Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Natalie Wynn - head and shoulders - faces the camera directly, appearing nearly nude. She artfully holds an apple with the fingertips of both hands, nails red to match. Blond hair tumbles down out of a flower headband, all set against a green and floral background.

How Autofiction, the Buzzy Literary Category, Helps Us Make Sense of YouTube


Natalie Wynn - head and shoulders - faces the camera directly, appearing nearly nude. She artfully holds an apple with the fingertips of both hands, nails red to match. Blond hair tumbles down out of a flower headband, all set against a green and floral background.

The second most visited website globally (surpassed only by Google’s homepage), YouTube reportedly currently hosts over 14 billion videos, making it by far the most consequential moving image repository on earth. Yet, despite its unprecedented cultural significance—and despite now being almost twenty years old—startlingly little discussion of the platform seems interested in treating YouTube as an artistic medium. Approaching YouTube as art could take many forms. This essay asks whether there might be a place on YouTube for one artistic genre that’s become increasingly influential in the twenty-first century, especially in literature: autofiction.

What Is Autofiction?

Coined in 1977 by the French novelist and theorist Serge Doubrovsky, autofiction became very fashionable throughout the 2000s and 2010s. The term has been applied to a wide variety of literary works, from self-defined autofictions like Veronique Tadjo’s Far From my Father (2010), via ostensible novels like Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (2014-2018), to memoirs like Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), and “autobiographical novels” like Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series (2009-11).

Etymologically a portmanteau of “autobiography” and “fiction,” autofiction is a slippery aesthetic category. I tend to agree with those who argue that autofiction is “not a genre,” but “an aesthetic gesture or practice or mode.” In terms of what that gesture consists of, one characterization I find usefully broad is this, from literary scholar Dervila Cooke:

Autofiction … combines the conventions of autobiography with those of fictional writing, and presents the author as both … herself and a fictional character, … encouraging confusion between fiction and autobiographical fact.

What are the conventions of autobiography and fiction that autofiction confuses? The philosopher Kendall Walton once suggested that the contents of fictional narratives ask to be imagined, whereas those of non-fictional narratives ask to be believed. Autofiction blurs and complicates the stability of these conventional assumptions, especially as regards the author’s implied relationship to someone represented in the work (most usually its protagonist).

YouTube as Autofiction

It is frankly extraordinary that autofiction and YouTube seem to have seldom been discussed together. I say this partly because of two related scholarly assumptions that are often made about the “performance of the self” associated with YouTube.

On the one hand, there’s an entrenched assumption that YouTubers try to present themselves to their audiences as their “real selves”—that is: “non-fictional self-presentations … perceived by an audience as authentic.” This, it is claimed, reflects the so-called “ideology of authenticity” governing YouTube performance and its reception. It’s wholly unsurprising that assumptions like this should exist, given the sorts of “discourses of authenticity” associated with YouTube, including the site’s initial slogan: Broadcast Yourself. So, put in terms of the conventions that autofiction blurs: it’s usually assumed that self-performance on YouTube comes much closer to the conventions of autobiography than to those of fiction.

Yet, on the other hand, YouTube scholars often emphasize that the performative and mediatized nature of YouTube self-performance necessarily results only in a “faked” authenticity. Scholars often place great significance on the observation that “authenticity on YouTube does not refer to a reflection of reality without mediation.” As such, the most YouTubers’ self-performances can truly hope for is only an “authenticity effect.” This assumption is equally unsurprising, given that “authenticity” is perhaps the most persistently and gleefully debunked concept in media studies.

The concept of autofiction seems perfectly poised to intervene in these debates. There have always been YouTubers whose performance style cannot be accounted for in the slightest by the platform’s so-called “ideology of authenticity” (and not just quasi-hoaxes like Lonelygirl15). Since YouTube’s earliest days, many popular YouTubers have regularly performed as explicitly fictional characters—say, Fred, Filthy Frank, or Laina Morris’ Overly Attached Girlfriend. Others have depended upon walking the line between fictional and non-fictional selves—like Nostalgia Critic or Angry Videogame Nerd; or between pointedly exaggerated personas and characters, like DaxFlame, CopperCab, or MemeMolly. And this is without even mentioning more self-consciously experimental YouTube performance artists like Poppy, or Maya Ben David. Between these and many other methods of complicating the line between non-fictional autobiography and fictional characters, there seems much potential for autofictional YouTube performance.

While autofiction can probably be found across numerous YouTube genres, I’ll focus here on one in particular: the YouTube video essay. Largely ostensibly non-fictional and informative, this YouTube genre has become increasingly aesthetically ambitious—especially within the orbit of an informal grouping of explicitly left-wing video essayists, which has been dubbed “LeftTube” by its fans. One YouTube video essaysist has been a key figure within these developments in the genre: Natalie Wynn, creator of the channel ContraPoints.

ContraPoints and Autofiction

Wynn’s ContraPoints videos have become popular both for their witty political/philosophical analyses of online culture and their unique aesthetic: a comic, highly stylized, irreverently trans-queer combination of direct address monologues about politicized issues, drag-ball performance styles, baroque art-direction, and (sometimes) explicitly fictional characters. These characters include figures like Freya the Fascist, a parodic Nazi caricature of the alt-right; the brilliantly named trans-exclusionary radical feminist Abigail Cockbane; and Tiffany Tumbles, a Trump-loving, self-hating trans influencer. All characters featured on the channel are embodied by Wynn herself, and she tends to dramatize dialogues between them engaging in heated seriocomic debates about topics like the politics of gender or religion.

Given this partly fictionalized dimension of her YouTube work, it’s probably unsurprising that, when discussing her videos, Wynn occasionally explicitly defines them against YouTube’s reputation for “authenticity.” She muses that, “in many ways my videos are not in the spirit of YouTube,” which generally assumes “authenticity, or the appearance ofit.” In the below video, she speaks at a creators’ conference, outlining her approach:

A YouTuber who conceives of her work in this way is ripe for discussion in relation to autofiction. If an autobiography (or, in Wynn’s metaphor, a “diary”) traditionally asks us to believe that a non-fictional author is addressing us as themselves, autofiction complicates that belief via a simultaneous invitation to imagine that “the author [both] is and is not represented by [a] textual surrogate”. In literature, that “surrogate” is usually a narrative’s protagonist or narrator. On YouTube this characteristically autofictional tension between belief and imagination can be leant a further, embodied dimension: Wynn literally represents every character on screen, which continuously raises questions about who exactly we are being asked to imagine (or believe) we are watching at any given moment.

The concept of autofiction might help us appreciate the work of Wynn and other YouTubers. However, this certainly isn’t to say that everyvideo by any YouTuber will usefully be definable as autofictional. To demonstrate why, let’s compare two ContraPoints videos: “Transtrenders” (2019) and Shame (2020). In both, Wynn embodies someone coming out as gay. The coming-out video has become “a distinctive YouTube form” that exploits the “confessional” style so common on the platform. I suggest that Shame is indeed a coming-out video in this sense, whereas “Transtrenders” is not. This is because only Shame sees Wynn articulating her identity in a non-fictional mode, whereas “Transtrenders” depicts her doing so using an autofictional mode.

In some videos Wynn performs as characters defined explicitly as fictional (like Freya the fascist or Abigail Cockbane), but in many others Wynn manifestly isn’t playing explicitly fictional characters. Wynn has said of her work generally that the persona she embodies on YouTube is “based on me, but it’s scripted and … presented in this very stylized context.” But the fact that all ContraPoints videos feature a good deal of artifice and theatricality needn’t justify using the term “fiction” to refer to the numerous videos in which Wynn primarily delivers direct address monologues-to-camera as, seemingly, herself. In these videos, she regularly even introduces herself by name (“Hi, I’m Natalie Wynn…”), before going on to discuss specific incidents from her life. Viewers thus seem invited to understand these as genuine self-narrations: non-fictional claims about her non-fictional self—however performatively those claims may be articulated, which is often very performatively indeed. Shame is one such video.


Shame represents Wynn’s actual (that is, non-fictional) announcement of her sexuality to her audience. In this forty-two-minute video essay, Wynn analyzes topics like transgender self-loathing, internalized homophobia, and “compulsory heterosexuality.” Yet it is also, as Wynn immediately and sardonically acknowledges, an example of that conventionally non-fiction genre: the coming-out video. Here’s a clip from that video’s opening:

Following this, Wynn offers a direct-address monologue structured around her own personal narrative of shamefully repressing, wrestling with, then belatedly embracing her identity as a trans lesbian—prompted, we’re told, by having fallen in unrequited love with her closest female friend.

Shame creates a deeply performative and stylized context for Wynn’s direct-address monologue. It takes place across more than one carefully constructed set, expressively dressed and lit. It also prominently foregrounds thematically relevant props and mise-en-scène: a statue of the Biblical Eve, for instance, attempting to hide her face and nakedness with her arms. Later, a second set depicts another ostentatiously metaphorical backdrop, this time overflowing with tumbling flowers and greenery—evoking a Pre-Raphaelite Eden. Underlining the subject of shame generally, these Edenic allusions also satirically reappropriate a Christian mythology so often wielded against LGBTQ communities—precisely to induce this titular shame. Wynn’s decisions about costuming are similarly thematically motivated: lurching between extremes of modesty and nakedness, her attire too aesthetically reinforces the video’s central theme. By persistently and self-consciously using strategies of symbolism, thematic metaphor, and satire, these stylistic gestures are plainly intended to be understood performatively and appreciated aesthetically.

Two screenshots of Wynn. On the left, she sits on a dark red chaise longue dressed in somewhat goth-Victorian-inspired black attire, with the Eve statue to her left and a blue curtain backdrop. On the right, she appears with flowing blond hair and flower headband, holding a bitten apple, against a very floral, green backdrop.

Yet, despite all this stylization (and notwithstanding Wynn perhaps personally regarding videos like Shame as depicting “a kind of fictional character”), neither fiction nor autofiction seem suitable descriptions for this video. Recalling Walton’s idea that non-fictional narratives ask to be believed, the most fundamental thing we seem asked to believe by videos like Shame precedes anything in the contents of what Wynn says. We are asked to believe something about the mode of address she is using: that this YouTuber, who appears to be addressing us as herself, really is doing precisely that. This does not require believing that a YouTube performer is somehow not performing. It merely requires believing that the video represents one familiar kind of performance: a “performance of the self” (with all the complexities this implies). Shame is an especially stylized instance of this kind of performance, but that does not prevent it from encouraging this kind of belief. Given that invitation to believe, Wynn’s coming out here is thus intended as a genuine announcement of her identity, designed to be appreciated by her audience as such.


By contrast, in “Transtrenders, released seven months prior, when Wynn comes out, she does so while playing an ostensibly fictional character called Justine. “Transtrenders” is one of ContraPoints’ most fully fictional videos, at least in terms of its aesthetic conventions. It is populated purely by fictional characters and filmed largely in shot-reverse shot dialogue sequences. It features no moments of Wynn speaking to camera as herself, in the manner of Shame.

Two more screenshots of Wynn's video. On the left, she sits in casual clothing and hair thrown up sloppily, drinking tea, talking to a version of herself who is dressed less casually with fully done hair and makeup. On the right, she is dressed as though she is inside a computer: wires for hair and coming out of her fingers, against a glittery wire-tube backdrop.

By aesthetically framing its contents as fictional—primarily inviting our imagination rather than our belief—the fact that a character Wynn plays comes out in this video seems to have been neither conceived as a coming-out, nor received as such by her fans. This is despite who Wynn is playing while “coming out” here: Justine, a recurring ContraPoints character, who fans have long accepted as (to quote one commenter on the ContraPoints Reddit page), “the character that feels closest to the author.” Nevertheless, the fact that she is conceptualized as a character, not the author herself, remains important.

In “Transtrenders”, which is a narratively complex video, Wynn plays not only Justine but also Justine’s frenemy Tiffany, and a quasi-diegetic host character called the Digital Messiah, who serves as a kind of Greek chorus, interjecting occasionally to comment upon the video’s fictional events from a quasi-Godlike perspective. The moment of Justine’s coming-out involves all these characters—being prompted by Tiffany, confirmed by the Digital Messiah, then finally owned up to by Justine:

In Shame, Wynn itemizes a fairly precise timeline for her realization that she was gay. According to that timeline, “Transtrenders” was made after she came to that realization. So, in retrospect, it seems to represent an opportunity for Wynn to experiment with a coming-out video, without enacting it in the mode of non-fictionthat coming-out videos invariably assume. Put another way: ensconced within ostensibly fictional narration—assured via aesthetic gestures like ostentatious fictional characters and classical shot-reverse shot editing—this confession wasn’t quite interpretable as a “personal confession” at all.

As we might expect, the similarities between what Justine goes through in “Transtrenders” and the experiences Wynn recounts in Shame were noted by fans. On the ContraPoints sub-Reddit, for instance, we see commenters writing that, following Shame, “Transtrenders” now either strikes them as “foreshadowing” or “feels prophetic”; Justine’s coming out is now described as “seem[ing] very real,” but also—crucially—that Justine remains (in the words of one commenter) the character that is “closest to the author, to the point I’ve sometimes not realized that she’s been in character for stretches of certain videos.” It seems clear that what these fans are acknowledging in colloquial form is awareness precisely of the characteristically hybrid act of imagination invited by autofiction, in which “the author [is] both … herself and a fictional character.”

From Autofiction to Non-Fiction

Autofiction is therefore a useful concept for understanding at least kinds of self-performance in YouTube; but it has also been important to contrast it against its more conventional counterpart: non-fiction. In an excellent video essay about ContraPoints, the YouTuber Sarah Zedig observes that, since Wynn herself plays every character in her videos, it is “basically … impossible for the audience to forget that these are fragments of Natalie Wynn.” However, by shifting between different modes of address, Wynn is nonetheless able either to fully imbue her performance with or distance it from the default “appearance of non-fiction” associated with YouTube. She mobilizes that default assumption to some extent in one video, to a different extent in another. Autofiction is one aesthetic gesture that this continual shifting between modes has led her to employ; but it is crucial to recognize it as one among many.

The concept of autofiction is useful partly because it can help us think more precisely about the many possible kinds of “performance of the self”—on YouTube or elsewhere. As we’ve seen, media scholars often understand “authentic” self-performance on YouTube in a paradoxical yet singular fashion: as something YouTubers incessantly strive for, yet which remains inevitably impossible. This often leads them to make a conceptual leap that is familiarly postmodern: from an acknowledgement of the necessarily performed or performative nature of the self, to the view that any “performance of the self is just as … “theatrical” and “artistic” in ordinary life as it is in fine art.” Autofiction might help us see why this familiar media theory move—while tempting—is ultimately misguided.

Such a blanket postmodern understanding of self-performance undermines our ability to understand autofiction. It also erases the potential to draw a meaningful distinction between the invitations of ostensible non-fiction to believe,and the invitations of ostensible fiction—like a works of theatre, or conventionally fictional films—to imagine. Or, put in terms of performance: between the everyday social performance, or performativity, theorized by figures like Erving Goffman and Judith Butler, and the representationalperformance theorized by scholars of screen acting, like James Naremore. By contrast, precisely because autofiction self-consciously plays with blurring the conventional boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, its very existence as a coherent concept depends on the meaningfulness of those conventions in the first place. After all, if every self-narration were equally fictional, there would be no need to distinguish autofiction from wholesale fiction, nor indeed autobiography, at all.

We can’t appreciate an autofictional mode of self-performance like Wynn’s unless we’re also willing to acknowledge the ever-present possibility of her employing alternative modes. Key amongst these is the mode that is most characteristic of YouTube: not “authentic” performance (whatever this means) but simply non-­fictional performance. For performers to blur those distinctions can be aesthetically exhilarating. But for us to collapse them will leave us unable to appreciate the aesthetic specificity—and the artistic interest—of what some YouTubers are doing on and with the platform.

James MacDowell is Associate Professor of Film & Television Studies at the University of Warwick. The author of Irony in Film (2016) and Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema (2013), his current research focuses on the aesthetics of YouTube. He makes video essays for his YouTube channel The Lesser Feat.

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