If you were at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Bloomington, Minnesota, a few weeks ago, you’d have seen a young woman in the self-help section — and you would have seen her in her many forms. You’d see her wearing fuzzy animal ears. You’d see her in a plush unicorn onesie, or dressed up as a sprinkle donut. You’d see girls wearing shirts that said: DREAM BIG and PIZZA IS LIFE and LET’S GET WEIRD. Different people, from different places, all here for the same reason: to buy one particular self-help book (How To Be A Bawse), and to meet its author.
That author is Lilly Singh — and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, I can almost guarantee you don’t spend a lot of time on YouTube. Because Singh, 28, originally from Toronto, and with 11.1 million subscribers to her channel, is the highest paid female YouTube star in the world. Her videos have earned over two billion views.
“Singh, 28, is the highest paid female YouTube star in the world.”
Online, Singh’s fans talk about how important it is that she’s a brown woman in the digital space. They talk about her robust, vital sense of humor, about how warm and intelligent and engaging she is, and all of this is true. Her pull is magnetic, her jokes funny. For years now, I have loyally watched her vlog: dispatches delivered daily from the front line of her creative, full, bold life.
Singh makes me want to be a better woman not by suggesting I try a complicated juice cleanse, or invest in some Spanx, but by the simple, beautiful act of demonstrating what it means to be, without apology or shame, your very own kind of person. She does this by sharing her own assortment of humiliations and triumphs, by sharing her unique and magical kind of pathos. This is her gift. And in gratitude for that gift, with a sense of true admiration, I have come to see her in person for the very first time.
I’m told there are about seven hundred people gathered here tonight, outside the Barnes and Noble, inside the Mall of America. But looking at the sea of twelve-year-olds, that number seems low, because there are A LOT of girls here — Somali girls in hijab, desi girls, girls who are leaning over the railing on the third floor, screaming in the middle of the shopping complex, up after their bedtime on a school night.
GET IT, GET IT, GO AHEAD GIRLS, someone shouts. YERRRRUUUUPPP. The fans have formed a four-tier tower of hormones, and feelings, and acne, and trembling hope for the future, and earnest love for their star, who is many things — vlogger, comedienne, now author — but above all of those things she is one most important thing and that is: she is one of them.
But what does it mean, to be “one of them?” Who are “they” exactly?
They are young women. Teenagers. The next generation. They are the children of immigrants, children of color; children with opinions and stories and fears. They are us, and they are growing in number. Over the next five years, over 50 percent of America’s children will have at least one nonwhite parent. So it’s not just cute or poetic to say “they are us,” — it is, in fact, a simple truth.
“Whose stories are the ones that matter? Which stories get told, how, by whom, and to what ends?”
And yet today, when we watch something, when we go to the movies, or pick up a book, we don’t get the sense this is the case. We aren’t seeing representations of these kids, not nearly as much as we should be. At Mother Jones, Dashka Slater shares that researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at 3,200 children’s books published in the United States in 2015, and “found that only 14 percent had black, Latino, Asian, or Native American main characters.”
Our screens, too, both big and small, are awash in white, white protagonists the default. This is shortchanging us all, giving rise to perhaps the most pressing cultural questions of our time: whose stories are the ones that matter? Which stories get told, how, by whom, and to what ends?
British Pakistani actor and rapper Riz Ahmed spoke recently about the ways in which western narratives have failed us, failed acutely and especially our young people of color. “Every time you see yourself in a magazine or a billboard, TV, film, it’s a message that you matter,” he said while delivering an annual diversity lecture to the UK Parliament. “If we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism.” When young people feel unseen, they can “switch off,” he argued, “and retreat to fringe narratives, to bubbles online and sometimes even off to Syria.”
So it’s serious business, and the stakes are high. When a nation’s youth doesn’t see itself fully reflected in that country’s stories, they are learning a sad and damaging lesson: that they are secondary, marginal, invisible to society. They risk being defined by their disadvantage, by their oppression, and nothing else. Nothing more.
And so, while it matters that Lilly Singh is funny and adorable and a great motivational speaker, it perhaps matters even more that she is helping to correct the meta-narrative, that she is growing our shared understanding of what it might mean to be a young, brown woman in this country today.
“She is growing our shared understanding of what it might mean to be a young, brown woman in this country today.”
* * *
It’s nearly seven at night, and the show is about to start. I am ready, giddy, my heart beating somewhere in my throat. I feel a tap on my shoulder, and turn to find an enormous man, of Optimus Prime-dimensions and dressed entirely in Puma athletic wear, smiling at me. “Who is it?” he asks, and when I say who it is, I can tell he hasn’t heard of her before. There’s a couple, too, and they seem to know Optimus, because he says: “You should stay,” and so they do.
At their request, I take a picture of the couple. The women pose and kiss, an enormous image of Singh’s face grinning behind them, on a giant screen. Then, Lilly Tweets at us. “Mall of America, I need you to be the loudest!” she says and so we roar. I roar. I chant LI-LY, LI-LEEE, LEEE-LEEEEEEEE, and I make Optimus chant with me until suddenly: there she is.
Some people, when you see them in real life, they are different than you imagined they would be. They’re meaner or they’re missing something crucial, like their front teeth, or a sense of humor or something, but this is not the case with Lilly. She is exactly as I imagined she would be. She is better than I imagined, her hair deserving of its own zipcode, her aura the entire spectrum of the rainbow.
“She is better than I imagined, her hair deserving of its own zipcode, her aura the entire spectrum of the rainbow.”
The crowd goes bonkers as soon as she appears, and remains in this state: elevated, electrified, the entire time. Before it ends, two college guys wander over from Cantina Number One, late to the party, to investigate what all the fuss is about. They are Indian American, in snapbacks and hoodies. They smell like cologne and beer and maybe some bad choices, and when they lean in and ask me who’s on stage, I tell them. “She’s a Singh,” I say.
She is, indeed, a Singh. And she is here. And so are we: the snapback dudes, the kissy couple, Optimus. Here we all are: brown and white and Muslim and gay and whatever else. And when I look out onto the crowd, it occurs to me that we, that all of us together, could be some kind of metaphor for America.
You might not be able to turn on the news without hearing that this group has been banned, or ‘LET’S BUILD A WALL,’ but on the ground, in the middle of the Mall of America on this otherwise ordinary Thursday night, in the beating heartland of this bruised, but beautiful, country of ours, all of that seems to have fallen away, if only for a little while, if only for the night.
Before she disappears behind the curtain, Lilly bows earnestly and waves, and for a split second, I swear it’s like she sees me. She sees me in the crowd, she sees each and every one of us, and there, surrounded by mall music, the smell of Cinnabon hanging in the air, we are temporarily frozen in a shared moment of joy, of sacred joy; a moment that runs so deep, it is difficult for me to fully describe.
It’s a moment of kinship that has somehow expanded out, looping us in, pulling us deep into the heart of it. Singh smiles like she knows what has happened, knows she has orchestrated, and achieved what she intended all along, and we smile back: feeling seen, and validated, and accepted.
This is how we change the narrative, I think to myself. Painstakingly. Doggedly. With honesty and heat and courage. With magical hair. We do it with an eye to the future, no matter the past. We do it, each of us, in our own way, one story at a time. This is exactly what I think, as I lift my head, cupping my hands into a megaphone. GET IT, GET IT, GO AHEAD GIRLS, I shout. YERRRRUUUUPPP.
* * *
Hilal Isler is a blogger, and a freelance writer with bylines in the Guardian, O, The Oprah Magazine, Vogue India, and others. She teaches courses on youth culture, and social justice, at the U of MN. Her doctoral work offered an examination of Desi American youth in post-911 America.