The Increasingly Unproductive Fake – Alexandra Juhasz

In 1995, my then girlfriend, Cheryl Dunye, copied David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967) itself a copy of the ubiquitous heartfelt autobiographical experimental films of the sixties. Knowing nothing at all about making indie narratives, I gallantly proposed to produce Cheryl’s Watermelon Woman in exchange for her pledge to follow me to my new job in Claremont California I also ended up being cast as someone sort of like myself, one of the film’s fake characters, a closeted white woman film director, Martha Page, who we modeled after Dorothy Arzner.

In my more real life as a media scholar, I then wrote about the productive and powerful possibilities of the fake documentary for making and unmaking identity, history, and truth, a project of particular resonance, I thought at the time, for feminists, queers, people of color, and others left unseen by the truth of documentary. In the introduction to the book of essays, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing that I co-edited with Jesse Lerner, I wrote the following strong claims for the efficacy of the self-evident copy:

We took up fake documentary form in The Watermelon Woman to make many related claims about history: history is untrue, true history is irretrievable, and fake histories can be real. Dunye (both as director of The Watermelon Woman and as doppelganger character in the film, the African-American lesbian, “Cheryl,” who is making a documentary film) knows that before she came along, African-Americans, women, and lesbians did make films—in and out of Hollywood. She also knows that their presence, unrecorded and unstudied, passed quickly out of history becoming unavailable even as she craves ancestors to authorize and situate her voice. So, Dunye fakes the history of a formidable forerunner, Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, so that she can tell a story that she, Cheryl, needs to know, one that is close to true, and yet also faked, and therefore at once beyond but also linked to reality and all that the real authorizes and disguises.

Dunye establishes that identity and history, the stuff of life and its images, becomes most authentic and empowering when mediated through technologies of preservation and display. In The Watermelon Woman, black lesbian (film) history and identity are simultaneously embedded in and distanced from disciplinary systems like a mainstream body of texts and textual practices that ignore or create them, and this particular film, The Watermelon Woman, that records and shows fake images of black lesbians’ all-too-real experience. To do so, Dunye and Cheryl must mimic and at the same time mine the tools, institutions, forms and technologies of history making. She mocks and also assumes the position of one authorized to remember, represent, and have history. Unmaking (and taking up) documentary authority allows Dunye to unmask institutionally sanctioned disremembering in the form of protective archivists who disallow Cheryl access to their records, misogynist collectors uninterested in unearthing documents by women, or black community members who forget their forays with whites. And yet the result in The Watermelon Woman is not a morass of misinformation, with identity and history left undone and unmade. Marlon Fuentes reminds us that the gaps and ellipses of history are “just as important as the objects we have in our hands.” The intangible is not inarticulate: it speaks in an unauthorized, untranslated tongue understood by some. In The Watermelon Woman, Fae speaks to Cheryl in a voice both expressive and inconclusive. And Cheryl can hear her. This is enough to empower Cheryl, at film’s end, to conclude, “I am a black lesbian filmmaker and I have a lot to say.” She learns a truth that she needs from the lie that she made which is Fa(k)e.

Dunye and Cheryl’s simultaneous avowal and disavowal of the real marks The Watermelon Woman as a productive fake. An (unstable) identity is created, a community (of skeptics) is built, and an (unresolved) political statement about black lesbian history and identity is articulated. The desire to say and hear something true through words and images that are fragmentary and even fake is the multiple project of the productive fake documentary.

For the purposes of this contribution to No More Potlucks, I could easily re-name such self-aware faking (or copying) a queering strategy (really, no potlucks, ever?! you’re not serious, are you? They’re actually kinda fun, and it’s the only place left to get a good devilled egg!) The queer copy marks and thus unsettles binaries of stable being, knowing, and showing and inserts a question, joke, or angry exclamation where once only certainty held firm.

In much more recent writing, I argue that the language of fake documentary has become the dominant vernacular of YouTube, and therefore, this once queer strategy has become toothless, or unqueer, or straight. Whatever. The ironic wedge, sometimes also known as camp, which long and well served the under-served of the modern and post-modern by allowing for a critique of the norm by using its very discourses of power against it, is now the discourse of power. I wrote:

Barack Obama, heralded by The Washington Post, no less, as our first “YouTube President,”announced the commencement of weekly broadcasts of his presidency’s “fire-side chats”on-line and on YouTube. While the tone, form, and message of these networked national addresses are decidedly serious, presidential even, the viewer needs also to be savvy enough to get the joke, to intuit the wink, the implied aside to a history of worn out presidents, tired fires, and cornball communications. His move, like most on YouTube, uses the irony of the copy: a regal black American taking up the hot-spot, filling the oft-segregated head-shot, a new kind of president-talk produced through documentary’s oldest, most eloquent sobriety, fireside-hot, only to be elegantly plopped into his society’s silliest spot. Incongruity-free? Naïve? I’d say not.

Obama’s YouTube jam goes like this: the serious usual marks the funny, but in his version, get this: the serious is… the serious. Really. YouTube is all irony, all the time, and our YouTube President wittily plays it against itself. Sincerely folks, on YouTube, who came first,Tina Fey or Sarah Palin? I think you know the answer. On YouTube, what gets watched more: Obama’s fire-side chats, Obama GirlObama on Ellen, or Obama via Yes we can. Irony-free? No we can’t.

Which leads me, naturally, to “The History of LOLcats” This video was suggested to me byJulie, via HASTAC where I penned an internet request for people’s favorite fake docs on YouTube. Julie’s brief bio reads that she’s a “PhD student in Modern Culture and Media at Brown.’” She explained her recommendation to me thus: “no hidden gems here, but I assume you’ve seen the History of LOLcats? it’s a G4 network project, but clearly perfect for YouTube meme-osphere. I think it fits the first part of your definition of productive fake docs in its sendup of the hypernationalist Ken Burns formula, although given its adoption of civil rights discourse its politics is perhaps dubious. I’m not so certain it “links and unlinks power to the act of recording the visible world and to the documentary record produced” — although perhaps I myself am understanding “recording the visible world” too strictly in terms of the real.” I responded: “That is a great fake and funny doc, so thanks, but not productive, as you also suggest. However, it effectively raises for me one of my central concerns in this project, namely: how are the register, affect, or meanings created by the fake doc approach is different from those produced by “real” LOLcats. I am currently considering that the distancing, ironic, self-referential voice of fake docs IS the voice of YouTube. Any thoughts? Alex.”

Our exchange marks the surprising truth that LOLcats, like Barack Obama, are a central cultural dividing line. Do you actually find them cute—ooooh how precious, so sweet n furry—or, like me, would you posit that they enable a sarcastic viewing position: a calculated posture of slightly mean-spirited looking-down upon that other YouTuber who thinks they’re unimaginably adorable? However, it is not this cutting critical distance, but rather its holding within itself its own sappy reverse, its soft-spot for cuteness, that is the structure definitive of this (and I would argue most other) YouTube staples: a common contemporary viewing position that negates the edge of ironic distance through a same-time self-indulgence in what once might have been the contradictory binaries upon which traditional irony depended: innocent and knowing, cute and repulsive, naïve and cognizant.

While in earlier considerations of fake documentaries I found the multiplicity of viewing modalities to enable the possibility of critical knowledge, it is now my contention that YouTube has so escalated our culture’s intense indulgence in ways ironic that it has actually become impossible, if not simply downright unpopular, to see the difference between sincerity and satire. We can’t. As a result we inhabit a new structure of viewing that is neither sharp nor critical; rather, we now see muddled and confused, albeit funny. So, fan that I am of Obama, yes we can, and hater (or secret admirer) that I may be of LOLcats, I suggest that there are real perils for a visual culture (and the real it is or will be) where irony becomes so dominant as to be invisible. Irony, and the fake documentary that often packages it, has served long and well as a modernist distancing device, sometimes productively enabling a structure for radical critique. As YouTube makes this style omnipresent, however, its function changes, its edges soften, the firm ground of the resolute double deconstructs beneath our feet. We are in ironic free-fall.

We plunge into a viewing posture of disbelief, uncertainty, and cynicism about everything on YouTube, about watching it, about believing. We were primed early by LonelyGirl 15. But in YouTube’s brief history, she quickly led to Fred. Believe it or not, Fred is currently the most subscribed site of all time where teens and even younger watch a teenage boy pretend to be a younger boy who leads a life eerily similar and also far removed from his own, one caught at once with user-generated simplicity but also with his voice sped up to mark his manipulation, as of course, do his many lies about everything from his imprisoned murderer father to his inexplicably mannish mother. Of course, on YouTube, Fred leads to Fredpretenders, boys playing versions of children younger squeakier and stranger than themselves or Fred, but enough like Fred to still be seeking some of his popularity (the unproductive self-promotion of video art narcissism, more on this later), begging their viewers to “subscribe to me,” relying upon YouTube’s signature mix of authenticity with its same time childlike undoing and very self-aware unknowing to ratchet up more hits. In “Fred’s Worst Nightmare,” Aaron “worries” about how Fred is setting a bad example for 6 year olds (like the him he is pretending to be).

Here, as it true across YouTube, fake innocence which imitates ignorance is key. Take, for example, lesbian singer/songwriter Gretchen Phillips’ performance, as well as her fan’s, in“Tribute Album! pt. 1 – The Birth of an Idea.” The videos takes up formal practices once used to signal authenticity due to an assumed association with non-professional or committed production. But the components of this contemporary style are now highly practiced even when rendered by real non-professionals, and they include: a direct to camera address, a flat affectless performance style, performers who naively and often offensively says what they “really” believe because they are pretending to be innocently unaware of the power of the camera and the cruelty and/or stupidity of their recorded words, which is as often as not aimed at themselves as acts of self-exposure or self-ridicule, this being a stupid kind of un-understanding.

Of course, the reverse is an un-self-aware rendering of these very same stylistics, as can be seen in HIV Fake Documentary. The video relays AIDS facts as unselfconsciously accurate, harkening back to a lost time of truth, and the real or fake documentaries that could hold it, and therefore complicit in an outdated project of providing life-saving knowledge. Unlike almost everything on YouTube, it takes itself seriously: its bad acting and sound, its lack of props and sets, all charmingly produced by real-world kids, serving to verify the innocent aims of its youth producers, but just as easily used as fodder for the very self-same mocked effects in “A Special Election PSA”: their desk made from a box as well, their bad-eyebrows, their shooting against a wall, marking “HIV Fake Documentary’s” reverse, now a joke logic that might also save someone’s life, that is, if they could unpack the double meanings, triple entendres, and jokes leading nowhere before the election comes to pass and it’s time to vote no, or is that yes? While these three queer fake docs, on Prop 8 and AIDS respectively, direct their fakery towards the vague possibility of an anchor, a set of potentially concrete practices of voting or changing sexual behavior, that would require an audience who views outside the pose of innocuous innocent ironic distance. And who outside of Kansas wouldn’t take up this hyper-vigilant reflexive position when viewing on-line media?

Take, for example, my 9 year old son’s most recent video, Ham Sandwich. Raised on YouTube, and not because his Mom is a YouTube scholar, Gabe’s humour is so deadpan, so ironic, it’s almost unbearable to believe it is performed by one so sweet and truly naïve. Ironic and innocent all at once, Gabe’s “Ham Sandwich” is an actual documentary of himself eating the titular delicacy in real time, just as it is a bona fide art video engaged in documenting the process and duration of his mastication. It is also a joke about flashy YouTube videos where too much happens, while at the same time mimicking video blogs where people are really boring even when they attempt to be interesting. Ham sandwiches from and into the mouths of babes weaned at the tit of YouTube. It feels good, nearly hegemonic, I’d say, to be in on his joke whose punch line is multiple if not uncertain, whose point is to be about nothing other than the fun of the form (and the sandwich, I suppose).

Gabe’s video aside, I believe that so much campy copying has contributed to an unanticipated and deep cultural re-programming in the ups and downs, wheres and hows, of the self-aware-bogus. The wry aside of the fake documentary, its knowing wink and smug satire, has become a dominant way of seeing. This burgeoning vernacular of feigned veracity, and an audience trained and dying to see it, has been cemented on YouTube. However, in its ubiquity, I believe that the humdrum fake doc has lost its productive bite. And this is because the very function of irony has changed. Once, there was a modernist gap between the thing and its perverse double, an in-between space of clarity in which to create a humorous or serious distance or dissonance that allowed the artist and viewer the chance to speak and see critically. Now, the sobriety of documentary and its drunken foil are indistinguishable—no, the same thing—allowing no room for certainty or clarity, what I will call the anchor or solid ground required for productivity (or criticality), and instead offering up merely a gummy vantage point from which to observe messy, mixed-up messages of vague, if giddy unknowing.

In our day-to-day media landscape, where everyone is as smart as the documentary scholar and understands that there is no difference between the fake or true documentary, their distinction becomes unnecessary because both have succeeded in uncovering each other’s formative lies, just as both have failed at getting us closer to what we once thought we really wanted: “real” depictions of our lives as we live them. Our once innocent audiences are sophisticated enough to recognize the interchangeability of the doc and the fake doc, now knowing neither to be true. They move between the thing and its reverse with as much grace as does my son: documentary, art video, YouTube joke, sandwich gag. No gap to mind. “It’s not rocket science,” says the stewardess in Jetblue’s prize-winning mockumentary-style advertisement.

But it is my current understanding, that in its ubiquity, the fake documentary can no longer allow us to occasionally and triumphantly see more clearly (as it once might), to be productive. Its estrangement qualities now flattened or doubled out, what results on YouTube is a sarcastic, ironic tone and style, for fake maker and viewer, who now wryly understand only and always that all that is left is to laugh, or perhaps to guess. We no longer believe that we can know: what someone means, what someone believes, what someone is trying to say, what we might do.

To be productively queer was never simply to copy and mock, even marked with a funny or flouncy flourish or a some serious realness, it was always to do so with an actual change in mind. And all this is to say, in conclusion, something simple, sad, and maybe even hard to hear: that perhaps the self-conscious, self-aware, self-evident copy-with-a-twist is no longer queer at all, no longer productive, and all that is left is to be real. Really real. I mean it. No More Potlucks!


Alexandra Juhasz is a scholar and maker of committed media whose work is becoming increasingly digital. Her recent projects include a blog on YouTube and other related media practices, www.aljean.wordpress.coma feminist anti-war film made about and with her sister Antonia, www.scalethedocumentary.comand a digital publication about the histories and theories of radical media:

To view some of Juhasz’s older films for free, click on and search under Juhasz.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Ickaprick on Sat, 08/22/2009 – 16:18.

This article is really thoughtful, thanks so much for sharing it.

I’m glad your last paragraph expresses hope. Most of this article has a feeling of sadness and I don’t think Youtube is something to feel sad about it, even if it has blunted the former potency of fake documentary. Because Youtube has opened all sorts of new avenues for bored, young queers like me.

For example, it offers me REAL documentaries of stuff that actually makes me happy:
This is one of my favourite Youtube videos ever. And it IS political. Read through the comments of that video and you’ll see endless comments like: “god, i wish dumb teenage girls would use condoms. If your gonna be a slut, be a smart one.” These girls dancing at 37 weeks is a giant FUCK YOU to all those self-righteous comments. i love how these two girls give off a different energy: the blonde one seems more certain and comfortable in her pregnant skin. the brunette seems to be buoyed up by the blonde’s energy and gains her own confidence because of it. THEY’RE DANCING TO FERGALICIOUS! i love this video and it makes me feel better about myself as a queer man.

Youtube also offers me joy through this kind of REAL documentary:
“oh my god, brian, it smells so bad!!”
“you gotta work faster!! you gotta work faster!! you gotta work faster!!”
“you’ve gotta be kidding me — it’s like a BRAIN!!!”
“i’m never eating cottage cheese again”
aside from the fun and the freak out factor, these are videos of power. people filming their OWN disgusting, real bodies from a powerful lens.
when she says, “brian, there’s something wrong with you!”, she’s laughing and loving him and still engaging, hands-on with the puss oozing from his body.
almost all cyst popping videos are people being popped by their family and friends. it’s communion, albeit weird Youtube communion. i can’t get visions of that anywhere as accessibly as i can on Youtube. AND IT’S FUN.

And one other thing that Youtube offers me, as a queer dude, is more space for WEIRDNESS. i wish this was talked about more. Youtube affords WEIRDNESS.
i got no big statement to make about tonetta except that i dig his fearlessness and realness and weirdness. in an internet of irony, this dude’s pretty authentic. singing about sucking a girl’s ass so hard that he makes her hemorrhoids disappear (could that even physiologically happen???)……… Youtube puts me in touch with this weird dude in Toronto so that I can turn up my laptop speakers and dance to Grandma Knows Best alone in my bedroom in Ottawa:

and don’t be hating on LOLcatz!!
Light as a Feather! Stiff as a Board!!!…

thanks for a smart, thought-provoking article XOXO

Submitted by mel on Tue, 09/08/2009 – 13:38.

Follow the discussion – Alex’s response – on Nico’s blog: