The Brief: The American Meme, a Netflix documentary, explores the trials and tribulations of the lives of social media celebrities.
Netflix‘s The American Meme provides unique insight into the ethos of a world where people broadcast their lives to millions of online followers, often for millions of dollars. The film includes interviews with social media stars including Paris Hilton, DJ Khaled, The Fat Jewish, Kirill Bichutsky, Brittany Furlan, Hailey Baldwin (now Bieber), and Emily Ratajkowski. It explores the ups and downs of being social media celebrity, focusing on the economics, ethics, and mental health effects of this exclusive and lucrative field.
In the age of the social media influencer, money and fame can be generated by the curation of a spectacle and the commodification of the self. The documentary follows Paris Hilton, who pioneered the capitalization of the self through one’s public persona. Paris is a model for a type of fame that is simultaneously public and intimate. She has largely embraced and profited from her public life. While she has a successful multi-million dollar empire, she also feels close connections to her millions of stans, who call themselves #littlehiltons.
Implicit in The American Meme are the starkly different ways that male and female social media celebrities present themselves and are perceived. Paris Hilton has used her looks and sexuality to grow her brand. However, her sex tape, which was leaked without her consent in 2003, demonstrates the limitations of her agency over her own image and public sexuality. The Fat Jewish, on the other hand, uses his body as a comedic tool, often mocking the overt sexualization of women in media with his own male and not conventionally attractive body. Kirill uses women’s bodies as props in his performances. As “the slut whisperer,” sex is a large part of his appeal, but it is not his own body that is being sexualized.
In addition to sex, wealth is a highly commodified online spectacle. DJ Khaled’s documentation of his immense wealth played a large role in his rise to Snapchat and social media stardom. Paris Hilton’s status as a wealthy socialite is essential to the celebrity she is today.
“The internet’s f**king fickle. Every day they want something new. It’s a mob that demands new things… that’s just how we are now.” -The Fat Jewish
Throughout the film, internet creators seem to be competing to see who can do the most absurd, risque, or cool things. It can be tough to predict what will make money and what will flop. As internet likes become almost a form of currency, they hold a surprising amount of power.
The interviewees discuss what it means to be a person online, and the split between an online persona and the actual human behind it. The Fat Jewish half-jokes “I’ll unscrew the hair-erection [his elaborate and phallic hairdo] at night, put it down and listen to NPR and be like ‘ahh long day as The Fat Jew.’” Kirill opens up about the toll that his binge drinking, constant travel, and superficial interactions have on him. He says that his fans and followers “don’t really care about [him].”
It’s like groundhog day. Everything I do it’s just the same s**t [and] a different day…It’s not real life, at all. -Paris Hilton
These comments are a reminder that, even as the lines between reality and fiction are constantly blurred, these celebrities are real people, who experience real emotions, mental illness, loneliness, and suffering.
As The Fat Jewish puts it, “The internet and real life are just like careening towards each other to become one.” Fame is fleeting and fickle internet consumers need to be constantly entertained. The Fat Jewish predicts that “the age of the digital influencer… it’s gonna f**king crash.” In Kirill’s words, “it’s all bulls**t in the end.”
While The Fat Jewish plans to expand his wine brand if his social media brand fades, Paris Hilton is making efforts to “be sustainable forever,” creating a virtual reality version of herself that can DJ at virtual nightclubs, part of an attempt to “control how people see [her].”
The American Meme documents the people behind curated social media personas and explores their motivations, successes, and struggles. The is a reminder that in the tumultuous world of social media, nothing online is temporary, there will be bullies and trolls, things change every day, and everything comes to an end.