On the Importance of Grace Helbig

On 17 August 2015, the internet was abuzz in retaliation to E! Online’s “18 Moments From the 2015 Teen Choice Awards That Made Us Feel Super Old,” which consistently dismissed online creators and their fandoms as not being legitimate celebrities worthy of praise or recognition for their work. As #TeamInternet went to work at defending YouTubers and dragging E! for their comments, insult was added to injury when E! Online tweeted a comment that was seen as a dig to one of their own stars, Grace Helbig. Using the well-recognized meme of Kermit the Frog drinking a Lipton tea, often circulated with the line, “But that’s none of my business,” the network tweeted: “Remember that time we gave a YouTube star their own TV show?

The tweet has been interpreted in many ways: On the one hand, it has been suggested that given the image’s message and the tweet being a response to the earlier controversy, it was used to suggest that E! Online’s original piece was intended to be lighthearted sarcasm and acknowledge the fact that the network had supported and encouraged online creators like Grace Helbig. On the other hand, however, the more prolific understanding was that it was meant as a dig on Grace’s show, which has very openly been discussed as receiving less than great ratings despite her massive online success. The Kermit image was understood with the sense of “spilling tea” and throwing shade, the allusion to Grace an indirect attack on the star, and, in light of the show’s uncertain fate, an insult to The Grace Helbig Show’s quality and success or lack thereof.

Grace Helbig herself responded with a composed, but poignant response: “This is embarrassing, @eonline” with a link to the original tweet. For those who follow Grace Helbig on social media and know her content well, this type of response to criticism is wholly out of character for her. It spoke painfully to the degree of insult, betrayal, and injury committed by E! Online’s crass tweet. While E! Online’s tweet and handling of the whole situation was wholly unprofessional for an entertainment network, even with employs boasting about the click-bait success of their comments, my intentions here are not to weigh in on the controversy itself, but rather to irrevocably stress the importance of Grace Helbig.

The history of YouTube and native online content production could be written through the story of Grace Helbig alone, as I plan to do some day soon.

Grace Helbig started off online like many early YouTube-adopters, making first-person vlogs with a friend while bored in 2007, arguably YouTube’s key start year for native content producers. With Michelle Aiken (née Vargas), Grace began her blogs while a student at Ramapo College in New Jersey during a housesitting stint. The moderate success of these videos led Grace and Michelle to begin their own YouTube channel in March 2008, and around the same time Grace was hired as a contractor for a web-series on My Damn Channel and her vlogs led to the creation of DailyGrace on the same online network. This network then operated much like comparable online video platforms, like CollegeHumor, where videos were uploaded to their own sites. Eventually, in October 2010, DailyGrace migrated onto the YouTube platform with its still relatively new partners’ program, and the series of five-day-a-week daily vlogs was given the rigorous structure and order by Grace in collaboration with Jesse Cowell at My Damn Channel. While Grace was now a YouTuber, her content was still owned and regulated by My Damn Channel along with revenues from the YouTube channel. Grace was still operating as a contracted actor with a set salary and did not see much benefits from her growing fame, particularly as YouTube began to peak between 2013 and 2014.

Already with this brief introduction to Grace’s online content production, we can see a history of an innovative, well-trained, and brilliant creator who saw the birth of YouTube and its ad-revenue sharing program and migrated from a more traditional media setting for online video into the Wild West that was YouTube at the end of the 2000’s. Her work was already then mediating between the expectations and requirements of more traditionally structured media outlets online and the freer YouTube space with its own new and native tropes and genres of video making, from daily vlogs to challenge videos.

Arguably, YouTube’s golden age was the summer of 2013 when content production and interest seemed to hit critical mass on the platform, followed by similar seasonal peaks in the subsequent summers. By this time, Grace began to face the limitations and challenges of not owning the creative content that she was producing and eventually broke ties with My Damn Channel at the end of 2013. There, she left her 2.4 million subscribers, rebranded her original channel GracieHinaBox to itsGrace, and started anew in January 2014 thanks to a grassroots marketing campaign by fellow YouTubers who recognized Grace’s contractual inability to promote or speak of her new channel and the split. At this moment, Grace existed both as DailyGrace and Grace Helbig online, one a corporate entity and the other the content creator we had all come to know and love.

What follows then for DailyGrace is perhaps the emergence for the first time in online video of a show in syndication. This is because My Damn Channel choose to keep the DailyGrace channel alive as a zombie by posting videos that had previously only been on the My Damn Channel website onto the YouTube platform. More recently, the channel was rebranded as DailyYou to purge its association with Grace and now is a hodgepodge of original content, Grace videos in syndication, and other random content.

In the months following her split, Grace’s own content on itsGrace served as a master-class in intellectual property law as she carefully deployed revised versions of her old tropes, genres, and branding to ease the transition into her new channel for fans; while also trying to create a new viable medium for herself on the YouTube platform that operated with similar rules and paradigms. Through these experiments, Grace Helbig proved that beyond a mere platform where you upload videos, being a YouTuber constituted a medium in its own right. That is to say, that Grace elevated the technical platform by acknowledging it as being a definite field of production with its own tropes, genres, techniques, styles, and rules. By playing with what she could and could not do, Grace reflected on what this medium — what we might colloquially call a brand — entailed. Her work critically acknowledged the affordances that having a set of clearly defined tropes and rules could offer one as a creator, allowing her to generate new and exciting content through reflections and investigations on her medium and platform, an issue which I discuss at length in a forthcoming article in The Journal of Popular Culture.

Over the course of this time, Grace Helbig and colleagues Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart also undertook landmark projects: They made a wildly successful movie named Camp Takota released for sale online by RockStream Studios, which has served as a paradigm for online movie and independent distribution. The produced a successful touring show called the #NoFilter Show that has travelled the US, UK, and Canada several times. And, Grace has become a New York Times Bestseller for her book, Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up, and her second book Grace & Style: The Art of Pretending You Have It is forthcoming. None of these are individual accomplishments, following in the path of many YouTubers before her and after her, but what is most impressive about Grace is that she has done all the things that any YouTuber has done to transgress the bounds and limitations of their “new media” confinements — and she has also, for better or worse, been a part of various permutations of online video production across different platforms and experienced various models of content creation first-hand.

Her biggest breakthrough to date, by traditional media standards, was the talk-show The Grace Helbig Show on E! that premiered in April 2015. This is something that many YouTubers had been aiming for, yet no one had quite been able to achieve it in such a public and mainstream manner. While the show did not do too well, it was also clear that the expectations were not high on that front as digital creators have long doubted the translatability of audiences between platforms, notably from YouTube to a cable TV-show on Friday nights that is available online only behind a paywall. This was an issue. But in transgressing the bounds of these platforms, Grace has consistently embodied the spirit of #TeamInternet and Hannah Hart’s imperative to practice “reckless optimism.”

While this is not meant to be a review of The Grace Helbig Show either, the egregiousness of E! Online’s comments is that the problem with the show was not Grace, but rather the “standards” and modes of traditional media outlets. As someone who has studied Grace’s content closely, the show was bittersweet to watch because it was easy to read between the lines and see how Grace had lost the ability to actively respond to her medium in the way that YouTube had allowed her to, and that she had been subjected to a simplistic reduction of what her brand identity was. It almost seemed as if the line “awkward older sister” used in a pitch meeting somewhere once had been repeated endlessly as a mantra, making Grace a scripted byproduct of a two dimensional character.

Grace’s technical strengths have always lied in her ability to be rigorously meta and alarmingly funny with her searing brilliance and incisive reflections on YouTube, fandom, popular culture, and the banalities of everyday life — for which the YouTube platform is the perfect medium and one should try to look no further. She is also an immensely adept editor who often films in one take and skillfully creates the most uncomfortably disarming cuts of her content. Hers is an art born out of the occurrence, the event, the casual, and the mundane. She brings out the worst in herself and others to show us all that the worst is actually not all that bad. She allows us to find bliss and solace in a community of viewership bound together by the uncomfortableness of being a contemporary subject — radically social, radically intimate, radically honest, but all through modes of interaction unacknowledged and unrecognized as valid by our parents and elders.

Yet, unlike teenage YouTubers that love the YouTube platform for being a thriving space of content production and new-form celebrity that relishes on our shared generational experiences, Grace and fellow producers are often striving for something more — and YouTube, from the start, has always been a thing on the side. While I recognize this may be an unfair assessment, for many of these older creators, it is hard to shake the reckless (and sometimes, cruel) optimism of making it big on traditional media outlets. As #TeamInternet thrives, YouTube production has taken some hits since producers suddenly are juggling various options and trying desperately to distance themselves from the politically fraught platform: a vicious process that results in an abusive relationship between content producer’s desires for traditional success, given the YouTube’s constant denigration by traditional media, and traditional media’s subsequent mistreatment of producers who do indeed show the ability and desire to transition.

In a sense, the greatest lesson one can take from Grace is to learn to stop worrying and love the bomb. YouTube thrives on states of faltering, trepidation, and precarity, when producers see themselves as being free to experiment, free to have nothing to loose, and free to not be held to anachronistic and misguided standards of quality. Standards enforce normative forms of behavior and action; they do not support creative production or flourishing.

Grace produced some of her best work in the final months of DailyGrace and in the first months of itsGrace, precisely when she had nothing to lose and when anything was better than nothing. In this sense, #TeamInternet needs to orient itself back to the internet, focus less on diversification and plotting avenues of escape, but rather recommit itself to the platform. That may never happen, yet the pilling up of dead ends and mistreatment outside the platform may sadly start to change things. Now, more than ever, YouTube — and Google as the administrator of the platform — needs to invest wholeheartedly in their creators, beyond mere billboards, in order to allow the YouTuber to become a household name — not cynically try to make YouTubers into mainstream celebrities according to outmoded industry standards borne out of idiosyncratic focus groups. The importance of Grace Helbig is that she has done it all, and thus is the most experienced and qualified person to run this YouTube revolution — but it needs to happen from within the platform, not from the outside.

Roland Betancourt (PhD, Yale University) is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California, Irvine.

He has an essay on Grace Helbig forthcoming in The Journal of Popular Culture entitled, “Stop Crossing Mediums: Grace Helbig and the YouTuber’s Medium,” and has recently presented a paper on YouTubers, shipping, and fan fiction entitled, “Speculative Sexualities, Oblique Signification,” at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) meeting in Toronto. Currently, he is working on a book-length project on YouTubers from the perspective of art history and theory, which focuses primarily on Grace Helbig’s work.