorant things they’d heard from other people their age making innocent (but otherwise badly founded in persistant stereotypes) assumptions about their families, their language, and their lives.