Jenna Marbles and the Queer Art of Failure

Written by Heather. Posted in News

We learnt about a lot of things from the young people who we interviewed for this project. YouTubers opened up a whole new world of micro-celebrities, people whose fame derives from their channels on this website rather than via the more traditional media of television and film. Although there’s a growing number of influential young women beauty vloggers, the YouTubers who came up in our data were mostly male gamers, animators or comedians. But two women stood out: Tampon Girl who was hated and Jenna Marbles who was loved. As we explored their channels, Jenna Marbles struck us as someone challenging dominant ideas around women, weight loss and fashion. In her latest and 200th video, which we discuss in this post, she challenges dominant ideas of aspiration, success and the future.

We’ve been accused by a reader of this blog of being obsessed with Will Smith and he may have a point as we’ve written about everything from Will’s views on mathematics to how he’s become a happy object for young people. In our defence, we write about him so much because his representation allows us to dissect the individualist ideas about aspiration and success that are dominant at the moment. But these are not the only public messages about aspiration and success that circulate in popular culture, and perhaps we should have given more space in this blog to alternative narratives found within other ‘celebrity’ figures mentioned by our participants. Comedian Jenna Marbles voices some of these in her most recent video, below, which has already been viewed over 2 million times.

We’ve been struggling with how to mark our two academic years of blogging this project, so this video from Jenna marking her four years converting her life into vlogs resonated with us. The music, scenery and montage style, all mimic the inspirational video genre. The video intercuts Jenna walking through the countryside in one of her ‘favorite places’ with scenes from some of her previous 199 videos. She tells us that through being on YouTube ‘my entire life has changed’. Thus the set up and the wording evoke the classic aspirational narrative of a ‘journey': ‘I never dreamt I could be this person you made me’. And yet, just a minute in, she starts to undercut and queer this…

A series of questions appear on screen: ‘What are you going to do next? Where is all of this going?’ are easily legible but then they speed up and blur into one another to such an extent that the only one we can read clearly is ‘Do you want to be on TV?’ which interestingly suggests pressure to follow a normative route in which TV is the grown-up medium to which you graduate from the more adolescent YouTube. We then read the following:

And the truth is I don’t know

“People tell you your whole life”

“You need to have a plan”

“If you don’t have a plan…”

“You’ll never accomplish your goals”

But what if your goals are vague? Like mine

To be happy.

To laugh.

Every day.

To experience life.

To find love.

And loss.

To just feel what it feels like to be a human being.

To feel alive.

Where do you go with goals like that?

People associate being lost as something bad

Fear is bad.

Confusion is bad.

Failure is bad.

But it’s not.

It’s life.

Because the way I see it

Noone ever know what they’re doing.


And if anyone tells you they do…

They’re lying.

This celebration of failure reminds us of the work of Jack Halberstam. In his book The Queer Art of Failure, he also turns to popular culture for inspiration, writing:

What kinds of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life.

Perhaps Jenna Marbles can help us ‘poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life’ and so halt the way that our obsession with the the journey from the past to the future can distract us from the present.  Jenna queers and troubles the neoliberal injunction that we must be future-strategising subjects; an injunction which itself carries the notion that only we are responsible for what that future holds.  She puts one finger up to aspirational selfhood that is about always looking ahead, and never being in the now.

As she puts it: ‘People focus on how to get to somewhere they’re not right now. What’s wrong with the step you’re on. Look around you. Don’t miss what you have today.’



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