It is eminently considered that many of us carry around multiple conceptions of identity. Identity is perceived as “multifaceted and fluid,” (Davis, 2012, p. 636) due to digitalization and globalization in this postmodern era. YouTube is a cultural form that highlights this concept of identity as multiple. YouTube is a global online platform, accumulating millions of users in one space who upload and view videos of all kinds. Instantaneously, YouTube connotes the existence of multiple identities such as vloggers, artists, comedians, gamers, educators, and many more. However, multiplicity is also demonstrated in-depth, through individuals within the YouTube space. This essay solely focuses on a YouTube creator, Lilly Singh, who is associated with the username ‘Superwoman’ [she will be referred to as ‘Singh’].
Singh is widely known for her comedic skits, though her fan-base has grown immensely and she has since accumulated various roles on social media. At a first glance, Singh exhibits a performative identity on her primary channel through comedic skits of her dressed up as her parents. However, she has an underlying identity in her secondary vlog channel that invites audiences to her work ethic and gender activist passion. From this, Singh implies identity as multiple, because she simultaneously showcases her performative, productive, and activist sides. Therefore, this essay provides a background to Singh’s career, a discussion of social media and identity, following an investigation of Singh’s performative, productive and activist identities, overall accentuating how Singh illustrates the perspective of identity as multiple.
Background to Lilly Singh
To conduct an analysis of Singh’s identities, we must understand her popularity within and beyond the YouTube space. Since joining the platform in 2010, Singh has accumulated over fourteen million subscribers and three billion views on her primary channel. She initiated her channel with comedic skits about lifestyle, her Canadian-Indian heritage, and gender.
As her fan-base grew, she professionalized the production of her videos and diversified her content with raps, challenges, speeches, and collaborations with celebrities. Singh has expanded her brand exponentially. Alongside her primary channel, she posts vlogs on her secondary channel that has over two and a half million subscribers. She has released a New York Times best-selling autobiography, How to be a Bawse. She has performed a world tour around 27 cities, and from this, produced a documentary film, A Trip to Unicorn Island. She is also a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, constantly raising awareness on education equality. Additionally, Singh has announced A Little Late With Lilly Singh, becoming the first woman of color to host a late-night talk show (Squires, 2019).
Her work ethic has not been unnoticed, as she has appeared on Forbes’ list of the World’s Highest Paid YouTube Stars in 2015 and Top Influencers for Entertainment in 2017 (Forbes, 2018). Singh is a relevant example for examining identity because she encapsulates how one can create an identity on the platform, and use it to evolve and widen it further.
Role of Social Media
Singh is regarded as a celebrity, and it is noticeable that social media plays a large role in the formation of identity, which can perhaps attest to the idea of Singh’s identity as multiple. It is evident that due to “fast-paced technological advances and rising globalization,” (Davis, 2012, p. 636) people’s identities are heavily affected by the complexity of society.
Burke and Stets (2009) argue that the greater the number of people exposed to one’s activated identities, “the greater is the level of common commitment to the identities,” (p. 141) and this applies to Singh’s identities when considering the case of social media and fans. As her fan-base grew larger, more people were exposed to her performative identity, prompting her to prioritize her social media presence. However, when celebrities become accustomed to validating their popularity through the number of fans and likes that they accumulate, they “may become overwhelmed by events with respect to one identity and suffer performance degradations” (Burke and Stets, 2009, p. 144). This might explain the reduction in the frequency of comedic skits over the past year, as she may have become overwhelmed with the high demand, and rather became consistent with her secondary channel, which portrays a raw and unscripted identity. Regardless, there is a relationship between social media and identity, because celebrities like Singh continue to align what that they portray in the media according to what they assume their fans prefer.
Our identity as a whole is put together in pieces, and each piece relates to different experiences. The academia of Cultural Studies works with an anti-essentialist conception of identity, most notably because in this era, identity has become “mobile, multiple, personal, self-reflexive, and subject to change” (Kellner, 1995, p. 231). Some individuals have little control over choosing what features make them identifiable as these are rather determined socially (During, 2005), and for Singh’s case, she gained her initial recognition as ‘Superwoman’ socially through the identity that she projected in the media. Everyone has a private identity that belongs to them personally, yet viewers gain a glimpse of Singh’s personal identity in the media because of how intensely involved she is in this sector.
Likewise, some perceive identity formation as a linear process that is developed in stages as life progresses, “each time incorporating relevant social stimulus from the individuals’ environment,” viewing identity as a “multi-faceted phenomenon” (Koles and Nagy, 2012, p. 3). Joining this perspective are Alvesson et al. (2008), who acknowledge that identity is constantly evolving and is not a fixed essence, considering “the presence of multiple, shifting, and competing identities” (p. 6). Multiple identities do not always operate in isolation; we activate the different selves present within us according to the situations that we place ourselves in. Singh stated in one interview, “I love YouTube and I believe in the power of the digital space, but I want to have my feet in both of those areas,” (O’Connor, 2017) suggesting that Singh’s identity has multiplied when there were more roles available for her. This view suggests that the complexity of the self is correlated with the complexity of society, due to the diversification of groups and roles (Burke and Stets, 2009, p. 132; Koles and Nagy, 2012).
Additionally, if there are identities that share common meanings, such as Singh’s representation of her productivity and activism, they are likely to be expressed together. Burke and Stets (2009) however suggest that common meanings across identities are problematic because if there is a problem experienced in one identity, it will produce a domino-effect among the others. This suggests that Singh consistently advocates her productivity on the media, because any problem could affect the frequency of her performative or activist identities. As discussed, social media and changing contexts generate the development of multiple identities, making identity a fluid concept.
Performative identity can be seen as a constructed identity that aims to entertain audiences, involving an amplification of certain parts of one’s identity in an artistic manner. Singh’s most-viewed videos are those of a one-woman skit with her dressed up as her mother and father, commenting on typical behaviors that Indian parents display. She comically exaggerates these behaviors as a method to break any taboos and present them as stereotypes. In one video, “Back to School Shopping With Cheap Parents,” Singh uses satire and humor to explore the stereotype of Indian parents being cheap shoppers. In the video, Singh dresses up as her mother, who asks Lilly to buy items that are on sale, providing unrealistic reasons to her about items that are not on sale. Singh here is not depicting her authentic identity through the characters she plays, but gains recognition for her entertainment and performative abilities.
Singh is aware that her performative side is the catalyst to her fame status. She claims that her “relatability” makes her videos globally attractive, because the audience is “watching somebody who is exactly like them and talking about things that they experience as well” (Srinivasan, 2015). Likewise, in an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Singh (2018) stated, “I was not in a good place and I think I was really authentic on screen and I was relatable to an audience,” suggesting that her performative identity unveils areas of her personal identity. Public self-consciousness must be considered when looking into which parts of one’s identity is displayed at a given time. Public self-consciousness focuses on social qualities involving “an individual’s appearance, mannerisms, style, and other externally decipherable characteristics,” and this is elicited when other individuals or objects such as a camera are present (Koles and Nagy, 2012, p. 4). Self-consciousness plays a role in “maintaining the integrity of an individual’s identity,” (Koles and Nagy, 2012, p. 5) and Singh may engage in self-consciousness to ensure consistency of her performative identity with regards to entertaining and exhibiting parts of her personal identity. Her performativity is a part of her identity, regardless of whether she is another character, because this is the fundamental basis towards her popularity and identity formation.
Productive and Activist Identity
Alongside her performative identity, Singh projects contrasting identities on YouTube that characterize her productive and activist sides. As summarized by Squires (2019), “Singh has an auxiliary YouTube channel with her unscripted content,” merging her personal identity with her professional identity. These videos revolve around her work ethic, encouraging productivity and hustling harder. The vlogs are formatted in the style of a video game, as Singh begins each video with a mission, marking every task as a target to be conquered, and accumulating points whenever she accomplishes them. These vlogs uncover a glimpse of a raw identity, given that she showcases the behind-the-scenes of her career, contradicting the high production quality of her primary channel videos. Singh displays new representations of herself to simultaneously build her overall identity, strengthen her relationship with her viewers, and cater to a broader range of audiences.
Connecting celebrity with identity, the celebrity has the power to “construct a relationship with their audience that is independent of the vehicles in which they appear,” allowing the celebrity to have a personal and professional motivation to construct an identity (Turner, 2014, p. 15). Additionally, “the differences between the different locations of celebrity do not matter,” (Turner, 2014, p. 22) given that fans still follow Singh regardless of whether she is representing her performative or unscripted identity. It is also argued that “people have different levels of commitment and salience for each of the identities,” (Burke and Stets, 2009, p. 142) which could explain why Singh posts more frequently on her secondary channel, because unlike her production videos, she is in control of the camera and her words, allowing her to be more vulnerable to her audience. In an interview, when asked about her relationship with her audience, Singh replied:
Transparency is everything in this business. My fans feel like they know me, feel like I’m accessible to them … so my relationship with them is all about authenticity … It’s a new culture of doing business as a human, not as a corporation. (Schomer, 2019)
Singh expresses that the purpose of her unscripted identity is to present her authentic self in order to strengthen the bond with her audience. Conversely, she voiced in an interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, “my journey on YouTube has very much taught me to be comfortable with who I am,” (Singh, 2017) demonstrating the idea of identity as multiple, because Singh has found a way to maneuver her social media presence and identities to develop her individuality.
Moreover, we must not overlook the importance of Singh’s activism, as this interacts with her productive identity. Singh is a passionate activist for education and gender equality, and is recognized for being a UNICEF [United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund] Goodwill Ambassador, in which she utilizes her YouTube platform to advocate about these issues. Many consider that “the weight of identities changes across time and space,” (During, 2005, p. 146) which applies to Singh’s identities because her emphasis on education and feminism amplified as these issues were increasingly circulating in the media. Singh applies her “UNICEF title to create videos that raise awareness for children’s education” and weaves this “into her own brand of comedic, visual storytelling” (Sinnenberg, 2017). It is explicit that her activism is another identity and is an example of how Singh has developed identities beyond the YouTube space. To aid her activism, Singh has created GirlLove, a campaign that fights girl-on-girl conflicts, and Singh has created videos on both her primary and secondary channel promoting the importance of females supporting each other. As indicated, Singh’s videos not only fulfill the purpose of entertaining, but also informing and educating, forming multiple identities based on her different contexts.
This essay explored the multiple identities within Lilly Singh, discussing her performative identity as ‘Superwoman,’ and her productive and activist identities. Her performative identity is constructed for entertainment and is the basis that gave rise to her popularity. It made her aware of her relatability, stimulating the creation of her productive and activist identities on her secondary channel, enabling her to further her relatability in an unscripted, personal, and vulnerable format. These various identities are not pure contradictions, as she is not closing out a part of her identity to showcase another part. Instead, her performative, productive, and activist sides intertwine and combine to holistically define her as an individual.
Ultimately, identity is a fluid and multidimensional concept that we all carry around multiple versions of. In this postmodern era, especially with the prominence of social media, there exist various expressions of identity for different purposes such as entertainment, vulnerability, and awareness. We activate particular identities depending on situations that we place ourselves in, and the concept of identity has become more intricate to align with the complexity of society.