Milana Vayntrub at WonderCon in March 2019. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
You probably never considered that Lily, the AT&T pitchwoman, might have a last name (the character is Lily Adams) – let alone that she might be a real person.
Meet Milana Vayntrub, the very real person and actor best known for playing Lily. Her true-life story is inspiring. Its most recent chapter is also an infuriating demonstration of how today’s media machinery treats real people, especially women, like meat. It tosses them to the online jackals for the entertainment of all.
Vayntrub attracted attention last week with an emotional Instagram livestream, later posted to Twitter, describing her pain at the endless stream of sexually themed abuse she receives online. Some trolls are circulating old photos taken of her at a college swimming party. Others are using faked photos. All are gross; none are welcome.
Naturally, some of the trolls were happy to share their poison in the comments that appeared on screen while the 33-year-old actor shared her feelings.
“I’m hurting, and it’s bringing up a lot of feelings of sexual assault,” Vayntrub said. “And I am just walking my dog and getting messages from people who have distorted my pictures to get likes on their accounts.”
I don’t know her personally, but I very much doubt that Vayntrub is some sort of delicate flower. Her family, of Russian Jewish ethnicity, left Uzbekistan when she was a toddler, as the Soviet Union was breaking apart. Her parents settled in West Hollywood as refugees. Vayntrub, who is now an American citizen, started acting in Mattel Barbie commercials as a 5-year-old. She told an interviewer years later that her career started because “we were really poor.” She earned her GED after dropping out of Beverly Hills High School and went on to earn a degree in communications from the University of California, San Diego.
Vayntrub has worked steadily, if not famously, for pretty much her entire life. As well as an actor, she is also a writer and a stand-up comic. In that 2015 interview, she explained that she secured a manager due to the success of her web series “Live Prude Girls,” which included sketches and interviews. She had a 2016-17 role as Sloane Sandburg on the popular TV series “This Is Us”; voiced several roles, including Peppa Pig, in the satirical animated series “Robot Chicken”; and is the voice of Doreen Green, aka Squirrel Girl, a Marvel superhero.
A lot of being an actor who isn’t an A-list celebrity is doing whatever you need to do to pay the bills and keep your career moving forward. To succeed as a working actor in 2020, however, it isn’t enough to have solid chops, the right look, a great agent and a few lucky breaks – though you still need these. Producers, directors, studios, advertisers and casting agents also often want you to bring your own audience to the project, in the form of social media followers. The more, the better. How you get them is your problem.
At the root of that problem lies the algorithms employed by the Four Horsemen of the Creepocalypse: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Those algorithms provide exposure for celebrities and wannabe celebrities based on “engagement.” The algorithms neither know nor care whether a user is attractive or ugly, funny or boring, wise or moronic, loving or hateful. They only respond to how many viewers interact with the content the user posts. An interaction can be something innocuous, such as a “like” or a “reaction.” It can also be something potentially much more personal, and occasionally abusive – such as a comment, or a user sharing or retweeting the post with offensive material added. And, as Vayntrub noted, reporting and blocking every inappropriate commenter is impractical when actors face a tidal wave of such unwanted forms of engagement.
Public personalities are relentlessly encouraged – or sometimes required by their employers – to engage with their audience, especially online. This is the exact opposite of what parents used to teach children about not talking to strangers, but the social media algorithms demand it. I doubt there is a single woman reading this post who does not know exactly where such interaction inevitably leads.
The creeps who expose Vayntrub and her colleagues to an incessant stream of vulgarity, sexual harassment and just plain meanness are, I expect, the same people who shout at women from passing cars, drive with dangerous aggression and throw trash wherever they happen to be. They don’t respect women because they do not respect anyone, themselves included. They only act out under the cloak of anonymity; they are bullies and cowards who never want to be accountable, even to themselves.
To its credit, AT&T stood up for Vayntrub. “We will not tolerate the inappropriate comments and harassment of Milana Vayntrub, the talented actor that portrays Lily in our ads," the company said in a statement. “We have disabled or deleted these comments on our social content that includes Lily and we will continue to fight to support her and our values, which appreciate and respect all women.”
Yet disabling the comments on its corporate-controlled outlets, while a welcome gesture, is not particularly effective. It does nothing to disable creepdom’s enablers. It has no effect on the algorithms that give the creeps free rein while demanding that women in public life endure their abuse. And it doesn’t affect the employers who cluck about online misbehavior even as they peruse social profiles to see whose audience demographics offer the best bang for the producer’s buck. If Vayntrub wanted to shut down her personal social media accounts or make them private, she could face real disadvantages in her professional life as a result.
It is a curious artifact of celebrity that social media powerhouses such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump suffer almost nothing from this abuse. They can expect enormous online distribution regardless of whether they ever read a single negative comment, let alone engage with a commenter. To them, today’s social media can function just like yesterday’s interviews with TV and print journalists, only better: There is no interviewer to question what they say or leave out the quotes they want the world to see.
Back in the slightly less rarefied strata of online fame, some women who used to have social media accounts dropped them due to the abuse they received. Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley, both of whom starred in the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy, deactivated their respective accounts after receiving waves of ugly and abusive messages. Grammy-winning musician Lizzo announced in January that she would be leaving Twitter, citing “too many trolls.” Her account is still active, but all new tweets have been posted by her management and signed accordingly. Leaving may still mean bearing some professional cost, even for entertainers who have achieved fame, but at least they have a measure of name recognition to fall back on.
The algorithms exact their highest price on lesser-known personalities, who must either immerse themselves in the platform’s endless river of chatter or risk being left on the banks.
If producers, directors and advertisers really want to stand up for women – and everyone else – facing online abuse, they will stop demanding that performers like Vayntrub bring their own audience to a project.
Failing that utopian dream, how about changing social media algorithms to block offensive content from comments much more aggressively than they do now, even at risk of having some inoffensive comments go unseen other than by the poster. Platforms could also remove abusive users altogether. Even better: Charge a nominal fee – maybe 25 cents – for every comment posted to celebrity accounts by someone that user doesn’t follow. (If a user needs to be verified, their account is a celebrity account.) Make sure the entire sum goes to the celebrity user. Real fans will, on occasion, cough up two bits to say something nice. And the targets of abuse can at least take any vitriol they receive to the bank.