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What It Means to Be Young and 'Very Online'

In two new films on influencer life and deepfake tech, people bare it all. But darker truths stay beneath the surface.

Dorothy Woodend 17 Nov 2023The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

If you ever had any doubts that the internet was a bad place for young women, two new documentaries on the lives of online influencers and the rise of deepfake technology will obliterate any lingering reservations. With blunt, brute frankness, they demonstrate how the internet, in fact, can be a terrible place for women.

Director Tyler Funk’s Anything for Fame, a new production from the National Film Board of Canada, takes as its subject the rise of the online influencer. Funk follows a collection of young people who want to be famous through their work as influencers — in other words, internet stars who rise to fame through their clout on social media spaces like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.

Influencers often operate as digital celebrities and, crucially, brand ambassadors. By partnering with corporate sponsors to push products through their respective channels, a canny influencer can earn sizable coin while extending their reach through the brand. It’s a loaded but increasingly expanding landscape fuelled by viewers hitting the “like” and “subscribe” buttons on their devices. The film asks critical questions about representational power: namely, whose stories hold most value. But other aspects are less than resolved.

Anything for Fame takes a binary approach to gender representation — the men mostly do dangerous violent stunts, while the women create content that highlights their sexuality, such as their work on OnlyFans accounts. One of the only gender-fluid people featured in the film was deceased at the time of production.

Given that the world of content creation is driven largely by heteronormative algorithms, this isn’t surprising. But it does reveal a couple of things about the world of online influencers. The first is that sex always sells, and the second is that money rules in the so-called “attention economy.”

Case in point: the film contains footage of women filming themselves in soft-core poses and providing “JOI,” or jerk off instructions, to online viewers and patrons. Meanwhile, footage of young men features them shooting themselves in the face with staplers or having their eyebrows ripped off by a speeding car (a Lamborghini, no less).

Ava Louise is perhaps the most provocative person in the film. The young woman from New Jersey gained notoriety from licking an airplane toilet seat during the height of the pandemic. While this infamous act inspired a deluge of pearl-clutching news segments about “kids these days,” she wasn’t done by a country mile.

After she was discovered hooking up with a young man in her high school stairwell and suspended for her actions, Louise explains that she had previously been viewed as a shy and quiet person. But instead of letting the shame and mortification of sudden notoriety take on a life of its own, Louise decided to embrace its shock value.

In the film, she presents as a savvy self-promoter, clear about the appetites of the internet for outrage and titillation. But despite the bravado and performative outrageousness on display, an undercurrent of profound sadness seeps through. It is present in her interactions with her parents. Her mother is bullying and abusive. Louise points to her mom as the root of her childhood eating disorder. Her father, meanwhile, seems only too happy to set his daughter up with older predatory men.

But it’s Ava Louise herself, in quieter moments, who speaks most clearly about the demands placed on young women. As she shares photographs of her younger self with the filmmaker, the images of a nerdy little kid in glasses who liked horses, believed in unicorns and was bullied speak to another reality: a chipper soul whose brightness and unselfconsciousness is deeply endearing. It is a world away from the version of herself that she presents online. Her Instagram account depicts a highly stylized, highly sexualized version of herself. A word of warning to those reading this story on public transit or at work: Louise’s account veers into soft-core and may not be fit for everyone’s consumption.

This is also the case for the other young women in the film. Jade (who goes by the screen name Jadasaur) came to online fame accidentally, when she posted videos of herself doing goofy stuff while on holiday. Like Louise, Jade also monetizes her online celebrity with an OnlyFans account, where she poses in underwear and offers sexual instructions to the men who pay to watch her. Later in the film, when she tries her hand at becoming an actress, engaging in a demanding creative discipline doesn’t work out well. It is painful to witness.

To choose which influencers were featured in his film, filmmaker Tyler Funk came up with some criteria. Chief among them: they were people who actively wanted fame, not those who fell into internet infamy by accident, or who occupied the title of the so-called “main character of the day.” But even the much-sought viral video that draws millions of views doesn’t necessarily translate into money.

As Jamie Cohen, an expert in internet culture, explains, digital fame is equivalent to getting drafted by an NFL team, being accepted to Harvard and then getting drafted by another NFL team. At the screening, this remark brought about a peal of laughter from the audience. The point that only a tiny percentage of people manage to make a living as influencers hasn’t stopped a generation or two from setting their sights on internet fame as a serious, viable career choice.

But what fame means to people isn’t exactly clear. Is it a way to make a living, a pathway to other, more established kinds of creative work, like acting? Or is it something more fundamental, a way of being seen and valued?

For many young women, online fame is largely predicated on their appearance. As Ava Louise states in the film, no one would have paid any attention to the toilet-licking episode if she didn’t uphold mainstream beauty standards. She is well aware that it is her sexuality she is selling.

She is blunt about how the attention economy works for women.

“We live in a society where we’re seen as objects. We just are. And it’s like a lot of people just don’t want to admit it. I feel like there are women who don’t want to appeal to the male gaze and good for them, but I’m not going to do that because I see the advantage of taking over the male gaze.... At least I make money off of it.”

As she explains, this kind of attention isn’t about any more nuanced or complex interaction, but just about the next wilder, sexier, crazier stunt.

“I am now a prisoner to my own persona,” Louise says.

When deepfake tech gets under your skin

Although the degree of agency that women have in the online world is up for some debate, many women have no choice at all about internet infamy. This is the premise of Another Body, a new documentary directed by Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn.

When a 22-year-old graduate student named Taylor Klein got a message from a friend letting her know that he’d seen her in a pornographic video, she initially thought it was a joke. But a quick internet search revealed that her face had been grafted onto the body of a porn actress and the videos prominently displayed online. Not only was her face used; her name, school and hometown were also included. Whoever had perpetrated this invasion of her privacy knew her well.

Welcome to the world of deepfake technology.

As one of the few women in the engineering department at her university, Klein soon discovered that she was not the only victim. Determined to track down the identity of her abuser, Klein enlisted the help of another young woman who she roomed with during her first year in the program. Julia Moreira was also subjected to the same deepfake technology used to superimpose her face on the top of a pornographic performer.

In one of the film’s most disquieting scenes, the pair undertake a search to uncover how many other women were subjected to the same deepfake treatment. It’s more than a little horrifying.

With deepfakes doubling every six months, the problem has grown to metastatic proportions. Almost all of these are videos of young women, taken without their permission, and used to humiliate and degrade.

Police can do little, as the legal grey area of charging perpetrators varies widely from state to state in the U.S. In most cases, the women who are victimized have few legal recourses. In Klein’s case, the videos were also attached to online sites that invited men in the area to contact her for sex.

The process of creating a deepfake is relatively simple. All that’s needed are a selection of photos, often scraped from Facebook accounts and other social media (150 images are all that’s needed to create a convincing version), and a wee bit of technology.

Deepfake porn most often features famous women, actresses and musicians. In the film, an ASMR influencer named Gibi is subjected to the same treatment as Klein and her friend Moreira.

But here’s where things get interesting. Taylor Klein is not really her name. Nor is the face used in the documentary her own. Technology, as the film makes clear, can operate in multiple directions, depending upon who wields it.

While co-directors Compton and Hamlyn have crafted a riveting whodunit, the more interesting aspect of the film is what happens when young people and the internet go terribly wrong. Or more directly, how younger people view and understand emotional support and relationships.

As the two young women discover who is behind the deepfake profiles, they reveal that they both shared similar experiences with a young man who was a close friend to both women. But the moment they denied him ongoing and one-sided emotional support, his reaction was extreme, premeditated and incredibly destructive.

Even with the discovery of the actual perpetrator, the repercussions are few, if any. There is little resolution by the documentary’s close. Just lingering, often unsettling questions.

So what are we, the audience, supposed to draw from these two films, except that the internet is something of a horror show?

Depending upon your perspective, what’s more fascinating — or horrifying — is how little has changed in the way that women are depicted and understood in mass media.

With the fate of Shere Hite, a sobering truth

It makes me think of another documentary about women, fame and controversy that long predates the internet but indicates that things haven’t really changed all that much. The Disappearance of Shere Hite documents the rise and startling erasure of Hite, the author of the 30th-bestselling book of all time and at one time a household name.

The Hite Report, first published in 1976, was an exhaustive compendium of the sexual realities of women’s lives. In undertaking the book, Hite sent out thousands of anonymous surveys asking women to talk as honestly as possible about their sex lives. The result was nothing less than an earthquake. The idea that sexual intercourse (penetration) was sufficient to bring most women to orgasm was fully and irretrievably put to rest.

Hite’s work on women’s sexuality brought her an unprecedented level of fame, but it was her work on men that incited, to put it bluntly, a full-on shitstorm. The realities revealed in Hite’s book on sex, intimacy and what we would now call toxic masculinity proved unbearable to the general populace. As a barrage of media clips and interviews from the period demonstrate, there are certain truths that could not be spoken about at the time. Or perhaps any time.

The backlash to her work was so severe that Hite left the U.S., renounced her citizenship and lived the rest of her life in Europe, struggling to pay her bills, while she was systematically erased from cultural history.

As many of the people interviewed in the film remark, the obliteration of Hite and her work speaks to what can and cannot be accepted in society.

Online fantasy is fine. The truth of women’s emotional reality is not.  [Tyee]

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