For all the flack that influencers get, there’s something telling—maybe even honest—about this definitively internet-era career. A lot of us don’t like to admit it when we’re followers rather than trendsetters, but to even call someone an influencer is a tacit admission of the plasticity of human desire. Shiny social media profiles exert their little influences over us, sponsored ministrations leaving fading fingerprints on our brains to break our banks. No one is immune to advertising. Our susceptibility is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, humans are social creatures. Regardless of the mediation of the digital world, isn’t it natural to be touched and changed by human voices, human faces?
Or, perhaps, inhuman faces as well.
In the past year and a half, the limits placed on the movement of human influencers[i] have brought the virtual counterparts into greater prominence. Virtual influencers are digital characters with their own social media accounts, run by independent creators or management teams. These characters are generally created with computer-generated imagery with visuals that approach photo-realism. Functionally, they’re carefully curated digital assets that have been inserted into photographed or also digitally generated backgrounds. This meant that while flesh-and-blood influencers languished tragically under lockdown, virtual influencers were only limited by their creators’ imaginations.
Virtual influencers have been around for a few years. The most famous might be Lil Miquela, or Miquela Sousa, a Brazilian-American teenager created by the media start-up Brud in 2016. The narrative espoused by her social media accounts frames her as robot with artificial intelligence, rather than an exercise in graphic design and role-playing. In 2019, she appeared in a Calvin Klein ad that courted controversy for its depiction of a kiss between Lil Miquela and Bella Hadid, something commentators viewed as a commodification of lesbian sexuality. Critiques especially focused on the fact that Bella Hadid, a heterosexual woman, was hired for the role rather than a queer person. Of course, Lil Miquela is also notably not queer person, person being the operative word.
While virtual influencers can be celebrated as examples of artistic skill and creativity, they also give rise to questions about the ethics of representation. Some creators frame their virtual influencers as advocates for social justice causes. Lil Miquela, for one, has advocated for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ causes, which may have a real-world positive influence on her followers. But Lil Miquela is never the one doing any advocating. Anything that Lil Miquela does or says happens under the purview of Brud, a company with its own commercial interests[ii]. Lil-Miquela-brand activism is only so many degrees of separation from the kind of corporate activism of companies like Amazon, where proclamations of social justice advocacy attempt to powder over the blemishes of their mistreatment of employees and antagonism to labour unions[iii]. After all, while a human influencer’s career generally represents an individual ambition towards fame, virtual influencers are corporate products, with political interests generated by committee to appeal to, say, the socially conscious Instagram user.
Another criticism faced by virtual influencers points at the commodification of bodies, especially those of women of colour. While Lil Miquela is partially the brainchild of Trevor McFedries, a black creator, other virtual influencers have more troubling origins. Shudu Gram, a willowy virtual model with dark brown skin, began appearing on Instagram in 2017. It took until 2018, however, for public confirmation of her nature, as a virtual creation rather than a human model, to appear. Controversially, her creator is a white British photographer, Cameron-James Wilson, who cites one of his primary inspirations as a Princess of South Africa Barbie doll[iv]. The linked article calls Shudu Gram “a white man’s digital projection of real-life black womanhood.” Shudu Gram is an expropriation and a fantasy of black womanhood, produced by a white male creator for his own financial and artistic gain. What are the ethics of a white creator profiting off of the digital image of a black female body, especially in a time where models of colour are still marginalized by the industry? Even if Wilson’s motivations are artistic rather than monetary, what are the implications of a white man creating a representation of black womanhood, especially one that operates on social media with the illusion of realness?
Conversations about virtual influencers also often address the perpetuation of unrealistic beauty standards by the advertising and entertainment industries. Virtual influencers, by virtue of their digital provenance, can be visual manifestations of the beauty standards of a creator, or a team of creators. According to Wilson, Shudu Gram is, to him, “what the most beautiful woman in the world would look like.”[v] Since virtual influencers are character designs, the impossibility of their beauty is only limited by artistic skill and imagination. And, while a human can’t exactly choose every aspect of their appearance[vi], no part of a virtual influencer is an accident of genetics.
A recent CNN article offers a counternarrative to the virtual influencer’s embodiment of impossible beauty standards, through a glimpse into a virtual influencer from China. The article claims that “this ‘imperfect’ virtual influencer is challenging beauty standards in China.” According to the article, the computer-generated Angie breaks boundaries by sporting less conventionally attractive features, such as bumpy and sometimes flushed skin and (slightly) crooked teeth, than her contemporaries. She also yawns dramatically and makes unflattering expressions, unlike other polished and perfectly poised social media models. However, Angie’s occasional blemish seem like a token offering to relatability and imperfection, when taken in contrast with the rest of her: milk-white skin, perfectly plucked eyebrows, and doll-like features. It’s a little difficult to figure out what exact beauty standards Angie challenges, apart from, say, the rather preposterous expectation that women don’t look computer-generated[vii]. Perhaps Angie is imperfect enough to feel almost attainable, but still perfect enough for idolatry.
In a way, though, this reaction to Angie reveals more about the absurdity of human beauty standards and influencers than virtual ones. Angie’s quite trivial imperfections are apparently ground-breaking enough to the norm, in comparison to the airbrushed and artificial presentations of human influencers and celebrities. Angie’s imperfections are artistic and commercial choices; toggle the texture and hue of her skin, alter the dimensions of her teeth, and you have created a girl-next-door! And, while people are to some extent “born this way”, human influencers make these artistic and commercial choices as well. Make-up, cosmetic surgery, and photo editing apps are all possible tools in the human arsenal[viii]. Even choosing the most flattering angle is another layer of artifice. There is no way to take a photograph without artifice, and successful influencers know all the tricks of image management. And, apparently, these layers of artifice have created such a reified standard of perfection that Angie, doll-like eyes[ix] and all, is a breath of relief.
While virtual influencers have problematic relationships with representation and corporatization, there’s something paradoxically truthful about their existence. A virtual body, a virtual wardrobe, and a virtual personality: the CGI Instagram girl breaks down the production of the influencer to its bare essentials. Nothing about an internet profile needs to be authentic to feel authentic. Human influencers carefully curate their social media profiles and political affiliations. Most of the representational problems posed by virtual influencers are present in different forms and degrees with humans as well, and, although there are some virtual profiles that have achieved massive fame and success, human influencers still dominate the industry. Virtual influencers are more of the canine sidekick to the Kansas farmgirl protagonists of the current world of social media advertising, but these Totos intensify the artifice of the social media influencer into the hyperbolic dimensions, pulling back the curtains to what was there all along: movie magic.
[i] While a computer-generated influencer sticks faithfully to the entertainment industry, the flesh-and-blood influencer has the inconvenient side-gig of disease vector.
[iii] Here’s an obligatory reminder to take philanthropic claims by corporations with a grain of salt. Sure, they probably can’t get away with directly lying about donating to charitable organizations, but the intent is probably not pure altruism. Philanthropy is a great way to improve a company’s optics, with a tasty side of tax deductions.
[iv] When I first read that, I thought it was a joke, satirizing the extent of Wilson’s objectification of black women. But it does seem depressingly fitting that his main inspiration was a piece of moulded plastic rather than, say, a real living person. But maybe I’m showing my detestable bias against all the sentient toys out there in the world, fighting for their right to stay with their favourite owners.
[v] Some white people need to realize that finding people of a specific racialized group incredibly aesthetically pleasing is not nearly as progressive as they think it is.
[vi] Yes, yes, I know there are exceptions. Although I haven’t personally met any shapeshifters yet—actually, I guess I can’t really know that.
[vii] Perhaps I would be more inclined towards Angie if her subversion of convention came to something more substantial, say advocacy for posthumanism. Our anthropocentric society too frequently judges physical attractiveness based on compliance to the arbitrary norms of human biology.
[viii] I don’t mean to attack anyone who uses make-up, Facetune, or cosmetic surgery. This is directed specifically at the way many people obfuscate these tools in their social media presences, producing the false expectation that the appearances produced by artifice are actually default and the norm.
[ix] You might see Angie’s huge, doll-like eyes as a way to highlight cartoonish whimsy over realism. I have my reservations, mostly because dramatically large doll eyes are actually a beauty trend, especially in East Asia.
While virtual influencers can be celebrated as examples of artistic skill and creativity, they also give rise to questions about the ethics of representation.