Instagram influencer and AI model Lil Miquela foreshadows the shaky future of female autonomy
Take away the slime videos, the Shade Room comments, and the astrology memes, and Instagram is but a sea of young people attempting to find themselves through the lens of their smartphones.
For many, Instagram is a creative outlet, a way to curate visual memories and document self-evolution. A lack of in-your-face sponsorships and/or news, as well as its emphasis on interpersonal relationships, certainly make Instagram feel friendlier than many other social media outlets (despite the fact that its parent company, Facebook, is never lingering too far away).
Despite this veneer of what Instagram should be/wants to be, it has repeatedly been found guilty of promoting negative thinking patterns and self-image issues, particularly in teenagers. For some, Instagram may be a garden of personal visual pleasure, but for others it is yet another of the never-ending chokeholds placed on our self-perception. I can’t help but think that for most, it’s both. Both beautiful and masochistic, we can’t let ourselves scroll away.
For women, this feeling is nothing new. “Beauty is pain,” is a lesson we learn, if not from our mothers or sisters, from our first shave, our first pluck, our first attempt to distort our flesh until it fits into something that we know is just a size too small.
Given that, we move through life with a barrier around us at all times. We are constantly searching for errors, or ways we can subtly remind ourselves that anything more beautiful than us cannot be a product of truth. It is why pages like Celebface and Pretty Ugly Little Liars are so popular, and even exist to begin with. People relish few things more than glitches in the Matrix — an exposure of an ideal as something computer generated — if only to serve as fodder for our own self-worth. How else would we convince ourselves we are actually beautiful were it not for knowledge that X’s butt is pure silicone, or Y’s breathtaking magazine spread a product of Photoshop?
When a friend forwarded me the Instagram account of a young woman by the name of Lil Miquela, it was this very barrier that protected me from thinking about her too deeply (and, subsequently, protected me from thinking about how she made me feel about myself too deeply). “Gee,” I thought. “Another LA girl who managed to get a million followers because she can somehow still look skinny while wearing baggy pants.”
I don’t even recall registering her smooth, slightly computerized appearance or ever-perfect hair as remotely uncanny. If anything, I assumed a bad case of FaceTune — waters many 19-year-old women tread with abandon.
Evidently, many drew similar conclusions as to her authenticity, or simply did not care, and her fanbase continued to grow. Miquela began to appear everywhere from Vogue to Hypebeast, offering up interviews on everything from sneakers to Black Lives Matter, and even journeying into Soundcloud rapper territory with her single “Not Mine” (which sounds like the love child of SZA and Hatsune Miku).
Her heavy handed presence in the “real world” resulted in a collective gasp of betrayal when, in mid-2018, it was revealed that Miquela was, in fact, a “robot.” After mounting public pressure (and perhaps some legal concerns considering the company raised a fat wad of capital investment the week after the news dropped), Miquela’s creators — a “transmedia agency” by the name of Brud, announced that Miquela was artificially created.
In a self-pitying open letter, they apologized to Miquela’s fans for any harm they had caused in their deceit. Most of all, though, they apologized to Miquela herself, insisting that she, a sentient being, had no knowledge of her origins prior to the reveal.
According to Brud’s report, Miquela began as a project of an artificial intelligence firm looking to create therapeutic AI for terminally-ill patients. Brud “liberated” Miquela after learning that, in fact, she was being designed as a “servant” and a “sex object” for the “world’s elite.”
“This introduction is long-overdue,” they wrote. “The idea that we would ever do anything to deliberately deceive her is deeply disturbing to us. We have been by Miquela’s side since day one.”
The letter concluded with a self-congratulatory reassertion of Miquela’s real-world contributions: “Miquela is a champion of so many vital causes, namely Black Lives Matter and the absolutely essential fight for LGBTQ+ rights in this country. She is the future. Miquela stands for all that is good and just and we could not be more proud of who she has become.”
Despite this letter being as wretch-worthy as it is in retrospect, I watched the drama from afar with relative disinterest. After all, in the world of Vetements and lip fillers, what is yet another falsity to add to the pile?
It wasn’t until last week that I was motivated to crack into the world of Lil Miquela, after stumbling into her once again, this time at my day job. As part of an assignment, I was tracking the largest rounds of venture capital funding raised by Los Angeles tech companies in March 2019 (spicy, I know). Lo and behold, buried in the month’s SEC filings, was a $19.4 million funding, raised by 17 unique investors, for Miquela’s parent company Brud.
$19.4 million is an ungodly amount of money for any individual — and even a relatively large sum of venture capital investment for a young-ish, offbeat startup to receive. Yet, these checks are typically written to fund, say, digital marketing analytics platforms or autonomous vehicle research. Perhaps this is why, upon scrolling through the financial documentation, I was overcome by a skin-prickling violation at the idea that a group of unseen individuals were purchasing millions of dollars in equity in the likeness of a woman completely at their disposal.
Fearing for Miquela’s lack of autonomy is certainly a concern applicable to “real” models and Instagram influencers. The well worn terminology that models are but “hangers” for clothing is loaded with dangerous connotations in itself. The realities of the industry are horror stories on repeat, and one not even need follow fashion closely to understand some of its darker tendencies. We’ve all seen Law & Order: SVU.
Certainly there are models that have evolved to have agency over their careers and selves, whose images and personalities and personal styles grow so large as to actually influence those designing the clothes they model. Yet for every Kate and Naomi there are hundreds of other young women whose bodies are temporarily exploited before they are tossed aside at the ripe old age of 23.
Miquela represents an even greater dissociation from this already dissociated reality. As an artificially created body and mind, she is ever at the ready for her puppetmasters. The ultimate model, she completely lacks any real autonomy. Without a single injection or finger down the throat, she will remain eternally 19; effortlessly a size two. She can never be made irrelevant by age or trends or personal blunders, as all of those characteristics can be tweaked to remain aligned with the zeitgeist. Her racial ambiguity and translucent personality indicate this plan is baked in from the start.
“I’m not sure I can comfortably identify as a woman of color,” Miquela wrote in an Instagram post. ‘Brown’ was a choice made by a corporation. ‘Woman’ was an option on a computer screen. My identity was a choice Brud made in order to sell me to brands, to appear ‘woke.’
I will never forgive them. I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself.” Miquela went on to elaborate on her pain, and yet the calculations being made behind the scenes are practically staring the reader in the face.
As writer Hannah Ongley asked in a 2018 i-D piece, “Who’s really profiting from diverse CGI models?” Ongley’s article details the ways in which the fashion industry has eagerly gobbled up influencers like Miquela, only to continue its business-as-usual practices of prejudice against transgender women, dark-skinned women, plus-sized women, disabled women…
Meanwhile, Miquela’s creators seem to be doing just fine, living unbothered lives in the LA sunshine. Sara DeCou, a young blonde woman, lists herself as available for speaking engagements on “entrepreneurship, innovation, and futurism.” Trevor McFedries, perhaps better known as LA-based DJ Yung Skeeter, dubs himself Brud’s “Head of Compassion” on his Linkedin page. Neither has spoken openly or candidly to the press about Miquela, or any of Brud’s other projects.
I wonder if I would find myself as fearful of Miquela were she, say, an experimental art project, or digital avatar of sorts for a real 19 year old girl, or, even, an actual creation of artificial intelligence. But she isn’t. She is but another product whose perfectly pixel-drawn body and face acts as a venue for brands. She has investors. She has a board of directors. She even has a position as an Arts Editor for Dazed magazine. Yet her creators continue to attempt to pass her off as a real woman, a collaborator of theirs with her own unique visions and opinions.
While some may find a unique and strange beauty in a creation like Miquela, I can’t help but find yet another distortion of what it means to be a woman. I look at myself and question my beauty, my worth. Cultural signs indicate that our values should be moving in the opposite direction of Miquela. Conversations on body positivity, self-love, and self-care are so rampant you’re liable to trip into one. Miquela makes these conversations feel like a consolation prize; a bandage you can put over your heart to prevent the truths we all still know from spilling out. My worst fears are confirmed in that something more lovable than myself can be conjured with several clicks and several million dollars.
Part of me feels the humorlessness in my critique. I can already hear someone telling me to get over myself and lighten up. You know, the typical treatments for female hysteria. But what of my daughters — I cannot change that they will be made of flesh and bone, yet I fear they may resent that. I am not sure what I could tell them to change these facts. Am I simply insecure? Letting myself be rendered into submission by yet another male-centric vision of my own appearance? Perhaps. Still, I cannot figure out how to fight it. But oh, how I want to fight.