1/11/2021 0 Comments
Suit Yourself, Humanity
The Return of Raven, The Acid Bath Princess of Darkness
It’s two thousand and eight, you’re a teenager at Hot Topic, and you love nothing more in this world than Gerard Way.
(Or it’s nineteen ninety one and you’re buying Nirvana “Nevermind” on cassette at the Sam Goody.)
(Or it’s the eighties or the seventies or earlier... it’s Strummer, it’s Bowie, it’s The Beatles... it’s Tupac, it’s Run DMC, it’s the Sugar Hill Gang...)
(It’s a mall, it’s The Dozens on the corner, it’s a field on a New York dairy farm, it’s a soda shop...)
No... in this case, it’s two thousand and eight, you’re 17 year old Sarah, and it’s you and your 15 year old sister in small town South Carolina, in your room with a videocamera putting on skits. And while music plays a very important part in this story, and in the creation of the American teenager and all the cliques and subcultures it spawned, the touchstone here is comedy. Not a George Carlin record, not an episode of “Kids In The Hall,” not even an episode of Nickelodeon’s “All That,” because your parents didn't pay for cable and they wouldn’t let you watch television anyway. But it’s an improv class you fell in love with at school, the humor of the characters you and your sister create, the plays you’ve been writing together since you were little, and the jokes you tell to make each other laugh.
This is before TikTok. This is before Vine. But it’s right at the genesis of a video sharing site called YouTube. Your sister will play “Tara” and your friend “Azer,” and you will discuss all things mid aughts emo and goth, from AFI to “Twilight.” You aren’t on LiveJournal like so many millennials who are sincerely posting lyrics from Morrissey or The Cure, instead you’re sneakily posting links to your videos on the 4Chan messageboard. You’re a babyfaced college kid trying to troll an audience into making fun of fictional characters they’ll think are real, two junior high girls who just took down their Zac Efron posters and used their iTunes credits on Evanescence singles. (It was a trio of friends, until in storyline, Azer was banished for shopping at Hollister.)
But the crowd you were waiting for really doesn’t take the bait. (Not in 2008, anyway...)
The 1950s ended. The hippies became yuppies. Kurt Cobain died and "TRL" replaced grunge. You stopped making videos, you did some nude art modeling, you had bills to pay when you found out men paid for used underwear on the internet, and life took you in a different direction away from your comedy dreams...
It all leads to professional dominatrix Petra Hunter talking to Meow Meow Pow Pow, over teleconference during a global pandemic. The same day, that rich guy who was in “Home Alone 2” got banned from Twitter for attempting a fascist coup at the Capitol building. But there’s a lot of ground we’ve skipped over, so we go back to the beginning.
“When I was...”
When you were Raven. The Acid Bath Princess of Darkness.
"We're sitting here in Tara's room, rocking out to MCR and celebrating 2009, or "the New Year." Which, we don't really understand why people are making such a big deal about it, because really one more year is one more year that everyone's closer to death. Whatever. Suit yourself, humanity."
I saw the Tara and Raven emo/mall goth videos long after the fact, and they were often brought up in a Facebook group that me and some friends helped moderate a couple of years ago called “It’s 2005 and This Is Cool As Hell.” Yes, nostalgia for the mid aughts already, to the tune of 120,000 members (until a Business Insider article incorrectly pegged it as a piracy threat with watch parties for copyrighted material, and got it shut down).
Those numbers are nothing compared to the nearly two million views that just one video on the “xxblo0dyxkissxx” YouTube channel has received - the highly quotable New Year’s 2009 shout out video.
Other videos with “only” a quarter to a half million views or so were singalongs to bands like A Simple Plan or a reaction to the trailer for “New Moon.”
Some have celebrated Raven and Tara as a goth / emo Beavis and Butthead, though their demeanor may more resemble spun off characters Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane. Their spiritual predecessors are Circe Nightshade and Azrael Abyss of the reoccurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch called “Goth Talk,” but these were not influences and all unknown to Sarah and her sister at the time. They didn't have access to a lot of media or other extras, and had to make up their own fun.
“For most of my life I have felt financially insecure," Sarah tells me from her current residence in Dallas, Texas. Her family was poor and they moved around frequently when Sarah and her sister were children. “I don’t actually think the mall in South Carolina had a Hot Topic. We moved to South Carolina from East Texas so all of those things I was envisioning were from back home.”
“We played together a lot and over time that turned into us just developing our own senses of humor. Before the videos, we had made these spoof ‘Seventeen’ magazines. Which is funny, we weren’t really allowed to read those either. We just made these dry, absurd magazine for teenagers based on the covers we saw at the grocery story. We wrote articles, we played dress up and took pictures to be celebrities in the magazine." The stories included “My First Day of Middle School Was a Disaster!”, about a very bad day that ends with farting to make it worse. Like a young David and Amy Sedaris, they also wrote plays together.
While in junior high theater in 2003, Sarah ended up in an improv class. “I fell in love with improv. 'SNL' became one of those things that I was allowed to stay up and watch as I got a little bit older." She had a soft spot for Chris Parnell and Chris Kattan, but as a "young and innocent" devotee, “I devoured it all.” One of Sarah's first internet experiences was seeing Loney Island's "Lazy Sunday" from the 2005 season on YouTube. She also explored the burgeoning world of social media. “I was on Blogspot, I was on Xanga... I had multiple MySpaces. I was a pretty early adopter of Facebook. I remember watching music videos on YouTube. All of the sudden this whole world of music videos was there for me.”
Recording began in 2007, with help from visiting family friend "Azer" (they now perform music as NeutralOneder) at various points until production ceased in the summer of 2009. While fan fiction writers, podcast hosts, aspiring comedians, outspoken politicos, and others saw their profile rise on the World Wide Web, Sarah couldn't even get the notorious 4chan messageboard to follow her links to flame her videos. "Take a look at these weirdos!" was the hint, she says retrospectively, as she was "secretly hoping this would lead to something a little bit bigger for me, even if I didn’t say it.”
Meanwhile, in 2008 during Sarah's early college years, she "found these flyers on my college campus that were like 'pose for a photographer, $40 an hour.' Hey, that sounds like great money! I ended up in this really weird skeezy situation.” Her first experience in sex work was modeling "naked and revealing poses of a young looking 18 year old... I never got paid for that.” She went on to some nude modeling for art classes, but in January 2011, she stumbled onto "the greatest swindle ever... selling dirty panties. You mean to tell me...?”
From that eCommerce, she soon was asked to "dom" interested clients over webcam, as well as producing custom video clips and phone calls, before finding a career as an in-person dominatrix. “I was going to do a thesis in creative writing, creative non fiction. It was too much. I dropped out three weeks before the end of my last semester before my thesis semester,” Sarah says, and got to work on building and opening a dungeon instead.
Concurrent with the videos, but also unknown to the sisters at the time was “My Immortal,” an online Harry Potter fan fiction series told through a goth lens by author pen name “Tara Gilesbie” and her co-author “Raven” through username “XXXbloodyrists666XXX” on FanFiction.net. The writing also invoked Hot Topic, My Chemical Romance, and other staples of Sarah and her sister's Raven and Tara cinematic universe. Still, as reported by Sarah (as well as her sister in an often overlooked 2014 interview with New York Public Radio that partially lifted the veil), there was no connection beyond coincidence.
Nevertheless, internet users linked the fanfic with the videos. Three years after they stopped making them, "our videos started getting more and more traction because 'My Immortal' has such a cult following behind it.”
With increased viewership came the backlash Sarah had previously tried to provoke, although it took a different form than her and her sister had anticipated. Having gone through a mall goth phase herself several years prior, Sarah would write lines asking herself, “What is something I could say that would piss off younger me?”
Instead, "the comments that we got on YouTube for pretty much... were just... awful.”
“Three years ago someone left a comment insinuating they were going to rape and murder me.”
Sarah has a few theories as to what stoked such hatred. "What I think a lot of people forget is that in the mid to late 2000s emo kids were everyone’s punchline. Also since comedy is a traditionally male dominated space, you see two women proclaiming to be emo, so that’s two strikes against them. And add in the fact (Raven and Tara are) really, really young... I don’t think historically there has been space for young people to be funny at all. I think that TikTok is kind of changing that just a little bit, because it’s such a youthful platform and there are so many people who are doing such great comedy there. But... there’s this assumption (youth) can’t be funny. Or if they are funny, they can only be funny for other young people.”
Raven's youthfulness, “fantastic deadpan,” and “pretty strong intensity” led viewers of her and Tara to “assume they’re real," even as the sisters worried their characters were too over the top and would give away the game.
In addition, “music and talking about music,” says Sarah, was also male-dominated, and perhaps “a little too much (for men) to wrap their heads around at the time.”
Sarah's sister, who portrayed Tara, did not comment for this article and hasn’t emerged because of how her and her sister were treated. But Sarah let me know that the commentary on their physical appearances, in videos recorded as they "suffered from mental health and body image struggles" and Tara gained weight from antidepressants, did an immense amount of damage. “When you’re a kid... that stuff really gets to you. For 12 years I lived with the assumption that I created this work that only I thought was funny. And that everybody else thought was totally worthless.”
As for Tara, a mother now herself who doesn't look the same after a complicated pregnancy and childbirth, has no interest in social media or being seen, and doesn’t want her child to go through what the sisters did by proxy.
Sarah points to a 2016 teaser she posted as another example, by then having grown into her adult aesthetic. "I was always 'the ugly one' growing up so of course I expected a fair share of 'Raven you’re ugly' comments.” But she describes the contrast between comments on the early videos and the 2016 teaser as “night and day.”
“You’re fuckable now!” she bellows, mimicking the male voice of one 2016 comment sent her way. “There’s really only a place on the internet for women if they’re conventionally attractive, and if they’re not, they have to make that a part of their thing. She has to make her unattractiveness part of her comedy. There is no room for a woman to just exist without having to say something about it or apologize for it or joke about it. I’m pretty mad because what I look like shouldn’t determine whether or not people think I’m funny. And what I look like certainly shouldn’t impact how people treat me on the internet.”
That same year, "I signed up for improv classes again. I was really excited about it, let’s do it, let’s go... I ended up dropping out my first term. One, I was really depressed, which I think is a joke in itself. But two, I was a sex worker and the atmosphere was a lot different... at the time, I wasn’t out about my job as I am now. I remember having the worst anxiety thinking, 'What if someone recognizes me from the internet? What name do I choose to tell people? What name do I decide to perform under? What happens if someone finds out Sarah from improv is Petra the dominatrix?'”
She couldn't make the jokes about her day job that others would make about theirs. “Even though societal views are changing, it’s still a stigmatized job and we don’t have any protections. Day one that you become a sex worker, you learn that you have to be so, so careful of your true identity and how many people you truly let know about who you are. Because otherwise if the wrong people find it, they will hurt you.”
As an improv 101 class, the low hanging fruit for her classmates was "dead stripper jokes... I spent a lot of those improv classes just really, really anxious. I felt like I couldn’t be myself. I just really didn’t feel like there was a place for me.”
While Sarah worried sex work was a potential concern for agents and producers who might see it as "a liability... not (being) squeaky clean," it was also the trauma from all those YouTube comments that "killed something inside me. It kind of taught me that even if I thought I was funny, other people wouldn’t think I was funny. It just took away that fearlessness, and that willingness to fail and to do whatever the fuck it took to make those things work. Over time it slowly fizzled that fire out.”
A new persona emerged in the last ten years that became Sarah’s means to make a living, the Dallas Dominatrix Petra Hunter. Besides the work that led to operating her own dungeon, Sarah also appeared on shows like “Off the Cuffs,” a podcast about kink, discussed relationship trials and tribulations on “Vegan But Lazy,” started two offshoot businesses offering BDSM materials, spent summers fostering for animal rescues, and used her Twitter as an activist and an advocate for sex workers. She has talked about the FOSTA-SESTA bills meant to mitigate sex trafficking, which impacted online advertising for sex workers, and how difficult that made it for her to vote for Joe Biden since Kamala Harris was a co-sponsor of that legislation.
Sex work and all the tasks that come along with it are “so consuming,” says Sarah, the carefree life of her persona being a mirage while the hustler behind the alter ego is working 12 hour days with few days off. With “hours and hours spent on website edits, emails, (and other) unpaid work,” it’s not the “easy money” that it looks like. Particularly in the COVID era, all those going through financial difficulties may joke “Guess I’ll make an OnlyFans!” says Sarah. “A bunch of selfies and drinking mimosas, and raking in thousands of dollars,” it is not.
This leaves little to no time for the things Sarah enjoys. “I soothe myself through overworking. It’s definitely unhealthy.” In the first couple months of the pandemic, she did start reading more and writing again. But after it became clear that sheltering in place was going to last a lot longer than a brief "vacation," she was “faced with this guilt. Even though I want to write, there’s this voice in my head that’s like ‘dude, Sarah, you need to write something that’s actually going to make you money RIGHT NOW.’” So instead of an essay about personal experiences, she'd instead write a blog post meant to direct more web traffic to one of her Petra sites.
After all that, out of energy and mental capacity, there remains the stack of books to be tackled someday, not to mention all the writing of her own she is inspired towards but too exhausted to undertake. “When I read again, I want to write. But life gets in the way and I don’t do it. And then there’s a whole shame cycle... ‘you call yourself a writer but you don’t even write.’”
However, all this more than prepared her for an emerging situation in the final days of December 2020. A new slew of wannabe internet sleuths started “connecting the dots” between Raven and Petra. And so, Sarah outed herself first to control the narrative. “It was a power grab.” After years of imposters claiming credit and pirates ripping the video to reupload on their own channels, Sarah took everything sex work taught her about “marketing and branding, and gaining control over your own content” for the last decade and put RavenIsAPoser.com on everything.
Twelve years to the date of publishing the most popular Tara and Raven video, the New Year’s 2009 shout out, Sarah emerged on TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter to confirm that Raven and Tara were characters. Immediately, she had behind-the-scenes footage and stories to share, as well as some short video bits like the 2016 teaser had seemed to foretell.
“I was expecting this tremendous backlash,” Sarah says, expecting to have to lock down or disable her Petra accounts and ride the wave of more internet hate. Instead, after a grueling year for people personally, for the health of the nation, and for an embarrassing and scary election cycle rife with coup attempts, the nostalgia of Raven and Tara felt oddly comforting. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of reception at all,” says Sarah. “I truly had no idea that our videos were so universally beloved until just a few days ago. And so I’ve spent the past 12 years just assuming that no one thought I was funny. And that no one watched our videos.”
Yet like every generation that looked back at the one before it, Sarah points out, today’s zoomers are fascinated with what millennials and Gen X’ers may have taken for granted in the 2000s. In one Instagram exchange, a “baby,” as Sarah jokingly and lovingly called them, asked her “So wait, did you get to go see ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Elf’ in theaters?”
“I didn’t because we were poor,” Sarah laughs, “but I could have!”
Also, Sarah has been told, even if Raven and Tara were tongue in cheek, the characters have over time come to encourage people to be themselves. “There was just something so unapologetically authentic about them... (they were) open about their feelings and the things that they liked.”
The reveal of Raven in 2021 felt like a fun pop culture story. I pursued an interview after Sarah had tweeted she had a lot to say about how her and her sister had been treated. I knew the profile would be a look at what was then and what is now. On the late afternoon we spoke, a siege on the Capitol in Washington DC by supporters of the outgoing Trump regime was still being cleared out after leaving four people dead, a fifth who would succumb to their injuries the following weekend. The reporting that weekend would reveal complicity of law officers and elected officials beyond just the President’s incitement. While we didn’t know that yet, there was still a melancholy, as there has been while over a quarter of million Americans have succumbed to COVID.
In a bizarre way, in this weird spot in history as a new administration readies to take over and a vaccine has begun distribution, Sarah has inadvertently grabbed the mic and stood on a platform built incrementally over 13 years. But for all my high falutin’ ideas for a thinkpiece on where we’ve all come from 2008 to 2021, I found myself in a poignant moment with a person still coming to terms with everything she’s been through herself from then to now.
“To be met with all of this love and support and genuine excitement from so many people has been such a mindfuck for me. It’s the best feeling ever!!! But it’s also so painful in so many ways. Because I spent so much of my life thinking what I did didn’t matter and that people didn’t care about it. And now every single day, I’m being bombarded with proof that what I did actually did matter and it did impact a lot of people, and a lot of people love it.”
Taking a breath... “It’s a lot to handle.”
Raven was a great comedic invention. Petra is a luxury professional. Sarah is a smart entrepreneur and engaging, composed interview subject. But she admits there has been a lot of crying in dealing with all of this, and that emotion was present in her eyes and her voice in this conversation.
“I never fully made the connection between how much comedy had really meant to me and how badly I had really wanted it to work out for me... and how damaging the reception had been. It became not only a snub of my comedy, but of me myself. Of course it was something that I always wondered, what would have happened if I did actually pursue this?”
“Living for 12 plus years thinking that I wasn’t funny and that people were rejecting me as a person or whatever only to be met with nothing but love and support and the kindest words. So to find out that for 12 years I thought that I wasn’t funny only to find out that hundreds of thousands of people thought I was hilarious this whole time.”
The interview subject may not have been the only one wiping away tears at this juncture.
“It’s so great. And it’s so sad... as much as I love sex work and am grateful for (it), if there was any way I could do comedy and sustain myself, I would do that in a fucking heartbeat.”
So, what now?
“I’m honestly trying to figure that all out.” Sarah is having a blast, rediscovering her drive and handling the pressure. It’s “cool... but really intimidating,” she says, asking herself, “What if I’m not funny anymore?” She also worries about the fickle nature of the internet audience, and that “at any time, the bottom could fall out.”
Sarah is striking while the iron is hot, with the old footage and new content, and reaction videos to old material to come, with director’s commentary on everything it took for her, Tara, and Azer to put their material together. One previously unseen piece will be a Raven and Tara singalong to Avril LaVigne’s “Complicated” (deemed neither emo nor goth enough, and shelved at the time), plus some rare blooper reels (“Most of our videos were shot in one take”). She wants to shoot some videos talking about herself, not either of her personas, about how the music she once used for comic fodder helped her find herself and discover her voice “as an adult emo.”
I asked Sarah if she had given herself permission to fully embrace these pursuits. She isn’t quite there yet, but she has begun hiring a team to help manage the Petra output, freeing her up a bit to see where Raven takes her. “I’m in the very beginning of some very big changes. So it’s really, really exciting in those ways.”
She laughs when she imagines new comedy bits to shoot. “I had two ideas today! It gives me hope. Maybe things aren’t over for me yet.”
The weekend after our chat, as I finish writing this article, I enjoy the new videos that start to pop up on her social media channels. I also watch the first video from years back on her YouTube where they were originally uploaded, and I’m happy for the teenagers rocking out to My Chemical Romance. They have a tough road ahead, but it turns out okay.
“We’ll carry on...”
h. is a writer and former 90s kid who knows less about emo music and more about Emo Phillips, but you can see more of his work anyway at HubUnofficial.com.
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