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Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Queerness of Joey Graceffa

In the 18 March 2013 special edition of Top That! on POPSUGAR, YouTuber and former Amazing Race contestant Joey Graceffa played a game with the show’s co-hosts, Becca Frucht and Tyler Oakley. In the game “You Can’t Handle the Truth!”, each of them said one true and one false statement, asking the others to guess which one was the truth. In one round, Joey Graceffa offered up one truth and one lie: (1) that he graduated from college, and (2) that he moved to Los Angeles when he was 19. While deliberating, Tyler Oakley said that he did not think that Graceffa graduated from college. Joey did not seem particularly phased by this statement – after all, in his earlier vlogs he openly discussed his challenges in school, his experiences at college before dropping out, and his struggles trying to get into his dream school. However, Oakley soon perceived the potential for his comment to be misread, and quickly appended his statement with two crucial words: “No shade!

Joey Graceffa’s response is a curious one, worthy of a gif. It is not certain whether or not he understood what Oakley meant, and it seems as though he might have inferred the phrase’s meaning, or quite simply attempted to conceal a full-on reaction of his clear understanding of precisely what Tyler Oakley meant. Why does this matter?

Like many, Joey Graceffa began his YouTube career making parody videos with his close friends from high school under the username WinterSpringPro, which was later renamed JoeyGraceffa and appended with the gaming channel, JoeyGraceffaGames. Joey Graceffa has nearly 2 million subscribers on his main YouTube channel and his Twitter has over half a million followers. Today, Graceffa mainly produces daily vlogs peppered with the usual YouTube collaboration video tropes: challenges, parodies, and cover songs. He is well known for his addition of the suffix “-anya” to many words, and for his spontaneous slipping into accents and strange voices, which has earned him the title Grandfather Joey among some of his friends. He is by all means a fairly typical YouTuber with a significant following. He has not produced any truly viral videos, but his consistent vlogs and wide collaborations make him a YouTube staple.

Much of the attention surrounding Joey Graceffa circulates around constructions and extrapolations of his sexuality. Many rumors about Graceffa’s sexuality point to stereotypical constructions of his flamboyant personality as indicators. Meanwhile, Joey Graceffa has never confirmed that he is gay.

While some might easily criticize Graceffa for his choice not to officially come out to his young viewers (given his potential to serve as a role model), those concerns aside for the time being, Graceffa has quite skillfully managed to construct a thriving body of discussion and argumentation precisely on the question of his sexuality. By this, I do not mean that he has allowed the rumors to circulate and the fan wars to continue while totally avoiding the subject; on the contrary, he has consistently addressed the debate and produced videos that fuel and play out the contours of the debate’s topography – as, for example, in his and Shane Dawson’s “Are You Gay Test!” videos, where Graceffa allegedly sets out to answer the question of whether he is gay by answering other questions that would allegedly tell you if a person is gay.

In this video, Graceffa cleverly takes on the question “Are you gay?” precisely as a question – not to mention a question that emerges from a series of social stereotypes used to extrapolate a person’s sexuality. Thus, in the video, Joey does not answer the question per se; instead, he takes on the very logic of stereotypical thinking in which his fans have partaken, producing a video that merely expands the litany of alleged proof and counter-evidence so as to performatively respond not to the question itself, but rather to the epistemic construction of the question. That is, he does not critically comment on whether or not he is gay, but rather on the processes through which his audience constructed their opinions and biases of him and others.

On 13 April 2013, as part of his “Dare the Dawson” series, fellow mega-YouTuber Shane Dawson kissed Joey Graceffa on the lips as part of his weekly challenge. Following this video, the pairing of Graceffa and Dawson became a sensation among fans as #Shoey. This hashtag cum portmanteau indicates the shipping – the pairing of two characters or persons in a usually romantic relationship – of Shane Dawson and Joey Graceffa. Such a hashtag is a common format and practice, whereby fans can argue for their favorite OTP, or One True Pairing of people. The fan wars over shipped couples and OTPs manifest a thriving and generative field of production, given that these battles not only proliferate as video comments and chat room banter, but also as photo-shopped pairings of the two figures, gifs of suggestive or cute moments together, and – of course – the seedy underbelly of fan fiction, which is, at times, of an erotic, pornographic nature.

These various behaviors derive from the well-established, earlier practice in fan fiction writing –where romantic pairings would be slashed together (such as Ron/Hermione), creating the category of fan fiction writing known as slash. Previously, fan fiction flourished around cult television shows and movies, such as the Star Trek franchise or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in such cases, slash, like other portions of fan fiction writing (including non-romantic narratives), allowed for fans to find a space of communion and interactivity with the characters or actors they had come to love. There was an inherently passive nature to such fan-based practices, especially in the fact that they actively produced material for others to enjoy and admire (with some key authors gaining popularity), but there was no sense that such stories would enter the canonical paradigms of their beloved shows or movies. They were a form of constructing a very personal community on the periphery of primary source materials.

In the case of YouTubers and the accompanying greater interactivity between actors, writers, producers, and their fan-bases via social networking media today, we witness the rise of the concept of shipping. Unlike slash, which sought to produce a suspended reality within the fictional landscape, shipping suggests the active propagation of one’s particular OTP or pairing. It acknowledges the newfound realities that allow for tweets, Tumblr posts, and narrative fan fiction to enact a pull on the flow of a TV show’s events or a YouTuber’s upcoming videos. Glee, for example, is a show that is known to pay close attention to the wishes of its fans, actively playing with those wishes by teasing, taunting, and gratifying the desires of its audience. (Glee’s producer, Ryan Murphy, has at times been held responsible for the show’s course of events, taking to Twitter to ameliorate the fans concerns – as with the infamous breakup of Kurt and Blaine.)

Thus, a hashtag such as #Shoey manifests the workings of the ever-morphing topologies of fan-based practices – and actively partakes in its promulgation amidst the various differing views of fellow fans. This constitutes one of the most basic and primal elements of a fan-oriented phenomenology. To stop this process is to destroy the fabric of a large portion of the fan community, and to deny fans the ability to manifest a sense of communion with their objects of affection.

To advocate against the fan wars is to fundamentally misunderstand the constitution of pop culture as a sense of communal being in the world.

This element of interactivity was perhaps best exemplified by Shane Dawson and Joey Graceffa in their reading and performance of fan fiction on both their channels as a collaborative video pair. Here, the two – following Graceffa’s idea – farcically enact two highly sexual fan fiction pieces written by their fans. Their performance short-circuits the now arcane notion of the canonical source material and the unofficial, non-canonical nature of fan fiction. While the events clearly did not actually happen, their act is certainly a performative gesture in the sense that it fulfills the desires and wishes of their fans through the very obliqueness of parody and sarcasm for which both their YouTube channels – particularly Dawson’s – are known for. Most fascinating, however, is the manner in which Dawson points out that the whole thing was Joey’s idea.

Often times, Joey Graceffa’s collaborators stress the fact that it was Graceffa who has pushed their collaborative videos into a more sexualized or innuendo-ridden dimension. Nevertheless, when things start to get into the nitty-gritty of innuendo or explicit sexual reference, Graceffa is always the first to express affected discomfort and shock. This was made explicit throughout one collaboration with Tyler Oakley, where they produced “XXX Mad Libs”; here, Graceffa’s response to a noun (such as “butt-plug”) offered up by Oakley manifested shock and awe – a response Graceffa himself purposely put into motion by selecting the X-rated theme.

In this sense, Joey Graceffa’s videos constantly deploy his own closeting per se, if we can even call it that, as a discursive trope – always rimming the edge, but never allowing the bubble to burst. When paired with Shane Dawson, who lives with his longtime girlfriend and fellow-YouTuber Lisa Schwartz, Joey Graceffa’s actions become wholly farcical and the videos read clearly as a clever game made to entertain the fans, given that in all actuality the #Shoey ship is not likely. Nevertheless, Dawson’s openness about his girlfriend and her inclusion even in the fan fiction video only furthers Graceffa’s own isolation in this terrain, leading to more speculation. When paired with the openly-gay Tyler Oakley, who has an exceptional and admirable record of activism and service for the LGBT community (particularly with LGBT youths given his extensive work for the Trevor Project), the actions of Graceffa’s work becomes all the more intriguing in terms of the dynamics of their interactions, the issues addressed, the formats that their collaborations take on, and – most importantly – the language that they both speak.

Thus, I am drawn to Joey Graceffa’s reaction to Tyler Oakley’s queer disclaimer, “no shade,” which emerges directly from drag circles, as best explained in the classic 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, and recently popularized by shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race. Throwing shade emerges precisely from the act of reading, where a drag queen conducts a close visual analysis of another drag queen and produces witty retorts to flaws and aspects of the other’s look. It is a moment that allows for a suspension of drag’s illusions, cutting through to the performer’s identity in drag, while nevertheless remaining in that system. It is a careful act of momentary transgression from within that state of transgression. As such, reading is not an insult or slur; rather is an art form that is fundamental to drag. Throwing shade, on the other hand, undermines that system, whereby a performer – operating on the order of reading – obliquely avoids or circumvents an insult so as to paradoxically abandon the state of reading and produce a true offence that is nevertheless comprehensible as such. This is shade.

Colloquially, while losing some of its reading-specific complexities, the phrase “no shade” – or its inverse, “all T, all shade” as coined by Coco Montrese on Drag Race – comes to be a queer equivalent of “no offence,” acknowledging the potential for insult in a usually humorous situation. Still, it always addresses a comment whose insult is somehow veiled or cryptic in nature, operating more on the order of its implications and connotations rather than its straight denotation – like saying that you guess that someone never graduated college, implying that they are not intelligent or well-read. This was the case when Oakley said “no shade” to Graceffa, although the latter’s fluency was left in doubt – or at least quickly censored, understanding precisely what it would mean to acknowledge the comment, or even to acknowledge that he could understand what it even meant.

As I mentioned earlier, Joey Graceffa is well-known for his pronounced affect and voices. In this respect, he is a fundamentally queer figure: always avoiding a static system of signification or persona in exchange for a personality that always exists through an oblique or veiled form of manifestation, ever in flux, ever shifting. In this respect, we could even see Oakley and Graceffa’s exchange as operating within the system of drag, given that Graceffa’s personality is always taking on these various personas and affects as a form of personality drag. However, given that the scholarly literature on and practices of drag are quite diverse and rich, I would like to leave these ekphrastic observations precisely on the level of close-reading, rather than attempting to deploy a concerted discussion of drag or this case-study’s implications. Instead, here I am much more interested in the manner in which Joey’s gif-able response manifested a key aspect of his work on YouTube: the manner in which it plays with the operation of the dialogic.

In Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of the dialogic, to understand something is to be able to respond to it – that is, a person can only be said to understand something when they have come up with a response. The exchange between Oakley and Graceffa is interesting because we see this process operating through Graceffa’s non-verbal gestures and expressions following the comment. In its suspension of understanding, in the uncertainty of whether Graceffa understood what Oakley had said, Graceffa manages to embed the entire strategy that he has in place around his sexuality. I would not describe this strategy as closeting, but rather suggest that it speaks to a very particular system of representation – one that acknowledges the processes and behaviors of fan-based epistemic communities, which operate precisely within the medium conditions enabled by such oblique and cryptic gif-able seconds. In curtailing a response and consequently curtailing the indication of his understanding, Graceffa has indeed replied – but his response is not a parallel one to the two people that sit beside him, but rather a perpendicular response to those who sit before him (i.e. his fans). What Graceffa has done in that gesture is construct a site for response for his fans, which cuts obliquely past the particular circumstances of the discussion taking place within the YouTube video.

In this rendition of two truths and a lie, there is only one truth and one lie: they set up a simple binary between fact and fiction. Joey Graceffa’s cryptic smirk and head-tilt following Oakley’s interjection operates as that which Roland Barthes would categorize as the neutral (le neutre), that third term which fervently and arduously outplays or baffles the paradigm set forth by the binary. Remember that Joey’s reaction is already a response within a response to a proposition of truth and fiction. His gesture’s tangential suspension in regards to the binary at hand functions as a semiotic operation to suspend knowing. It responds to a moment of interpellation, which is by definition inescapable, since to say to someone “no shade” is the equivalent of saying, “hey, queer” – it interpellates the person as one who is part of a specific community that speaks the language, as when Tyler Oakley and Kinglsey deploy the term during their own discussions in a collaboration video.

Thus, in speaking the words “no shade” to Joey Graceffa, Tyler Oakley has implicitly outed him, precisely because it postulates that Oakley believes Graceffa to be capable of responding.

That being said: Joey Graceffa’s sexuality is of no concern to me, but his queerness is of primary importance.

Joey Graceffa, implicitly understanding himself as having been (perhaps unintentionally) interpellated as a queer figure by Tyler Oakley, finds himself needing recourse for disinterpellation. To produce this structurally impossible act, he approaches the problem as one of signification, understanding that a response of some sort is necessary, but that such a response is fundamentally inadequate since once you have been interpellated there is not much you can do to distance yourself; after all, by the standards of the dialogic, to respond is to acknowledge that you have understood. Thus, he produces an ambiguous gesture, which is as much directed at Tyler Oakley as it is to the camera. This satisfies the necessities of the dialogic exchange that is occurring parallel to him on the screen, while seemingly addressing the camera in his avoidance of it, his head facing forward as he drops his gaze diagonally, all while acknowledging Tyler Oakley with his body language.

Hence, by enfolding into this exchange another dialogic sphere – that of the viewing fan – he produces a neutral third term, a linguistic manifestation that appears only for that instance at the intersection of these two different planes of existence and discourse. A third term that is produced non-verbally through body language – a body language, one must add, that in its sass and avoidance bore witness to the distinctly queer tradition of reading. Ironically, in avoiding a response that would affirm an identification with the queer community, Graceffa produces a fundamentally queer act by enacting an intermediate space between his fans and his interviewers, which only exists in suspension for a manner of seconds. In simultaneously acknowledging, in a non-verbal manner, the dialogic response of the fan and his own dialogic response to Oakley, Graceffa manages to successfully disinterpellate himself: in his moment of response he is neither here nor there – out of sync in the space-time continuum for just an instant, just long enough so as to arduously baffle the sexuality binary implicitly set before him.

Most importantly, his response precisely responds to a binary that was not there in the words’ denotations or connotations, but rather only existed as a form of metadata, an issue that I previously in regards to Tyler Oakley. This complex exchange did not occur at the level of language – or rather on the level of signification – but rather unfolded wholly epistemologically. In that instance, Joey Graceffa and Tyler Oakley had a queer conversation whose medium – in whatever way you wish to define it – was in itself queerness. As such, in the oblique obfuscation of sexuality, Joey Graceffa produces an epistemology of the closet (I use this term here superficially, while nevertheless wishing to allude to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s crucial volume) that is sustained through the proliferation of queered systems of representation and signification, systems which all lie perpendicular and tangential to language, standing in perpetual flux on literal peripheries of meaning and its discursive spheres. This is an aspect that can be seen flowing throughout his videos. This is the queerness of Joey Graceffa.

The queerness of Joey Graceffa confronts the fundamental operation of fandom as a phenomenological project rooted in hermeneutic emplacement and epistemological navigation: it is a process of forging non-normative forms of knowing and non-normative senses of place and space outside the rigors of flesh and blood, celebrity and fan. What is often characterized as a “fan war” is precisely a superficial symptom of the inner workings and operations of these various and complex processes that generate sustainable and networked systems of queerness, which operate somewhere in between top-down strategies and on-the-ground tactics. It is a war zone that is fundamentally post-political, performative, and by all extents inexorably queer.

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  1. I think your thesis is weak at best. With the advent of such popular shows as Rupaul's drag race more and more traditionally "Gay" slang has bled out into the popular culture at large. I can safely say that both of my straight sons who are in their early twenties know and occasionally use terms such as "shade," correctly.

    It is also worth noting that the constant questions about his sexuality that Mr. Graceffa endures from his mostly pubescent audience borders on bullying. At least with these young people one can at least surmise that they feel a sense of ownership over this young man who they idolize and have turned into a celebrity of sorts. However one would think that an adult would be able to empathize with someone possibly being in the closet, either for professional reasons or because of a less than sympathetic family of origin. And bottom line if Mr. Graceffa is gay it should be one hundred percent up to him to come out of the closet in the manner and at a time that he sees fit. Unlike his pubescent audience you should understand that you do not own him nor does he owe you or anyone else an explanation of his romantic/sexual life.

  2. Good Heavens. Never in the history of the written word has such a banal incident been given closer scrutiny.
    I took a couple theory classes even though I got a B.S. degree; I've read this kind of criticism before. I'm not some hayseed who doesn't understand it. Yes, you've gone through the motions very well but you missed a few important "big picture" points.
    Firstly an overall impression of your article, heightened by characterizations such as "skillfully" and "cleverly", is that Joey's construction of his closet is somehow a brilliant turn of performance art. Anyone who thinks that has probably lead a rather sheltered and (I suspect) recent life. In fact, it's quite run-of-the-mill for not-fully-out gay men, and I suspect is almost some kind of default psychological adaptation. Practically involuntary in some ways. After graduating college, I found plenty of men in the corporate world of the late 1990s - none of them attention seeking internet fame whores! - who engaged in a similar kind of gamesmanship. Even as a cultural commodity, the subtly sassy closet case was practically a kind of minor stock character - minor, but completely mainstream and completely recognizable. An example of that would be the skit on SNL called "Dog Show", featuring Will Farrell and Molly Shannon as "David Larry and Miss Colleen" who have a farcical marriage of convenience. Every episode featured plenty of arch innuendo and the same sort of "queering" of the question of queerness that you attribute to Joey. (Yes, I did notice you just barely touch on this with reference to a "distinctly queer tradition". Translation: Joey is just like all the other closeted gay guys. So why write a paper about it?)
    Secondly, as comment #2 from Anonymous notes, the term shade would be mainstream to many, many young people these days. Even ones who are not closeted homosexuals! The notion Joey perhaps didn't know what it means is ludicrous, and his mechanical eye roll is utterly unremarkable to me. It's the faux-shock reaction of millions of gay men when one of the queer code words is "unveiled" in public. I don't see how in someone whose behavior is a constant string of reveals, one more reveal is so significant. And quite importantly, of course, Tyler could have used the term "shade" with an obviously heterosexual male, too, without hailing - as interpellation can more usefully be synonymized - another homosexual. Thus to me, your crucially bolded "Tyler Oakley has implicitly outed him" only makes sense when necessarily rejoined with "not hard to do, when Joey is one of the gayest acting people on youtube". Which he is. I mean, sheesh, we don't say everyone who recognizes the term "gridiron" is a former football player. But we recognize former football players as people who would know and likely use the word gridiron. Tyler didn't use the word for any reason other than it's a word he uses, with whomever he is speaking. In fact your central thesis, to me, almost curiously posits that Tyler should have somehow gone out of his way to protect Joey's closeting by scrupulously avoiding the use of gay jargon.
    (coming soon, finally...hitting a 4096 char. limit)

  3. Finally - you are onto something about the interplay with the fans, but I'm going to again point out an elephant in the room you seem to willfully avoid. Since you wrote this it has been revealed that Joey G. makes over $200k on his youtube channel, which is mostly subscribed to by teen and preteen girls. (He incredulously managed to block the driveway of another random, unrelated youtuber, with his tax return left visible on his passenger seat, and then inflame that youtuber enough by lying about the incident for said youtuber to make a 3 million views video about it. Truly, a modern-day péripétie which would have had Molière ROTFL) I don't think he "produces an epistemology of the closet" - I think he actively chooses to live in one because leaving it would have a costly impact on his economic agency. This most interesting question surrounding him is actually not the one of his camp aesthetics which seems to be what your paper mainly addresses. To me that is not a new question at all: just as I'm sure some high school-age gal in the 1960s was teased for liking Liberace by her classmates..."oh, don't you think he's just one of those sissy boys?" Not really interesting at all how he tries to limn his desire to seem non-gay or even non-sexual with the naive willfulness of his fans. It's the sociological question of why, in an era of so-called LGBT advancement and gay liberation, the seemingly (to me) reactionary stereotype of the "sensitive", "misunderstood", but still "straight" hero seems to captivate little girls (even if some of his fans are up into their 20s, and I suspect some of them are) so intensely. For a lot of reasons I can't go into (no time for *another* essay) I hope that the Joey G. phenomena is the last gasp, a dying echo of a past weltanschauung that I suspect equates femininity and fey diffidence with sincerity and "caring". Which I hasten to point out is meant to be more apolitcal than it probably sounds.

  4. One more important clarification. Of course once upon a time he was probably closeted for reasons so many other young people are. I wouldn't fault him for that. When you're a private figure you are indeed entitled to "come out of the closet in the manner and at a time that [one] sees fit." Those days are long gone, however. He's been on a CBS reality show - twice! Now, like some young actors and Republican congressmen, he's deliberately hiding what he surely knows to be true from a public he believes would reject him. And btw respondent #2, the under-20 fangirls are the ones who defend him from everyone else on the internet, not the other way round as you suggest. I've noticed that anyone posting to the videos about the driveway incident with comments that cast aspersions on his sexuality eventually gets those comments down-voted into oblivion by his tween female "internet security forces" LOL. I wouldn't be surprised if one of them soon shows up here. Someone is playing with their "toy" in a way that they don't approve of.