Haters Back Off Is Punching Down — & I’m Not Okay With It

Photo: Courtesy of Carol Segal/Netflix.
Colleen Ballinger’s YouTube-famous series, Miranda Sings, has moved out of the grainy web-cam world and onto a sparkling new platform: Netflix. Created and played by Ballinger, Miranda is a fame-hungry singer who can't really sing — and whose music videos and tutorials have racked up millions of views. Beyond singing, Miranda is terrible at most things: She can't put on lipstick, she's sometimes politically incorrect, and frequently misuses words. (In the pilot of the Netflix series, Miranda tells her mom not to be a "smart Alex.") Miranda is a talentless dummy who really, really believes in her own talent. Viewers are supposed to interpret this as irony. Ballinger’s brand-new eight-episode series, Haters Back Off, follows Miranda’s career after she posts her first video — a breathy version of “Defying Gravity” — and discovers that, gee, the internet can really suck. Bolstered by her encouraging uncle (Steve Little) and a lovesick neighbor (Erik Stocklin), the homeschooled teen wheezes her way to the top by ignoring criticism from haters. Hence the title of the show. But the new streaming platform doesn't really do Miranda any favors: Ballinger’s viral parody has always verged on callous. On Netflix, though, the treatment of this witless teen is downright brutal. Miranda is still positioned as an underdog, but the new show is actually bullying her: This is comedy that punches down, and it's not really okay. The fact is Miranda is not a parody; she’s a cruel impression of what some people go through every day.
Miranda’s nasal intonations and trademark sloppy lipstick are meant to poke fun at fame-hungry YouTubers. She’s played by Ballinger herself, who, it should be noted, can actually sing. Ballinger created the character to mock fellow YouTube performers. (She told the Times of London that the character was inspired by “clueless” girls at her college who had the gall to think they were talented.) Here's where I take issue: As someone who attended a performing arts school, I knew a number of Mirandas. Actually, screw that: I was a Miranda. Anyone who sings will, at some point, look like a delusional, talentless idiot. I’ve performed entire songs off-key, oblivious to the real notes. I’ve fallen at auditions and, once, I dropped a glass jar of condoms on stage, prompting my scene partner to ad-lib, “I love free condoms!” The point is, relentlessly pursuing a passion often requires a certain degree of delusion. You have to wake up every morning and say, “I am a talented motherfucker.” (This is a thing I’ve actually done.)

The fact is Miranda is not a parody; she’s a cruel impression of what some people go through every day.

Part of the issue is that Ballinger happens to have real singing chops: She went to college for vocal performance, and — before making it big on YouTube — had some success as a singer. So when the character she is playing smears lipstick on her mouth and buttons a tidy Oxford, she's making fun of people who dare to pursue a thing they are passionate about. It seems sort of cruel, like she's vacationing in a land of talentless nobodies while relishing the opportunity to mock them. Some people see what Ballinger has done with this character as a way to champion a "do what you love no matter what anyone else says" ethos. Fans of the web series have called Miranda a "champion for the oddball inside of us." Maybe in more adept hands, Haters Back Off might have been a beacon series for the uncool kids, à la Napoleon Dynamite or even Parks and Recreation. But between the out-of-work uncle, the cans of Vienna sausages, and an overall dreary palette that seems to hint that middle America is somehow low-class, Haters Back Off lacks the heart of other series treading the same themes. Instead, it's winking at the watcher and asking: Isn't this all so pathetic?

Which is not to say that Haters Back Off doesn't have high notes: As Patrick, Erik Stocklin is a vision of lovelorn geekdom. Angela Kinsey, who has not been around nearly enough since her days on The Office, also puts on an almost painfully sincere show as the eager-to-please mother with fibromyalgia. But the difference between their characters and Miranda's is empathy — and without more of it, I'm not sure this series hits its mark. Haters Back Off largely preys on the pitiful. It’s also somewhat strange that YouTube has produced a work so acidly insincere. Today, it seems that YouTube stars — Lilly Singh and Patrick Starrr come to mind — traffic in honesty and acceptance. The video-sharing site seemingly rewards those who are vulnerable and encouraging. When it comes down to it, Haters Back Off is neither honest nor accepting. The character scolds those who dare to have confidence, which is just not cool. Yes, haters should back off. But in this series, the victim is just a bully in disguise. Haters Back Off premieres on Netflix October 14.

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