I’m 23 years old, and for at least a month this year, I was an avid user of Tik Tok. Don’t judge me, okay? We all got bored in lockdown.
In case you’ve never met a teenager: Tik Tok is a video sharing social media platform, and the most downloaded app in the world. It’s incredibly popular with Gen Z, who post short videos every day of themselves dancing to whatever song is trending that week, acting out their own skits, and, essentially, performing and sharing every possible aspect of their lives.
Many of the videos are just wholesome teen fun, many are an amazing showcase of creativity, and many are just really funny. An endless stream of these videos play for you when you open the app - you could probably lose entire days watching 15 year olds doing gang signs to a mash-up of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” and “Let It Go” from Frozen, and you still wouldn’t run out of videos to watch. It’s addictive and all consuming in a way that makes me think the people at Tik Tok HQ have scientifically found the exact attention span of the modern day human, and harnessed it to the tune of billions of dollars.
Eventually, I had to delete the app. Not just because it was eating away at time that could have been spent doing literally anything else, but because the trends, discourse and comments I saw from Tik Tok’s predominantly young users started to concern me.
I’m not going to pretend I’m hip and cool, or that I know what the kids are into these days. All I can say is that from what I saw, homophobia, misogyny, and unhealthy body image are like, so in right now.
The first thing that struck me about Tik Tok was that the videos on my “For You” page were rife with homophobic jokes - jokes where the entire punchline was just “you’re gay.” I saw a plethora of these videos, but most of them went lke this: “Catch this if you’re gay!” a young man calls out, mere milliseconds before throwing an object at his unsuspecting friend - instinctively, the friend catches the object - oh, no! He’s gay! Everyone laughs. The internet agrees, it’s hilarious, it gets thousands of “likes”. Honestly, I didn’t know anyone used “gay” as an insult anymore, I thought we ditched that in 2009. Turns out, we just recycled it for the younger generation. While queer teens now have more access to representation and stories like theirs than ever before, they’re still being told, no matter how implicitly, that being gay is wrong. Awesome…
I was intrigued now. If derogatory “gay” jokes were still popular, what else was considered cool on this app? So, I read the comments section. I don’t know why I didn’t predict that woman-hating has been endowed with an eternal coolness.
Any video on Tik Tok that portrays a boy being kind to a girl - nay, simply being respectful on a human level to someone of the opposite sex - is bombarded with comments from other boys. Comments that are meant to burn, meant to shame - comments that call him a “simp.” From what I can gather, “simp” is one of those hilarious jokes that’s not really a joke at all. A simp is apparently the worst thing a young man could be. A simp will be mocked and berated. A simp will be laughed at. A simp is a boy who is nice to girls. Cool boys aren’t nice to girls. Unfortunately, we already know how this turns out. We know that cool boys grow up to be men. To be law-makers and CEOs, husbands and fathers and abusers and upholders of this never-ending patriarchal, anti-women system.
Of course, the misogyny didn’t end there. In the comments of every comedy video a girl dared to make were remarks on two sides of the same patriarchal coin - either “This is why girls shouldn’t make jokes” or “I found the one funny girl.” Ah, the old “women aren’t as funny as men” rhetoric - one that I’m not going to bother to unpack or prove wrong, because we all know it’s downright laughable. But it’s still something that girls born in the 2000s are having to deal with. That rhetoric will still serve as a barrier - both mental, social and structural - that prevents women from being as successful in comedy as men. And thus, the cycle repeats.
All of this was bad enough, but what alarmed me most of all was the sheer amount of videos made by young girls about the size of their bodies, about what they ate in a day, the diets they tried, the exercises they did. Tik Tok’s “For You” page is, supposedly, catered to the user’s interests - based on the videos you “like”, you will be recommended similar videos by similar users. I’ve never liked a video that commented in any way on a young girl’s body or promoted unhealthy physical ideals and, yet, I saw dozens of these videos. Because they’re all over Tik Tok, encouraging unhealthy body image and eating disorders in ways both subtle and overt - some in which young people talk about eating ice chips instead of food, sleeping all day to avoid eating, and fasting for days on end. So that begs the question, how many of these harmful videos are young girls seeing? Young girls like my own sisters, who could happily spend 12 hours on Tik Tok without taking pee breaks if anyone would let them. Young girls who are already bombarded with images of what their body should look like and how they should do whatever it takes to access that body type from magazines, TV shows, movies, advertisements, celebrities, Instagram and every other social media site out there.
These narratives that teens are constantly absorbing and reinforcing to each other are so painfully familiar. These ideas - that it’s wrong to be gay, that men should be tough and strong rather than respectful and kind, that “women aren’t funny”, that women need to have the “perfect” body - are, obviously, not new. But they are outdated. And unhealthy. And harmful.
And I naively thought we hadn’t passed them on to the younger generation. I was wrong.Support Villainesse