Nº5 2020 (2)

Marketing Race, Gender, and Activism through Bodiless Entities: A look at Brud’s Instagram ‘Robots’

Nicole Ucedo (UCLA)

When I first saw lilmiquela while aimlessly scrolling through Instagram, I didn’t know what was going on. Everything in Miquela’s appearance looked familiar: her face, her hair, her body—even her look of consciousness as the camera takes her photo—but it all looked a little bit off. Upon obsessively going through her old posts and googling lilmiquela, I found out that lilmiquela is a digital rendering with an Instagram account, or an Instagram robot as ‘she’ presents herself to be. Miquela was made by Brud, a tech design company based in Los Angeles started by Sara Decou and Trevor McFedries that has generated multiple Instagram personas in order to market products and support ideas. While the concept of designing animals or human characters to sell a product is not new, what is not clear when looking at Miquela and her other Brud ‘robot’ friends Blawko22 and BermudaisBae (all three are social media influencers), is whether digital entities can embody race, gender, and ideologies or if they are only being made to perform them. Even though humans too may perform their identities, the intention behind what fuels the identities of the Brud ‘robots’ is quite distinct. In line with Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto which views gender, race, and class as constructs forced on us by capitalist and colonialist powers (Haraway, 2018), this video essay argues that the gender, race, and political activism of the Brud ‘robots’ only exists within a marketing framework in which their identities are constructed in order to target products to specific audiences. 

This audiovisual essay is split up into three sections: Digital Epidermis, #Activism, and Gender & Sexuality. Digital Epidermis looks at how skin color plays a role in the racializing of the Brud ‘robots’ specifically Miquela, who is the most famous of the three and the one that is often referred to as “racially ambiguous.” Some sources say that she is Brazilian-American, while others insist that she is Brazilian-Spanish-American. Since Miquela’s body is merely digital pixels gathered together in a computer based in LA, the argument about where her nationality and background comes from seems obsolete —yet is crucial for the integration of her narrative which is used to lure followers.  Her international background appears to be created in an attempt to explain her racial ambiguity; but nations are not necessarily specific to race, so her racial mixing remains unexplained. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Race and/as Technology holds that race goes beyond cultural and biological constructions. Chun says about the visibility of race, race is on the skin, but skin is the sign of something deeper, something hidden in the invisible interior of the organism (as organic or ontological)” (Chun, 2009). Chun’s view that the skin signifies race can be applied to Miquela, who very purposely looks mixed raced. The skin is only the surface level; the visibility of race on the skin does not imply a meaning or history of her roots. 

#Activism is the next section which looks at how the Brud robots are expressing their political and social views online and what is to be gained by Brud and the brands employing them. Miquela does not hide that she is a non-human, in fact all three are rather vocal about their digital existence. However, their non-human identities are defined by their opinions and views on the human world which thus works to humanize them. Miquela uses her platform to support the LGBTQ+ community, Black Lives Matter, and Pro Choice issues. These issues she ‘feels’ strongly about work to create her identity as a woman of color.  Leilani Nishime’s The Mulatto Cyborg relates cyborgs to mixed race identifying people in that there is a confusion and concern oriented around the body (Nishime, 2005). Miquela as both cyborg and mixed race can be seen investigating her ‘body’s’ form through her physical presentation which is often experimental in fashion, and her Instagram posts which directly question her identity.

Finally, in Gender and Sexuality, I argue that the Brud robots are also sold to consumers by becoming gendered and sexualized in their fictional narratives and brand use. Miquela is portrayed as ‘queer’ in the Bella Hadid make-out video for Calvin Klein which sparked outrage among online users about the ‘queerbaiting’ tactic being used by Calvin Klein. Similarly the heterosexual relationship between Blawko and Bermuda and their cis-normative clothing works to gain them a larger following as online users become invested with the romantic drama between the two digital entities. In Judith/Jack Halberstam’s text, Automating Gender s/he says, “Gender we might argue like computer intelligence, is a learned, imitative behavior that can be processed so well that it comes to look natural” (Halberstam, 1991) Ultimately that is what these ‘robots’ are designed to do: portray their learned genders and infiltrate themselves into our cyber-human society in order to become relatable to us and sell us the products that they endorse. 

The ability for digital renderings or even A.I’s to truly be racialized, gendered, and political remains unclear. The Brud ‘robots’ show that their identities only exist within a capitalist framework. Without the purpose of marketing the robots wouldn’t have a means of performing their gender, race, or ideologies and therefore would lose their identities.

Bibliography

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong (2009) “Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, 24(1), 7-35. 

Halberstam, Judith (1991) “Automating Gender: Postmodern Feminism in the Age of the Intelligent Machine,” Feminist Studies, 17(3), 439. 

Haraway, Donna Jeanne (2018) Cyborg Manifesto. Victoria, British Columbia: Camas Books.

Nishime, Leilani (2005) “The Mulatto Cyborg: Imagining a Multiracial Future,” Cinema Journal, 44(2), 34-49. 

How to cite this article: Ucedo, N. (2020) Marketing de Raza, Género y Activismo a través de Entidades Incorpóreas: Una Mirada a los ‘Robots’ de Instagram de Brud  / Marketing Race, Gender, and Activism through Bodiless Entities: A look at Brud’s Instagram ‘Robots’. Tecmerin. Revista de Ensayos Audiovisuales, 5(2). ISSN: 2659-4269

Other videoessays in this issue:

Moving through Geometric Compositions: The Spectator’s Experience of Film Space
Farshad Zahedi & Francisco J. Jiménez Alcarria (UC3M)

Leviathan
Adrià Guardiola Rius (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

Facce della stessa medaglia- Sides of the same coin
Adrià Guardiola Rius (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

Ways of Coming Home. Affective Cartographies, Memory and Visuality
Tayri Paz García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) y Jochen Vivallo (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid)