Oakley, T. (2015). Binge. Gallery Books, New York.
According to the back flap of Binge, the author, Tyler Oakley, is both a 'pop culture tastemaker' and 'an Internet icon'. The logical question therefore might be, "Who is Tyler Oakley"?
A more pertinent question should be, "Why should anyone outside Tyler Oakley's circle genuinely care what he thinks on anything?" By his own admission, he doesn't have the skills that would normally vault someone into a sphere of influence: he doesn't sing, he doesn't act, he doesn't dance (though he's given them a crack in his high school days). Oakley's claim to fame is the way most Millennials gain fame: he is on YouTube. In his various YouTube videos, he follows, or perhaps leads, the Millennial march into oversharing, discussing everything that pops into his little head with nary a thought as to whether everything that pops into his little head should be discussed.
Oakley, in various essays, does so, giving us his thoughts on everything from sex (among his favorite topics) to his high school days (where he would get sex), his early work experiences (which inevitably led to more sex) and the constant surprises of his life as a YouTuber (one of those being, surprisingly, not sex, but on how fickle a fanbase can be). Oakley, however, doesn't make a case as to why HE in particular should be heard. Apart from a few moments where we can see genuine hurt and joy, where we got a bit of Mathew Tyler Oakley, Binge seems a trifle calculated, as if it isn't a real revelation into Oakley's life but a continuation of how he is on YouTube: cheery, irreverent, and willing to have lots of laughs.
This may be how he is in real life as opposed to YouTube life (and I figure he'd argue there's no difference between Tyler Oakley: YouTube Icon and Tyler Oakley: After Dark), but again, Binge won't answer the more important question, not 'Who is Tyler Oakley?' or even 'Why is he famous?', but rather, 'Why should he be famous?'
In various chapters we're told what are embarrassing stories that I was told would be 'hilariously sidesplitting'. I didn't laugh while reading Binge. My reaction instead was one of slight puzzlement as to how someone so young (he's a mere 27 at the time of this writing) can insist his views, his experiences, can be of such importance to anyone whom he isn't personally connected.
Sometimes though, my reaction was slight repulsion. Of particular note is the appropriately titled section Fecal Matters, which starts out "Over my lifetime, I've had an interesting relationship with poop". After regaling us with his various nicknames for the anus, he talks about how in his earlier days he had difficulty defecating. As a Gen-Xer, though not one as filled with angst and apathy as most of my peers, I'm not sure how to read something like Fecal Matters. It wasn't funny to me. It was both bizarre and a bit disturbing.
Another section is Disney Princes; I should have mentioned off the bat that Tyler Oakley is gay. Nothing wrong with that, we're all free to live our lives however we wish so long as no lives are actually being taken or abused, but Oakley does remind me of that quip, 'the love that dares not speak its name is now the love that won't shut up'. Hence, Disney Princes, where Oakley marks down his Top Twelve Princes in Disney animated films according to how attractive he found them.
One of them, Eric from The Little Mermaid, loses points because he killed, "the best Disney villain of all time, the drag queen that is Ursula. Unforgivable. RIP" (emphasis his).
Allow me to digress to say that when I saw The Little Mermaid, a.) I didn't think of sexually desiring any character, b.) I wouldn't know what a drag queen was, and c.) I think Maleficent and the Queen from Snow White are greater Disney villains. Furthermore, while I can't say I know many gay men, the few I know don't talk or haven't mentioned their erotic fixations on animated figures. I guess I could ask.
I suppose it's just because my viewpoint comes from someone older who didn't obsess about sex at age 12 (or obsess about it now). That brings me to yet another chapter, Brace Yourself. Here, he talks about how his parents made him get braces and that they took Oakley to have them tightened by dental students to save money (his family's poverty being something he mentions often). At age twelve, he finds nirvana. A quote:
"Dental students used poor kids like me as their practice dummies, and when I met mine, I was ready to surrender all control. My student was tall, handsome, charming, and had muscles bulging under his scrubs. He had to be more than a decade older than me, but that didn't stop me from thirsting".
Already fantasizing about living a life together with this dental student, his body finally allowed him to taste a touch of temptation. Tightening braces requires the person to spit, so in his own words, "I did what any twelve-year-old flirting with a man twice his age might do--I licked his fingers".
The dental student quickly pulled his hands from Oakley's mouth, asked (perhaps nervously) if he needed to spit, and when told no, kept going.
Again, be it me, but at age 12, I wouldn't have known what the concept of flirting was, let alone flirting with anyone twice my age or wanting reciprocation from someone twice my age.
The entire essay, one of the shortest, was one I found rather uncomfortable. The idea a twelve-year-old would 'thirst' for an adult, male or female, dream of a life together as the closest thing possible to 'wedded bliss', or flirting with a man twice his age is, well, I leave it up to you to decide what you think of such things.
Most of Binge follows in that vein: Oakley discussing his favorite things (sex), absolutely mundane things (one section revolves about what he'd do if he were Beyoncé for a day, another on holidays he'd get rid of), and the rigors of being a YouTuber (mentioning other people I've never heard of, whom I figure are famous via YouTube). It even shows him to be a bit of a diva: one section is about how he threatened an employee over his Cheesecake Factory order, another when he threw his name around a Verizon shop, and one where he berated fans at a convention when they surrounded the bus he was in to sing him Happy Birthday (a song he doesn't care for).
When I say sex is a big deal in Binge, it isn't an understatement. Let me refer you to his essay, Ten Cummandments. Among his tips are to shave the armpits, not squeal like a fangirl when/during/after sex with Oakley (he states one encountered ended with him asking for a selfie, another Millennial invention I don't understand), and know whom you are actually having sex with.
I figure that is one of the primary difference between Oakley and myself: I wouldn't discuss my sex life with anyone, let alone everyone. Further, I don't see a need to do so.
However, there was one section that had me if not riveted, at least gave me a greater insight into Mathew as opposed to Tyler. The One That Got Away, the longest of his essays, details his first great love affair with a man named Adam. Adam said he was straight, but as time went on it took only one drunk St. Patrick's night to show that at least he was flexible. As time went on, Adam came to admit slowly to himself and Oakley that he was gay and that he was in love with Tyler. However, Adam was not ready to come out to his family, and Tyler respected that...at first.
However, the push and pull of the relationship began to wear on Oakley. Oakley wasn't ashamed of who he was (rightly so) but also knew that you shouldn't push someone to come out until they are ready. Still, they were boyfriends, and this cloak-and-dagger business of having to hide their relationship from the world, especially as Oakley was gaining fame as an LGBTQ+ advocate, was making things impossible for Oakley.
Eventually, they did break up, but a break up is hard no matter who you are or how old you are. Oakley cried for hours, days on end, even contemplated suicide. Eventually, with some help from the Trevor Project, he pulled through.
The One That Got Away was one of his best sections because it wasn't about something silly or superfluous. It was about something I understood, about something deeper than a romp or his latest run-in with a famous (or at least somewhat known) person. It was about the joy and pain of love, in its confused, confusing form.
Speaking of pain, there is one last section I'd like to tackle. That is Pleasure and Payne, referring to his ups and downs with former boy band One Direction. Now, again, while I know of them, and even have learned their names (Harry, Zayn, Liam, Niall, and Louis), I wouldn't know one from the other, but that's beside the point. Being introduced to 1D by friends, Oakley because obsessed (part of being in his own words, a 'professional fangirl'). He promoted them on his social media, went on about them, and eventually got their good graces.
The One Directioneers (I think that's what the fans are called) soon embraced him as one of their own, a high priest/priestess in the cult of these former Britain's Got Talent participants (if memory serves correct), even chanting HIS name when spotted at a 1D concert, with Oakley getting swept into the mania by waving his ass at them while wearing his "Professional Fangirl" shirt.
However, how fickle are fangirls, even professional ones. After rereading Pleasure and Payne, it's still a bit murky what exactly happened, but from what I understand, one of them (Liam Payne, hence the title) retweeting something from someone who said things that were interpreted as homophobic, and Oakley, out and proud, tweeted Payne and expressed concern/hoped for clarification.
Payne took issue with this, tweeted that Oakley was never a real fan, and the Directioneers, lemmings to the end, went after Oakley. The tweets against Oakley were harsh to say the least (things like #WeWantTylerOakleyDead and #RIPTylerOakleysCareer were probably the nicer things), so much vitriol slung that even Oakley was unnerved and pulled away from social media for a while. Eventually he came back, stronger and more sure that one had to stand their principles no matter what...even if it meant getting cut off from five pretty British boys.
Binge, I suppose, is interesting reading to those who think Tyler Oakley and/or his views are important. He isn't going to discuss such things as what steps to take to disarm North Korea, how to improve American education or whether it's macaroni & cheese or cheese & macaroni. As I finished Binge, I got some sense of who Tyler Oakley is: a person who likes to talk a lot about himself and how he meets famous people, can accidentally throw away expensive clothes used for some red-carpet event, and his early fixation with penises that continues unabated.
I just never got a sense as to why I, or anyone, really should care.
It brings to mind something I heard on NPR, I think, a profile of Girls. In the clip, Lena Dunham's character is shocked when her parents cut her off financially. She protests that they shouldn't, using the idea that "I don't think I'm the voice of my generation. I think I am a voice, of a generation". I figure Tyler Oakley thinks if he isn't the voice of Millennials, he is a voice, of a generation.
Maybe next time, he can tell me why I, Generation X, or anyone not Millennial, should listen.
And we wonder how Mama Hillary lost...