A new video challenge has recently swept through Chinese social media– the “Karma is a bitch” challenge. KnowYourMeme describes the format as “a selfie video fad in which participants lip sync the line ‘karma is a bitch’ uttered by the character Veronica from the television show Riverdale before cutting to a striking slow-motion transformation shot, often using a costume, hair and makeup change accompanied by a seductive pose while the 2011 hip-hop song ‘Gucci Gucci’ by Kreayshawn plays in the background.”
The video trend started up on a Chinese app called Dou Yin, similar to Music.ly, and compilations were posted on Youtube and elsewhere as early as January 23rd of this year. The meme plays on a couple of different levels; you have the intertextual references to Riverdale, the music in the background, and the shared understanding that these videos are almost part of a communal series, but there’s also a clear yet fluid context for how we are supposed to perceive the ‘before’ and ‘after’ looks.
In the first part of each video, the subject is ‘dressed down’, in comfortable clothing, often in t-shirts or hoodies. They look the way they would while hanging out at home. After the “Karma is a bitch” line is delivered, and they transition either by covering the camera with their hand or throwing a piece of fabric, or a scarf, at the lens, the look is a lot more stylized, put-together, deliberate. It plays on the private/public persona dichotomy while, in fact, both appearances are displays intended for a wide imagined audience.
Some videomakers play on that; instead of going from relaxed to primped, they might use a filter to give themselves large, circular glasses, and change the transformation to ‘nerdy –> cool’.
There’s also a gendered discourse taking place in the videos. Initially there were roughly comparable numbers of male and female entries to the ‘challenge’, but over time some of the male examples took on a slant of transforming from male presentation to female presentation. In some cases the transformation was a high quality production, in others it was a simple case of exaggerated makeup and a silky wig, as a sort of parody of the earlier videos made by women.
I think what I like most about the challenge, honestly, is that convention for the post-transformation look is that however they’re dressed up, whether that’s in a nice dress or a more costume-y appearance, the structure of the video trend dictates that they look like a badass. They’re feeling themselves. They’re at their most photogenic, whatever that means to them, and they are holding themselves like… Like Veronica from Riverdale mixed with a rapper in a music video mixed with a model at a photoshoot. And the challenge doesn’t state, ‘hey, I look better now, I was gross before’. It says, ‘Karma is a bitch. Watch what you say to me because I will come back at you in this form; my most powerful.’
Contrast the #DontJudgeChallenge that took place on Vine, Music.ly, and instragram back in 2015.
This challenge has similar bones– start with one version of yourself, cover the lens, return with a far more conventionally attractive version. But the caveat was that the ‘before’ received a lot more effort; people would draw on fake zits, unibrows, hair in disarray, even an effort to appear fatter. In this video trend, the message was clear; this is me ugly, but I can be beautiful. It has the same second half, the same sense of power and self-approval that I liked about ‘Karma is a bitch’, but the first half troubles me, because it’s very upfront about being intentionally unattractive, and so every added feature is one that these people are calling out as specifically and inherently tied to ugliness. It says, “Don’t judge me for these (fake) flaws! I’m actually beautiful, and don’t really have zits and thick eyebrows. Ew!”
The constructed presentations are both exactly that. Fake, built, intentional. Some of those involved with the #DontJudgeChallenge said it was intended to build awareness/combat body shaming online, but when part of your self-confidence campaign includes coming up with a list of what makes a person ugly, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what you’re actually representing.