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The new YouTube stars that America might not be ready for

YouTube has become the platform for the next generation of teen idols. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

It’s a Thursday night at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, and there’s hardly a guy to be found in the place. A bemused man takes tickets from the girls who jostle at the door, not even bothering to ask if they’re of drinking age. Inside the venue, a few Cool Dads nurse beers and swipe their smartphones, surveying the knot of giddy preteens who have massed by the stage.

The dads know they’re interlopers at this particular show, even more than they would be if they had chaperoned their daughters to see Taylor Swift or One Direction. This is the first-ever national tour of female Internet celebrities — and they are really, really amped to have their “Girls’ Night In.”

“I need you to scream as loud as you possibly can, ‘kay?” shouts opener Andie Case, a bleached-blonde singer-songwriter who has racked up 850,000 subscribers on YouTube. “I want you to burst my eardrums for this snap. One, two, three —”

The Cool Dads wince; the girls scream like banshees.

It’s a scene that’s repeated a dozen times over since the Girls’ Night In tour kicked off in Anaheim, Calif., on Sept. 22, uniting six female YouTubers IRL for their largely preteen, almost-entirely female audience. Eva Gutowski — the most successful of the bunch, with 4.5 million subscribers — specializes in scripted comedy videos with titles like “How to Survive High School.” The other young women — Case, Meredith Foster, Alisha Marie, Sierra Furtado and Mia Stammer — ranging in age from 19 to 23, fall into a grab bag of popular YouTube genres: music, vlogging, beauty.

In recent years, women, such as Jenna Mourey, Michelle Phan and Grace Helbig, have made serious names for themselves in those categories. But by and large, female YouTube stars have missed out on the upswell of support and interest that made some of their male counterparts mainstream celebrities.

[Why social media stars matter: An explainer for the over-30s]

Of YouTube’s top 50 YouTube-native channels, only six belong to women; and on the most recent incarnation of Digitour, the preeminent touring circuit for professional social media celebs, all six headliners were men. (Gabrielle Hanna, of “The Gabbie Show,” made just a handful of West Coast appearances.)

Research suggests that men are more likely both to watch YouTube videos and to make them. And as recent women’s panels at the social media conference Vidcon have shown, female creators face unique, intractable problems in the space: from sponsorship pressure to harassment in the Internet’s most notorious comments section.

“We all come from the Internet,” said Gutowski before the Silver Spring show, noting — in her typically chirpy, wide-smiled way — that the Web’s a font for good and evil alike. “I think we just all want to represent the positive side.”

The Internet has certainly been positive for the 21-year-old Southern Californian, who once thought her parent’s financial struggles would prevent her from becoming a performer. At points growing up, her family shared a one-bedroom apartment; Gutowski and her sister slept in the living room.

Determined to get on TV somehow, she started a broadcast journalism degree at Cal State Fullerton in 2012. Later that semester, she began posting YouTube videos to practice how she’d speak on-air. Gutowski’s early clips are rambly and under-produced: grainy webcam “haul” videos filmed in a messy bedroom with stacks of folded clothes piled behind her. But people liked Gutowski’s unvarnished make-up and shopping tips. Within six months, she had 10,000 subscribers.

These days, Gutowski’s persona is a little more polished: fewer make-up tutorials, more airy, Buzzfeed-style comedy sketches. (Ironically, it’s probably videos like Gutowski’s “Awkward High School Memories” that initially inspired Buzzfeed to expand in that direction.) Her most popular production — a music video to the horrifically catchy song called “Literally My Life” — was professionally produced by the same guy who wrote music for the recent Selena Gomez movie. It’s been viewed more than 14 million times and inspired a string of derivative memes.

Gutowski wouldn’t tell you it’s all been easy, of course; there’s a segment in the Girls’ Night In show when each YouTuber tells a story about the insecurities that almost stopped them from vlogging. Gutowski long suffered anxiety about her body, she said; it’s exactly the sort of anxiety that YouTube trolls live to punish. Even her tamest videos tend to draw them out en masse: “your [sic] so ugly,” “she really needs to gain some weight,” “god damn your f—— hideous!!!!”

Sometimes, other YouTubers on the tour said, the behavior has gotten worse: nasty e-mails and repeat comments, death threats when they pose with certain beloved male YouTube celebrities.

Rosianna Halse Rojas, a veteran vlogger and the former longtime executive assistant to “The Fault in Our Stars” author and YouTube royalty John Green, remembers once posting a video under which thousands of commenters threatened to gang-rape her. She was 17.

“It’s a toxic creative environment,” said Rojas, who has moderated Vidcon’s “Women on YouTube” panel for several years. “So many women start YouTube channels that have great potential, and then see the abuse and stop. It’s hurting females on every level, from the ones who have thousands of followers to the ones who have just a couple hundred.”

Gendered bullying and harassment are far from the only struggles that young women face on YouTube, Rojas said. There are also fewer sponsorship and advertising opportunities for female YouTubers looking to go pro: Their options are basically fashion or high-end cosmetics. (“There’s nothing wrong with beauty and fashion,” Rojas insisted. “But aren’t we just replicating on YouTube what the media already says about women?”)

On top of that, female YouTube performers have struggled to establish the kind of visibility and promotional networks that developed organically for their male counterparts. Over the summer, a group of fed-up lady YouTubers decided to push back: They established a hashtag called #femtube, where they shout out their favorite women’s YouTube channels.

On Girls’ Night In, the shout-outs go down in real life: Hundreds of young girls scream affirmations like “I love you” and “your hair is so pretty!” as Gutowski and friends play-act a sleepover night. The content is beige, if pleasantly wholesome: There’s a lot of happy talk about “ignoring the haters” and “doing what you love.” Backstage, the girls tell me that they think of their fans as their little sisters.

“We all remember what it was like to be at that age, you know?” said Case, the singer-songwriter. “I remember how insecure and sheltered I felt … [Now we’re] able to be a positive influence and give these girls confidence and tell them they can do what they want — things we never heard when we were that age.”

“The worst thing you can do is conform to what everyone else wants,” Case continued. “That’s what we’re standing against.”

And yet, at the very same time, Rojas and others have begun to fear that celebrity YouTubers are reinforcing the stereotypes of the mainstream. The women on the Girls’ Night In tour spend a lot of time talking about boys and make-up. They’re all pretty and pole-thin. Gutowski is half Puerto Rican, and tourmate Stammer was born in Japan; but aside from that, there’s little diversity in terms of race or interests. In a group interview, the six young women rarely disagree: They parrot each other’s jokes about the nae-nae and the unlikely party line that their fans feel like “besties.”

In other words, these women who gyrate to the piped-in sounds of Fifth Harmony on the Fillmore stage look more like pop stars than the “average girls” they avidly profess to be.

But they’re self-made pop stars, the products of their own hard work and savvy. And that, if nothing else, has got to count for something.

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