the whispering girls of youtube who pretend to be your girlfriend
Dutch filmmaker Guus Voorham made an art film about 'Girlfriend Roleplay' videos after becoming fascinated with the concept.
This article originally appeared on i-D Netherlands
"The first time I watched an 'ASMR Girlfriend Roleplay' video it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck," says 27-year-old Dutch filmmaker Guus Voorham, who was so fascinated by what he saw that he decided to devote his final film project to this specific YouTube genre.
The videos are a variation on the popular ASMR trend, seeing young women (who aren't always filmed themselves) record granular sounds of cheek kissing, hair ruffling and arm stroking (to name a few) to mimic the sensation of having a partner in bed with you. It's not worlds away from the 2013 film Her, where Joaquin Phoenix develops a relationship with an operating system.
Girls also often film themselves while they're pretending to have 'pillow talk' with their boyfriends. They whisper comforting words to the camera, act out domestic quarrels and gently pet the screens – which in some cases scores them over a million views. "When I accidentally discovered these videos I found them uncomfortable, but secretly, I enjoyed them too," says Guus.
Guus graduated last July from the Willem de Kooning Academy, the art school of Rotterdam. While studying, he was fascinated by role-playing. His keen interest in the difference between reality and imagination/falseness also led him to conduct extensive research into loneliness, which, he says, is increasingly considered to be a health problem in The Netherlands.
In Guus's film project Alone Together, he's clipped different aspects from multiple 'Girlfriend Roleplay' videos to end up with a finished product that meets his own specific needs from a romantic partner.
"First, I wanted to expose the negative side of the phenomenon, because I thought that these women abused the loneliness of men – they can make a lot of money doing it," says Guus. "But when I started editing, I also noticed the sweet and beautiful sides to doing this. I focused on people whom I thought I would never be able to understand. To me, this is one of the greatest things about making documentaries."
One of the 'Girlfriend Roleplay' videos moved him in particular; "The video of a young blond girl, who is also in my film. She tells you how much you mean to her, and she plays it very convincingly," says Guus. "I imagine that when she recorded it, all alone in her room, she was really thinking of a an ex-boyfriend. Maybe she says all the things in the video she wasn't able to tell him. A few of the women really seem to play out their own fantasy."
There are, Guus says, also women who think of it as an act of altruism, to combat loneliness. But in the end the role-play videos resemble a commercial product, most of all. "The makers of these videos are competing for viewers, and they are trying to excel in pleasing," he says. "They don't want to make just one person happy, like in a relationship, but they are trying to make all of their viewers happy. Because of this, all the videos look alike, which then creates the image of an average man, who the all of the girls are comforting in the same way."
Guus wants to magnify this homogenization by turning the spectator into an unwilling opponent. "Especially in an auditorium, this feels absurd. These women are all trying to create a one-on-one connection with you, whilst all these strangers are sitting next to you. It makes you uncomfortable and prevents you from looking away from the screen at the same time. At the end of the film the people leave the auditorium looking like they were just kissed by someone against their will."
Part of the discomfort may be caused by the old-fashioned way the young women are portrayed; they're literally only on screen because they're trying to please a man. Many of the videos start with a shot in which the girl is pretending to sleep, and then slowly but gently wakes up; "Sorry, I fell asleep while I was waiting for you. It doesn't matter if you're late, I'll always be there for you," they whisper to the camera. Instead of showing you a nuanced picture on modern-day relationships, they dumb down the idea of 'the girlfriend' to an eternally youthful girl that has nothing better to do than hang around at home, waiting for her man.
Guus plans to make a sequel to his student film where he actually gives the women in the videos a voice.
Guus plans to make a sequel to his student film where he actually gives the women in the videos a voice, and a chance to comment on how they feel about making the videos. "I think many of them will tell us that the role they play has nothing to do with their own life," says Guus.
Even if the women on camera don't feel a real connection to their viewers, it seems that many of the viewers do – you only have to glance at all the positive comments to see how many people feel truly supported by this series. "I thought intimacy was something that, by definition, you could only feel for someone you know well," says Guus. "But now it seems that the people watching these videos also experience intimate trust and recognition. To them it's something that can exist between two people who have never met each other, and that's really fascinating."
Editor's note: The headline and subhead in this article have been edited for clarity.