Friday, March 11, 2016

Book Review: Binge by Tyler Oakley

Rating: 4/5

It seems that this past year has been the year of Youtuber books.  More and more Youtube personalities have been putting out their own books - sometimes multiple - and reaching top spots on the New York Times Best Seller List.  I recently picked up Binge, written by one of the most prominent Youtubers, Tyler Oakley.  And I have to say, this is one Youtuber book that stands out among the rest.

Before Binge, I'd only read two books written by Youtubers.  One was extraordinarily well done, and the other was - to put it bluntly - horrendous.  So I've seen both sides of the spectrum with Youtuber books.  Along with that, I am all too familiar with the discussion revolving around books published by Youtubers.  At one point, it seemed that one after another, Youtubers were putting up videos with the same title: "I Wrote a Book!" making many question the quality of these books, and how much time and effort these Youtube personalities were really putting into them.  But I am here to tell you that Binge deserves the praise it has received. What I appreciate about Tyler in writing his book is that he did so only once he felt he was ready to and had stories to tell.  Before the book's release, Tyler put out a video describing the whole story behind Binge, prefacing by explaining how in 2012 he was offered a book deal - and how he ended up turning this opportunity down because he simply didn't feel ready at that point in his life to write a book.  He didn't feel right about having a book deal just to have a book deal. After taking some time to write these stories, to feel comfortable enough to tell them, he put them together and presented what is now Binge.  His care, attention, and reason for writing this book speaks volumes.  With this, Binge is so much more than "just another Youtube book."

As soon as I found out that Tyler had written a book, I was immediately intrigued.  I've been following Tyler and his videos for a good while - not as far back as his early videos from college, but long enough to not be considered a newcomer either.  I've always loved watching Tyler's videos.  He gives off such a positive, welcoming energy, his laugh is contagious, and sitting down to watch his videos feels like being with a friend.  Not only that, but he's a longtime supporter of the Trevor Project, and since then, has devoted himself to being an activist for the LGBTQ+ community. Recently, he's even reached out to acknowledge lesser-known identities within the LGBTQ+ community, like asexuals/aromantics. (Thanks, friend!) And because I know Tyler loves a little self-promo, I'll do some right now: Follow Tyler on Youtube ( and on Twitter (@tyleroakley). You won't regret it!

You can't deny that Tyler truly cares about his viewers, maintaining a close relationship with them in the most genuine way.  But Binge takes this intimate relationship with his viewers even further as he reveals every last layer and every last part of himself.  Tyler describes Binge as a book filled with all of the stories he's never told.  I hadn't prepared myself for the full extent of this until reading it for myself.

I'm going to be honest.  My very first impression of Binge, after finding out the title and seeing the cover - which shows Tyler surrounded by a backdrop of candy wrappers while gritting a piece in between his teeth - was "Ugh, is he using an eating disorder to glorify his book?  Really?" You know, like how people sometimes trivialize mental illness to make it sound glamorous or to make themselves seem cooler.  I have to say, in this brief moment, it turned me off and I was a bit disappointed in him, although I was still interested in reading his book anyway.  Maybe... maybe I can forgive him for this, I hoped. 

And then I read his book, and it all made sense.


Finding out that for many years Tyler struggled with an eating disorder was something I NEVER expected.  As far as I know, he'd never hinted to this before in any of his videos or anywhere else online.  For myself, and I'm sure for his viewers as well, it was hard for me to imagine that someone like him, who has devoted so much effort into making others happy, could have a past where he has had to struggle with his own terrible demons.  His eating disorder is not the only demon that Tyler reveals in his book.  From an abusive partner, to loving someone who couldn't bring their relationship to the public, to a strained relationship with his father over his sexuality.  Tyler recounts each of these moments in his life in such a raw, candid way, putting you in that moment with him.  But with each of these moments that are painful, there are just as many stories in between that will make you laugh.  For the record, I am not someone who typically laughs while reading a book.  It just doesn't normally happen.  I may find something amusing, sure, but not to the point where I would laugh out loud.  There were definitely moments throughout Tyler's book where I found myself cracking up - from a living room wedding where the bride wore sweatpants, to a drive-thru employee who suddenly lost his marbles, to a wicker basket emergency just seconds before meeting The First Lady. And that's what's beautiful about Binge.  There are moments where you will want to console Tyler, but just as many moments where you'll laugh along with him.

What I also strangely appreciated about Tyler's book is that he is willing to make himself look bad and look back on his poor moments in life, just as we all do.  In one chapter, he recalls how he acted like a totally entitled dickcheese to a T-Mobile employee about something as trivial as demanding texting on his phone (my words, not his).  In another chapter, he goes to great lengths to act like a gigundo turd over not getting the "right" veggie burger. (Sorry, Tyler, but...)  So are you always going to like Tyler in this book?  No, and in a weird way, I think that's incredibly refreshing that he shows all of these sides of himself as a reminder to never let fame go to his head and to always keep his ego in check.

Tyler not only sheds light on his past and personal life, but on life as a Youtuber as well - and the breaking points that come with that.  It's easy for anyone to say, "I want to be a Youtuber!," "It looks so much fun!"  Even to say, "It can't be that hard." But Tyler reveals all of the different sides to being a Youtuber, both on and offline: how one can spend years building an audience, and have it threatened in a single instant. When your career is completely online, one false move can jeopardize everything. With this, he shows the negative side of fandoms and how quickly they can spiral out of control.  This includes his own fanbase and the personal risks that Youtubers take in putting so much of their lives on the internet.  In one chapter, he recalls how, at a convention, he and a few fellow Youtube friends were riding in a van when the van was suddenly surrounded by ecstatic fans, who began slapping their hands against the window, eager to get as close to their favorite Youtubers as possible.  Tyler was eventually pushed to the edge of his comfort zone as he yelled back at the fans through the window, "Do you think this is safe?" giving us a shattering reminder of the privacy that Youtubers sacrifice for their online careers.  

There is also the immense pressure that goes along with being a Youtuber, of always having to come up with the next video idea, of ensuring that they maintain the audience and the popularity.  For some content creators, this pressure gets to be a bit too much, sometimes wondering to themselves, What would happen if I walked away from the internet for good?  What if I logged out of my account and never looked back? What if I could just be... done? Tyler admits to succumbing to this same pressure on a flight home, for a fleeting moment allowing his mind to think, What if this plane went down and I didn't have to do this anymore?  In this way, Binge gets to the core of every aspect of being a Youtuber, the good and the ugly, and tells it in such an honest way.  But even with these moments where Tyler sheds light into his Youtube career, they actually only take up a sliver of the book.  Tyler does an excellent job of not simply making this a book about Youtube, because that is by no means all that makes up who Tyler Oakley is.  Rather, Binge is a memoir filled with a collection of short personal essays, from the point of view of a young gay man throughout his life - the hardships, the raucous laughter, and everything in between.

* * *

While I thoroughly loved and enjoyed Binge, and I respect Tyler for writing it, I have to throw out at least a few critiques here.  There were moments where I occasionally found myself being that one person who hears her friend say something problematic and going, "Sweetie.  Oh, sweetie, no..."  

In one chapter, Tyler recalls a childhood memory with his cousin, in which he had to prove his seemingly straight sexuality to his cousin by going through a magazine and pointing out which women were sluts.  Okay, maybe this was a significant moment in Tyler's life in which he had to cover up being gay.  But Tyler could've very well turned this around as some sort of takeaway and noted, This is how masculinity operates and how awful this is, to have to prove one's masculinity by objectifying women.  Instead, he sort of turns it into a punchline ("That day, I learned that with slut-shaming comes instant karma"), which leads into the story of how he got caught infesting the family computer with porn. There is one similar moment like this, where slut shaming yet again becomes a punchline: On a Spring Break vacation, while lounging by the pool at a resort, Tyler witnesses a bird poop on a woman in her 70s, and jokes that the bird did that to slut shame her for wearing a two-piece.  Because women over 45 are automatically no longer allowed to wear bathing suits?  Even if they are two-pieces, really, who cares?  Why shame older women for what they wear to the pool?  

Yet elsewhere in his book, Tyler preaches consent and wanting to overthrow the patriarchy.  So, feminist... but not quite feminist?  It's great if you want to be involved in feminism, it really is.  But you simply can't invest yourself in issues like consent and the patriarchy, yet still carry these other forms of sexism.  It doesn't work like that.  You can't make jokes about slut shaming and then turn around and say, Of course I want to take down the patriarchy.  If you want to take down the patriarchy, it requires addressing all forms of sexism under which the patriarchy operates, and that includes recognizing and working to change your own sexist thinking.   Even if to you, it's 'just a joke,' there are some things that you walk a veeeery thin line on in comedy - and slut shaming is definitely one of them. 

Now, I know that Tyler wasn't intentionally being malicious here. We go through life and sometimes we say something or joke about something without thinking that it could be harmful.  I've done it, and I'm sure most everyone can be guilty of this, too.  But we eventually learn from these mistakes and grow as people.  And so I'm not going to sit here and publicly shame Tyler for this and tell people he's the worst person on the planet, because I believe every moment is a teaching lesson, and as long as people do not appear intentionally malicious, I don't think it's productive to angrily lash out at them and threaten to smite them. And I trust that Tyler is a decent person who will listen and respect what I have to say.

Something else worth mentioning is that, in his book, Tyler lists Caitlyn Jenner as a potential dinner guest.  Now... does he realize that at one point Caitlyn admitted on Ellen that she still needed to get used to the idea of gay marriage?  Maybe that's changed since this book's release, but to me it's still clear that, despite the massive public attention she's received since her transition, Caitlyn is actually hugely problematic in representing the trans community. Of course this doesn't mean she's not allowed to be who she is or that her existence isn't important. But many in the trans community would agree that Caitlyn is seriously flawed in that she comes from a place of extreme privilege and is ignorant to the amount of oppression that trans people truly face (not to mention she is extremely oblivious to the politics around the trans movement and doesn't believe that the Republican party is inherently transphobic...?) This is all a topic for another blog post, but the point is that there are so many other voices of the trans community more deserving for a slot as a dinner guest that Tyler could have chosen (Laverne Cox, anyone? Janet Mock?).

Don't get me wrong, though. Critiques aside, I still thoroughly enjoyed Binge.  I laughed my way through as I imagined Tyler in these absurd, crack-up funny, and cringingly awkward situations that he's found himself in from childhood through young adulthood.  His words also left me in stone silence in moments where he completely opened himself up.  At 26, Tyler has already gone through so many life experiences, and  he has lived to take something from each of them and tell them through his memoir. The other reason why I think Tyler gave his book the title Binge is to show how you can shy away from negative moments in your life... or you can indulge in each of them, because they've made you the person you are today.   So with Tyler's book, I encourage you to indulge and binge with him through it all - the good, the bad, and the in betweens - and see how it's all made Tyler into the person he is today.

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