Updated: Oct 29, 2020
In charting GiGi Gorgeous’ rise to YouTube stardom, it is impossible to ignore the fact that her acceptance within the internet community came at the same time as she began transitioning. Though a member of the trans community which, by definition, exists on the other side of the binary between cisgender and transgender, GiGi Gorgeous’ makeup tutorials support cisgender heteronormativity in their subtle notion of being able to construct femininity by following her steps. With the understanding that gender is a social construct, the femininity that GiGi Gorgeous teaches is not subverted by the fact that she is a transwoman, but evidences the tenuous relationship behind transwomen and the inherent heteronormativity of beauty. Essentially, fashioning the body is considered more important to women because, in a society that only values femininity to its heteronormativity, passing as a heteronormative woman is the only way to try and subvert the system holding to women to that standard in the first place. Considering GiGi Gorgeous’ YouTube career, though she is a transwoman making a name for herself in the same way as her cisgender heteronormative counterparts have done, it can be argued that she isn’t as much of a symbol of progression within the docile feminine framework of the YouTube beauty community as she is an agent of the very system of oppressive heteronormativity already present in the structure of said community.
1.2: Power Structures, Agency and YouTube as a Panopticon
Using philosopher Michel Foucault’s definition of the panopticon, clear parallels exist between it and the YouTube beauty community through the idea of a power structure. Foucault defines the panopticon as “…a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” YouTube follows this definition with both content creators and content consumers, or viewers. Once YouTubers post their videos, anyone can watch them in that video at any time; they can be seen at any time without their knowledge. As for viewers, they can absorb as much content as they want from different content creators without ever being seen. “Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants…”1 Thus the power structure works, only in communities, as a method of social control: content creators gain power, in this case a salary from YouTube, by promoting the repeated construction of conventional beauty standards via certain makeup products and brand deals, disseminate those beauty standards by detailing the ephemeral process of a makeup tutorial to consumers, or viewers. This is how beauty standards can be created and upheld by unaware individuals in a power structure, a concept Foucault aptly describes as ‘docility,’ or becoming complicit in the metaphorical machine’s standards in the search for power. There are three tactics of a power structure meant to breed this docility among individuals seeking power, “…firstly, to obtain the exercise of power at the lowest possible cost (economically, by the low expenditure it involves; politically, by its discretion, its low exteriorization, its relative invisibility, the little resistance it arouses); secondly, to bring the effects of this social power to their maximum intensity and to extend them as far as possible, without either failure or interval; thirdly, to link this 'economic' growth of power with the output of the apparatuses (educational, military, industrial or medical) within which it is exercised; in short, to increase both the docility and the utility of all the elements of the system.”1 These tactics are able to prosper with the assumption that power equals money, which is a power structure in itself; those with more money have more power, those with less money strive to earn more money to have more power, establishing their choice, or agency, to earn more money as innately motivated by the promise of more power. On YouTube, the repetition of the makeup tutorial obscures the purpose; which is to earn the beauty gurus in power profit. Foucault’s terminology of the panopticon describes a type of voyeurism omnipresent in the YouTube beauty community, which promises power in a structure determinant on teaching beauty through makeup tutorials, constructing feminine docility in both the consumption of content and, in Gigi’s case, content creation.
1.3: Constructing Femininity –The Body as a Process
Judith Butler’s explanation of means of subversion within a power structure detail the ways in which Gigi Gorgeous has gained success; by establishing her adoption of society’s conventional beauty as a mode of multilocality for her between the transgender community and the larger YouTube beauty community. Through specifically analyzing Gigi’s latest everyday makeup tutorial, a canon video among YouTube beauty personalities, she displays a self-proclaimed “natural” makeup routine that she would wear “everyday” like the title suggests. As seen in Figure 1, Gigi can be seen performing in line with the feminine standard of desirable, natural beauty: the augmentation of naturally occurring features on the face through an extensive process. In the 12 minutes of the tutorial, Gigi applies foundation, powder, two applications of different blush shades, bronzer, eyeshadow, highlighter, eyebrow pencil, eyebrow gel, fake eyelashes, mascara, two applications of different lipstick shades, and finally, setting spray. By the conclusion of the video, Gigi addresses the extensiveness of this makeup regime, yet insists the tutorial seems less in line to other natural makeup routines because it contains “just a lot of products.” The way she presents her laborious multi-step makeup tutorial as a necessity is evidence of how constructing beauty via makeup has made Gigi docile to conforming to conventional beauty standards. Judith Butler, an American academic specializing in gender and sex performativity, extrapolates on this idea, saying “The ‘I’ who would oppose its construction is always in some sense drawing from that construction to articulate its opposition; further the ‘I’ draws what is called its ‘agency’ in part through being implicated in the very relations of power that it seeks to oppose.” Described are two different forms of opposition to the power structure labeling individuals: the ‘I’ that opposes the fact that it has to be labeled differently in the first place, and the ‘I’ that uses its agency to adopt the standards of the power structure that oppress it to subvert the structure. Though the first ‘I’ believes it is radically not abiding by any framework of oppression by questioning its label to begin with, the fact that it “opposes its construction” simultaneously reaffirms the reality of the construction itself. The second ‘I’ openly embraces the conventions “of power that it seeks to oppose,” and adopts these conventions through their own agency to become a valued part of the structure that seeks to oppose them. Gigi Gorgeous is this second ‘I,’ with the power structure being femininity and the conventions adopted being feminine beauty. She adopts ideals of conventional femininity to gain power, in this case, by performing the process of constructing said femininity via makeup and hair tutorials all in the quest for power in the YouTube beauty community as, specifically, a transgender beauty guru in a sea of heterosexual cisgender women.
1.4: Aspects to Gigi’s Privilege in the Transgender Community
Larger than the YouTube community, Gigi operates the same way in the trans community; she performs the femaleness of her gender identity so well that larger society sees her as passing for a cisgender woman. The politics of passing get really messy, however they highlight that Gigi’s agency in choosing to physically transition isn’t purely an individual choice, but one innately affected by how society values transgender people as how cisgender they can look.
1.4a: Gender Performances
Julie L. Nagoshi, assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies at University of Texas at Arlington, explains the idea of gender performance through how “The presentations of behaviors that are defined by social conventions create the illusion of self that is consistent with our culture’s assumptions that gender underlies the psyche of all people. These ‘constructed performances’ also act as originating desires or identities from which a person’s presentation of self emanates.” Gigi performs in a feminine way because of these “cultural assumptions of gender that underlie in the psyche of all people,” though the link between gender identity and gender performance is constructed versus innate. Further, Gigi’s female performances as a transwoman are able to make sense to her YouTube audience because her gender identity is female; the arbitrary link between her identity and her performance exists.
Realness is a term within the drag community that references dominant heteronormative roles for women. The term can be defined by Stephen L. Eyre, former Pediatrics Researcher at University of California, San Francisco, “…a sense that virtuosity is necessary in any given performance…this virtuosity is referred to as ‘realness.’ Realness entails the technical perfection of execution any non-contamination with any other sexual/gender types.” This idea of realness as the ability to appear like a ‘real woman’ highlights the arbitrary link between gender identity and gender expression. The association of the feminine body with identifying as female is problematic, because it is known that gender is a social construct. However, this association’s placement as a social construct doesn’t create a non-issue, but rather highlight how non-conformity to dominant social constructs, heteronormative femininity in this case, in a power structure create real consequences to incentivize conformity.
Clocking is the term used to represent these consequences faced for not performing the perfect heteronormative femininity. Eyre defines clocking as “If one can discern something about someone else, such as who they really are or what they intend, one is said to have ‘clocked’ them. Transgenders are always up against the problem of people ‘clocking’ that they are male, and learn to be good at ‘clocking’ whether or not they have been clocked…clocking whether or not one has been clocked is ‘reverse clocking.’”8 This is the idea that the standard of realness creates a power structure within the minority group of the trans community favoring those with the most realness, giving them the power to clock those with lesser realness. The agency to reflect the realness of a ciswoman isn’t a pure individual choice when, coded into the trans community, is the power of realness and the fear of being clocked at the failure to do so.
Eyre also defines the concept of passing, or being able to give the illusion of the perfect woman in the case of being a transwoman. Essentially, “To pass is to be taken as what one performs –in the case of the transgender to be taken as a woman. To pass one must have realness. But even a virtuoso performance may be seen as just that, as a performance. To truly ‘pass’ means that the performance is not even detected.”8 Gigi Gorgeous has made her performance of femininity undetectable in this same way. Even with her surgeries, Gigi only displays her trans identity in the pride of having constructed her femininity through cosmetic surgery, effectively enforcing an essentialist understanding of gender through having turned herself into the success story of how to become the perfect powerful woman. Even though Gigi is transgender, she presents an easily digestible image of being trans so palatable that it enforces the power structure’s valuation of thin, white blonde, beauty rather than subverting it.
1.5: Trans-misogyny as Bias
While all of the supported points above are legitimate, this criticism of Gigi Gorgeous can be seen as holding her to an unfair standard as a successful transgender woman, as well as the very real concept of trans-misogyny. An essay by Julia Serano, transgender activist and author, about the harmful boundaries of femininity anecdotally defines trans-misogyny. While walking behind a transwoman on the street, Serano recounts a man sitting on a curb saying “‘Look at all the shit he’s wearing,’ and the woman he was with nodded in agreement…I found this particular comment to be quite telling…if this same man were to has harassed a cis woman, it is unlikely that he would do so by referring to her feminine clothing and makeup as ‘shit.’ Similarly, someone who is one the trans-masculine spectrum could potentially be harassed, but it is unlikely that his masculine clothing would be referred to as ‘shit.’ Thus trans-misogyny is informed by, yet distinct from, transphobia and misogyny, in that is specifically targets transgender expression of femaleness and femininity.” In a heterosexist society that values undetectable cisgender passing if you are transgender, it only makes sense to play the game of passing politics if it is the only way to gain power. Serano goes on to explain that “Trans-misogyny is driven by the fact that in most U.S. contexts, feminine appearances are more blatantly and routinely judged than masculine ones. It is also driven by the fact that connotations such as ‘artificial,’ ‘contrived,’ and ‘frivolous’ are practically built into our cultural understanding of femininity, and these same connotations allow masculinity to come off as invariably ‘natural,’ ‘sincere,’ and ‘practical’ in comparison.”10 So, the issue with trans-misogyny is the concept that those not born with assumed femininity, meaning those not assigned female at birth, are subject to criticism when they perform their gender through constructing femininity. Where femininity is already seen as superfluous, “…in the eyes of society, trans women are seen as doubly artificial, because we are trans and because we are feminine.”10 Critique of Gigi Gorgeous can come off as trans-misogynist in the way this research is structured, however the point is not to call Gigi’s femininity into question, but rather to analyze how her agency is influenced by the trans-misogynist power structure valuing transwomen for their ability to appear cisgender. In the YouTube beauty community power structure, success is promoting a monolithic, Eurocentric standard of beauty, a standard of beauty Gigi Gorgeous is not exempt from as a transwoman with the ability to construct her own femininity.
In the context of Gigi Gorgeous’ placement as a powerful figure in the YouTube beauty community as conversion rather than subversion, fashioning the body as a woman is more important because of the larger power structure of society where masculinity means inherent power and femininity is politicized on the bodies who perform it. Gigi Gorgeous’ life became a shared experience of the goings on of gender body dysmorphia on YouTube as to perpetuate the idea that transwomen are just like anyone else, however within a power structure transwomen face more consequences than a non-marginalized person. With the understanding of Foucault’s panopticon as a way of defining YouTube as a power structure, Gigi’s agency in choosing to reconstruct her body in line with the standard of cisgender femininity is both her agency and avoiding consequences from something as small as clocking to something as large as not being a successful beauty guru. In YouTube career composed of makeup tutorials and various lifestyle videos, success is promoting the same type of docile femininity that already oversaturates the YouTube beauty panopticon, and Gigi’s gender identity does not stop her from this, it just means she has more pressure to conform. Gigi, as a transwoman, has no obligation to subvert or conform to any standard in seeking success, however within a power structure favoring the cisgender heterosexually feminine body as a means of success, her agency is innately skewed toward the performance yielding more success.
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GregoryGORGEOUS. “TALK THRU MAKEUP: EVERYDAY SLAY | Gigi.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 Feb. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z6S6FT8SHI.
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