The most Kafka-esque aspect of being the subject of online obsession is having to act like it's not happening. Actor Milana Vayntrub, also known as Lily the AT&T Girl, is the latest person that's been thrown into the gauntlet of being the internet's favorite person, even if you don't want to be.
You probably haven't heard of Milana Vayntrub, but if you watch TV, you might have seen her. As the character Lily, she plays an employee at an AT&T store; given that the pilot for New Warriors, where Vayntrub plays iconic Marvel superhero Squirrel Girl, never aired, this role is probably her biggest to date. It has put her in a position of national attention. It should be something she should be able to be proud of.
If you look up Milana Vayntrub, or search "at&t girl" on YouTube, you'll discover that the internet has memeified her breasts. On YouTube, videos of her commercials all contain comments about her breasts, which people call "milkies" or "milkers." On Vayntrub's Instagram, people reply to her posts by spamming the glass of milk emoji. It's gotten so bad that AT&T is now disabling comments on social media content featuring Vayntrub's character, and Vayntrub herself addressed fans directly to say that this behavior hurts her.
If you are a woman who has breasts, none of these comments are unfamiliar, but it's not like the sting of being reduced to your breasts ever goes away. The word that all these people have decided to use—milkers—is kinda funny. It's an absurd, almost nonsexual way to refer to breasts, but it becomes very sexual and grossly dehumanizing because of how it's being wielded at Vayntrub. The people who make these comments about Vayntrub take the position of ironic deflection that has become the internet's calling card. It's just a meme, it's just a joke, we're just saying "milkers." Part of the joke is the joke itself. From inside your prism of irony, you're also making fun of yourself for being horny by using the stupidest terminology possible.
The reasoning behind the meme would hold more water if Vayntrub weren't a person, but she is a person. As Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner wrote for Motherboard years ago, a meme is never "just" a meme. Regardless of your intent, objectifying someone ironically is still objectifying them. During an Instagram Live video on August 23, Vayntrub said that she doesn't like the comments and wants them to stop.
Watching the video is hard. As Vayntrub is talking about how she's overwhelmed and upset by this experience, the glass of milk emoji and comments about her breasts float by in the chat.
"All of these milk and milkies comments," she said, "it hurts my feelings. It's just dehumanizing, a little objectifying, and sad. It makes me sad. I know what you guys are trying to do is be funny, and connect to each other and get props from your friends, but it really bums me out."
Vayntrub goes on to say that she started the stream to try to get through to the people who are leaving these comments, but as she sees them in the chat, she said that it seems like they don't care how she feels. She said in the video that she doesn't want the attention she's getting, and some of the pictures that supposed fans of her are spreading are personal photos from college. Vayntrub said the experience has brought up feelings of sexual assault for her.
"I'll just be walking my dog, and I'll get messages from people who have distorted my pictures to get likes on their account," Vayntrub said.
Vayntrub also opened up the conversation to advice from the people present, asking how to deal with the influx of attention.
"Make 'milkers' your identity. Once you show people that their words have the power to hurt you, they'll never stop doing it," Vayntrub said, reading from the comments. "Ah, so this is showing people my weaknesses. Showing people I have feelings will just make them want to hurt my feelings even more."
AT&T told Motherboard that they will "not tolerate" the comments being made about Vayntrub, and have disabled comments on their social content that includes the character that Vayntrub plays.
"We have disabled or deleted these comments on our social content that includes Lily," a representative of the company said over email, "and we will continue to fight to support her and our values, which appreciate and respect all women."
Motherboard reached out to Vayntrub for comment but did not receive a response.
Vayntrub is right. The only way to protect yourself from the emotional pain of this kind of harassment is to either never talk about it, or make it a part of your identity. Being the object of the internet's obsession is not just overwhelming, it's something that you don't really have the ability to consent into. It's not that women like Vayntrub are actively seeking out these kinds of messages—people are sending her comments about her breasts whether or not she asks for it.
Online harassment isn't really about the content of the posts, but the intensity of them. The volume of messages is hard to understand, not just because it's impossible to actually count, but also because it's the equivalent to the population of a city like Austin, Texas. Imagine if you were walking your dog in a street in Austin, and every single person you saw told you that you had nice milkers. No matter how strong you are, you would be worn down by how endless it all is. Because these comments are all online, a lot of people who would otherwise condemn them not just turn a blind eye, but participate in the harassment because they're "just words." And because they're "just words," no matter how painful it is to experience this and to feel trapped by it, any reaction you have to your own harassment becomes more fodder for harassment.
The strangest sentence I may ever write is this: I hope that people stop writing "googly moogly big mommy milkers" on all the content that Vayntrub stars in. I understand why people think it's funny to do so, and why they think the meme itself eclipses Vayntrub as a person. When you're on the internet, it's easy to think of everyone else as being more insulated from it than you, that everything you do occurs in a secret bubble, even if it is literally happening in the public comments of Vayntrub's instagram. Whoever the person you are obsessed with online is, they know what you're saying about them.