Bo Burnham’s Inside: looking out

Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room Of One’s Own famously used the thought-experiment of ‘Judith’ Shakespeare’s fictional sister, to illustrate the intellectual cost of patriarchy. It’s less a radical notion than a historical certainty that inequality of education and opportunity has smothered unimaginable amounts of talent. The world we inhabit today would be vastly different if these potentials had been given the space to materialise, and contemporary societies undoubtedly suffer because of this failure.

Today I’m thinking of another hypothetical Judith, and wondering whether a female comedian would have received the same kind of critical acclaim had she been responsible for the 2021 special Inside, written, produced and directed by former wunderkind Bo Burnham. What would it mean for a woman to place cameras around herself, alone in her house, both deteriorating and performing for an invisible audience? How could this act be cathartic when performativity and self-surveillance is a signature of daily womanhood? In her 2019 collection of essays Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino reveals that her

only experience of the world has been one in which personal appeal is paramount and self-exposure is encouraged … this legitimately unfortunate paradigm was inhabited first by women and has now been generalized to the entire internet.

Burnham’s Inside engages with the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has arguably exacerbated and extended the kinds of isolation and digital performativity women already experienced. Entire platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram have been built by women taking selfies, adjusting the lighting of their bedrooms, carefully selecting music to dance to, editing footage, re-filming, painting on a little more concealer so no one comments about eye-bags or wonky eyebrows, and posting for an audience that is not promised but is rather earnt with the performer’s social currency. John Berger noted in Ways of Seeing (1972) that ‘a woman must continually watch herself’ and that as such ‘she is continuously accompanied by her own image of herself.’ Occasionally, I ungenerously wonder if Inside is so applauded because cis white men have discovered the conditions of isolation and despondence which others were already feeling.

The male gaze intrinsically links the desired female body to one’s value as a woman. According to Tolentino, we have been ‘socialized to be genuinely desirable at great expense and with great sincerity for all of time’. Burnham’s projection of a video of himself taken earlier in the pandemic onto his present-self involves a ‘before and after’ shot eerily familiar to women. The ABC reported in April 2020 that eating disorders had increased 30% in Australia since the initial government mandated isolation, and as two thirds of all people with eating disorders are female, the reclaiming of the body as a tool for anything other than a measurement of one’s sexualized value to others is implausible. However, in Inside Burnham is able to be both the watcher and the watched, a duality seldom afforded to women. He frames his increasingly deteriorated appearance as an effective index of the pandemic’s psychological toll, in a way significantly less accessible to women.

ELLE magazine opened an August 2020 article about the rise of Chloe Ting, a fitness YouTuber who reached a total of 21.1 million subscribers in the pandemic, with the telling line

in the future, space aliens trying to understand this moment in human history might wonder why, during a catastrophic global pandemic, so many teenage girls were posting videos about sculpting their abs

The rawness and vulnerability of Burnham’s Inside are often cited in favourable criticism, focussing on conventionally feminised qualities. Yet the freedom Burnham displays in the domestic space must be considered alongside the impingement on the female space dictated by the male gaze. Burnham could make his own rules for this room of his own, both in the physical space and the corporeal body. Women cannot use our bodies ourselves for social commentary, they are instead the grounds on which social commentary – like Burnham’s White Woman’s Instagram song – are made.

As a matter of fact, the ‘cinematic selfie’ Burnham has been applauded for creating, has been attempted by women. Without, of course, the industrial support of a giant corporation like Netflix. The Urban Theatre Projects’ Dream Sequence does so, as a digital program centred on the Covid lockdowns that ‘references the dystopian surrealist state we currently live in, while invoking a hopeful way forward into the future.’ As female artists, Evelyn Araluen and Mish Grigor’s respective responses to this situation distinctly differ from Burnham’s. Araluen’s piece As We Know It is stylistically similar to Inside, with the camera held by the persona stuck within the four walls of the house— and the occasional dog-walk— but there is a bodily self-awareness that Burnham lacks. The entrapment within the female body is woven into the fabric of As We Know It as we watch Araluen fill her eyebrows, check her outfit and pose for the camera in a skincare mask. In the poetry overlaid with the sounds of notifications that fill the video, she describes that ‘in a competition for who can look most laconic, my mouth is never relaxed enough for a smirk.’ Female performativity outside the home has always begun in the home. We have always been quarantined and freedom is not present in our domestic space. Inside is appealing because of its voyeuristic thrill, but Burnham is merely expressing the bodily freedom afforded to him by the patriarchy in a smaller space. We are watching a cis-white man express his privilege in a box.

This dynamic glimmers in Lydia Davis’ microfictive piece In a House Besieged. The seven sentences are as follows:

“In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. “The wind,” said the woman. “Hunters,” said the man. “The rain,” said the woman. “The army,” said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged.”

The notion of an artificial infringement upon freedoms is reported by the man, but for Davis’ woman, this is natural, pre-existent. This is what has always been in the perpetual patriarchal quarantine. The experience of being stuck in a home that does not fulfill one’s needs is integral to Grigor’s Part Of Your World, which features a mermaid struggling in a carpark, yearning for the ocean she compares to ‘the steam that comes when the kettle boils.’ When Araluen’s anaphoric line of ‘I hope this email finds you’ reaches the apex of ‘I hope this email finds you in the world we didn’t get’, ultimately the world we didn’t get is one  that men temporarily inhabited. It was one that only a black swan-event like Covid-19 could interrupt for straight, white, cis men like Burnham, and so when it did, the emotions and sensations were to be immortalised rather than endured. The new fascination with agoraphobia as a reaction to isolation that Burnham sings about in Track #17 That Funny Feeling has always existed somewhere in womanhood, the preparation for the dangers of going outside in a world that tries harder and harder to keep us inside through either of violence or the panoptic male gaze. For the woman, the house – the room – was already besieged long ago.

Ultimately, we must question whether we should be satisfied that Burnham has contributed to the discourse on self-surveillance or whether we should examine why it had to be a straight white cis man to do it. I can’t help but come back to the title of Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own: if women ever did get that room, one that could boast of six EMMY nominations and millions of views, it wouldn’t just be her inside. It would be filled with the clones of self-surveillance and performativity needed to achieve that space, and documenting this wouldn’t be a special at all, but rather a day-in-the-life from any point in time over the past 10 years. The modern woman’s room is Grigor’s car park filled with room for others. Burnham stepped inside a reality that non-men have never had the privilege of being outside of.

Zoe Coles

Zoe Coles (she/her) is a nineteen-year-old writer from Sydney.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Life is beautiful Zoe, it’s living that’s hard.
    The cloak of invisibility is worn most often on the backs of old people, women and ‘outsiders’.
    It’s not compulsory.

  2. What a fantastic essay, Zoe.

    Bo has developed such a mannerism of being self-aware of his straight white male privelege – and admitting that he can’t change it, but at least he’s aware and using himself to discuss other kinds of people – that the serious conversation about actually letting those other people talk, because they’ll be able to say so much more, gets lost in the progressive self-deprecation.

    Yes, Bo does dynamic stand-up comedy so well, and with much more self-awareness and inclusivity than most… but how many more of his specials must we get (with their increasingly big gaps between each other) before a female comic is given this kind of platform and a chance to earn this amount of claim?

    1. One of Bo’s role models is/was George Carlin.
      He certainly never pulled any punches.
      Could it be that female comedians fear the backlash from a male dominated industry?
      Jobs are scarce and there are bills to pay.

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