Whether she was running over pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto or building elaborate houses in Minecraft, chances are if you’ve been anywhere remotely adjacent to anime or video game Youtube, you’ve seen footage of a cute anime girl playing a video game. These cute anime girls are called VTubers (a portmanteau of “virtual” and “YouTuber”), performers using a face-rig system to stream “in character” as their avatars. This wave of women performing as cute anime girls while remaining anonymous in real life harkens back to virtual idols such as Kizuna Ai.
However, while virtual idols tend to still be limited by the rules of idol culture and industry standards of cuteness and approachability, contemporary virtual YouTubers operate under much more relaxed standards and are often characterized by a mix of conventional femininity and “unladylike” behavior. Yet, while the most prominent creators are able to explore more varied and even subversive topics than traditional idols, they are in many ways still beholden to a set of rules and expectations for what an idol “should” be.
While most VTubers are independent, the most successful and recognizable ones tend to be managed by corporations such as Nijisanji and, notably Hololive. Hololive is a Japan-based VTuber company that has recently expanded into Indonesian and English-based content. Hololive has multiple members each with over a million subscribers on Youtube and has collaborated with other corporate properties such as the mobile game Azur Lane. The juggernaut success of Hololive EN, the company’s English branch, has helped introduce the concept of VTubers to a wider Western audience.
How to be an idol (and how VTubers might break those rules entirely)
There are plenty of spoken and unspoken rules about the idol agency, but one of the best-known and most controversial is the “purity” aspect. While some idols’ careers are based on sex appeal and risque photoshoots, the most popular units in real life, such as AKB48 and Morning Musume, and in fiction, such as the Love Live and Aikatsu! franchises, tend towards the innocent. Idols are supposed to be pure, virginal girl-next-door types, to the point where talking about or even having a love life is a potential career-ruiner.
In contrast, some VTubers have been blatantly sexual without it affecting their status with fans. Yozora Mel, Yuzuki Choco, and Kiryu Coco all have revealing costumes that fans suspect have run afoul of the censors at one point or another: all three have a history of being demonetized or having the channel shadowbanned. The talent do have some say in their design: as part of a recent round of Hololive EN auditions, applicants provided a brief synopsis of their character’s backstory as well as a five-minute video of them “in character.” Likewise, the character designs are not set in stone. Momosuzu Nene’s character design was permanently changed from a Chinese-inspired outfit to a vaguely bear-themed outfit. If the provocative designs were drastically negatively impacting streaming capability, they would be changed.
It’s not just fan service; aside from looking sexual, VTubers can also be sexual without getting in trouble from their agencies or losing fans. Boob jokes abound, such as Uruha Rushia loudly insisting that she is not flat-chested and the various members of Hololive English joking about the size of their “boing boings.” Houshou Marine bases part of her persona on being horny, to the extent that one of her catchphrases is literally the phrase, “I’m horny.” In her first music single “Ahoy! We Are Houshou Pirates,” Marine asks the audience what color their panties are and the appropriate response is “I’m not wearing any.”
Another aspect of VTuber activity that sets them apart from traditional idol culture is how they engage with violence. They play a wide variety of video games, including graphic action series such as Witcher, Assassin’s Creed, and Grand Theft Auto, alongside more “cute” and perhaps expected content like Princess Connect! Re:Dive and Minecraft. In fact, the subversive element of the violence may be what attracts viewers in the first place; a clip that introduced quite a few viewers to VTubers is footage of Sakura Miko, a cute pink-haired anime girl, outright murdering people in GTA while cutesily telling everyone to “stay home, we’re in quarantine.”
Plus, VTubers can be just plain WEIRD. There are a lot of odd, nonsensical streams that stray away from the cute “girl next door” image one would traditionally associate with idol content. One of Oozora Subaru’s best-known videos is this absolutely cursed ASMR stream, immortalized in an animated video posted to the official Hololive Youtube channel. Takanashi Kiara posts meme videos and enjoys the hell out of Rickrolling. Mori Calliope did a full ninety-minute livestream that was just her begging Atlus for permission to play Persona 3. The gold standard for weird VTuber antics comes from Akai Haato, or “Haachama.” She’s best known for unique content such as reviewing lewd art of her own character design and user-submitted feet videos, and cooking streams where the result could barely be described as “edible,” including one particularly infamous one where she uses an entire tarantula.
Cute girls doing weird things: the disconnect that draws in viewers
It’s the juxtaposition between VTubers’ actions and looks that helps their clips go viral. While all the girls are talented creators on their own, like videos of little kids swearing, the incongruity of an idol-style anime girl sniping headshots while playing GTA draws attention to the clips in the first place. This disconnect is how I first fell down the VTuber rabbit hole, when my friend linked to a clip where, in an attempt to describe visiting the Statue of Liberty, Sakura Miko accidentally leads Kiryu Coco to think that they’re entering a suicide pact. The clip was so interesting and so baffling that I did some more Googling, clicked on some more related links… and six months later, I’m writing an article on VTubers.
The way Hololive talent performs certain aspects of traditional femininity and presents as cute anime girls enhances the disconnect. While they could theoretically create any design for themselves, the most popular VTubers are all variations on cute anime girls. While male VTubers exist and may even gain a sizable audience, such as the Holostar member Roberu, female-presenting VTubers are far more widespread and popular.
Likewise, some of the clips that have gone the most viral are simply cute girls doing cute things. A clip from VTuber Shirakami Fubuki singing the chorus of “Scatman” by Scatman John went viral in mid-2020 and has been cited by various anime YouTubers as their gateway clip to the medium. It is also, quite frankly, really cute—though one does wonder if the clip would lose some of it’s virality if Fubuki’s design was outside a conventional anime aesthetic.
Agencies and algorithms
There are still some ways where Hololive is traditionally “idol-like,” for better and for worse. Hololive concerts embrace the traditional idol performance style, with choreography, matching outfits, specific colors for specific members, and an obscene amount of merch. While there are some outliers—for instance, Mori Calliope’s obscenity-filled rap tracks—the original songs of most Hololive members utilize traditional idol concept tropes. Aside from the call and response portion of “Ahoy! We Are Houshou Pirates” mentioned earlier, “HOLOGRAM Circus,” the first single from Omaru Polka, features a moment where she asks the audience to change their glowsticks to a certain color, a common feature of real-life idol concerts. The traditional idol aspects of Hololive are just as popular as the less idol-like aspects: “Shiny Smily Story,” the closest thing Hololive has to a theme song, has over a million views on American Spotify.
The agency Hololive Production is owned by Cover Corporation, a Japanese VR company. While this affords them opportunities such as official collaborations with other corporate-owned products, such as sponsored streams of mobile games like Princess Connect! Re:Dive, it also comes with limitations. As this is a corporation, the talent has managers who they are regularly in contact with, setting expectations and making sure the talent stays on track even during streams. The use of managers isn’t a secret: Hololive En has mentioned their managers multiple times. The prioritization of profit and proven business models can, at times, make Hololive’s VTubers less innovative and subversive, and more like the traditional idol industry with a fancy face rig.
Also like traditional idols, members have been suspended or had their videos removed for making even slightly political statements. Haachama has notably gotten in trouble with management twice. The first was when she and Coco mentioned Taiwan as a separate entity from China while discussing viewer metrics, which enraged a number of Chinese viewers and resulted in a temporary suspension. This isn’t the first time an idol has been censured after intentionally or accidentally acknowledging the controversial topic of Taiwanese independence: as part of that wholesome image, idols are pushed to stay away from divisive topics or political discourse.
More recently, Haachama ended a multipart video series before the planned final episode; the series was suddenly set to “private” retroactively, and Haachama herself took a short hiatus. These videos were a series of short videos building upon “lore” that Haachama created about her character to build up and flesh out her backstory. While there is no official statement as to why these videos were made private, community speculation guesses that it is due to the videos’ content, which included gore and disturbing imagery that could possibly result in a channel strike—a suggestion partially confirmed by Coco during a chat session.
The platform itself (or “YouTube-kun,” as some Hololive members describe it) is a problem unique to virtual idols. Youtube uses an algorithm to decide what videos to promote or recommend based on previously-watched content, as well as automatically detect hate speech, inappropriate content, abuse, or misinformation in Youtube videos. This algorithm is rife with problems and has led to plenty of incidents of channels being mistakenly flagged for hate speech while extremist Youtube channels are not only kept on the platform, but recommended to viewers. If a channel receives too many red flags, then it may be demonetized—obviously bad news for virtual YouTubers that work for a profit-driven corporation, such as Hololive.
Yuzuki Choco has a LONG history of her channel being demonetized, re-monetized, then demonetized again. While it’s never outright stated why Choco in particular has been subjected to this back and forth, the most common theory is that it’s a combination of her cleavage-focused character design and her focus on ASMR, a sensation of pleasant feelings brought about by an auditory stimulus that people frequently misinterpret as a “sex thing.” Choco isn’t the only one with algorithm problems: Aki Rosenthal, Yozora Mel, Kiryu Coco, and Takanashi Kiara all have experience with YouTube demonetizing their channel, preventing them from streaming, or in Kiara’s case, accidentally deleting her channel entirely.
At least in this regard, this is one avenue where real world idols have an advantage over their virtual counterparts: they’re not at the mercy of an ever-changing, often nebulous set of community guidelines enforced by error-prone bots instead of human judgment. While VTubers have some degree of expressive freedom compared to other kinds of idols, they still operate under a strict code of what is “acceptable” if they want to continue to draw an audience and make money.
VTubers present a strange new frontier for the idol industry: a meeting of the traditional expectations of femininity and abject weirdness, simultaneously conventional and subversive. On the one hand, the most prolific VTubers probably would not be where they are today without their classic, stereotypically feminine anime-girl-cute design and the audience’s familiarity with idol and fan culture. But on the other hand, the unique content of VTubers that branches away from the typically feminine image of idols is just as important to their virality.
It will be interesting to see where the future of VTubers lie, especially since more and more are debuting every year, and they are more visible than ever as part of Internet culture. There’s a possibility that the medium will continue being the bastion of traditional cuteness that it currently is. However, there’s just as large a possibility that the current wave of VTubers will simply serve as a stepping stone to help launch and promote weirder, non-traditional content that pushes past the narrow expectations of the idol industry. One thing is certain: whether for good or for ill, the VTuber juggernaut that’s Hololive will have played a large role in shaping that future.