Is the flexible culture of social media over? Kylie Jenner’s TikTok controversy, unpacked

There’s a change of mood on social media right now, and it’s time to get real about it. In the decade since social media became part of everyday life, as we’ve seen beloved platforms rise and fall (RIP Vine), there’s been a growing clear that apps like Instagram and TikTok not only reflect social culture, but evolve with it. While celebrities and influencers have used these platforms to brand their image, the rest of us have grappled with a digital environment of distorted self-expression for years, in which wealth, Facetuning and idealization seem replace the genuine connection. Case in point: Kylie Jenner’s “dress up with me” TikTok sparked controversy over a casual display of wealth, in which she posed in front of her million-dollar closet, lined with shelves displaying designer shoes and Hermès Birkin bags worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. TikTok users reacted with an outcry, arguing that its flashy content is offline and no longer acceptable. The immediate rejection of Kylie’s ostentatious post, coupled with a push towards online reality, may have you wondering, “Is social media finally over flex culture?”

Kylie Jenner’s Dress With Me TikTok Controversy, Explained

Jenner is far from the only celebrity guilty of posting unwitting content, but she is a strong example based on her posts in recent months: In a TikTok from September 17, Jenner stood in front of a display case containing countless luxury accessories in a closet that looks like a department store and asked viewers to help her choose a bag to wear.

While many saw the video as innocent and amusing, with some commenters calling the reality star “iconic” and asking for a closet tour video, others were offended by her display of wealth. TikTok user @inamarimaki responded, saying, “I’m so shocked at how poor I am.” @itslinklauren joked, “Went to the Grand Canyon and my voice didn’t resonate much,” before noting how offline content was amid a struggling economy and the aftermath of the pandemic.

It’s far from the only time Jenner has been criticized for flaunting her unobtainable wealth. The closet video comes after the star was slammed for regularly using her private jet to get to places accessible by car – despite the flights’ heavy impact on climate change – when the Twitter account @celebrityjets reported their three-minute flight to California on July 12. Barely three days later, on July 15, she passively responded to criticism by doubling down with a swagger post on IG. She limited her comments section to the post, but after the usual “goals”! responses, you can scroll to find other users expressing disappointment: “*Global warming entered the chat*”; “People have to choose between refueling or buying groceries. You might want to read the piece”; “You rich people can make a real difference, but choose not to”; “It gives Marie Antionette lol”; “Kylie girl…that’s not a flex.” Likewise, Kylie’s only response to the closet door backlash was another not-so-humble IG photo of herself in front of the same shelves a few days later.

But at the same time, fans are noticing a push to come off as relatable. If you scroll further down Jenner’s TikTok page, you’ll find a video from this summer of her promoting lip products from her car, which opens with her dropping the phone while he was recording. Viewers called her out as she tried to sound “quirky” and “relatable” in the style of Emma Chamberlain’s beloved vlogging style. @stellaraeherself summed it up in one point in Jenner’s video defending the post: “If you’ve built your brand on being unrelated, but it’s no longer working and you’re changing your vibe… it seems inauthentic.” @lifecrisisinducedglowup brought up the irony that the reality TV star was sitting in a fancy car, basically campaigning with her fanbase to get rich.

Ultimately, influential celebrities like Jenner are caught between trying to pitch a friend-like persona in order to build a parasocial relationship with followers/customers, while enjoying and flaunting unattainable wealth – Jenner’s California home, for example, costs about 1,200 times the average student loan debt in the United States.

These TikTokers argue that this dichotomy presents itself as false, insensitive, and alienating, but that’s the point of flexible culture, after all. “Flexing” online means flaunting status symbols such as designer clothes or luxury vacations, in order to create an ambitious image for others to gawk at. References include Rae Stremmerd’s 2014 song “No Flex Zone,” which describes a place where you can authentically live without worrying about competing with others wielding your riches.

A change away from flexible culture

In a TikTok stich response to Jenner’s video, trending analyst @dtstrends said the backlash was an example of the mood shift of this visual materialism, commenting that Kylie’s closet video “gives out of touch, she gives ‘eat the rich’.” She cited a new wave of influencers discussing issues important to workers. As an example, she used Julia Fox, who, as campy as she is, definitely keeps it real. On TikTok, Fox is leveling up with her audience to voice her opinions on topics including violence, parenthood, radical female empowerment, healthy dating, capitalism and celebrity, and isn’t afraid to breaking the fourth wall to admit she called the paparazzi for a photoshoot (when she was wearing clothes made by a student designer). Sure, she’s a fabulous star, but the key is that she leads with her real personality instead of her stuff, challenging people to change their view of her – as if she’s humanizing the supposed “doll” persona. dressed” from when she was dating Kanye West.

Media trend predictor @cocomocoe also praised Fox for being authentic in a TikTok video, saying, “I think what makes [Fox] so sympathetic is that she does not care to be liked. She argued that Fox is an outsider to champion, unlike so many famous “nepotistic babies,” and that this quality makes her a natural antithesis to Kardashian-style celebrities.

“Every time I see a video of Julia Fox appear on my feed, I’m reminded how much she deserves the platform she has. Because what she says makes you think, number one, and that comes from ‘a place of love and compassion,’ TikTok user @electralouise said in a video, adding that she appreciates how Fox has brought more visibility to the struggles of single motherhood and validated the experiences of a larger community.

Another way Fox stands out from her peers is how she’s able to seriously laugh at herself and acknowledge criticism online, like when she reposted an edit of herself as a centaur after whether people clowned around in her super low-rise pants (captioned “Sleigh”), responded to disdain for her smudged eye makeup, or even when she captioned a daring outfit on IG,” **Disclaimer: You’re not supposed to like this.**”

More importantly, Fox’s self-proclaimed role is not to sell a lifestyle or a product. Many young Gen Z women online jokingly praise her as a modern philosopher, like in this Tiktok from @midwestbimbo, for her insights and honest wisdom. Plus, she’d probably make a great IRL friend too.

The rise of BeReal

One of the factors that has led to a move away from flexible culture is how Gen Z uses social media differently than Millennials. Gen Z posting is less about outright validation and more about expression of personality. For example, Instagram photo dumps are right now, referring to a multi-slide post of random, but still organized images. They’re meant to show darker snapshots of everyday life, like blurry snaps, zoomed-in food shots, and even out-of-place memes, in a bid to make Instagram casual again (a change of posed, filtered, and faceted posts ). This style is a running joke on TikTok, as this puzzled millennial @portab.ella video shows.

The apps themselves are also getting more real – pun intended. BeReal, the latest Gen Z social media app you’ve probably added to your rotation, is designed to share an unprecedented moment using a dual camera and surprise users with a daily alert. Since the start of 2022, the app’s downloads have increased by 315%, according to Apptopia, and its popularity indicates a desire for candid online publishing and a sense of community, as people regularly share with each other at the same time. Whether you’re lying in bed or out on the town, BeReal flexes your reality, not a calculated, validation-hungry fantasy. People love it so much that almost every other major social app is adopting similar sharing feature.

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As people lift the veil – or filter – their identity online, it’s harder to take the wealthy seriously when they one day sell a shiny product in a big-budget photo shoot and then try to communicate with fans from their 10-car driveway the next day. The general feeling online is that people don’t want to log on to be sold. Plus, in the aftermath of a pandemic and with rumors of a recession around the corner, people are just tired of seeing things they can’t have. The past few years have taught us that accessibility in real life is more important than ever, and can be achieved through a compassionate and productive connection to the Internet – as long as users point their attention in that direction.

If the flexing really came out, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong to celebrate your first home or your first dream purse on your page. Instead, it’s about moving away from the idea that you need to create a “better” version of yourself online, such as showing off your lifestyle with the intention of appearing above above your followers in terms of social or economic status. Like Fox, your page is an opportunity to play up your humor, learned wisdom, and big ideas that make you unique, which in turn will inspire your friends.

Thanks to a fresh perspective from Gen Z, it seems like social media is moving away from the highly curated and polished streams that function to compete with their peers, and towards a space that encourages original expression, creativity, self-image authentic and a place of discussion. questions that really matter IRL to you and your followers. If we are going to dedicate so much of our lives and identities to digital media, we might as well extend our realities to it as well.

About Sandy Fletcher

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