In 2020, it’s hardly a shocking story when a seemingly random, formerly unknown person achieves astronomical success via Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or TikTok. Names like Tana Mongeau, Logan Paul, his brother Jake, James Charles, Jojo Siwa, Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, and Tati Westbrook casually show up in the news cycle alongside politicians and entertainment juggernauts for their respective controversies and intracommunal beefs, with little to no explanation of how they came to be some of the most influential human beings on the planet.
On the other hand, it’s less common and more mind-boggling and fascinating when A-list celebrities embrace the comparatively ephemeral world of selfies, NotesApp apologies, Internet challenges, lip syncs, and sponcon. From Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith spilling their past marital troubles on Facebook Live to Tom Cruise braving a movie theater to watch Tenet in a video advertisement for Twitter to Jason Derulo’s comedy career on TikTok — in the 2010s, celebrities started to flip the paparazzi gaze onto themselves. As of 2020, spurred in part by the boredom and isolation of quarantine, celebrities have reached an apex of combined self-awareness and ridiculousness in terms of what they’re willing to share with the world. Few things were as unhinged in 2020 as Derulo filming himself eating corn on the cob from a rotating power drill.
But what stands out in the midst of all of this is Brie Larson’s remarkably chill YouTube channel.
In her first video, posted back in July, the 30-year-old Captain Marvel actor says YouTube has been a learning opportunity for her: “Whether it’s been how to use my printer, or it’s been watching how to be a considerate activist, this is the place to talk about things that are important and that matter.”
Since her 20-minute-long introduction to YouTube, Larson has posted 10 videos. Each checks a box for the typical requirements of a career lifestyle vlogger these days, from a virtual healthy-cooking tutorial with food blogger Joshua Weissman to a tour of her Animal Crossing island to an amusing story-time video and sequel about her failed auditions for popular film and television shows. The mixture of mundane normalcy with casual reminders of Larson’s movie-star lifestyle make her YouTube feel like an extension of her Hollywood image as a humble, indie actress seemingly shot into mega-stardom overnight. And all of that initially made her side hustle on the platform seem befuddling, gratuitous, and solely born out of pandemic boredom.
It’s easy to talk about Larson’s place in Hollywood alongside other notable ingenues of the 2010s, like Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara, Jessica Chastain, and Larson’s The Spectacular Now co-star Shailene Woodley. In terms of public personas, Larson often seems like a dialed-down version of Lawrence and Woodley. On a scale of Lawrence speaking ad nauseam about her favorite junk foods during her various Oscar campaigns to Woodley dissing TV-watching while at the Emmys for her nominated role on Big Little Lies, Larson mostly seems to land in the middle, avoiding the media’s ridicule of overly “relatable” celebrities — mostly women — as well as its more genuine critiques of wealthy, famous people who position themselves as “above” Hollywood. She’s also been more outspoken than, say, Lawrence about gender equality and diversity in Hollywood, but not as polarizing in her activism as Woodley, who campaigned for Bernie Sanders for both his presidential runs, and was arrested and served probation for protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.
Nevertheless, Larson has always managed to shake the table enough to become an incessant point of contention for the angry white male sectors of the Internet over the last few years. That’s why her venture onto YouTube may be more strategic, or at least more meaningful, than it seems at face value. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment Larson became a celebrity target for sexist Twitter trolls. Her several public acts of feminism seem like easy bait, from embracing sexual-assault survivors at the 86th Academy Awards to withholding applause for accused sexual harasser Casey Affleck at the following ceremony, when she presented him with the award for Best Actor.
But her acceptance speech at the Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards in 2018, where she called for more diversity in film criticism, noticeably vexed a slew of Twitter users. Headlines and news stories covering her speech strategically zeroed in on her dismissal of white men — “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about A Wrinkle in Time,” Larson said — and her name quickly became a trigger for incels and alt-right trolls, whose anger at her led to a smear campaign against Captain Marvel a year later.
After that 2018 speech went viral, Larson prompted so much hateful content on YouTube that the website recategorized her name as a newsworthy search term to prioritize videos about her from legitimate, verified news sources, as opposed to individual users. Nonetheless, those videos of random white men trashing her are pretty easy to find. Scroll down slightly on a “Brie Larson” name search, and the site shows compilations of the actress’ most “annoying” moments, celebrities reacting “negatively” to her, and as expected, attacks on her YouTube channel.
Members of the gamer, comic-book, and film communities seem particularly obsessed with touting a theory that her Avengers castmates dislike her, after a clip of her correcting Chris Hemsworth on a comment he made about her performing her own stunts in an interview went viral. One edited version of the video hyperbolically titled “CHRIS HEMSWORTH CALLS OUT BRIE LARSON” has 1.6 million views. Another video has been similarly dissected, one where Jeremy Renner turns his head as Larson answers a question about the responsibility that comes with her role as Captain Marvel. And in pure incel fashion, there are a slew of creepy videos examining a cleavage-baring dress Larson wore for her guest-hosting gig on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last December.
It makes sense that Larson would want to counter the overwhelmingly hostile, gross press she receives on YouTube by creating her own original content. Although she claims she’s never Googled herself and “doesn’t have time” for addressing trolls online, her presence on the platform still reads as a purposeful reclamation of a space that’s been so fraught for her in her career and will continue to be, as the Captain Marvel series continues and as long as she remains outspoken.
The fact that her channel is so stripped-back and personality-driven, as opposed to the more large-scale productions of Zac Efron’s, Will Smith’s, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s channels, also feels like a middle finger to trolls who pick apart her every word, idea, gesture, and facial expression. This could also just have to do with the COVID-19 quarantines, which won’t allow her to do celebrity cameo-ed workout sessions in a fancy gym, or film herself jumping out of a helicopter with a full production team. Either way, Larson feeding her haters material in presumably their most bored state amid a pandemic while also inadvertently expressing how unbothered she is by all of it is undeniably brilliant. First and foremost, celebrity social-media ventures will always be brand exercises. But it’s refreshing seeing a star express herself without trying to “do the most.” Just being on YouTube is a radical act for Brie Larson. Being there in a relaxed, personal, honest way is an act of defiance against everyone who’s tried to tear her down.