“Latte foam art. Tiny pumpkins. Fuzzy, comfy socks …”
Four months ago, comedian, musician, writer, actor and filmmaker Bo Burnham (“Promising Young Woman”) released “Inside.” Today, the internet is still grappling with how to feel about it.
Unlike Burnham’s previous specials, “Inside” is more of a political art piece than a comedy. Subtle wit is done away with altogether, and in its place Burnham has created something that feels as crude and hopeless as being in quarantine during a global pandemic. And for the most part, his artistic transition from standup to existential fantasia has been met with applause.
However, there’s plenty of warranted criticism to be made about the tone Burnham employs while satirizing the hypocrisy of the digital age. Mainly, he can be guilty of the same performative activism that he condemns. Accordingly, it’s perfectly reasonable to find his patronizing attitude off-putting. In fact, that’s exactly how I felt the first time I watched “White Woman’s Instagram”— a satirical music video from “Inside.”
The song pokes fun at shallow social media posts, commonly found on young, white women’s Instagram pages. At first, I wasn’t sure if the joke was funny enough to warrant what appeared, at the time, to be notes of misogyny.
Yet, Gen Z seemed to embrace the song. I found it all over my TikTok feed the day after Burnham’s special was released, with many users joining in on the joke. It stuck with pop culture, and surprisingly, it stuck with me. Not because of its arrogant dismissal of white women, but because of the opposite:
Bo Burnham cares about why we, as a generation, can’t overcome our need to post content.
There’s a Bo Burnham interview that I always think about. In it, he talks about how young people right now are perceived as a “me, me, me” generation, when the truth is that it’s far sadder than that. For the first time in history, celebrities are no longer these massive icons on Mount Olympus. Thanks to social media, everyone is on a spectrum of celebrity, and by the time you reach middle school, you probably already know where you rank.
Hence, every time a so-called “Gen Zer” feels the need to post about how much fun they’re having or who they’re hanging out with, they’re not screaming for attention. They’re begging for acceptance.
“White Woman’s Instagram” is simply a caricature of this devastating, generational phenomenon put to music. This need for approval does not only impact women, of course, but throughout American history and beyond, it’s no secret that women have been forced to be aware of themselves in ways that men have not. Social media apps like Instagram and Tiktok are specifically designed to reward attractiveness — measured by standards that aren’t even human. As a result, the entire self-worth of teenagers right now is dependent on their ability to achieve likes in this twisted, virtual world.
The insecurities of awkward 13-year-olds are being tapped into in ways that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. Burnham later touches on this in his wonderfully-sarcastic monologue:
“Maybe allowing giant, digital media corporations to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit, you know, maybe that was a bad call by us. Maybe the flattening of the entire, subjective human experience into a lifeless exchange of value that benefits nobody except for, you know, a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley … maybe that as a way of life, forever … maybe that’s not good.”
In “White Women’s Instagram” and several other “Inside” tracks, the world is a late-stage capitalist dystopia nearing its apocalypse.
This is evident in Burnham’s song “That Funny Feeling,” where he lists off the strange contradictions of modern America — “Deadpool’s self-awareness,” “Bugles’ take on race,” “stunning 8k resolution meditation app.” In our pursuit of human evolution, we can’t even tell the branded, virtual world from the real one.
Understanding this context casts “White Women’s Instagram” in a whole different light. It’s not about the ridiculousness of white girls. It’s about the commodification of human life.
“A novel,” “a couple holding hands,” “fresh fallen snow on the ground.” These are real, meaningful joys that life has to offer. Yet, instead of getting to experience them, the existence of social media has changed them into something else: a potential Instagram post. A chance to earn status. A piece of social currency.
I cannot imagine something crueler to take from our generation than the simple beauties of the world.
That’s not to say that in “White Women’s Instagram” and other tracks like it Burnham is being fully sympathetic to our generation. After all, he technically rests in the Millennial age range, and as a result, much of his criticism is directed toward individual shallowness and the loss of challenging art due to social media “aesthetics.”
However, like all great satire, Burnham has a level of empathy here that makes the song so much heavier in significance than it seems on the surface.
For instance: Throughout the majority of “White Woman’s Instagram,” black bars appear on either side to keep the images in a neat, square dimension, mimicking Instagram’s popularized format. About three quarters into the video, Burnham assumes a character who has lost her mother. As she speaks earnestly about her grief, the bars descend to the sides, depicting a shift away from the digital world and into a more honest, human one. Before she can get too sincere though, the bars come back, reconstructing the Instagram framing just in time for “a goat cheese salad!”
In this scene, Burnham challenges us to consider how social media compels us to prove our happiness to others. Rather than being able to face grief in a natural, healthy way, emotion is numbed through the forces of constant entertainment and artificial self-branding.
If it wasn’t clear already, I love the people of my generation. Growing up on the internet has made way for some of the most hilarious, well-informed, open-minded people in history. Yet my heart breaks for how anxious, insecure and straight-up depressed we have become due to our hunger for genuine human experience.
I hope, perhaps with naivety, that these are just symptoms of being the first generation raised on iPhones. Maybe when Gen Zers become parents, our understanding of the internet’s true dangers will inform our kids in ways that our parents just didn’t have the experience to. However, American life under capitalism means that things will always keep going. Our children will likely grow up in new, virtual worlds that we aren’t able to comprehend — potentially ones even more dangerous than ours.
I know that’s a pretty depressing note to end on, but keeping with the spirit of “Inside,” sometimes confronting the truth is a terrifying thing to do. If we want real change, we can’t keep chugging ahead. We need to slow down.
Daily Arts Writer Ben Servetah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.