Fearing the Fembot
Take a look at Lil Miquela’s Instagram page and you’d be forgiven for mistaking her for a run-of-the-mill influencer. A pretty, well-dressed 19-year-old model and musician, Miquela’s page is full of outfit shots, pictures of her with friends and celebrities, memes and posts on social justice. When her debut single Not Mine – a slow, downbeat R&B track – was released in 2017, Billboard said it would “fit perfectly on a Tinashe or Kehlani album”. It even made Spotify’s Top Ten viral chart.
View this post on Instagram
“Not Mine is all about summer love and growing up, so it felt like something I needed to drop now,” Miquela said at the time. So far, so standard.
But Miquela isn’t exactly like other up-and-coming musicians or internet-famous models. For one thing, she’s not real. Her body and face are computer-generated; her on point captions are not written by ‘her’ at all, but by workers at genuine, real life start up Brud, led by DJ and founder Trevor McFedries and so-called “Chief of Stuff” Sara DeCou.
And Miquela is not alone. As our on and offline lives becoming increasingly blurred, a number of digital acts have started to emerge that straddle the line between the two. “Most likely we’re going to see an increase in these kinds of things,” Harry Hugo, co-founder and director at influencer agency The Goat Agency, told me. “We’ve already seen these kinds of pages drastically increase their following since their inception.”
But what do these acts say about the state of the world? Are they as radical as they seem at first glance? And is the future really fembot?
Japanese artist Hatsune Miku gives us some more clues about the future of fake artists. A cartoon character whose name literally means “the first sound of the future”, Miku’s voice was modelled from Japanese actress Saki Fujita, now relying on several Yamaha synthesiser technologies in order to ‘sing’. Her creators describe her as a “collaboratively constructed cyber celebrity” and claim that her voice can be found, via the Vocaloid software, on over 100,000 songs. She has also been personified via a holographic projection at concerts, and in 2013, the character collaborated with Marc Jacobs on a Spring/Summer collection.
Although less uncanny and more obviously cartoonish than Miquela, Hatsune Miku occupies a similar space – a space which, in many ways, was predicted by Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking 1984 essay A Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway introduced the idea of a female ‘cyborg’, a figure for whom the boundaries between human, animal and machine were broken down. She variously describes a cyborg as “a hybrid of machine and organism”, “a creature of lived social reality” and “a creature of fiction” – all interpretations which could easily apply to the fembot musician.
Where such projects diverge from Haraway’s decidedly socialist vision, however, is in their execution. Music aside, much of Miquela and Hatsune Miku’s appeal comes from their aesthetic: not only hyper-stylised but also hyper-capitalist. It’s no accident that Miquela – and her ‘rival’ Bermuda – have thrived on Instagram, a platform that doesn’t just favour conspicuous consumption, but actively rewards it.
Miquela, for example, has used her Instagram to show off outfits and accessories by brands including Supreme, Alexander Wang and Prada; in February she became the face of Pat McGrath makeup. Aesthetically, there’s also not much difference between the star, ostensibly a musician, and other ‘fake’ digital influencers like Shudu Gram. They pose in outfits from designer brands, post pithy captions and chat to their fans.
The profiles are knowing, of course – they purposefully ape the language and aesthetic of ‘real life’ influencers; the Kardashians, streetwear enthusiasts, savvy teens with thousands of followers. There’s a level of irony there, a winking nod towards the visual – and literal – vocabulary of the whole thing.
But they’re still wearing the clothes and they’re still promoting the brands that their real life counterparts are also being paid to promote. And for Miquela, none of this has very much to do with the music she makes, which going by fan comments and much of her press is secondary to her image.
That’s obviously not to say something is artistically worthless because it’s also trying to sell us something; music doesn’t necessarily have to be revolutionary to be good. But when fembots and AI musicians are positioned as something not only futuristic but also radical, it’s worth questioning. Part of Lil Miquela’s model is to promote progressive causes – most famously, she’s promoted Black Lives Matter – but it’s impossible to say whether her creators truly care about them. To be marketable in 2018 is also to be woke, after all – particularly when you’re trying to sell things to teenagers, as Miquela appears to be. Hugo points out that we don’t yet have any data on how these pages perform – “we don’t yet know whether they have any actual influence at all” – but the fact that such causes are being thought of in terms of data and performance is damning in itself.
“What do these acts say about the state of the world? Are they as radical as they seem at first glance? And is the future really fembot?”
To successfully promote these brands, too, Miquela must look a certain way. And, predictably, she adheres to very traditional beauty standards. She’s skinny; she has beautiful skin; she pouts and poses, coquettish and provocative in turn. Early sociologists of the internet predicted that many of these facets would fall away in our digital lives: bodies themselves would become irrelevant, a democratisation of a physical world in which our bodies have unmistakable and often inescapable meanings.
This doesn’t seem to be the case, however. As academic Nick Yee put it in his essay The Tyranny of Embodiment, the irony of virtual worlds is that they have not, as anticipated, provided an escape from our bodies, tending to encourage “a meticulous scrutiny and obsessive fascination” with them instead. It’s hard to look at Miquela’s Instagram-perfect wardrobe and predictably ‘beautiful’ face and not see where Yee was coming from.
Writer Hannah Ongley also points out that Brud recently raised $6 million in a round of funding in Silicon Valley. “So who’s really profiting from [these] diverse CGI models?” she asks. In the New Yorker, too, Lauren Michele Jackson asks whether Shudu Gram’s white, male creator, British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, is participating in a “a tradition of racial expropriation”. Jackson also cites writer Bolu Babalola: “Where to start how egregious this is,” Babalola writes. “A literal externally derived image of a black woman contrived by a white man who has noticed the ‘movement’ of dark-skinned women. Instead of shooting real models, a white man has taken our image into his own hands and projected. It’s gross.”
To transcend the body, to blur the lines between our physical and digital selve are enticing ideas, politically, personally and artistically. For this reason – as well as for their novelty value and the pure ease of their manipulation and distribution – fake musicians and influencers are not going anywhere fast.
But if we want to take it one step further, and create truly radical digital avatars, then the current offerings fall dramatically short. For one, those controlling these digital bodies are men, not women: the exact opposite of Haraway’s vision. They also, as Jackson and Babalola both argue, tend to exploit the real bodies of women of colour, all the while depending on consumer capitalism to prop it all up.
On the surface, CGI influencers seem appealing, perfect for an age in which we’re all hyper-aware of the shifting boundaries between reality and artifice, performance and sincerity, on and offline. But for something with real staying power, we need to break with the more egregious parts of capitalism and ask exactly what it is we’re selling, to who, and, most importantly, why?