Over the past few years, Franchesca Ramsey has established herself as one of the best sources for fearless, intersectional social commentary.
A former writer and “Hash It Out” contributor on The Nightly Show, Ramsey used her unflinching satire to break down sexist backlash against the latest Ghostbusters reboot or call out Piers Morgan’s tone-deaf criticisms on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. And as host of MTV’s weekly series Decoded, she’s paired her wit and comedic prowess to provide clarity on everything from whitewashing the Stonewall Riots in 1969 to myths about the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2016, Ramsey’s message is more mainstream than ever. But part of her success is rooted in using social media to carve her own path when mainstream media like TV wasn’t as easy to access.
“Platforms like YouTube really gave us the chance to create the content that we are really passionate about, and start conversations that maybe we don't already see reflected in mainstream media,” she told me.
I recently spoke with Ramsey about her path, how digital media has helped her and other content creators “tell our own stories,” and why unplugging is a crucial to part of tackling some of society’s most challenging conversations.
Our conversation below has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Franchesca Ramsey: I was attempting to work as an actor and struggling to find things that I really connected with, and also just struggling to find time to audition with my work schedule. I was working as a graphic designer when I moved to New York, and YouTube was really a great place for me to create stuff that I wasn't gonna get an opportunity to be a part of as an actor. And initially, I started making hair videos because I was looking for help with my hair and couldn't find any. So I just decided to take the initiative and make some videos of my own.
VM: And it seems like with both of those issues — both trying to find a resource for something as simple as trying to do your hair, and, on the other hand, and trying to find an opportunity to get around barriers to the acting world — the problem was a matter of access. Why do you think that platforms like YouTube are so important and so pivotal for creating that kind of space?
FR: Well, I mean you mentioned access, and I think that that's a big part of it. Platforms like YouTube or Instagram or Twitter or Vine are places where creators can make things and not have to get permission or go to an audition or get the funds to actually create a web series or a show. They can instantly, at home, with little to no overhead costs other than having a phone or a digital camera and an internet connection.
VM: Over the past few years, what changes have you seen for how creators of color have utilized the digital media space?
FR: I think for me and a lot of creators, our frustration comes from not being able to tell our own stories. So a lot of times, in my experience, when I would get called in for certain roles, they would be very stereotypical or just very one-dimensional, or just very minor characters who weren't really having a chance to tell authentic stories. Platforms like YouTube really gave us the chance to create the content that we are really passionate about, and start conversations that maybe we don't already see reflected in mainstream media.
VM: One of the things that has come up with the harassment of Leslie Jones is the way that certain social media platforms — or the internet in general — continue to not be safe spaces for people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. What does this kind of harassment say about these spaces when the people attacked are the ones who are pushing these platforms forward?
FR: I think in many ways what happens online is just a reflection and a microcosm of what we see in the real world and offline.
At the end of the day, a lot of people are still threatened by the success of people they believe are less than them. So if you have this ingrained bias or belief that a black woman who has dark skin and a fuller frame and kinkier hair is somehow inherently less attractive, it can feel very threatening and upsetting you to see someone like Leslie Jones thriving online and thriving in her career. And ultimately, what these people want to do is try to break you down, and discourage you from continuing to inspire people that look like you, or people that have been marginalized and are looking to you as some sort of inspiration. And it's really upsetting. But again I think that it's symptomatic of the world we live in. And its not necessarily something that is new. It's just the platform is new.
VM: You're one of the most active people on Twitter who is super dedicated to consistently explaining and laying out various problematic things that people say to you, in the world, period. It can be taxing, but what pushes you to continue to do that work?
FR: For me, its the response I get from my audience. I'm really, really fortunate to have an incredible group of people that have supported my work for a really long time. I've been on YouTube for 10 years. And I've gone through a lot of career changes and personal changes, and it really means a lot to me that my audience is so supportive. And they're the ones that really push me to continue the work that I do.
Even sometimes the people who don't like me, or have negative things to say about me, encourage me because it's a reminder of how important these conversations are. And every once in a while, I do get messages from them saying, "You know, I used to disagree with you," or "I was one of the people who said something nasty about one of your videos and now, here I am, a year later, and I see things differently." Or, they lash out at me, and I try to respond in a really respectful way just to turn the lens back on them and highlight how they are speaking to me.
I have had many a times where people had their eyes opened and realized that the way they spoke to me wasn't appropriate. And while they may not agree with me on certain things, there should be a level of respectful discourse, especially when it comes to these challenging conversations. So those little bright spots along the way are what really push me to keep going.
VM: What kind of nuance does social media offer to how we're framing the conversation today that we haven't necessarily had before?
FR: I think the biggest difference is reach. Communities of color have been having these conversations, but there are lots of white people who never had to talk about race or racism because they're not exposed to that. Maybe they live in a community where they don't have any people of color. Or, when it comes to LGBT issues, there are people who don't know that they have LGBT family members or people in their communities who they don't feel comfortable speaking out on certain issues. And so there are people who go through the world not realizing that these inequalities exist because their privilege shields them from the experience.
With social media, we have the opportunity not only for people to tell their own stories, but to reach people around the world that they would normally never get to interact with, and give people the opportunity to have these conversations in their own home, at work, at school, on the bus when they're watching [videos] on their phones.
You can really interact with this content when you feel you're most ready. And you also do it in the comfort of your own home. You can sit with it. And then you can have the opportunity to do the homework yourself to find out more, and engage with these communities, and, hopefully, align yourself with them in order to support their efforts for a more equal and just world.
So I just think social media is bringing the conversation to people's doorsteps whereas before you had to go to the library, or you had to take a class. You had to really make the effort to have these conversations in the past.
VM: What advice do you have to other actors, comedians, or activists who are invested in forging a new and more just world with technology?
FR: I would say it's easier said than done, but really try not to be discouraged. It takes a while with any platform, or any endeavor, whether it's artistic or a business endeavor, or an activist role you're taking. It takes time. And it takes a lot of work. But it also takes dealing with rejection and also dealing with people's negative perceptions of what you're doing, especially in the activist space.
There are a lot of people who are very actively trying to discourage people from talking about systemic inequalities and advocating for themselves and other people. And you really have to be resolved in what your ultimate goal is, and stay focused so that you don't get discouraged or distracted because there are a lot of people who are wanting to take you off of your course.
The other thing I would say — and, again, this is for everyone — is to remember that self-care is really important. It's okay to log off or step away from the computer. Or meditate. Or pray. Or journal. Or whatever it is that you like to participate in to take care of yourself.
I think that we have to make that a regular part of our routine in good times so that, in the stressful or challenging times, it's easier to implement. And I think that that goes a long way in terms of being productive, staying inspired and encouraged, but also, getting through some of those more challenging times.