A freakish new art form is climbing in popularity on Youtube. It’s so subversive that it has the New York Times and the London Economic both up in arms. James Bridle was so unsettled that he averred in a recent jeremiad on the subject: “I don’t want what I’m talking about here anywhere near my own site… Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatize, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level.” Welcome to #Elsagate.
The scandal centers on AI-produced “children’s videos” whose content is structured according to trending searches on Youtube, often resulting in ghoulish outcomes involving the likes of Disney, DC, and Marvel characters. Bridle was particularly unnerved by a piece called “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video.” Apparently, chatbots automatically view videos like these and post inane comments about them, artificially driving up the their popularity. The trending content is then advertised to an audience mostly composed of horrified toddlers clicking on the links by accident, adults sharing the videos out of shock, genuine fans of the surreal, and of course, other AI.
Most of the videos don’t technically violate Youtube’s Community Guidelines, but they come awfully close, incorporating scatological humor, sexualized scenarios, and occasionally even serious acts of violence and exploitation. Imagine putting The Sims on auto-play, breaking copyright to make the characters look like popular cartoons, and recording them as they act out various inappropriate scenarios according to words that are trending on Youtube. Then imagine polluting the Internet with thousands of these videos and cynically marketing them at infants, raking in cash.
According to the New York Times, “Malik Ducard, YouTube’s global head of family and learning content, said that the inappropriate videos were ‘the extreme needle in the haystack,’ (and) that ‘making the app family friendly is of the utmost importance to us.’” But actually, I want to argue in this article that far from being a rare exception to the rule, this kind of video in fact represents an entirely new genre of video-art that I want to call Totsploitation.
The genre boasts a global audience and videos with tens of millions of views, some of them even acted out by flesh and blood fans. Unlike anything you’ve ever imagined (unless, of course, you’re one of its huge international legion of fans), Totsploitation is cheaply executed and cynically conceived, wallowing in the repetitious and grotesque. Glorified gibberish ruthlessly appropriative of children’s culture, at first glance, its primary aim seems to dupe gullible viewers into watching stultifying gobbledygook for the sake of ad revenue (though since August, Youtube has tried to limit ad revenue from certain videos containing the “inappropriate use of family-friendly characters”).
But there is more to it than that. Seen through the most uncharitable lens, the genre’s characteristic features are troubling reflections not only of warped corporate values sponsoring AI-generated brainrot on a massive scale, but also a commentary on the dark subconscious of humanity, who are driving the creation of this kind of content and clicking on links enmeshing cartoon characters in hellishly violent, misogynistic, or inappropriately sexualized scenarios. If the Internet had nightmares, this is what they would look like.
But despite appearances, does Totsploitation actually have any educational and artistic value? What do its millions of fans see in it? How can it be controlled? Should it even be censored?
To begin with, let’s start with the question, is Totsploitation actually Art with a capital A?
Mimesis is fundamental to artistic production, and innovation in art is often fueled by the recombination of preexisting motifs in unexpected ways, lampooning the established forms. For example, in the case of Manet’s Olympia, one of the most revolutionary paintings of all time, the artist famously appropriated a classic composition by Titian portraying “Venus” and set the image in a modern bourgeoisie context, using sketchy brushwork to portray a prostitute whose nudity was considered less shocking than her full-frontal gaze. (Interestingly, Titian copied elements of his composition from a Greco-Roman statue, so the meme had a long life.)
After his work was accepted into the prestigious Parisian Salon, Manet’s painting was promptly ridiculed by the press. Journalist Antonin Proust believed that “only the precautions taken by the administration prevented the painting being punctured and torn” by angry spectators. One critic wrote that Olympia showed “inconceivable vulgarity,” and still another harangued readers with the idea that “art sunk so low does not even deserve reproach.” Manet was overwhelmed by all of this, writing to his friend the poet Baudelaire, “They are raining insults on me. Someone must be wrong.” Such was the price for infusing the clichéd pure image of Venus with the ambiance of a modern brothel, sexualizing the nudity of the “goddess.” Attacking contemporary notions of propriety was dangerous, though history would vindicate Manet for testing the limits of popular acceptability and challenging rather than coddling the pearl-clutching prudes in his audience.
For all its tawdriness, Totsploitation is in a sense grounded in the same grand tendencies in the history of innovation in the arts. By recombining motifs associated with “pure” children’s entertainment and themes connected with adult situations, the artist provokes a reaction not unlike that invited by Manet’s Olympia. The unconventional brushwork, sloppy from a neoclassical perspective, is even paralleled by the sketchy and unfinished quality of these videos. But while Manet explored the fine line separating pornography and portraiture in nude images of women branded “Venus,” the modern Totsploitation artist elicits a shocked response by dwelling on the ambiguous boundaries that distinguish different types of children’s entertainment.
On a positive note, memes from cartoons especially popular with little boys merge neutrally with those of female-centric entertainment like Frozen. More sinister, though, is the genre’s blurring of the naiveté of Nick Junior and Disney, the stylized violence and suspense of DC and Marvel, and the cynicism and explicitness of Adult Swim and softcore hentai. All of this makes Totsploitation intriguing from certain artistic perspectives but horrendous entertainment for infants. To put it in the terms of the Stone Age, this is often TV 14 or MA content masquerading as TV Y on Youtube.
Totsploitation’s closest cousin is another genre featuring mashups of stock cartoon characters, jump cuts, starling soundtracks, and disturbing hypnotic juxtapositions of kid-friendly content with adult violence: the unfortunately named Youtube Poop. It involves “absurdist remixes that ape and mock the lowest technical and aesthetic standards of remix culture to comment on remix culture itself.” Hurricoaster’s The Sky Had a Weegee is a classic example of the genre, incorporating clips from Spongebob Squarepants and the horrendous DOS version of Mario is Missing. Trajce Cvetkovski drew attention to the video when he wrote about it in 2013 because Viacom claimed a copyright infringement against it. Now, it has over 16 million views on Youtube. One of these days, Disney or Marvel might just immortalize a Totspolitation classic in the same way.
However, the similarities between Youtube Poop and Totsploitation only extend so far. The former highlights the ingenuity of human editors as they break down and mock stock narratives drawn from children’s media. The latter is driven by surreal recombinations of stock motifs by cynically minded programmers and their inhuman algorithms, constructing strange and unsettling narratives rather than deconstructing them.
Sometimes, Totsploitation videos contain almost indescribably weird and wonderful imagery, recombinations of motifs so strange that no human could have thought them up. Think of the scene from Cartoon Superheroes Swimming Race INDOOR PLAYGROUND Fun Play Area For Kids Baby Nursery Rhymes Songs from 3:41 onward. The characters dive beneath a swimming pool whose surface is covered with floating fruit. They go on to engage in an epic martial arts battle beneath the waves defying gravity as if they were flying in outer space.
Dali couldn’t have thought this shit up. Sometimes, I even have to admit that the jokes cooked up by the AI are a little funny (perhaps with a helping hand from human editors). At the 4:53 mark of Baby Cartoon Rhymes’ beloved childhood classic Frozen Elsa Spiderman Baby Lazy to School Funny Story New Episodes! Finger Family Nursery Rhymes, for example, a bikini-clad Maleficent inseminates herself with her can of magic sun-tan spray, making Elsa suspect infidelity on the part of Spiderman when she spots the heavily pregnant witch lounging possessively next to him on the beach. Another video in which the sisters from Frozen discuss the blonde one’s fever is like something out of the Red Shoe Diaries. There’s a wtf factor at play here that is right at home with the effects of other kinds of modern art.
Certain tropes like cartoon violence and the presentation of sexualized (though not pornographic) situations are acceptable according to the algorithms at play here and ramped up to the max. After the initial shock, the more you watch the videos, the more the proceedings descend into bathos and then tedium, undercutting the horrific edge of it all. I appreciate that there is inherently something deeply subversive and aesthetically meaningful about any form of art making mincemeat out of beloved corporate mascots and the copyright laws which upholds their status as sacred cows.
“These are videos produced by machines that rage against the Machine.”
These are videos produced by machines that rage against the Machine. On the uncharted frontiers of Youtube, the impossible in the world of over-produced high corporate art is made possible in the realm of cheap automated cartoons. We all know that Spiderman and Elsa could never date in real life. Copyright law would prevent it. But their romance knows no boundaries for the singularity.
Despite all of this, the fact remains that as they are currently marketed, Totsploitation videos are wreaking havoc on the internet and exploiting a vulnerable generation of children around the world in the most twisted way imaginable—crushing their dreams about their childhood idols by associating beloved characters with tawdriness and terrifying violence. However, censorship is not the answer. Technically infeasible, it would not only set a horrendous precedent, but represent capitalist interests stifling a popular and inherently anti-corporate art form.
I think that there is something inherently reckless about entrusting the education of our children to algorithms designed to maximize profit rather than deferring to human content developers and educators with the best interests of children at heart. Even totally innocent series like the Zool Babies contain harmful content because the AI is insensitive to potentially inappropriate subject matter. Usually, the videos just contain vapid repetitions of a song concerning five babies becoming a smaller and smaller group until only one baby remains.
But consider the video Five Little Babies Bathing In a Tub | Zool Babies Fun Songs | Nursery Rhymes For Babies. In one of the songs, we have, “Five little babies sitting on a wall. One slipped off and fell from the wall. Mama called the doctor and the doctor said, no more baby sitting on a wall (18:12 onward). In their Halloween song, one of the babies even gives another a graphic scar (1:02). It astounds me that this crap has hundreds of millions of views on Youtube.
When adult-themed Totsploitation is thrown into the mix, matters become graver still. At first, the sinister effect is almost unnoticeable. An otherwise banal video of dancing Elsa’s by Cartoon Rhymes transforms for a few moments into a frightening battle involving dinosaurs (14:53 onward). In still another video by Cartoon Rhymes, scenes involving harmless Claymation are juxtaposed with a brutal stabbing (11:27) and gun violence (12:22). In a video produced by Animals for Kids, children dressed as superheroes inject passerby with hypodermic needles (27:27).
Other videos incorporate imagery of sexual slavery. One of them rages with such misogynistic brutality that it is clear the aggression derives from male programmers and not hapless AI. Incorporating images of physical abuse and rape, “Spiderman & Elsa Kiss! Spiderman, Elsa & Anna Compilation (Superheroes)” is the product of predatory developers interested not only in lining their pockets with clickbait, but eviscerating some of the most treasured values of contemporary emancipated liberal society in the West.
Make no mistake about it. Youtube’s twofold greed is the ultimate culprit here, grounded in a desire to make money by promoting the videos on the one hand and save money by resorting to the use of robots to censor and categorize content on the other. How about hiring more living and breathing people to monitor these videos and imposing a practical rating system that accurately reflects their true maturity level? Due to the recent fervor over the issue, it seems initial steps in this direction have already been taken.
“And all of this in a generation that has defunded Public Television.”
But since Youtube has been making similar claims about monitoring the videos since August, their assurances might be taken cum grano salis. The creepiest content is often buried so deep within otherwise banal videos that much of it is sure to slip past censors.
While I cannot deny the artistic value of elements of Totsploitation, it is obviously deeply traumatizing fodder for infants and should be properly rated and categorized by human beings rather than deceptively marketed to innocent toddlers by a machine, preying on their gullibility. We are literally peddling drugs, rape, misogyny, and massacres to our children. And all of this in a generation that has defunded Public Television! Talk about a collective failure on a massive scale. The price of all this immorality will be nothing less than a generation of children with scarred imaginations. Somebody do something, quick.
David Vincent Kimel is a doctoral student in History at Yale. Connect with him on Twitter and Instagram (spqrkimel). You can see more at his blog.