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The Tube is Your Oyster: Experiencing lesbian images and community on YouTube

01 Feb 2009

Before watching a few episodes of The L Word on YouTube, to see if I would like the show enough to get the DVDs, I had no reason to frequent the site. Since it went online in 2005, YouTube quickly gained popularity – and not only in the United States. To kill boredom, my officemates would often gather around a computer to watch YouTube videos that they found amusing. Pets and people goofing around and highlights from American Idol did not interest me, though, so I often stayed in my seat. What attracted me to the site could not have been more different than what appealed to them.

The L Word episode pages, I soon found out, were but starting points. A video link led to so many others, and what I discovered was a network of people eager to show, create, and discuss lesbian images online. I became thankful to be born in the age of Internet. YouTube is a dyke (with Internet access)’s oyster. Part the folds to get at the pearls – TV shows, movies, trailers, mash-ups, even slideshows set to music, all animated by queer desire.

“It feels like they’re your friends, right?”

American and British TV shows are in abundance. Many people upload entire movies and episodes, and not just clips. The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, But I’m a Cheerleader, D.E.B.S., Lost and Delirious. These and the like are movies that I had only read about until I saw them on online. If you find such titles in video stores, count yourself lucky. Older movies are harder to find in the real world: Desert Hearts, Personal Best, Lianna. But this doesn’t mean that getting hold of more recent ones is any easier.

Globalization has made a more diverse selection of products, including movies, available in the Philippine market. Even films that did not make it to local big screens are often distributed as VCDs and DVDs. But movies emphasizing lesbian themes and storylines are not given the same mobility as non-Hollywood features perceived to be straight or neutral. Thus one can find My Life Without Me, Squid and the Whale, and Ladies in Lavander in VCD in mall video stores but not Mango Kiss, Kissing Jessica Stein, or When Night is Falling. The black market is a different matter. Street pirates are more likely to carry lesbian titles. But if they do not, one can always try looking for them in online video sites like YouTube.

Some non-English titles are also popular. Apples, a series produced in Spain, attracted many viewers, Spanish and non-Spanish alike, throughout its seven-episode run late last year. The episodes were online-only and in Spanish (with English subtitles). There are also videos in Dutch, French, and German. Episodes of Cinq Soeurs, a TV series in France with a lesbian storyline, are being viewed by both French- and non-French speakers despine being only sporadically subtitled if at all. Language difficulties cannot keep people from watching videos in foreign languages. After all, one can rely on gestures, facial expressions, and familiarity with common lesbian-movie narratives to piece together what is happening.

Though most of the movies and TV shows come from Western countries and are stories of white middle-class lesbians and bisexuals, there is a smattering of videos from India, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other Asian countries. People also upload movies that tackle migration, poverty, interracial relationships, and traditional customs, and political unrest.

Though they may come from different countries, most of the movies available are nonetheless familiar in that they are variations of conventional lesbian narratives and conflicts. Girl meets girl, they fall for each other, and trouble comes in the form of family disapproval, conflict with current romances, adverse public opinion, or identity issues. Then it’s just a matter of whether the two end up together or not. Actors do not stray too far from the conventional leading lady type. Sex is often gentle and clean. Messiness and experimentation are kept out from most of the films. The construction of the lesbian is seldom questioned, rather the identity often functions as a given, not unlike how heterosexuality functions as a given in non-lesbian films.

Despite the similarity of the stories and the modes of telling them, people seem to never tire of these videos. I think what keeps viewers’ interest is seeing desires that they can feel or at least relate to, feelings and relationships that are largely frowned upon if not persecuted in real life, take shape on screen. The thrill in seeing these represented has not dissipated for many viewers.

Parang kabarada mo lang sila, di ba?” a friend said to me when I told her I spent the night watching the first few episodes of The L Word on YouTube. The story and characters are stripped clean, wrenched from their social and historical contexts, leaving only the luminous naked bodies that desire and act under the sign lesbian. The Third World viewer can then find more similarities than differences. She does not see white and privileged, only lesbian — attractive and lesbian. I think many need to go through this process, even if unconsciously, or risk spoiling enjoyment. It allows one to get into the film. I think, too, that for middle-class Filipino viewers, exposed to US and other popular cultures through globalization, the obstacles of relating to US lesbian drama are minimal. In any case, it is possible to take a variety of stances towards a movie throughout its duration. One can go from involved and captivated to ironic and critical from one moment to the next or all at the same time.

Labor of love

Finding a movie long searched for can give one a rush, and kudos to uploaders are all over the comments sections and user profiles. Viewers thank uploaders and request for other hard-to-come-by movies, while uploaders thank viewers for appreciating the effort. Viewers interact with each other, too. They talk about where to buy original copies, praise the acting, gush over lovely actresses, and deplore disappointing endings and turn of events. Sometimes, personal questions are asked and answered. Some who live in the same cities decide to meet up. Joining a group site makes finding videos that are in line with one’s interests easier. It is a way for fans to get to know one another and benefit from each other’s diligence in uploading and creating videos related to favorite actors, shows, and directors.

Coursing through this network of videos, I get a feeling of community. People understand each other. For some reason, queer bashers rarely find their way to episode and movie pages. Compared to fan pages, LGBT advocacy pages get a larger share of bashers and become spaces for debate and bickering between supporters and bigots and trolls. That one must be acquainted with the corpus of lesbian movies and shows to get to specific pages may be one reason for the paucity of homophobic comments on movie and episode pages. Text advertisements of straight-produced porn videos often find their way to these, though are scarcely commented upon.

The amount of effort put into sharing the videos is nothing short of admirable. One must rip the DVD movie, scale it down, and cut it into segments before it can be shown online. Some users upload scores of full-length movies and TV series episodes. There are those who take the time to make translations for non-English movies and burn them onto the videos. Popular users, those who have gained subscribers by the thousands, sport their “Most Subscribed (All Time)” badges and dress up their profile pages.

But popularity also invites unwanted attention. Many videos are reported or flagged for being “inappropriate”. Under this category are content showing “graphic sexual activity” or “nudity” or those that are “suggestive, but without nudity” or with “shocking or disgusting content.” Lesbian videos are easy targets given such standards. One popular account with thousands of subscribers and millions of video views was taken down after a video was flagged. The owner set up another one, and re-uploaded all the videos. Subscribers apparently tracked down the reconstructed account. Subscriber count is now close 2,000. The L Word videos get flagged as quickly as they are uploaded, so catching recent episodes is a matter of being quick. More than two days after after its airing on American TV, an episode could be gone from YouTube.

Valued videos

Despite the argument that uploaded movies and TV series episodes serve as advertisements for original copies, YouTube videos make copyright holders nervous. Copyright holders have YouTube remove content. Uploaders, in response, devise ways to keep videos from being found out. A common technique is to rename the movies. This makes it difficult for casual searchers to find the videos, but subscribers and those familiar with the network can still find them.

Copyright holders and fans value a movie differently. Uploaded movies lose much of their production value. Since videos must load quickly, they are optimized for online viewing. Their quality is thus significantly lesser than that of original DVDs. The images blur and break into pixels, especially when viewed full-screen. It appears, however, that story, characters, and the actors matter more to viewers than glossy images and sleek production. While media companies see the videos as sources of profit, fans see these as sources of pleasure, and they do with them as they like.

Mash-ups contradict the notion of a movie as a finished product, its concept and narrative unchangeable. Using simple video editing programs, people change the story by mixing scenes or by setting scenes to music. They use different movies to create hommages to favorite stars or to make a visual viewing list of movies for others to see. Movies for these users are building blocks for their own constructions.

One could spend hours following links, looking up movies and actors, and watching. I’ve spent weekends doing not much else but navigate these webs of videos, and downloading those I like best. I feel ambivalent about this activity. On the one hand, there is the exhilaration of seeing and of discovery. On the other is the terrible sense of isolation when the excitement lags, and one has to emerge into the world once more.#

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