TikTok's 'Martha Stewart for Socialists' gives her literary guide for baby radicals

“Hey goofy goobers, welcome to another episode of the Anarchist Cookbook. Today we are going to talk about how the United States hates the poor.” I stop scrolling and let the TikTok play. A step-by-step tutorial for making samosas followed while Betty Images’s voiceover ran through the ways poverty is criminalized in the US, dispelling the bootstraps myth while cabbage and potatoes sizzled. My algorithm was just starting to expose me, swapping out daily productivity tips, staged couple pranks, and Doja Cat dance routines for astrology content, Bushwick thrift store hauls, and Kate Bush choreography, but this was something I hadn’t yet seen: a quick and clear explainer of American injustice with a side of wilted kale.

Betty Images has mastered this formula of radical wisdom set to a backdrop of vegan cooking: her videos on Gamestop, minimum wage, the rise of conspiracy theories, K-pop, and more have earned her more than 100,000 followers. I wanted to learn more about the revolutionary gourmand, so I sent a DM. Here, she discusses the subversive power of TikTok and provides the ultimate reading list for burgeoning leftists.

Maraya Fisher: So tell me about yourself generally; where are you based? What are your passions? How has this past year been for you?

Betty Images: I’m just a recent college grad working somewhere vaguely in the art world in New York City. I went to Columbia, which was a university environment that gave me a lot of resources and outlets to be very political. Now, since I’m never really in an overtly political space, I’ve turned to the internet as an outlet—to a surprising amount of fanfare.

In my spare time, I like to paint, read, and take long, hot baths. I also have a painful, unending fascination with clothing that has led me to make bad financial decisions on numerous occasions. I also love cooking, predictably, but the pandemic and TikTok really put the stove into high gear.

Maraya: How did you first get into TikTok—what was your initial approach?

Betty: I was just antsy during the initial pandemic lockdown and, like many others, installed the app. I had a lot of free time working from home then, and at that point, much of what I did involved managing a company’s social media presence so I was thinking about online engagement a lot. I gave TikTok a go because my roommates were talking about it one day thinking, who knows!? Maybe I’ll like it.

Maraya: I noticed a shift in the tone of your TikTok from this more absurd comedic voice to your signature leftist cooking videos—what prompted this?

Betty: Initially I was just standing in my bathroom in a wig making odd, esoteric content that only I found funny. Then, in light of the events of late May—namely George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing wave of protests fueled in part by lockdown fatigue—my tone changed, and I realized, when the videos picked up, that if I was going to have this platform I was going to unabashedly use it to change how people were understanding the world around them. At least that’s what I hope I’ve managed.

Once I found a formula that worked I really ran with it. Consistency is important!

Maraya: What role does TikTok play in activism and education?

Betty: I think TikTok is valuable as a tool of communication, and people feel differently when using it because it’s been framed as a sort of ‘other,’ not only because it’s the one foreign app able to compete for huge shares of US user attention, but because Donald Trump tried to ban it! What better place for left-leaning activism to happen online?

Moreover, people have been incredibly astute in understanding how the app operates. How people use and understand TikTok turned into a role-reversal in the user-app relationship: an algorithm analyzes and understands users to show them what they like and keep them on the app longer. Likewise, users now seek to understand what the algorithm likes to see to make sure their content has as much of a reach as possible. That’s why there’s so much political content under the guise of dance videos! I’m not saying this is the only instance of people flipping the script on an app—there are loads of videos about when the best time to post on IG is—but the way it happened on TikTok is remarkable.

It’s a double-edged sword, though: TikTok’s ability to show you exactly what you want to see can easily leave you in an echo chamber, and the Left really needs to stop talking to itself.

Maraya: How did it feel when you first started picking up a following?

Betty: Positively surreal—and a bit mind-boggling. I couldn’t believe people wanted to listen to me ramble.

Maraya: What are the craziest comments or DMs you’ve received?

Betty: It’s gotta be how often I get hit on—sometimes it’s so overtly sexual I wonder if I’m being trolled. I can’t imagine how a person who looks hot for a living—Kim Kardashian being my favorite example—can stand to feel so observed and so seen. So looked at. It would drive me mad. This prompted me to turn my DMs off of TikTok for quite a while, though I know I brought this upon myself. There’s no question that I am consciously riffing on the ‘hot vegan vlogger’ trend to offset my political hashtags and make sure the algorithm likes me. Whether or not I’m actually ‘hot’ is up for debate, of course, but eyeliner and Yeezy-esque athleisure goes a long way.

I take solace in the fact that I actually dress like Baba Yaga and nobody would ever recognize me.

Maraya: What compels you to keep posting?

Betty: I can’t stop thinking about politics. Everything is political for me. Then, and now, the socio-economic landscape and impact of politics on people’s lives—the false notion that politics is separate from daily life—is always on my mind. I’m a person who cannot stop checking the news. I think I’m in a unique position to give my perspective, and I really find sharing my views is rewarding. I mean it when I say the struggle to end oppression is neverending, is constant, but it’s unquestionably something I want to dedicate as much of my life as I can to.

Maraya: How did you get into leftism? Has there been an evolution in your beliefs?

Betty: Oh, my beliefs have certainly changed. I am suspicious about people whose don’t. For me it began with high-school activism—my friend and I ran the feminism club in high school. It really began as a 2010s Tumblr-era SJW-esque inundation with the general notion of ‘oppression.’ I got a lot out of it, I even stopped straightening my hair.

Then came college and I was a very strict Marxist for a long time who privately decried identity politics, but performed the motions because optics matter. I’ve since rescinded: the point of a social construct is that it behaves like a real thing. I still take a lot of issue with how activism is often more optical than real, how we should be organizing boycotts instead of marches, but I know there’s a time and place for everything.

Now I’m resisting labels a bit. I don’t think there’s a point in fixating on Lenin vs Mao when Texas has frozen over, and we need to disinvent and reconfigure how the Left operates, whatever that may entail.

Maraya: What advice would you give to people who want to get into political or economic theory but are intimidated by the jargon?

Betty: The easiest way to slip into it is to be unafraid to read summaries on Wikipedia and find some video content online where people summarize and explain ideas. There is no shame in this: if we have resources we should use them. There are plenty of free political philosophy lectures on YouTube that reach across the political spectrum.

I don’t think people should expect to understand anything straight away. I certainly would not have gotten this deep in if I hadn’t had four mandatory years of reading ‘the classics’ in college in addition to all of the postmodern art theory I put myself through.

People should just remember that just like there’s no art theory without art, there’s no political theory without politics—a real-life national and international web of legal, economic, and social human relations that can’t always be broken down into highfalutin language.

Theory feels like a bit of an indulgence for me. The Left has a very rich academic and literary history and reading Baudrillard at this point is an entirely escapist extravagance for me. It’s a way to zoom out of the world and experience real life like a metaphor; I’m watching a historical process happen at a distance, like an observer, and it can’t hurt me. Sex, beach, and mountains. Sex and beach, beach and mountains. Mountains and sex. A few concepts. Sex and concepts. ‘Just a life.’

Beyond the work that goes into articulating political thought, the amount of phenomenal prose the Left has produced is astonishing. Who on the Right can thrill with words besides that black sheep Ayn Rand? Or Heidegger, who worked for decades to disentangle himself from his Nazi past? Milo Yiannopoulos’s ‘An “America First” Reading List’ was positively lackluster.

Maraya: Did you actually run a Tumblr-famous Harry Potter fan blog?

Betty: Yes I did, on Tumblr of all places. But those days are now behind me—behind all of us, I should think. I still have the URL but Rowling’s antics have definitely soured the mood.

Real life is much more compelling right now.

@bettyimagesIndustrialization =/= civilization #Marxist #leftist #immigration #abolishice #blm #usa #uk #eu #problack #nigeria #quickrecipes #healthyrecipes #chef♬ original sound – ✊🏾 ☭

Betty Images Reading List
“It is very possible that there will be conflicting points of view in the books I recommend. I still recommend them.”

Mistaken Identity by Asad Haider
“Haider eloquently and effectively demonstrates how anti-racism and identity politics aren’t the same thing. Because, frankly, the optics of identity (and the resulting emphasis on representation) don’t translate to material gains for oppressed people. And if I may speak frankly, id pol has been spectacularly mobilized against the left: nobody needs McCarthyism if the infighting comes from within! And then we come to Haider’s book—a work that helps navigate the need to reconcile realities of identity (which nobody can really step out of)—and the urgent need for solidarity.”

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“It’s been said that Coates sees white supremacy as an indestructible force, one that Black Americans will always struggle against. Which is an unpopular view—I myself am not an afro-pessimist, and I do not mean to characterize Coates as such. Still, I will say that the book affirmed my sentiment that any fight against oppression is literally never-ending. It’s a book that helps to dispel the American mythos that politics is something you do once every four years. One cannot have a single revolution (or a single election) and be done with it.

This work also paints a deeply moving portrait of what it means to be black in the United States—Coates’s prose is phenomenal.”

24/7: Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary
“This book is a rebuke to the encroachment of market logic into every aspect of our daily lives, but sleep in particular; I often recommend it to people who want to ‘get into’ left theory or criticism but don’t know where to start. Crary manages to speak very precisely yet remain accessible and by the end of this book, you can’t help but read the digitally-aided erosion of the natural human sleep cycle as part of a broader slow dive into systemic atomization and isolation of human individuals.

An idea I often find myself returning to is a question Crary poses: how much of online activism is, to use Sartre’s phrasing, ‘an inversion of praxis into practico-inert activity?’ That keeps me humble.”

No Logo by Naomi Klein
“This book was published in 1999. It still resonates. Klein’s characterization of how marketing affects us—how we turn to images we see in marketing to conceptualize our own desires, how we turn to the services and commodities they advertise to actualize those desires, and how this affects us—is uncanny. She mapped the encroachment of the commercial sphere into public, political, and domestic spaces with a Nostradamic clarity long before the advent of digital marketing tools like Amazon’s Alexa let alone the explicit conversion of Instagram from a ‘social’ to a commercial network. I would say we have a lot to learn from Klein’s way of thinking even if this book was written long before the advent of the iPhone.”

New Dark Age by James Bridle
“James Bridle is not only an author but an artist. Aside from using the floppy, flaccid term ‘conceptual art’ the only thing that feels apt for me say is that Bridle is an artist whose medium is digital infrastructure and all of its trappings (I am an art historian and we are in the post-medium condition, aren’t we). It’s clear that his work as an artist informs his way of conceptualizing and discussing digital infrastructure and in turn the digital systems we interface with on a daily basis. I think it’s a part of what makes his writing so compelling.”

Eating NAFTA by Alysha Gálvez
“The issue this book addresses is that the reach of market logic is not limited to the commercial sphere—in fact, the economic pressure applied by the North American Free Trade Agreement caused a seismic shift in how an entire nation, in this case Mexico, eats. The economic elements of colonialism persist! And the implications of Gálvez’s analysis are far reaching, biopolitical, and absolutely scathing. What happens when international trade forces people to choose food security over subsistence agriculture, development over sustainability, market participation over social welfare, and ideologies of self-care over public health?”

Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal by Aviva Chomsky
“The fact of the matter is that international borders are and always have been a made up, bureaucratic result of a given socio-economic system.

Chomsky, impeccably and comprehensibly, builds out the argument that the US is not only a historic cause of immigration but itself will never put an end to immigration— legal nor illegal—because the American economy (from agriculture and construction to manufacturing and prisons) relies on a steady supply of exploitable migrant labor. One can’t help but feel the profound shortcomings of both mainstream political parties in the US with this one.”

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney
“This is a postcolonial classic, particularly in terms of its impact. Rodney wrote this in 1972, but the importance of the explicit link it draws between colonialism, capitalism, racism, and the state of the global south is the basis for many ideas which, today, we take for granted.”

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
“Data (from the Latin datum or a given), is what you pay to Google, TikTok, Pinterest, or Facebook in exchange for every interaction you have with them. Data is also the objectmatter of this book. The subjectmatter is what goes on with your data, the behavioral models built around it.”

What I think is most poignant about this book is how wholly it repudiates the popular (and very meme-y) idea that the issue is about tracking people on the back end—it’s actually about using a predictive behavioral model to target us on the front end. Surveillance is frightening because it’s weaponizable, but also because it’s built on fallible human-made systems. It’s been repeatedly documented that facial recognition is often racist. And so on. But my favorite bit about all of it is that in a bid to advertise to us more aggressively, big tech inadvertently (or perhaps advertently) built out the infrastructure for a surveillance state to stand upon. Ain’t that something?

Empire by Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri
“It’s the proverbial post-Marxist magnum opus. In Empire, Hardt and Negri theorize the transformation of imperialism as it is generally, historically thought of into the supra-national global system we encounter today. It covers the role of entities like the UN and the development of the ever-present threat of terrorism.

I’m not done with the book yet. It’s dense. But it excites me. Telling people to read theory is contentious—I can’t recommend books online without someone in the comments telling me I’m classist because working class people don’t have time to read. But are we forgetting the Samizdat? I don’t mean to be a Luddite, but how do we think union organizers in the ’60s shared information?

Anyhow, one of my favorite parts of leftism as a whole is the rich literary and academic history. The dense theory is definitely a guilty pleasure for me. The American Left may hardly have a leg to stand on right now but we certainly have style.”