I wish that I wasn’t still thinking and talking about Caroline Calloway because I’m loath to give her more attention. Yet, for the past few weeks, ever since Natalie Beach’s The Cut essay came out, I feel like I have talked about Calloway with my friends way more than I wanted to. I can’t help it; she’s like a puzzle that I feel like I’ve solved before I realize the answer is not straightforward. I am intrigued by the opinions people have of her--positive, negative, or critical--because I’m still not sure what to think of her. On one hand, I find her extremely frustrating. After The Cut story came out, I texted a friend: “what irritates me most about caroline is that she represents a type of white privilege in which her mistakes are things that make her charming, a fun story to tell, rather than someone who is disreputable”. On the other hand, I wonder if there’s something to her. A large part of Calloway’s brand is taking on her critics, and her largest criticism of their criticism is that people don’t take her seriously because she is openly and unapologetically ambitious. And she’s not wrong.
There’s plenty of reasons why people are averse to influencers, but their desire for fame is the one that I hear the most. The idea that influencers are primarily motivated by a desire for fame and attention, to some, is the worst thing in the world. Influencers, in the truest form of the word, are not interested in becoming really great photographers or filmmakers or writers. They’re interested in becoming famous and when the do it’s usually for capitalizing on their physical beauty. Though celebrities have been doing that for years, there’s something about influencers in particular that digs people the wrong way.
In “The Writer as Influencer,” writer Allegra Hobbs suggests that the distinction between the writer-as-influencer (Jia Tolentino and Sarah Nicole Prickett are named) and the influencer-writer (Calloway) is the purposeful pursuit of recognition on a platform. Whereas the writer-as-influencer’s personal brand is sort of an incidental consequence of being great writers online, the influencer-writer has created a distinct brand in which “writer” is one of many elements that make up the glowing, beautiful, and curated image of their brand. In her essay, Hobbs is questioning whether that distinction really matters, especially when the endgame is the same. I would agree that the distinction doesn’t matter. To stress that it does is to reiterate a long held and problematic trope: the Cool Girl. When I first heard that monologue in Gone Girl, I was so excited. Finally someone had said what I’d always wanted to say. Despite all the criticism of that trope, our culture still upholds its tenets. We’re more likely to root for the girl who is effortlessly hot, naturally funny and whip smart than the girl who makes it clear that she wasn’t born that way.
Somehow, without meaning to, Caroline Calloway--along with the reaction toward her--has become a critical study of the acceptable and unacceptable ways that women can be visible. Women in the public sphere have always been subject to these criticisms, and on Instagram, it’s not anything new. Even when we want to pretend that there’s something distinctly different about this particular moment.
I don’t believe that anyone becomes an influencer completely by accident. And even if they do, they don’t stay influencers by accident. To keep people’s attention, you have to keep feeding them.