Where Your Curriculum Shuts A Door, Open A (YouTube) Window
What Queer youth video bloggers can teach us about necessary shifts in media pedagogy
March 30, 2011
I first met the Sexy Time in Dewey vloggers in a weekly media workshop I designed as part of my dissertation research aimed to introduce San Diego LGBTQIA youth to video production as a means by which to critically engage with their own life experiences in the context of present and past media representations of Queer life. I arrived at the first session with a carload of equipment borrowed from local universities and a loose curriculum that, as flexible as it was, ultimately needed to be radically readjusted to make the workshop relevant to the young people who showed up to participate.
During our introductions I asked the participants if they had ever endeavored in any kind of media production. Tyler talked about appearing on-camera for his school's TV news program, Pacifica claimed not to have any experience, but when pressed, mentioned that she had made a slideshow for an English class assignment on The Great Gatsby, and Chris shyly suggested that she may have recorded videos of herself performing with her guitar. We were about an hour into the session when another youth from the group turned to them and asked, "wait, don't you guys have a vlog?" Chris responded, "oh, yeah but that's something we just do when we hang out. It doesn't count." The group was convinced of this because they produce their video blog, Sexy Time in Dewey outside of any formal setting, at their own whim, using low-quality consumer technology (a still camera and Roxio software). While the group had never been explicitly discouraged from producing their blog, somewhere along the way they had received the message that spending time posting and commenting on YouTube is not part of the learning process and not only not worthwhile to mention in an educational setting, but something that might be construed by their instructors as a (perhaps embarrassing) waste of time.
Sexy Time in Dewey features seven high school seniors from a wealthy San Diego suburb, who, from within a Mitsubishi Montero (affectionately called "Dewey" for reasons none of the participants can recall or perhaps care to report), discuss the ways in which they are coming to understand and explore their sexual identities. In the spirit of a mobile "coming out" support group, the teens offer up their own experiences as guidance to other young viewers while demonstrating that it is possible to be open about one's sexuality and still find supportive friends.
The vlog consists of episodes that are loosely organized around themes such as "Resources," "Labels," "High School" and "Gay Straight Crushes." Chris Holmes, Dewey's owner and in all ways the driving force behind the series, typically initiates the conversation from the front seat while the still camera on her dashboard faces back at the others and records in a series of short clips. Someone in the car will ask a topical question like "what's it like to be gay at school?" and the others will earnestly work out their answers. Their analysis often comes through in their “bloopers,” amidst giggling and talking over each other. "The only reason we are a minority is because there are so many people in the closet," Ashley concludes.
The teens occasionally fall out of the frame to lean on each other, conveying a familiarity and comfort with both themselves and the viewer's gaze that mitigates against the potential for the discussion to seem contrived or didactic. It's like getting a ride to your first day of school with a cool clique of upperclassmen who know the ropes and are excited to be the ones to help ease your transition. "Ask us questions," they plea at the end of one episode. "Give us ideas or comments! It's way too difficult to think of these things!"
Sexy Time in Dewey is a timely contribution to the growing pool of online resources for struggling Queer youth in the recent wake of the highly publicized suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, and several others who had been bullied because they were perceived to be gay. Most notable has been the It Gets Better online video campaign (www.itgetsbetter.com) in which adults, many of whom are celebrities, give personal testimonies encouraging struggling youth to believe that their circumstances will eventually improve. First begun by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, the campaign now includes over 6,000 videos, including one by President Obama. While It Gets Better has been commended by many LGBTQIA advocates for helping to bring attention, inspiration, and resources to struggling teens, the project has also been critiqued for proliferating what Jasbin Puar has referred to as "a mandate to fold into urban, neoliberal gay enclaves, a form of liberal handholding and upward-mobility that echoes the now discredited 'pull yourself up from the bootstraps' immigrant motto."1 For these critics, It Gets Better suggests that teens should somehow overcome rather than confront the social and institutional structures that produce homophobia or take practical steps to improve one's circumstances and self-esteem.2 As one Sexy Time in Dewey contributor put it, "I'm glad it gets better, but I don't want to have to wait until then. And in the meantime I don't want to have to want to kill myself for anyone to care." Hence their show.
The goal behind Sexy Time in Dewey has always been simple: "speak to other gay kids." They are motivated by impulse rather than a pedagogical or political vision. They make episodes when it is convenient within their hangout schedule and if they are all in the car when someone happens to have a camera, they pick a topic and press record. There is no master plan, barely any effort to expand viewership beyond the 300-plus viewings per episode they already have, no agenda, and they have not sought out support or acknowledgement from their teachers or mentors at the community center. The Sexy Time in Dewey group came to my program already doing the kind of work I had hoped to begin with them. They are fulfilling the mission of the It Gets Better campaign to "remind LGBT teens that they are not alone" while also addressing many of its shortcomings. They are engaging in critical practices of self-examination, self-presentation and group dialogue and have taken on the self-assigned role of peer leaders without explicitly knowing or naming their practices as such. In their video discussions they work together to think through personal and community issues and take action by offering advice and concern to their peers. They form critical perspectives on controversial issues such as gay conversion therapy and offer advice and support to those who might be experiencing pressure to enter such a program.
Additionally, they are acquiring production skills through trial and error and developing their own style and structure informed by other shows they have seen. And their viewers are engaged in this learning process offering advice on technical skills such as how to obtain clearer audio when they record in the car.
Taking Sexy Time in Dewey's lead, I have shifted the goal of our workshop toward leveraging what the group and the other participants are already doing on their own. Rather than introducing new projects and instructing them how to use equipment that may not be relevant, we are learning how to use video recording and editing technologies and techniques that may enhance clarity and provide options if the group chooses to produce other kinds of media in the future. Together we are investigating how to increase viewership and enrich the dialogue that is already happening in the comments section while working towards understanding how their vlogging figures into the context of new media practice and the history of Queer advocacy and self-representation. Through my experience with the Sexy Time in Dewey vloggers I have come to recognize an imperative to shift media pedagogy toward recognizing distracted media practices as productive and to see their integration into curricula as an opportunity to guide youth toward using these tools to make critical and artistic interventions into everyday culture.