A Place in the Online Feminist Documentary Cyber-closet 

by Alexandra Juhasz

[PDF version]

In the fall of 2007, I engaged in a creative, collective, and self-reflexive look at productive possibilities for activism and pedagogy using social-networked media technologies. I taught a college course about YouTube on YouTube. Over that semester, and during semesters that followed teaching the class again (Fall 2008 and 2010), I reflected upon the delightful but frustrating experiences of attempting to engage in advanced intellectual and creative practices while using a corporate owned entertainment platform. These many ruminations—taking multiple forms from blogs to videos to scholarly talks and academic papers—became the foundation for an innovative, born-digital “video-book” about YouTube (comprised of carefully architected online text and videos) that was “published,” or perhaps better put, presented, by the MIT Press in the winter of 2011.[i] 

Reflecting upon both the class and the video-book about it, I have come to understand much of these unique practices—in both my production and that of my students, and within its relatively large and undifferentiated internet reception—to have taken place in the feminist cyber-closet. This essay points in brief to some of the lessons of this dark if brightly back-lit place: its structuring absences, its haunting nowheres, its even more eerie everywheres. In so doing, I also begin to name more generally the place(s) of feminism in online, user-generated, social networked “documentary” spaces of Web 2.0—and their politics, scholarship, and pedagogy—while holding these limiting-but-open-access spaces in conversation with the freeing-if-exclusionary places of more traditional feminist documentary. 

The metaphor of the closet serves several functions within this essay and in the context of a special issue on documentary and space. While it resonates with histories and practices of queer politics and experience (themselves the subject of and process for traditional feminist documentary), it also spatially frames my thinking about my own online media research and pedagogy. Critically, I have never thought of my extensive feminist documentary research and practice in these (spatial) terms. And while this may be an oversight on my part, I want to begin by noting some profound differences in my varied media practices. My "documenatary" life depends upon shooting, editing, and then screening and watching artfully composed fragments of realist evidence placed within a linear, single-channel format. On-line, I engage in collectively producing (and finding) a diverse array of evidentiary media forms (from writing, to sound recording, shooting and remixing), and then archiving and networking them across multiple dimensions through design as much as montage. All this is later perused and used in an abundance of viewing spaces and in infinite and user-controlled arrangements, not to mention arrangements that grow through user-generated additions or modifications. 

The video-book Learning From YouTube (LFYT) is just such a place: the vast home to artfully linked documents of the college course (via realist camera footage and written reportage), rhetorical documentaries made by my students, myself and YouTubers about YouTube, and also endless YouTube videos that convey people’s thoughts, birthday parties, and blunders. We might want to think of such highly orchestrated databases of realist evidence—these archives of fresh and creative treatments of actuality—as a new kind of online documentary. In their production, “the documentarian” organizes data spatially; in reception, the user travels on her own journeys across these archived and arranged documents. Thus, in the case of LFYT, spatial metaphors become most apt to define these new documentary experiences of both crafting and watching; makers and users alike feel that they inhabit the place of the evidentiary material through their enjoyment of newfound navigational abilities like mobility and interaction. Meanwhile, a decidedly self-reflexive mirroring and blending of off- and online space—one quite definitive of YouTube and many other platforms on the Internet—makes the inhabiting of digital space both subject and form.


The production and exhibition of my earlier feminist documentaries were organized around metaphors, politics, and practices of two-dimensional visibility (politics) and one–dimensional linear rhetoric. Holding the line, my old-school feminist documentary practice and pedagogy were decidedly safe and therefore also bold. During production, I usually worked inside and for a community. For exhibition, I (re)placed the now-edited work into its originary and likeminded activist homes for viewing (festivals, classrooms, community centers). As two examples: in the 1980s, I made activist AIDS videos about, by, and for this community, theorizing this as a feminist documentary praxis just as I did in the 2000s for my most recent work about, by, and for anti-war activists (like myself and my sister, Antonia Juhasz [ii]).[iii] Meanwhile, my more open and placeless YouTube practice finds me mobilizing different strategies of self-naming to insure the presence of my voice.


I raise the specter of the closet for understanding this contemporary visibility practice because of a hiding-in-plain-sight that seems a necessary complement (or defense) to a visibility-now-easily-attained via convergence. The term is also useful to mark the multi-dimensionality of this experience of inhabitation, hiding, and traversing across media forms, communities, places, and identities, which, in turn, forces me to take this consideration of my online documentary practices to a rather self-incriminating place. 

What is the nature of work by a feminist scholar that is neither about a “feminist” topic (YouTube) nor set in a feminist space (the Internet)? This question feels particularly relevant given that over my twenty-year career as an activist, media scholar, and maker, I have intentionally situated my work in marginal and “safe” spaces, those defined by shared commitment, community, and language. Given that my work has focused on individual and community empowerment, has relied upon feminist theory and process, and has been connected to projects to which I am personally related, I have made a career of counter-cultural work, involving overtly political communities and using experimental techniques to represent ourselves and our issues outside the box. And my YouTube work is anything but that! Instead, there I find myself working within and about one of the most popular and generic media spaces of our time. When I talk about YouTube it seems like everyone wants to hear what I have to say (the course went viral and I was interviewed all over the world, in radio, print, and even on Fox News and CNN). When I speak about AIDS, the war in Iraq, or lesbian visibility, on the other hand, I do not receive the same attention.



I feel a kind of righteousness in this exclusion and inattention, a mark of cred as well as a pass to safety. For virality—one of the benchmarks, dreams, and operating systems of Web 2.0—is counterproductive for feminism and its claims to intimacy, safety, and specificity. 

But might my private shame about the popular appeal of my not-overtly, hardly-even feminist project provide a way of thinking more generally about the no-places of feminism online? Is my personal treachery to the cause a more general, or dare I say political, shift that is required by these new territories and media? My experience in the cyber-closet is certainly not new, although it does come as a bit of a surprise so many years after the opening-up of the gay one. The feminist cyber-closet functions much the same as did the one for gays and lesbians before me: a structuring absence always knowable in its felt presence; a hidden frame through which to see strangely. 

To better see the online cyber-closet’s effects and forms for this essay, I first look to the many ways and places that feminism is implicit in my YouTube work. The video-book and the class behind it were built upon a set of underlying, if unnamed, methods, theories, and operating procedures. These enabled a political, communal, ethical, and personal stance that foregrounded the knowledge, experience, and skills of women, lesbians, girls, family, and home, even as I rarely called this out or named it. 

Thus, when producing reality-based video and writing on the Internet, it seems that un-naming and not saying became useful tactics for being seen. Not being overtly feminist was a ticket of entry to new places. When online, closeting my beliefs served as permission to speak more globally or openly about democratic media, corporate culture, and radical self-epression rather than being pinned down and marginalized by the more local claims of (closed-off) feminism

And yet, in the not so recent past, Adrienne Rich wrote: “whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography … whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under an inadequate or lying language—this will become not merely unspoken but unspeakable.”[iv] However, given the hyper-visibility of women in our culture today, not to mention the powerful role and voice of women in online discourses including YouTube, we must consider whether we have passed through the concerns about visibility and invisibility that so troubled Rich and her comrades in the seventies. If feminists are newly and truly visible while feminism becomes the unnamable, could it (I) actually be speaking in new names, ones that better fit these contemporary places that she (they) might never have imagined? And what might these new names be? (I will conclude with some attempts at naming this someplace.) 

I believe that under the right conditions, citizens, students (and women)—Web 2.0's much celebrated “users”—can and do make expressive, critical, beautiful media that makes significant contributions to our culture. Thinking through (and in) these conditions was a defining and self-reflexive (feminist) orientation of this YouTube project. That orientation so acknowledged, its findings about YouTube were not favorable for feminism. I have chapters (what I call YouTours) with titles like: "YouTube is a mess"; "YouTube is for amateurs"; "YouTube dissoves the real"; and "YouTube is DIY, then what?" Given that a critical pedagogy aiming towards digital literacy and civic engagement in the hope of creative democracy was central to my project, I found little there to trumpet even as I was trumpeting nowhere else but there. Of course my teaching and publishing on YouTube is one example of a productive or radical use of the site. And there are many more.


While my experiences there proved YouTube not to be good for feminists (or any multitude of radical others, for that matter), I did find that when I wrote there, I could successfully navigate the space with a feminism that was largely implicit—one based upon an integration of media literacy, theory, history, and politics with people-made media. And this is what I call ThirdTube: what digital spaces look, act, and feel like when YouTube videos and their makers make systematic (theoretical) and communal (political) claims grounded in personal experience. ThirdTube is a place of people-made, simple-in-form, complex-in-thought media about the material of daily life, not beholden to corporate culture and products.


 In this way, in ThirdTube’s name, I stake one place online for feminism. Beyond this initial land-grab, what else could make YouTube better suited for the practices and aims of feminists? To answer this, I try to locate more explicit feminist practices and places within my project which, in turn, allows me to name four feminist tactics that seem a comfortable fit for this particular, large, open, and accessible closet:  

  • build a frame  
  • make a claim
  • lead through actions

As much as I delight in speaking to a broader audience about my YouTube work, I find that I feel like a phony if I do not self-disclose as a feminist. Thus, late in the workings of the project, I created an introductory YouTour devoted to explaining and showing my commitment to ThirdTube because I didn’t want to engage in lengthy, public conversations under false purposes. Even so, a reader could miss this signpost—it’s not a requirement—but I hope that my feminism is omnipresent across the project in relation to my tone, values, history, and methods. I wrote as myself online; I wrote myself online, and I am a feminist. Thus I see that I find my everywheres in many online places: my leftist politics regarding race, gender, anti-war, and sexuality; my inherent theories of place that celebrate the family, home, and the personal via technology; and my lifelong commitment to collective, safe, and affirming processes. The video-book itself became a living, breathing example of theory, community, history, and media literacy. 

And then, having claimed this stake, framed my place, and practiced what I preach, I marked this as a place from which I might leave for more hospitable (communal, interactive, active, committed) climates. For, during the same period that I focused on YouTube, confronting and naming all it could never do for me, I produced the micro-budget feature, The Owls (dir. Cheryl Dunye, 2010), “a generational anthem for Older Wiser Lesbians [OWLs], aging revolutionaries in a world we cannot control. A funny, humane look at the bonds that restrain and the dreams that remain.”[v] The Owls was a production of the Parliament Film Collective, which I formed along with Dunye and fellow producers Candi Guterres and Ernesto Foronda as a way of acting on our frustration with the limitations of both corporate and contemporary (mainstream) queer filmmaking, including all the bits, pieces, and clips that made their happy way to YouTube. The movie premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and is now distributed online by First Run Features. We invited others in our local community to join us, and the sixty or so of us—lesbian and queer, multiracial and with a range of professional experience—worked together in Los Angeles to create a feature film that made other uses of new, affordable technologies, and was built and distributed outside the limiting corporate cocoon of YouTube. Just because we can make closeted documentaries on and about YouTube doesn’t also preclude making out, queer, feminist media using other practices, formats, and audiences.

In these many ways—being there, naming and not naming myself, leaving—I came to learn two things about the place for feminism online:

  1. the someplace for feminism is everywhere in my project, as it is on YouTube, and
  2. it is always also nowhere.


For, even when there is some feminist content or method online, the personal is only truly political when connected to a movement, a community, a theory, and an action orientation. Feminist content needs safe spaces to bloom and every YouTube video and video-maker is readily and usually oppressed by rude and stupid comments from an angry community. Furthermore, advertisements and other media objects unselected by the maker adorn the page and surround ones videos, while the possibility for collaboration on the site is nil. The someplace for feminism is nowhere there. The Internet’s no-frame of corporate control excludes and de-nudes the possibilities for interaction and action evidenced in low budget indie filmmaking (like The Owls), given that it can never be that safe space so necessary for speaking oneself, or that someplace from which to build a community of likeminded radical folk. And yet again, feminist methods and tendencies oddly seem to underwrite every space of YouTube. On YouTube, practices defined by reflexivity, the affective, the everyday, and self-growth, expression, and healing dominate (at least for the content made by legitimate users and not professionals).


Feminism is everywhere online, although not usually so named. So, how do we see it and how do we describe what feminism produces, using a different vocabulary? With thanks to B. Ruby Rich's “In the Name of Feminist Filmmaking,” (an earlier naming project that itself responded to Adrienne Rich and called forth these terms for her times and media—Validative, Correspondence, Reconstructive, Medusan, Corrective Realism, and Projectile), I offer my own nine names toward future studies, maps, and uses of the feminist online documentary cyber-closet. I came to these terms by looking at the places in my LFYT project where my feminism lay dormant and formative, and/or active and assertive. Like all naming projects (as opposed to un-naming ones), my terms produce sign-posts that insist we were there in particular and even predictable ways that then allow us to be seen, to locate other interventions, to be remembered, and to work communally in shared and building projects of feminist media production and consumption:

  •  Architectural or archaic feminism occurs at deep and structural levels.
  • Unnamed feminism speaks and thus sees itself newly.
  • Re-mapping feminism claims not-feminist spaces through formal fiat.
  • Framing feminism umbrellas the social justice work of trans, anti-war, anti-racist activists and others.
  • Assertive or insertive feminism names its profound relevance in places where it wasn’t deemed important.
  • Common-cultural feminism assumes feminism is the shared space of production and reception.
  • Access feminism doesn’t speak only to feminists, but also opens doors to unusual places.
  • Techno feminism engages in collaborative, goal-oriented, placed, critical self-expression online.
  • Presumptive feminism always assumes that feminism counts and that feminists speak.

To better inhabit our feminist place(s) in the online documentary spaces that we build, view, and share, we will need to bring safety, community, and, oddly enough, direction and focus to the Internet. The openness of the Internet makes it a place; a concentration of commitment and intentionality gives it a direction. So in conclusion, I hope these nine names provide new frameworks to see, group, use, and remember the places and routes between where we have already been online, as well as to better enjoy and employ those we anticipate for the future.




[ii] See my documentary, SCALE: Measuring Media Might (2008):

[iii] Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).

[iv] Adrienne Rich quoted in B. Ruby Rich, “In the Name of Feminist Filmmaking,” in Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 341. 

[v] The Owls.


Alexandra Juhasz is Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College. She makes and studies committed media practices that contribute to political change and individual and community growth. She is the author of AIDS TV (Duke, 1995), Women of Vision (Minnesota, 2001), F is for Phony, co-edited with Jesse Lerner (Minnesota, 2005) and a born-digital online “video-book” about YouTube available for free at MIT Press (2011). She blogs at



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