Nothing quite says we're living in the era of being unapologetically yourself than the sight of American singer and rapper Lizzo twerking in a near-naked dress for her millions of followers on social media.
While some might be shocked, for others, the likes of Lizzo – and a growing number of 'authentic' online influencers – are celebrated for breaking the mould and helping to smash countless gender, age, and racial stereotypes, all while enabling their legions of fans to feel 'seen'.
"Social media has decentralised influence, says Mae Katherine Ong, group creative director of VaynerMedia Asia Pacific. "Female influencers are helping to change the narrative (Hello, Lizzo!), celebrating bodies big and small, and inviting people of all shapes, sizes, and colours to join in to share their body positive content."
More women embracing buzz-cuts and lifting weights
But a move to more authentic social feeds has been growing for some time – long before the likes of Lizzo took it mainstream. Years ago, we saw the increase of “finstas” – secret Instagram profiles that are less polished and more authentic. More recently we saw new platforms like BeReal soar in popularity – encouraging people to show their most authentic, real selves in the moment. But these aren’t just trends.
"It’s rooted in a deeper desire we’ve seen from society: a desire to see, accept and normalise human-beings as they are," says Tiffany Mondesir, planning director at VCCP. "This means people want to see less conventionally attractive or affluent influencers and instead want to see more influencers who are a genuine reflection of 'real people', like themselves."
Mondesir adds that when it comes to portrayals of women and smashing stereotypes, people increasingly want to see fewer skin filters, and more pores. "They want to see more women embracing buzz-cuts and lifting weights. They want to see less glamorised mumfluencers, and more honesty with coping with real-world challenges, such as postpartum depression."
Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University, conducts research at the intersection of media, culture, and technology, and says that social media culture is predicated on the ideal of authenticity—or, at least, the projection of authenticity.
"One of the ways this plays out in gendered online contexts is through the 'body positivity’ movement, which seems to challenge deep-rooted gender ideals and normative beauty standards," says Duffy. "To a certain extent, it does — especially compared with traditional media. However, I'm reluctant to say that this movement erodes gender stereotypes, particularly given the types of influencers most likely to score brand deals—or garner visibility through an algorithm. Far too often, they are young, white, thin, and conventionally attractive."
TikTok: the ultimate democratiser?
In recent years, our narrowly defined standards of beauty portrayed on social media have started to shift. However, up until recently the primary focus of those standards has been on size and shape, but this has brought its own set of challenges, says WhiteGrey’s strategy director, Brooke Thompson.
"The challenge is that while influencers were celebrating real bodies, they were condemning the other by comparison," says Thompson. "This isn’t real, THIS is real. So, while it was breaking down one gender stereotype it was perpetuating another – female rivalry."
Thompson adds that only with the introduction of the TikTok algorithm have gender stereotypes started to shift in a broader sense.
"The app’s 'For You Feed' is the ultimate democratiser," says Thompson. "There is no one formula for going viral so diverse voices and representation are given equal weight."
Influencers or traditional advertising: who has done more to smash gender stereotypes?
Paolo Juarez Broma is managing director of TBWA/Juice in the Philippines and says that Filipina influencers have played a substantial role in promoting body positivity, and by doing so have helped to erode gender stereotypes.
"While traditional advertising still leans into the conventional approach of casting models with perfect figures and stereotypical looks, influencers have been using their platforms to share a more authentic message by showcasing their own diverse body types, sharing their own struggles with body image, and promoting messages of self-love and acceptance to their followers."
But Lauriann Serra, managing director at Goat Agency, says that, like in advertising, we have to acknowledge that the world's most successful influencers still tend to be "attractive" in the traditional sense of the word, and that they do often fall into gender stereotypes.
However, that said, Serra still believes that influencer marketing and social media has more of an opportunity to erode gender stereotypes than many mainstream brand communications due to the relevancy and trust they create with their audiences. "It is clear that consumers want to see more authentic, diverse and real people who represent them and their beliefs,” says Serra. “We are seeing more of this in traditional advertising but there is more skepticism there. Consumers have greater trust in influencers therefore allowing them to have more of an impact."
Trust, it seems, is a major factor in what separates influencers from traditional advertising. According to a study, 61% of consumers trust the product recommendations they get from influencers. Meanwhile, only 38% trust branded (often biased) social media content.
"On top of influence power, we can also see that there’s a much wider variety of women influencers whose voices and stories all have the power to influence change," says Mondesir.
After analysing over three million Instagram posts labelled as an ad, Statista found that 84% of the influencers creating sponsored posts were women.
"And of these women, they don’t need to be activists themselves in order to break down biases or erode gender stereotypes of what people think a woman should be," adds Mondesir. "This means more visibility for diverse perspectives and lifestyles that can help break the clichés."
As influencers have more freedom to express their authentic perspectives and experiences, rather than being constrained by the narrow messages and portrayals that can be found in some advertising, they can often be more effective in eroding gender stereotypes.
"This means not only championing body positivity, but also gender inclusivity and acceptance, highlighting the diversity of experiences and identities that exist within the gender spectrum," says Suzie Shaw, CEO at socially-led creative agency We Are Social Australia. "By leveraging their personal experiences and perspectives, many influencers have been able to create a more positive and representative cultural narrative, and challenge the narrow and limiting messages that have traditionally been perpetuated by advertising."
Are AI influencers about to undo the work done around authenticity and eroding gender stereotypes?
If you hadn't already noticed, AI / virtual influencers are on the rise. According to a study by HypeAuditor, virtual influencers have almost three times more engagement than real influencers.
While there may be pros and cons for using virtual influencers in campaigns, it may come at the risk of eroding the work that's been done around gender stereotypes.
"Ultimately, it means that some of the most popular 'female' influencers are actually just AI (artificial intelligence) created by men and therefore have been created in the 'male gaze'," says Serra. "The beauty of influencers was always that they are real people with real lives, real beliefs, real opinions, real struggles and real interests, and this helped to break down stereotypes – particularly around what makes for good 'advertisers'. There is a worry that if AI and virtual influencers become the norm, we could end up going backwards."
Fiona Nwoke, group account director at Icon Agency in Melbourne, doesn't think virtual / AI influencers necessarily have the ability to undo the work of real influencers, as the majority of audiences are savvy enough to realise that they are a completely different concept. That said, she is worried that with little regulation around the data used to develop a virtual / AI influencer, there could be a risk that these characters will perpetuate the unconscious bias of the business, brand or individual behind their creation. A recent example would be Shudu Gram - a South African AI model created by a white male.
"Left unchecked and unregulated, AI potentially threatens to erode the craft and soul of all industries, including art, music, visual content, journalism, and more," says Nwoke. Without human input, AI cannot create a piece of content with soul. It can mimic or replicate, but it lacks lived experiences to draw upon. Essentially then, the AI becomes an actor, playing the roles and stories of real humans who have those stories to tell."
Nwoke adds that while she doesn't think real influencers need to worry about being overshadowed, she does believe that audiences are at risk of being subconsciously swayed. "This is particularly worrisome at a time when ‘incels’ and public figures like Andrew Tate are becoming an increasingly louder voice."
Some, however, believe that virtual influencers are not necessarily a threat, but just the next chapter of the conversation. And that the onus lies with the people developing the virtual influencers to make sure they advance the work already done around gender stereotypes and not erode it.
"Rather than the onus being on the influencers to erode stereotypes, it will sit with the developers," says Thompson of whiteGREY agency. "It will be important that a diverse range of people – women, men, non-binary – are represented in the developing teams that create the virtual/AI influencers. Equally, we will need to ensure that they are trained using a diverse range of data sets and perspectives. Only then will virtual/AI influencers be able to advance the work done to erode gender stereotypes."