Listen. I like my comedy kooky. I firmly believe that the weirder the set-up, the smarter and funnier the punch line. I’ve long been a fan of Celeste Barber, an Australian comic who is famous for spoofing some of the more ridiculous expressions of glam culture. She shares most of these spoofs with her huge audience on Instagram and captions them #CelesteChallengeAccepted.
As much as I love her work, I have always felt a little guilty about how much I enjoy the challenge-accepted content. Kim Kardashian West and her ilk are hardly vulnerable targets. And if the principle of comedy is that if you must punch, punch up, then one cannot fault Barber’s meticulous take-downs of some of these celebrities with their squads, glam and otherwise. However, it does irk me that most, if not all, of this content is aimed at famous women. I understand that some of these celebrities are willing participants and co-creators in the beauty industrial complex. They benefit from it and feed it and become synonymous with it. It becomes hard to see the body-shaming woods for the trees.
Be that as it may, it is still possible to tease out the systemic and structural aspects of misogyny that fuel the beauty and celebrity industries. There is also a strong tradition of resistance within some corners of celebrity, and this tradition gained incredible traction during the height of the #MeToo movement.
It has been pointed out that these expressions of resistance are small and do nothing to challenge the capitalist bedrock of this toxic industry. I hear that and agree. I also think there is an absurdity in calls for equal pay in an industry where the pay gap is a matter of hundreds of thousands between millions. It amounts to the women in Hollywood asking for their fair share of the wages of capitalist exploitation. But the unfair gap still exists. And Scarlett Johansson might be making Disney money in her Black Widow suit, but she is still asked in public and at her place of work whether or not she wears underwear to the set. It might not shift anything systemically, but I honestly cannot find it in me to detract from these valid, albeit individualistic, moments of rebellion against misogyny. They are not made to push for structural change for all of us, but in those settings they reveal how insidious misogyny can be, even when one has the trappings of wealth and power. It doesn’t matter how many Academy Awards you’re nominated for – some guy will still remind you that you are a woman and that means, as it has ever meant, that you are worth less. Less money, less respect, less dignity.
One of Celeste Barber’s hilarious challenge-accepted posts lampoons one of my faves, the actress Gabrielle Union. The post splices together a clip of Union skipping merrily whilst wearing a one-piece and a clip of Barber doing the same, looking less glamorous and less coordinated. It’s funny; I hate it. Readers of Union’s two bestselling memoirs will know of her battle to survive after being raped and her long struggle towards motherhood. I can’t laugh at any expression of joy that Gabrielle Union puts out there. I just can’t. And even though her content makes fun of women of all races, in this case, I mind that Barber is poking fun at a black woman. Oh, we can’t be tall and lithe and frivolous too? We can’t flaunt our traditional beauty on social media?
Ultimately, what bothers me is that mocking these individual women, as fun as it can be, doesn’t really say or do anything to the structures behind the lenses. These unvarnished, airbrushed images reflect regressive beauty ideals that have been around since before celebrities could channel them on their Instagram grids. They have long lined the pockets of people far-removed from public sight and not vulnerable to the public scrutiny and casually humiliating misogyny to which actresses and models are regularly subjected.
So, what challenge are we, the denizens of Barber’s Insta grid, accepting, exactly? There is punch in her brand of visual comedy, for sure. There is even an element of social commentary. She’s not afraid of making fun of herself along the way. And I’ll be the first to say it, without her Instagram would be a bland, boring sea of #ad content delivered by flawless size 0 celebrities. Or, baby photos, which I honestly would not mind. #CelesteChallengeAccepted offers tantalizing subtext that helps us make sense of the otherwise toxic text of celebrity Instagram. This is not all there is, Barber tells us. These photos and videos are pure absurdity. None of us live like this. Perhaps, not even the women in the photos and videos live like this. Therein lies the challenge. To do more than laugh with Barber at these women. To see that they are players in a game that was rigged against them – and us – long before any of us got our hands on a smartphone. And although the game doesn’t hurt us in equal measure or in the same ways, it still hurts us all. Yes, even Kim and her sisters.
Maybe I’m just talking myself out of my guilt. Maybe I’m justifying the scroll-cackle-refresh cycle we’re all stuck in. While we’re stuck here, though, is it such a bad thing to look a little deeper and, so as not harsh the vibe, laugh as we do?
Maybe that’s the challenge. If so, I accept.