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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Edith Jennifer Hill, Associate lecturer, Flinders University

Miranda Sings

On June 29, YouTuber Colleen Ballinger posted a video to her channel “apologising” to fans in response to recent allegations made against her. Ballinger had been accused of creating inappropriate relationships with her underaged fans, grooming and exploitation, all of which she has denied.

Many YouTubers have used the platform to apologise. So many, in fact, that a genre of apology videos has formed. Users of the platform now have expectations around what an apology video should look like, many of which fall into the genre of apology broadly. Ballinger, however, subverted genre expectations when she sung her apology.

In the apology video, Ballinger sat in front of the camera and sung to the audience. Unlike many other apologies on the platform, including a former one of Ballinger’s, the YouTuber did not address the specific allegations made against her. Instead, she speaks (sings) to her audience in an accusatory tone, stating it doesn’t matter what she says, people just want to be entertained.

Ballinger rose to stardom on YouTube after she created the character Miranda Sings in 2008. Her two YouTube channels, Colleen Ballinger and Miranda Sings have 8.5 million and 10.7 million subscribers, respectively. Her massive online fame led to a Netflix show, Haters Back Off, collaborations with other YouTubers, a podcast and a multiple live shows.

Academic Kate Douglas explores how apology videos on YouTube have become so popular that they are often the subject of parody. This has been the case with Ballinger, as countless videos on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram make fun of Ballinger’s “apology”.

Some users are speculating this has quickly become a key piece of internet history. Specific lines of Ballinger’s video have been made into memes, including the now infamous “toxic gossip train”.

The story has surpassed YouTube’s somewhat insular community and reached mainstream media.

Boundaries with fans

Ballinger’s most popular videos are when she plays her character, Miranda Sings. Intended to be a portrayal of an “egotistical, weird” singer, Ballinger’s character has been heavily criticised.

Part of Miranda’s character is that she has an inappropriate, incestuous relationship with her uncle that is misunderstood by clueless Miranda. The humour supposedly stems from Miranda’s misunderstanding of social boundaries and norms such as referring to anything remotely grownup as “porn”.

A former writer’s assistant on the Netflix show Haters Back Off explained how uncomfortable they were with the story line of Miranda and Uncle Jim, describing it as “stomach churning”.

Ballinger had a group chat with her fans called “Colleeny’s weenies”. The chat, made up of predominantly underage fans at the time, shared memes, spoke with Ballinger, and talked between themselves about Miranda Sings. Alleged screenshots released by former fans show Ballinger responding in the group chat.

The group chat is a small part of a long list of Ballinger’s allegedly inappropriate actions. She has previously apologised online for sending one fan, Adam McIntyre, lingerie when he was 13 years old, and in the same (now deleted) video apologised for her portrayal of racial stereotypes.

This week, fellow YouTuber Trisha Paytas addressed rumours that Ballinger had subscribed to her sex work website and allegedly shared her content without permission. Former fans of Ballinger have alleged that she distributed this explicit content in group chats with underage fans, as well as among her friends at “viewing parties”.

Unfortunately, Ballinger is not the only YouTuber who has been brought into the spotlight for inappropriate relationships with fans.

Shane Dawson has been accused of having inappropriate fan relationships (along with a long list of other transgressions). Videos resurfaced in 2020 of him asking an underage fan to twerk for him on a live video, as well as kissing young fans on the lips at meet-and-greets.

In 2014, YouTubers Sam Pepper and Tom Milsom were both accused of serious misconduct, including allegations of coercing sexual activity and explicit photos from underage fans.

Fans and fandom

Fandoms are groups of people who are dedicated fans to a particular person, show or aspect of internet culture. Academic Tracey Nearmy explores how fandoms are places where people share interests, but she says they “can also be spaces of invisible emotional attachments: private ‘friendships’ with real or imagined characters”.

In the case of Ballinger, many of her fans shared their obsession not only with her, but with the character she portrayed, Miranda Sings.

Repeat contact with an online personality can form what media scholar Janice Peck terms a “parasocial relationship”.

These relationships can make social media users feel like they have a connection, or know a content creator like they are a friend. This can lead to complex feelings and attachments, and are all the more dangerous for children who are in the process of forming identities and learning boundary-setting behaviours themselves.

The toxic gossip train

Watching the apology video, it is clear Ballinger’s audience is predominately children. Titled “hi.”, it shows Ballinger on her couch in a black top, holding a ukulele. In the song, now infamously known online as the “Toxic Gossip Train”, Ballinger sings that her team has “strongly advised” her not to say what she wants, but they never said she couldn’t sing it. And sing she does.

Other than singing her “apology” video, Ballinger breaks the genre conventions in another way. She doesn’t actually apologise.

Ballinger sings, “Many years ago, I used to message my fans. Not in a creepy way like many of you are trying to suggest. It was more of a loser kind of way”. She goes on to say “The only thing I’ve ever groomed is my two Persian cats. I’m not a groomer, I’m just a loser, who didn’t understand I shouldn’t respond to fans”.

Read more:
Celebrities can be cancelled. Fandoms are forever

Ballinger clearly articulates her position in the video: she believes the online discourse around her is founded in cancel culture, not fact, despite multiple records of her alleged actions. She sings:

What oh you don’t care oh okay I thought you wanted me to take accountability but that’s not the point of your mob mentality, is it? No, your goal is to ruin the life of the person you despise while you dramatise your lies and monetise their demise.

Ballinger’s video highlights the massive responsibility that online personalities have to interact with their fans appropriately.

The Conversation

Edith Jennifer Hill does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. The toxic gossip train: what Colleen Ballinger teaches us about YouTubers and inappropriate relationships with young fans –