Chamberlain Obsession: Does She Deserve the Title of Gen Z's Icon?
Who doesn’t love a success story?! Well sure, if the heroine is college-aged and has a coffee company, an Architectural Digest-worthy home, and a portfolio of work with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Vogue, one might feel a little jealousy, but on my part, there’s also a whole lot of admiration. Over the past seven years, Emma Chamberlain has risen to have not only internet fame, but global influence. She went from filming YouTube videos in her parent’s modest home to walking the red carpet to the tune of a 12-million-dollar net worth at the age of only 21. In spite of all this, a huge part of her reputation is just being a “normal” girl with a good sense of humor and style. She’s famous for being herself, which is an impressive feat in the oversaturated world of the internet. I’m obsessed with the trajectory of her influence, success, and growth as a human being—how could I not be when I watched her get there every step of the way?
Like many of her fans, I grew up alongside Emma. I was learning to drive when she posted videos about getting her license, and I was going to Target with my friends after school as she posted hauls from that very store. Unlike previous YouTubers I’d watched, Emma didn’t pretend to have her shit together any more than the rest of us. It seemed she came up with an idea, like crafting or cooking, and then filmed herself giving it her best shot, tossing comedic comments in left and right. This new wave of casual videos was exciting. It felt real! She was one of the first to do it and keep doing it, landing on the Time’s 2019 list of “The 25 Most Influential People On The Internet,” which wrote that she “pioneered an approach to vlogging that shook up Youtube’s unofficial style guide.”Another aspect of Emma’s influence that has grown tremendously within the past four years is her podcast “Anything Goes,” where she discusses an enormous array of topics including travel, mental health, relationships, morality, and identity, to name a few.
It’s very telling of Emma’s appeal that her fame revolves around her personality, style, and opinions when we consider the current cultural obsession with niches and personal aesthetics. She appears at home in her identity (visual and otherwise), but like most young people she took a journey to get there. Emma was the origin of the “VSCO girl” aesthetic in 2016. A photography-based app used by Gen Z, VSCO briefly defined a subgenre of personal aesthetic in a way Tumblr had once done, popularizing scrunchie hair ties and reusable straws. Oddly enough, as Emma herself has discovered a more sophisticated style, “VSCO girl” content on the app has also pivoted to cater to more luxurious tastes. But while Emma maintains a certain aesthetic, she still doesn’t pretend to be perfect. In an online world that’s obsessed with appearances, it’s inspiring to both admire someone for their taste and success and to be reminded that they have down days, pet peeves, and mistakes of their own. It makes her life seem relatable and achievable.
Many modern influencers have garnered an audience by promoting a certain aesthetic right down to the food they eat and activities they partake in. For example, to act within the aesthetic of “dark academia” one might record their trip to the library looking for classics, while to enact the lifestyle of the “that girl” aesthetic, one might get up early and drink a smoothie before showcasing their productive day. Especially due to the short form aspect of TikTok and Instagram Reel videos, many creators promote unachievable standards of particular aesthetics rather than using them as tools to find one’s personal style. The fact that Emma Chamberlain now refrains from using TikTok in order to protect her mental health rather than using it to further her influence is relatable, especially considering her status as a member of the last generation to grow up without it.
However, a major critique of Emma has been her silence on political and social subjects. Emma has been sharing content on the internet since she was 16, so it unfortunately makes sense with her upbringing as a middle-class white woman that she wasn’t always knowledgeable about social justice. But as she grows and learns, Emma is ready to tackle serious topics. In a recent episode titled “is ignorance bliss?” Emma discusses the pros and cons of thinking critically as opposed to going with the flow. In discussing the cons of ignorance, she neglects to mention that there are some things it’s a privilege to be ignorant about. It’s not okay to be willfully ignorant about the struggles of systematically marginalized people, or how one’s daily behavior and vocabulary can move to uphold or reject these systems. If Emma is to be truly considered a role model for her impressionable audience (made up largely of young women in their teens and 20s) she needs to consistently incorporate larger social issues into her explorations of difficult subjects. This critique could be restated for many influencers and celebrities, but because Emma shares her opinion on such a wide array of topics, when there are glaring worldly issues she doesn’t mention, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
I could see Emma taking this step because she’s open to sharing her unfiltered opinion and she’s also willing to change her mind. I’m not saying she needs to tell us who she’s voting for, but as someone who uses her platform to talk about the intricacies of human behavior, it seems out of character that she would tiptoe around “sensitive” topics to avoid backlash from those who disagree. She even recently shared an episode responding to critiques she’s received about previously discussed topics. In response to an episode about the pros and cons of being your own boss, where she romanticized nine-to-five jobs and voiced her issues with being her own boss, she quickly agreed with listeners that it is a privilege to be in her situation as her own boss, and that regardless of the obstacles she may face in organizing her time and creating work/life boundaries, it could be far worse to be working a job she wasn’t passionate about for an unkind boss. Another topic she revisited and corrected was her stance on female friendships, noting that she did not want to add to the false narrative of hyper-competition among women, and that healthy female friendships do exist. In all these instances, she offered up gratitude to her listeners for sharing their perspectives and creating this learning opportunity for her.
I would say (and I’m sure her sixteen-million plus followers would agree) that the world is already obsessed with Emma Chamberlain, and I don’t think that’s going away. But if she made her platform an even more inclusive space (hopefully as she starts to receive guests on her podcast this will be the case) I could truly call her the most successful, positively influential, and relatable celebrity to break out of Youtube.
Art by Alex Kasel