- Hulu's "Jawline" is a heartbreaking look at how kids are turning themselves into commodities online in a desperate attempt to find the social and economic capital lacking in their physical communities. Tweet This
- Online interactions cannot fully efface the deep loneliness caused by breakdowns in offline relationships, and the odds are good that too much time online will actually increase that loneliness. Tweet This
It’s a summer weekend and you’re a preteen girl at a convention venue in LA. You’ve spent your hard-earned money—$250 to be precise—for a ticket and the chance to get a hug, or better yet, a selfie with your favorite online celebrity. But the celebrity in question is not a Hollywood actor. Instead, Austyn Tester is a rising digital star who lipsyncs One Direction songs and dispenses upbeat messages about body positivity on live webcasts. I should mention that Austyn is a teenager, too—only 16 years old.
The new Hulu documentary “Jawline” chronicles the meteoric rise and fall of Austyn’s celebrity career, giving the viewer an unscripted look at the world I’ve described. If all this feels alien to you, it also felt that way to me, and I’m a Millennial. But "Jawline" is more than just a sobering portrait of the emerging Generation Z; it is also a heartbreaking look at how kids are turning themselves into commodities online in a desperate attempt to find the social and economic capital lacking in their physical communities. And as kids turn to the Internet to find what is lacking offline, they become increasingly vulnerable to a new kind of exploitation.
There is a simple business strategy in this digital celebrity industry. Teens like Austyn spend countless hours building a follower base from the hundreds into the thousands. At a certain point, a talent scout will see opportunity and offer to bring the teen on board, giving them coaching and a platform for touring, all for a nice slice of the profits. Certainly, there is the potential for various kinds of exploitation commonly associated with child acting or modeling, from talent agents who fraudulently withhold payment (something Austyn experiences), to adults who harass or sexually abuse children, to unscrupulous parents who try to live vicariously through their kids. But aside from that, I think the world that "Jawline" exposes is exploitation all the way down: teens, in the midst of trying to develop an authentic sense of self, who are paid (or not paid) to perform that nascent authentic self for thousands of online fans.
It isn’t just family breakdown that is driving these kids online; it’s also the absence of meaningful offline friendships.
In addition to exploitation, the documentary also shines a light on impoverishment and disillusionment with the American Dream. Austyn lives with his single mother and older brother in Kingsport, TN, which has a poverty rate of 20%, well above the national rate. The economy in his hometown is in decline, and the defining industries are health care, manufacturing, and retail—you can imagine the paltry wages. Of course, higher wages are available in management (college-credentialed) or in mining (male-dominated), which means Austyn’s mother isn’t accessing the best jobs. While the documentary does not tell us the income level of Austyn’s household, we get subtle clues regarding financial hardship, such as comments about having no food in the house. Austyn’s brother tells us that they’ve had it worse: “we’re still poor, but like, less.” But both brothers are clear that they want out of their town. In one of the most striking moments in the documentary, Austyn comments on the people in his community:
They’re so programmed...go to school, get good grades. If you get an A, you’re smart; you get an F, you’re stupid—and then you get a job and then you have a family, and then you get old, you die.
Austyn doesn’t do well in school (in part because of bullying), so it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t see education as a viable path. Is it any wonder that Austyn and his family seize upon superstardom as the escape plan?
The social picture of the documentary naturally intersects with the economic. Austyn lives in a single-parent household, in part, because his father was abusive. This family profile is sadly not an outlier experience in our country. Pew Research reports that “the share of U.S. children living with an unmarried parent has more than doubled since 1968, jumping from 13 to 32% in 2017.” And while out-of-wedlock births account for some of that rise, Pew also estimates that 20% of kids born within a marriage will experience family breakup by age 9. A number of interviewees in the documentary spoke about the experience of loneliness or family breakdown. One preteen girl explained: "I live with my aunt. My mom’s in jail, and my dad wasn’t around, and I don’t see my brothers. So, they [digital stars like Austyn] were like my brothers.” Another girl added that “broadcasting feels kinda weird, but it also feels like you have a family.
And it isn’t just family breakdown that is driving these kids online; it’s also the absence of meaningful offline friendships. As one preteen reports, the live-cast celebrities are “like those friends that I never had and wished I had.” The lack of offline friendship is particularly depressing because though there is a general loneliness epidemic in America, Gen Z has been hit the hardest, according to a nationwide survey conducted by the health insurer Cigna last year. Although we do not know for sure what is causing the decline in teen mental health, what is clear is that online interactions cannot fully efface the deep loneliness caused by breakdowns in offline relationships, and the odds are good that too much time online will actually increase that loneliness.
Persistent loneliness can easily turn into depression. The social science here is bleak: “the total number of teenagers who recently experienced depression increased 59% between 2007 and 2017,” reports Pew. I was thinking of these statistics when I heard one "Jawline" interviewee say things like, “I just remember that I have the Internet, and I have all the good things on the Internet, and that just kinda keeps me going.” It is also worth noting that multiple interviewees spoke of their struggles with self-harm and suicide ideation and talked about how their attachment to Austyn was their saving grace. After Auystn’s career implodes, his mother mentions his struggles with anxiety (another recurring theme of Gen Z). Is his anxiety because of prior abuse, or time spent online, or the nature of marketing oneself, or food scarcity, or watching his dreams shatter? Most likely all the above are factors. And as I finished the documentary, I was left wondering how many more kids live a similar nightmare?
Near the end of "Jawline," Austyn’s mother describes how he’s fallen behind in high school credits, as he bemoans the reality of having to return to school. His mother tells him that “no one’s to blame but you for this.” I’m not sure who is to blame, but I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to blame our youth. As a Millennial, my peers and I have our own defining struggles with depression and anxiety. We are young professionals now, struggling under student debt, trying to unlearn the lessons of the meritocracy, and preparing ourselves for another economic recession. I write this as someone who is barely keeping afloat myself, worried about the fate of the next generation. Who knows who or what is to blame for the problems facing Gen Z or what policy solutions are needed? But as “Jawline” underscores, it’s clear that the kids are not alright, and they desperately need our help.
Anthony M. Barr is a recent graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and he was a recent Fellow at the Hertog Foundation in DC. He has written for The American Conservative and University Bookman, among other publications.