The Visual Language of YouTuber Apology Videos
By: Date: July 26, 2020 Categories: Essays Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dec 11th, 2019

This paper will dive into and examine YouTuber Apology Videos.  This facet of YouTube culture has been a phenomenon in recent years, becoming a complete genre of content.  YouTuber Apology Videos are a fascinating medium.  They have developed their own tropes and visual language and have even been parodied.  Analyzing their structure and content reveals the headspace of the online community, a community that has countless thinkpieces devoted to it but few actual analyses.  Further, looking at YouTuber Apology Videos delves into cancel culture, a pervasive and active mindset that makes living online dangerous.  Though this paper it is my aim to dissect what is happening in YouTuber Apology Videos, and why they are structured that way.  I will be specifically be looking at diction, outfit, topic, duration, audience, and purpose, among other points.  I will be comparing and contrasting the videos as well as providing necessary background on the situations.

For the purpose of cohesion I will only be addressing apologies from Beauty Gurus and Makeup Artists, colloquially referred to as “Beautubers”, a portmanteau of Beauty YouTubers.  Beautubers are very active participants in the Beauty Community which is regarded as being one of the most vicious circles to be in online.  The fanbase associated with the Beauty Community is made of both consumers of makeup products and just viewers of online content.  The Beauty Community is one of the biggest proponents of cancel culture and will routinely try to ruin YouTubers’ careers over mistakes ranging from minor to major.  Because of this, YouTuber Apology Videos are incredibly common in the Beauty Community and almost every Beautuber has at least one.  

The first YouTuber Apology Video that I will address is the quintessential “Laura Lee Apology Video”.  Laura Lee is a Beautuber who got her start doing makeup tutorials and has since expanded into doing several collaborations with brands like MAC and TwoFaced and even releasing her own line of makeup.  In 2018 Lee received a surge of criticism from the Beauty Community for several racist tweets from 2012 that resurfaced.  The tweets in question are deeply offensive, containing several slurs and derogatory statements about both black and Asian people.  Racism is a common theme with Beautubers. 

On August 19th, 2018 Lee uploaded a now-removed video simply titled “My Apology”.  The video was reuploaded by Public Apology Central and that is the version I am referencing.  In the video, Lee sits on the floor of her living room and delivers a tearful apology to the camera.  The first and most clear point about Lee’s video is her intent.  While the video is titled “My Apology and she does say “I’m so sorry” at several points during it, the video is not an apology (Lee, 0:1:27-0:1:29).  The majority of the four-minute video is taken up by Lee crying and cutting between shots.  Crying during an apology is not on its own an offense, but Lee’s obviously fake tears indicate to her viewers her lack of sincerity.  She is not attempting to actually apologize, she is attempting to escape backlash and stop receiving hate comments.  She barely even addresses the issue.  She says that she “decided to re-tweet things that were so vile and hurtful”, ignoring the fact that many originated from her own account  (Lee, 0:1:02-0:1:10).  By exclusively admitting to retweeting racist content, Lee is attempting to distance herself from the issue and shift blame.  Her fake tears and her refusal to take responsibility tell the audience that she just wants the issue to disappear and that the anguish she feels is only over how the situation is negatively affecting her rather than offering an earnest apology. 

The nest point to address is Lee’s appearance and setting.  As a Beautuber, Lee has a cultivated image.  Her videos usually start with her in a full face of glam makeup or show the process of her doing a look.  She tends to wear nice and upscale outfits and presents a styled persona.  Lee’s apology video shows Lee with a bare and red face, a neutral-colored tee-shirt, minimal jewelry, and unstyled hair.  This is meant to telegraph a lapse in self-care and a state of upheaval in her life.  However, due to the jumping editing of her video and her tearless sobbing, her look comes across as a carefully selected grab for pity.  It is clear that Lee felt she would be criticized for styling herself and making it seem like a produced video rather than a genuine apology.  Yet, Lee still chose to start her video with an ad, meaning that she would be earning money off of its views.  In YouTube culture, the placement and inclusion of ads is a very informative tell.  The common placement of ad breaks is at the start of a video.  This, on a non-apology video, is seen as the standard and just par for the course.  Mid-roll ads, or ads that interrupt the video are a little trickier.  If the video contains only one and it comes at a natural break, it falls into the same category as starting ads.  But many ads or ads that interrupt the flow of the video, tend to receive backlash, just like placing an ad ahead of what should be an apology.  This ad alongside her carefully crafted image shows the audience Lee’s insincerity.  Further, she is filming herself sitting on the floor of her living room.  It lacks her usual beauty room backdrop and her professional lighting.  It, like her appearance, is meant to be casual but comes across as intentional.  As a professional Youtuber, Lee has an adept set up.  It takes more effort to film outside of the beauty room than it takes to film within it, making this air of casualty seem false.  

With Laura Lee’s video as a baseline, I will move to James Charles.  Historically, James Charles has been involved in many controversies and has several apology videos.  We will be examining the most recent.  James is one of the youngest Beautubers, rising to prominence at only eighteen-years-old.  He started his career as the first male model for CoverGirl, doing several ad campaigns and photoshoots with them.  In 2018 he collaborated with the company Morphe to create a makeup palette.  His Youtube channel is home to makeup tutorials and challenges.  James’s channel is also home to endless controversy.  James is a prime example of how cancel culture both functions and fails.  He, despite being “canceled” many times and losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers and garnering a large amount of hate, is still one of the most well know Beautubers, famous enough to get invited to the Met Gala.  

As for James’ apology video, I will be looking at “tati”, a video published on May 10, 2019 (note: the title is stylized in lowercase).  This video was meant to address an in-depth video published earlier that same day by Youtuber Tati Westbrook titled “Bye Sister…”.  Her video addresses James betraying her brand of hair care vitamins and his creepy and predatory actions towards straight men.  For context, the major dilemma in Tati’s video was James’ brand betrayal and not his potential accounts of assault.  This uneven assessment continues into James’ video.  

His video gives a significant amount of background on his relationship with Tati rather than addressing the issue.  His first semblance of addressing the issue is when he says “there’s nothing I can say or do that will ever earn that friendship or trust back” (Charles, 0:1:56-0:2:03).  Here he still discussing his relationship with Tati, but is beginning to address what she presented in her forty-three-minute long video.  He says that he has not been the best at improving from mistakes and directly says that he knows this won’t be the last time he makes a mistake.  His regret is all directed at letting his fans and friends down, rather than responding in full to any of the issues that Tati brought up.  “The truth really does not matter,” he says, “it’s the feelings that do,” (Charles 0:4:08-0:4:11).  While James more willingly takes the onus of betrayal, his actual points do not address the issues at hand.  

Again we must discuss intent.  This video very clearly shows us that James’ intent is to quiet the situation.  He does not believe that he can repair his relationship with Tati and he makes no attempt to.  All he does is state what their relationship was and how he knows his actions have impacted it.  If this video was meant to genuinely apologize to Tati, it calls into question its format.  The video, before it was deleted, was public.  Instead of bringing the issue directly to Tati and apologizing to her off-camera, James chose to make his apology a public affair, using the very public channel of his highly-subscribed YouTube channel.  When he discusses the accusations bout his conduct with straight men, he frames his response towards Tati and only seems to feel upset about it getting him into trouble.  He never frames his apology as an admission of reform, he merely expresses through his choices that he wants the situation to go away.  

James Charles has an incredibly highly produced channel.  It is rare that we see a single image of him that has not been touched up either with an editing app or a filter.  His videos utilize professional lighting and cameras and he is always in his own merch.  James, a makeup YouTuber, is nearly always seen in a full face of makeup or applying a full face of makeup.  For this video, James has a bare face, minimal jewelry, and glasses.  He is not wearing his on merch and is instead in a black, featureless hoodie.  He is in his usual filming room but the image quality is somewhat poor and he does not have his lighting rig set up. Further, James’ signature intro and speech pattern are gone.  All of his videos start with a bright “Hi Sisters!” before he gets into his topic.  This video is very intentionally missing that.  Further, James is known for his rapid speech pattern.  This video shows him stumbling over words, taking long pauses, and getting choked up.  He is presenting a very watered down and humble version of himself.  One of the main criticisms James receives is that he acts too bougie and flaunts his wealth.  Normally, he does not cater to these criticisms.  By dressing down and cooling his branding, James is clearly trying to put on a pitiable persona.  Without his makeup and aesthetic, James looks a lot younger than his already youthful image.  He is hoping to convince his audience of his inexperience and frame his youth as the reason he repetitively makes mistakes.  

Before I dive into comparisons, I want to look at one last video.  This one is from Beautuber Jacyln Hill.  She, like the other two on the list, started by making makeup tutorials and eventually moved to doing collaborations with makeup companies like Morphe and eventually establishing her own makeup company called Jaclyn Hill Cosmetics.   Her initial launch that featured a collection of lipsticks which, when delivered to customers, were found to be melted, filled with plastic and metal balls, and flecked with fibers that looked like hairs.  Naturally, customers were horrified.  In response to the backlash, Jaclyn Hill Cosmetics offered little to no answers and had a very shoddy refund program.  

In a fourteen-minute video titled “My Lipsticks”, Jaclyn addresses the issues very directly.  She pulls receipts and gives a layout of what her video will cover.  She provides images of contracts signed with labs and her certificate of FDA approval (Hill, 0:1:19, 0:2:37).  She does skirt around the situation or attempt to pretend issues have not been raised.  However, she does entirely shift the blame off of her shoulders.  She only tries to explain away the issues instead of stating that she understand why everyone is so upset.  At a certain point, she tells customers having issues to contact the company offering a full refund and a product replacement (Hill, 0:3:49).  This claim places the entire video under a suspicious lens.  Jacyln did not make good on this promise.  Even now, nearly six months later, she has not followed through with this promise for the majority of her customers.  By adding instability to her otherwise very direct video, Jaclyn calls all of her receipts and evidence into question.  When she addresses the hairs, she talks about employees using white gloves, the apparent origin of the hairs.  This is not a practice in the makeup industry.  This is unheard of.  Also, her statement that her lipsticks only going into production a month before their launch is implausible.  Makeup takes an average of six to eight months to produce on a mass scale.  Despite her directness, Jaclyn is feeding her audience lies.

When discussing the issues, she both deeply underplays the issues by calling the long hairs found in her lipsticks “fuzzies” while also stating that she did not realize the production quality was poor.  All of the onus gets put on her manufacturer.  Jaclyn is presenting a very confusing image.  She speaks confidently, at times almost yelling at her camera.  There is never a moment where she cries and she seems more frustrated than sad.  She is also sitting with a nice backdrop in studio lighting.  But, she too is sans-makeup.  Jaclyn is known for her over the top vivid highlight and intense looks.  It is almost jarring to see her appear on camera with a bare face.  Also, she is presenting herself in a grey hoodie and grey sweatpants, a great divergence from her usual appearance.  Her hair is down and what little jewelry she has on is religiously focus, trying to show morality to her audience.  

Now, to draw comparisons and discuss differences.  Jaclyn’s video is the only one that is still available in its original format.  Both James Charles and Laura Lee deleted their original apology videos and uploaded new videos, this time with makeup, lighting, and high production value.  Jaclyn’s is also the most highly produced of the trio and most directly addresses the issues she is being confronted with.  Lee and James stutter and fake cry their way through while ignoring the actual accusations leveled against them.  In all cases, they attempted to shift the blame off of themselves by either putting it on an associated company or simply addressing how hurt they were by the situation and not the impact that their mistake had or discussing any way to reform.  

YouTuber Apology videos have a very particular format and style.  The makeup-less, dressed down, often informal look is a vital part of their aesthetic.  Viewers are asked to digest a performance rather than accept an apology.  Every moment of their videos is carefully crafted to evade the consequences of their actions.  The visual language of the video informs their intent and what the YouTuber wants to convey to their audiences.  Offering public apologies is not a new thing in the internet age, but this format is.  As these are some of the foundational texts of the genre, they define what is required of an apologizing YouTuber and what an audience should expect.  Because of the insincerity of these videos many real apologies posted on YouTube fall under undue scrutiny.  It is impossible to offer a genuine desire for self-growth on the platform because even turning the camera on tells the viewer that they are about to watch a performance.


Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the friends who recommended YouTube Apology Videos to look at, as well as providing me with backgrounds on some of the YouTubers.  As someone who is part of the Beauty Community but unfamiliar with Laura Lee, the information from friends was greatly appreciated.  I would also like to thank my roommate for watching all these videos with me and putting up with my hysterics.


Charles, James.  “tati.”  YouTube, reuploaded by K-Row L on May 10, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1qfXegoQss

Hill, Jaclyn.  “My Lipsticks.”  YouTube, uploaded by Jaclyn Hill on June 12, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8QeSZpr0bs

Lee, Laura.  “My Apology.”  YouTube, reuploaded by Public Apology Central on September 26, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FixgJk9pjtM&feature=emb_logo

Westbrook, Tati.  “Bye Sister…”  YouTube, uploaded and deleted by Tati Westbrook on May 10, 2019, Link N/A

2 thoughts on “The Visual Language of YouTuber Apology Videos

  1. As I web site possessor I believe the content matter here is rattling great , appreciate it for your efforts. You should keep it up forever! Good Luck. Corella Johan Nashoma

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *