17-year-old Bebe Zeva is the subject of the second documentary from MDMAfilms. You can see clips here. MDMAfilms is the project of newly-married writers Tao Lin and Megan Boyle. They film their movies on a laptop. Bebe Zeva is very pretty. She wears a lot of eye-makeup. You might have seen her as the model for the I AM CARLES shirts. She was born in 1993, and is currently home-schooled in Las Vegas. The documentary premiered March 20th at Soho House in New York City. Bebe Zeva flew in to attend.
The documentary opens in the lobby of Bebe Zeva’s condominium. Tao Lin asks: “Why’d you move into this thing?” For the next 88 minutes, they carry the laptop from Zeva’s condo, to Tao Lin and Megan Boyle’s hotel room at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino, to the Miracle Mile Shops, (where Bebe shoplifts a Bebe purse), another casino, and finally the movie ends in a hot tub. Tao Lin is shirtless. Zeva is wearing an EAT WHEN YOU FEEL SAD shirt.
As they travel around Las Vegas, Tao Lin and Megan Boyle feed her vegan ice cream, whipped cream, a cookie, diet coke, Kombucha, candy — she’s eating or drinking in basically every scene. Zeva says, “everyone who has an internet presence binge eats,” but that she doesn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. Tao Lin and Megan Boyle ask her funny questions:
Q: What are your thoughts on eating?
A: I concentrate on the cuteness of what I’m eating.
Q: Would you rather eat one pound of steamed shrimp every day at 11AM or get a Windows 95 chest tattoo?
A: Oh, I would get the Windows 95 chest tattoo even if that wasn’t a question.
At some point, Zeva says: “I understand that life is bleak and you can either kill yourself or donate yourself to social commentary. I’m just a brand. I’m just shit. All of my content regarding my personality is available.” After the screening, Tao Lin told the audience, “She seems like a genuis to me.”
Zeva is endearing, but often I didn’t know what she was talking about. (Before the movie started, I overheard someone at the screening use the expression “mad gayface.” I thought it was funny, but I didn’t know what it meant. I had to Google it. In some ways, this moment set the tone for an entire evening of partial-recognition.) For instance, Zeva tries on a dress at Urban Outfitters and says it is “post-ironically matronly.” On her Twitter this week she said: “I officially declare it post-ironically chic to wear Misfits t-shirts.”
What is post-ironic? Is Bebe Zeva joking? I asked Megan Boyle to help.
The Rumpus: What is post-ironic?
Megan Boyle: This seems hard to explain. I’ll give an example. Around 2004, wearing large glasses and mustaches seemed funny and cutting-edge to an artsy/intelligent/hipster counter-culture of young people, probably because of growing up surrounded by family members who considered wearing mustaches and funny-looking large glasses to be simple, boring, normal facts of life. When juxtaposed on the body of an attractive young person, the deadpan “large glasses” aesthetic created an appealing sense of irony and caused people to make friends and either overtly or subtly influence them to wear similar things. Urban Outfitters noticed what was happening and started selling clothes that family members with large glasses would wear, if those family members were in their sexual prime and wanted to make friends. This clothing style became hugely popular because of the sense of humor, authenticity, and shared experience it suggested. It made people seem both inclusive and approachable. Individuals. Then there were a lot of individuals wearing the same thing because they shopped at a store that made it possible for a lot of people to be individuals together. Post-irony, the way Bebe uses it, is the new “identity canvas” for a person overexposed to the first wave of ironic personal expression.
Rumpus: Is Bebe Zeva’s age (17) important to the documentary? Did you feel a responsibility to present her in a positive light?
Boyle: Bebe seems different than other people to me, but I don’t think that has much to do with her being 17. A documentary about any person with the kind of existential intelligence I see Bebe as having would be equally compelling to me. I think I only started considering her age when it came to editing, knowing that presenting certain scenes which made me think she was spontaneous and funny (shoplifting, humping the plant) could be perceived as exploitative. Tao and I wanted to make sure Bebe’s family would feel okay with it, so we showed a version of the film to Bebe’s sister and mom, who noticed the shoplifting scene was cut and said it might be funny to include.
Rumpus: At the beginning of the documentary, we see you and Tao meeting Bebe Zeva for the first time. It was the first time you’d met, as Zeva calls it, “physically.” Up to that point, Zeva only existed online for you or Tao Lin. Aren’t people so different in real life than we are online? Does it matter? Were you excited to document this moment of “physical” meeting?
Boyle: People can be different in real life than online, though I think it’s always possible to predict certain “real life” behaviors by observing how a person presents him/herself on the internet. For instance, I could infer from Bebe’s online presence that she probably wouldn’t have a really deep voice and want to ask me questions about horse racing. I felt excited to document the moment of “physically” meeting, but maybe only in an abstract sense at the time. My thought activity before meeting was split between the expectations created from discussing the night’s plans with Tao, the image I had of Bebe, feeling excited about what we were doing, and trying to quiet my awareness of the camera/environment/social anxiety so I could focus on ensuring Bebe would have fun and feel comfortable.
Rumpus: Bebe Zeva says, “Everyone can be described by whether they use haha or LOL. I say hehe. I don’t think I could ever say hahaha.” This is a funny moment, but what does it mean?
Boyle: The sound of laughter seems highly personal and futile to transcribe in universal way, and I think Bebe knows this. Not only does “hahaha” hardly mimic the sound of a person laughing, it indicates a lack of awareness of the advancement of “LOL.” I think Bebe either finds “hehe” appealing because it is more phonetically delicate than “LOL” or “hahaha” or because it seems like a word that has been created to say “I see that you’ve said something clever. If we were standing next to each other I would vocally or non-verbally communicate this to you, but we both know we’re not standing next to each other, so here is this funny little place-holder.”
Rumpus: During the Q&A you said, “We thought, no one has filmed a person like her.” What do you mean “like her?”
Boyle: Someone who has found existence, internet culture, and herself in the midst of all of it intriguing enough to form an image/brand that has made her relatively internet-famous. Someone home-schooled in Las Vegas. Someone with over 900 unanswered Formspring.me questions. Someone able to generate extended sarcastic commentary about her surroundings. Someone who likes salt & vinegar potato chips.
Rumpus: So much of the movie is talking about Twitter, Formspring, Stat Counter vs. Google Analytics, Windows 95-chest tattoo. Zeva says the grossest image is when “when people apply too much sharpness.” You ask her a lot of questions about her family and school, but the conversation often returns to life online. It seems like the most fun thing for Bebe Zeva to talk about “physically” is what’s happening online. Is this part of what you set out to document?
Boyle: I didn’t set out to document that, no. The questions about “real life” seemed to generate sometimes emotionally reflective, but mostly concrete/direct answers from Bebe, because I think there is a finiteness about the physical world that feels separate from the world of the internet. I’ve spent a huge portion of my life looking at the internet and I can only offer a vague explanation of how it works or what it is, exactly. There is something mysterious about that. We learn the laws of physics whether we consciously know them or not just from existing in bodies on a planet. There isn’t anything like that for the internet. Maybe Bebe “physicalizes” what happens online because of the larger variety of possibilities within that world. It seems a little more interesting than “real life,” maybe, because of that.
Rumpus: Bebe Zeva says, “Nautical creatures are not alt. It’s too easy to turn into a gimmick — like narwals — it’s entry level.” What is entry-level? Bebe Zeva says she invented the term “lifer?” Is that ironic? Is it condescending to call someone a lifer?
Boyle: “Entry-level alt” is a phrase that appears a lot on hipsterrunnoff.com to describe someone who primarily identified with mainstream culture but was recently exposed to “alt”/hipster culture. This blog post explains it pretty well: http://www.hipsterrunoff.com/2008/08/proud-grin-entry-level-alt.html. In the film, Bebe defines a “lifer” as a “mainstreamer who loves life, God, and playing softball and writes about it on Facebook.” I don’t think the word “lifer” is ironic because it describes something Bebe perceives earnestly. If I believed I was innately superior to someone who played softball and updated their Facebook status a lot, it wouldn’t matter if I called them a “lifer” or “Caucasian” or “Michelle” — I would condescend to them.