A few days ago, a trailer for a brand new documentary appeared on Vimeo. Titled American Blogger, filmmaker Chris Wiegand described his debut movie as “a visual snapshot of this time in history when all these instagrammers/bloggers are able to put something out there into the world and really shape culture (in a positive way).” Inspired by his wife's blog (The Wiegands), Chris Wiegand decided to restore a vintage Airstream and crisscross the the United States to interview 50 different bloggers.
I admit…I was intrigued by the movie's premise. I am a blogger, after all. And I do live in The United States of America. I thought it was a great idea to have a documentary dedicated to something I love that's been such a valuable part of my life. Love it or hate it, blogs and bloggers have made ripples in traditional media at every level. The barrier to entry is low and the potential to reach a sizeable audience is high, and so I clicked on the trailer full of expectation, hoping for a film dedicated to the many facets of blogging: from niches to popular figures to the future of the medium (or lack of a future as some people would say). Like any other cultural phenomenon, this is a subject that's ripe for a documentary. Less than a minute in, however, I found myself feeling underwhelmed. By the time I'd finished the trailer, I was letdown and disappointed. How could anyone presume to name a film “American Blogger” and only show one kind of blogger?
I'm no film critic, so the bombastic voiceover where Wiegand calls his own movie, “breathtakingly filmed and artistically crafted” is perhaps better discussed elsewhere, but I am a blogger and I have been for half a decade. I'm also a woman of color who's passionate about diversity and contributing to the multiplicity of voices and perspectives in the blogosphere. And American Blogger completely misses the mark.
In Wiegand's world, the only people who count as “American Bloggers” are young, white, women. They all blog in the fashion and lifestyle vertical, and they all sit in Pinterest-perfect homes. With 1 or 2 exceptions (out of 50), there are no people of color. Nor are there any older people, men, or people who blog about topics other than fashion and lifestyle. What a tremendous disservice to the very concept of blogging. And of course, the equation of “American Blogger” with young, white, and female isn't the only thing going on here. Are all “American Bloggers” heterosexual? Able-bodied? Affluent? Attractive? In Chris Wiegand's America, everyone's the same. It's an artificially homogenous depiction of an incredibly diverse world.
When asked to clarify why everyone in his documentary was so startlingly similar, Wiegand told IndieWire, “This film is not supposed to be, nor is it, representing bloggers or America as a whole by any means. These are the women that said yes to my request, they knew my wife and trusted that I would tell this story in a positive way.” Over at The Daily Dot, he responded to criticism with, “I'm an artist, so I'm gonna make it the way I feel like, the way I want to make it and not because I want to appeal to anybody…” He then turned off video comments, I suppose to avoid further criticism on the same page as the trailer. The point remains though, that if this movie is just a film about people his wife knows, then it's not a “documentary.” It's a vanity project about their circle of friends.
Despite the issues with this movie though, there are important lessons here too. Not about how to make documentaries (sorry, can't help there), but about other things…like individuality and intent. Let's focus in on fashion blogging for a moment since this is IFB. The fashion blogosphere has been rightfully criticized for sometimes lapsing into what Nicolette Mason calls the “values of traditional media – a world where thinness, whiteness, and an appearance of wealth are continually prized and rewarded.” In that world, Mason says, “the most successful bloggers, have become successful because of their thin, pretty privileges which provide an alternative to traditional models.” The truth – the brutal honest truth that no one wants to talk about – is that there's a certain look which is most successful in the blogging world. A look that Wieland reinforces and rewards (unintentionally or otherwise) through 90% of his movie. A look that's reinforced and rewarded in brand partnerships as well.
It's tempting to become just a copycat of who's already popular. After all, they're a success, so why bother forging your own path? And the aspirational nature of fashion (and fashion blogging) makes that temptation all the easier. Standing out from the crowd, daring to be unique…it takes time and energy and there's no guarantee of success. But while it may be frustrating and while you may not look like a model, the fashion blogging world needs people who break the rules. Your perspective is valuable and important and worth listening to…even if it's apart from the mainstream. The outcry and response to American Blogger shows that much is true. Individuality matters. So what about intent?
Well, intent isn’t the only thing matters when you’re running a blog. The way people receive what you do is important as well. Chris Wieland probably never intended to make a movie that was only about white, female, lifestyle bloggers. He may not have given the issue any thought at all. But that doesn't change the way his movie has been interpreted. His intent (or lack thereof) is an entirely separate issue from his effect. When you're blogging, good intentions are fine, but the way people respond to you matters as well. Are people accusing you of insensitivity or rudeness? What about homophobia or racism? You may not intend those things, but they could be happening anyway. It's always worthwhile to move beyond just your intentions and examine what you're doing and how it sounds from the other side.
I don't know if I'll watch American Blogger when it comes out. At this time, I'm not inclined to spend any money on it. But in spite of its criticisms, there are some important takeaways for all bloggers. Have you seen the American Blogger trailer? What did you think of it? Will you watch this movie?