The video opens with a long shot of a woman waking up in bed to the sound of her alarm. All the intimate details of her domestic space are on display within the frame: the colours and design of her crumpled bedsheets; the books on her bedside table; the framed, mid-century art hanging on the walls. A cat pounces up onto her lap as the woman, bleary eyed, scratches her messy mop of bed hair and greets the viewer with a raspy morning voice. The viewer is then taken on a journey through this woman’s ‘morning routine’, which she narrates as she goes about her domestic business – making coffee, checking emails, eating toast. The tone is candid and seemingly unfiltered, the camera lingering on various homely knickknacks that bolster what can only be described as the lived-in-ness of this space.
Eventually, the viewer joins the woman in her bathroom, where atop marble benchtops are glass gars blooming with make-up brushes, seaweed-green bottles of exotic body oils, and pink silk scrunchies resting in a porcelain saucer. Now is the time for the skin care and make-up routine, where every motion, every product and every feeling is described in fastidious, tender detail. Once the woman displays her final ‘look’, the video is complete. With a giggle and a coy wave to the camera, she closes the front door.
This is the formula for a genre of YouTube video broadly called ‘Get Ready With Me’ (GRWM), where, as the name suggests, you watch people get ready. During the depths of Melbourne lockdown malaise in 2020, I found myself becoming entranced by these videos. I yearned for their millennial-pink opening credits, for the ‘realness’ of the crinkled bedsheets and coffee spilling from the plunger on the stove. I found myself hanging onto a stranger’s every word as she detailed her skin care regimen with the confident authority of a dermatologist. These videos contained the glowing promise of vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin CE ferulic acid, and a lactic acid mixture that when squeezed from the pipette and onto the face had the colour and viscosity of freshly drawn blood. In GRWM videos, the women make the process of application seem transcendental – it’s about ‘taking a moment for the self’, smelling the oils, watching as your dead skin cells are gently sloughed away, and slackening into the sweet promise that with each death, however small, comes the promise of regeneration.
We’ve seen similar popular videos that draw sensory pleasure out of relatively banal things – there are countless videos where we watch as people eat, ‘unbox’ products or listen as they gently pop bubble wrap. As if reaching out into the dark and abstract ether of the internet, these videos meet us in this darkness with something miraculously tactile. Is it the sensory closeness that so entrances us? And what is it about these videos that makes them feel so comforting, so necessary, even, during a period of crisis?
In the wake of the coronavirus and particularly in the midst of those 111 days of Melbourne lockdown, I found it curious that I turned to a genre of YouTube video that documented exactly that which I was trapped within: the humdrum, domestic routines within a domestic sphere. Yes, these videos were cushioned with in-vogue aesthetics, generating a sense of closeness when there was a lack, and were littered with endorsed products and sponsorship in a way that tickled my consumerist urges (I couldn’t go out and shop, after all!), but there was also their repetitious nature, their predictability, and the fact that in these videos the featured women were also literally stuck inside the everyday.
Theorists such as Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre brought the quotidian, humdrum and routine elements of daily lives into the realm of philosophical enquiry. According to Lefebvre, everyday life is made up of recurrences: it can be considered the routine elements of work, travel and leisure that we are to some extent all required to undertake. But the everyday can also be defined spatially in terms of the home or public transport – places that are deemed perhaps unremarkable.
Lefebvre argues that modernity has brought new rhythms to everyday life, with people amassing in urban centres and largely abiding by the same clock. Consider John Brack’s famous 1955 painting ‘Collins St., 5 pm’ – on display at the National Gallery of Victoria – where a sea of figures walk uniformly along a city street, the colour palette grey and austere but with the slight glimmer of the sunset bringing a jaundice to the elongated faces. It captures both the new modes of uniform, calculated living that emerged in the twentieth century, as well as a burgeoning artistic and theoretical interest in the concept of the everyday. If, as Debord argues, the everyday is the ‘measure of all things’, why not take the time to explore exactly what is contained within it?
However, philosophers have also noted the ways in which the everyday is most commonly associated with women, the working class and other minority groups. Historically bound by domestic routine and the responsibilities of reproduction – whether that be the reproduction of the family, the home, the worker, or capitalism itself –women’s relationship to the everyday is described by Lefebvre as ‘ambiguous’. If modernity is considered as progress, the novel, the ‘arrow through time’, then the everyday is that which is ‘left over’; it is cyclical, repetitious, bound to the home. As feminist cultural theorist Rita Felski states, the everyday is a kind of belated time in that it ‘lags behind the historical possibilities of modernity’.
Locked within GRWM videos is the similar kind of ‘belated’ or ‘lagging’ temporality: these videos are of course about routine, but they also end when the woman finishes getting ready. As such, the viewer is never privy to her world outside the domestic space. There are no real signifiers of transgression or newness, but instead a surrender to that which is safe, comforting, non-threatening and reliable. Replete with feminine routines, conversational narrating and the all-important product placement of make-up and skin care products, GRWM videos perfectly encapsulate the ‘ambiguous’ relationship between women and the everyday. Trapped within the ‘ideology of femininity’ – which, according to Lefebvre, ‘is another form of the ideology of consumption’ – GRWM videos appeals to this ‘belated’ sense of time.
To consider my turn to GRWM videos as a coping mechanism during a time of crisis is to therefore explore my relationship to the future. Against the backdrop of an uncertain future, I view it as a nihilistic impulse – a deeply gendered way of negotiating crisis and break in belief or enthusiasm for alternative futures.
For Freud, repetition was closely linked to the death drive – the dark, antisocial urges related to nostalgia. It can be seen as a reluctance to invest in the future, instead seeking the safety of pleasures that you have already experienced. For me, the pleasure of watching the same video for the umpteenth time was never the possibility of spotting a new detail, but the very fact that I knew what was going to happen – the pleasure came through re-living an old moment, from remembering the pleasure it originally granted me.
In her text Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant articulates the ordinariness of crises as they are lived in the present moment. The experience of precarity is not necessarily one of instant, cataclysmic change after which nothing is ever the same, but is the slow, gradual wearing out of populations over time and space. Berlant’s interest is in the various ways in which we negotiate and manage this slow political, climatic and social fraying, where we gradually must come to terms with the fact that some of those things we were promised in the project of modernity – durable intimacy, upward mobility, safe and happy futures – may never be fully realised.
In these states, we may experience an urge to ‘return to the scene of the fantasy’ in which those initial promises are still upheld. Perhaps the desire to watch GRWM videos is an example of this pull towards such a fantasy – they offer reassurance and distraction. Maybe this cream blush, maybe this type of eyeliner, maybe this concentration of niacinamide will make things okay.
Tracing the various ways in which we negotiate crises speaks volumes about our collective relationship to the future. Do we feel motivated and inspired to seek out new things? Do we feel ready to shake up the status quo? Or are we so worn out, so exhausted by our feelings of powerlessness, that we simply retreat into the familiar? And if the only comfort we can obtain is through nostalgia, what kind of futures can we create for ourselves?
Just as I as I felt stuck in a loop of watching people ‘getting ready’ but never see their destination, there is a strong feeling that contemporary life is similarly suspended, immobile, forever in the process of getting ready. For what exactly, no one knows.
Image by Alysa Bajenaru