Shein hauls, videos of “good deeds” and teary apologies: influencing has an array of stereotypes that are regularly made fun of.
Accounts such as @InfluencersInTheWild, which even has its own board game, have long cast a snarky gaze over ’fit pics being taken in inappropriate places. But if an influencer’s job is to make you want to buy stuff, the cost-of-living crisis has caused an acceleration in snide feeling towards them, with film, TV and literature all finding the perennially-online social media worker ripe for parody. Is the star of the influencer finally burning out?
Bodies Bodies Bodies, the A24 slasher that’s released in the UK next week, looks at a generation of young people obsessed with their online identities. Rachel Sennott plays Alice, a self-involved, hyper-online take on a certain type of internet personality (read: podcast host). With faces lit by phone screens, and a dialogue of performative buzzwords such as “gaslight”, “empath” and “toxic”, director Halina Reijn presents the oblivious, attention-seeking characters as almost as horrifying as the killings going on around them.
Released later this year, Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning Triangle of Sadness takes place on a luxury cruise, offering a cutting take on the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, and the entitlement that goes hand-in-hand with having a big blue tick. On board the vessel, model couple Carl and Yaya (played by Charlbi Dean, who tragically passed away this week) take pictures of their food but never eat it, speaking to the empty nature of the Instagram content machine. In his shrewd, eccentric style of political commentary, Östlund eventually flips those hierarchies on their head.
Other films and TV shows are studying this character trope, too, albeit less successfully or realistically (see Netflix’s Emily In Paris). In Quinn Shephard’s July-released Hulu/Disney+ film Not Okay, the influencer is at the centre of the plot. It’s a black comedy about the content creation industry that’s not quite sharp enough to be a successful cultural critique. “Unlikeable female protagonist” (the movie’s own disclaimer) Danni Sanders, played by Zoey Deutch, is a photo editor and aspiring writer at Buzzfeed-esque media company Depravity. When she misguidedly photoshops herself into a terrorist attack in Paris, her profile skyrockets. The film, which has a cameo from previously-cancelled influencer Caroline Calloway as herself, does make interesting observations about parasocial relationships, but isn’t quite bleak enough to show how fucked up the internet can make us.
The literary world is setting its sights on the influencer, too. Sheena Patel’s narrator in I’m A Fan, published earlier this year by Rough Trade Books, has an obsession with an influencer. The thrilling page-turner, which tackles gender and race dynamics among other themes, depicts an Insta-famous, tone-deaf online curator. Lambasting the consumer culture that often underscores the job, Patel writes: “She treats the area’s local farmer’s market like it’s a trip to church and will lay her purchases out on her return home and show us, her adoring fans, what she’s putting in that prized, white body of hers. She posts this weekly shop on the grid of her Instagram and she will get dozens of comments filled with heart-eyed emojis as if she has solely invented the concept of shopping for vegetables rather than do what we all do which is buy food without needing to tell anyone about it.”
Meanwhile, in the sphere of reality TV, in particular Love Island, which produces its own hefty stock of influencers, we’re seeing another kind of pushback. When Gemma Owen inked her (millennial pink) Pretty Little Thing contract that many ex-Love Islanders sign, she received widespread criticism online, with some wondering why a footballer’s daughter with so much inherited wealth had chosen to partner with a brand whose parent company paid their garment workers, according to an investigation, an hourly wage of £3.50. Reality-made influencers, it seems, are being viewed with an ever-more critical eye: Molly-Mae Hague’s ill-thought-out “everyone has the same 24 hours in a day” comments were mocked, while fans applauded Owen’s co-star Tasha Ghouri’s decision to sign with the more sustainable option of eBay.
Amid an economic crisis, large displays of wealth simply aren’t flying any more. Money is less aspirational at a time when people are talking about going to libraries for warmth, eating mouldy food and using their washing up water to flush the toilet. Kylie Jenner rightly received huge backlash for taking a 17-minute private jet flight.
So, with all this going against them, could we be witnessing the beginning of the end of the influencer age?
Well, not quite. “Influencer” is still one of the most highly-desired jobs – a 2019 study found that 17 per cent of British 11 – 16 year olds want to be a social media influencer when they grow up. The creator economy is estimated to be worth more than $100 billion and some are attaining new levels of clout as well as monetary success. TikTok megastar Addison Rae recently unveiled a collaboration with cult It Girl brand Praying, reaching new levels of coolness. Twenty-five-year-old Matilda Djerf is the subject of a recent New York Times profile. Emma Chamberlain was just on the cover of Vogue, described as “the internet’s main muse”.
Among a growing sense of financial inequality, as Covid and the cost-of-living crisis have made ever-more clear, audiences are scrutinising what appears on their feeds more than ever. That’s now being reflected in what we see on the big screen. And this cultural vibe shift does seem to signal something bigger about our relationship with internet personalities. But maybe we’re also just jealous that we can’t post an Instagram pic and invoice for £10k.