A review of Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’: How I confused social critique for misogyny in ‘White Woman’s Instagram’

August 21, 2021
Collection of images from the song 'White Woman's Instagram'. Bo Burnham holds various props stylised to look like Instagram posts.

By Emma Xerri

It was a night like any other during Victoria’s 4th lockdown, and I was some two weeks late to the Bo Burnham frenzy following the release of his latest special Inside on Netflix. I’d heard rave reviews; comedians and friends online shouting their praises and celebrities dubbing the watch a ‘must.’ I’m no stranger to Netflix comedy specials, often enjoying a Friday night in rewatching John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous, so I was expecting—and looking forward to—an evening of laughter (after all, I needed some new songs to add to my shower queue of the same four Flight of the Conchords tracks). But I certainly didn’t expect to feel melancholy, and certainly not anger. 

Inside sheds light on the individual experience of a year in lockdown, presenting a portrait of a man who struggles to maintain his mental health amidst the many months endured alone. Burnham draws on satire and social critique to do so, commenting on his own vulnerabilities, as well as highlighting “systematic oppression, income inequality, the other stuff” through both a dramatic and comedic lens. Burnham’s Inside conveys the sense that he is trapped in a meaningless cycle of producing comedy that even he feels forced to laugh at, asking “’cause, really, who’s gonna go for joking at a time like this? Should I be joking at a time like this?”

GIF of Bo Burnham from Inside. A white man with a beard turns his head towards the camera, looking puzzled. The caption says, "that's pretty abstract"

In this way, Burnham’s comedy is incredibly self-aware. Perhaps that is why I was so surprised by White Woman’s Instagram, a few songs further down in the special. In the song, Burnham lists and describes an array of posts typically circulating the social media pages of, well, white women, focusing specifically on the ‘artsy’, faux-candid shots, such as “a poem written in the sand… A golden retriever in a flower crown… Incredibly derivative political street art… A vintage neon sign” and so on. The shots accompanying the lyrics are comprised of Burnham recreating said Instagram posts, as attempting to embody—and disparage, I thought—the typical poses popular among the target group. 

The track’s misogynistic air of male superiority felt jarring and, honestly, a bit confusing. Bo Burnham had just established a persona in which he recognised his privilege as a white male: “I self-reflected, and I want to be an agent of change, so I am gonna use my privilege for the good.” Could the man who cried “isn’t anybody gonna hold me accountable,” after confessing to his sin of wearing a white-washed Aladdin costume, also boldly shame and belittle the content stereotypically depicted on White Woman’s Instagram?

GIF of Bo Burnham from Inside. A white man with a beard sings the lyrics, "I'm problematic"

Watching this for the first time, I couldn’t help but grow defensive, feeling as though myself and all other women were being attacked by a hypocritical white man who had just falsely professed to be aware of his problematictendencies and was seeking to change. The fact that the song was so light-hearted and upbeat only angered me more: I came to feel as though Burnham, and his male audience, perceived women as a kind of joke, and thus felt entitled to reduce their work to a kind of mockery. I was reminded of men (boys) in my life who had felt the need to belittle my interests and passions, calling the music I listen to ‘basic,’ and laughing when I spoke about Florence Given or other feminists I felt passionately about.  

In my anger, I did what every 19-year-old would do to find allies online – I went to TikTok. I searched for videos linked to Bo, Inside and the song itself, wanting to know if other women felt the same way… hoping they would feel the same way. Rather, I found a plethora of videos explaining the exact confusion and concern I had been feeling, as page after page attempted to explain that Burnham was not being misogynistic, but instead critiquing those who are. 

@oliviajulianna said: “This doesn’t just seem like a parody, it seems like he genuinely put effort into it. I see this more as a commentary on the men who mock women not because they wanna make fun of the women, but because they feel that’s the only way they can express femininity: under the guises of parodying a woman.”

@hollandtunnelharry said: “This song isn’t actually criticising white women for their Instagram feeds, it’s criticising the misogynists who make fun of women for being ‘basic,’ when they are just expressing themselves.” She states that Burnham’s “method of critiquing society is through taking on the role of the people he’s critiquing,” and thus he is commenting on the behaviour of judgemental, sexist men, by singing as one of them.  

Admittedly, the initial anger I felt towards the song didn’t dispel for quite some time, as I remained confused about my feelings. When listening to the songs from the special, I avoided White Woman’s Instagram at all costs. Yet, this attitude felt stubborn and ignorant, and I wanted to escape the cycle. So, I revisited the song, rewatching the video on YouTube again and again (and probably contributing an unhealthy number of views to the video’s view count). 

With each view, I grew more impressed by Burnham’s effort and patient attention to detail. Each shot came together to portray the posts as works of art, a series of carefully created bursts of joy, and an overall celebration and praise of women’s creativity. Burnham shows immense attention to detail in crafting the shots, as illustrated in the seemingly time-consuming Autumn portrait and the whimsical umbrella scene. And the use of lighting and filter come together beautifully to capture the art of the mirror selfie. Perhaps these shots weren’t mocking the women at all, but instead elevating their posts to the status of artwork. 

Collection of images from the song 'White Woman's Instagram'. Bo Burnham holds various props stylised to look like Instagram posts.

The emphasis on the time and effort behind the posts humanises their creators, and Burnham ensures individuality by delving into the pain of one woman, singing:

“Her favourite photo of her mom
The caption says, “I can’t believe it
It’s been a decade since you’ve been gone
Momma, I miss you, I miss sitting with you in the front yard
Still figuring out how to keep living without you
It’s got a little better, but it’s still hard
Momma, I got a job I love and my own apartment
Momma, I got a boyfriend, and I’m crazy about him
Your little girl didn’t do too bad
Momma, I love you, give a hug and kiss to dad”.”

Through this heartfelt bridge, Burnham reminds us that these women are real people with genuine human emotions and experiences. He empathises with the need to portray a perfect life online and suggests that although these women are mocked for posting such idyllic and seemingly unimportant things, they are simultaneously discouraged from breaking the public’s assumption that their life is perfect and displaying vulnerability. 

Through White Woman’s Instagram, Burnham thus only further cements himself as an ally for women who are trapped in a cycle of perfection. By allowing himself to display such raw feelings and emotions throughout the special, Burnham uses his privileged platform to advocate for ‘realer’ online spaces. Yet, Burnham seems to acknowledge that for many women (and others), this is not easily achievable in our day and age. His special reads as a cry for genuine humanity, an outstretched hand to all who feel incapable of expressing authenticity and vulnerability. Perhaps such art on social media is preventing vulnerability, or maybe – and especially during the hardship of the pandemic – it is a vital and cherished escape. 

GIF of Bo Burnham from a comedy show. He says, "Thank you, goodnight, I hop you're happy"

Emma Xerri hosts crushcrushcrush, streaming every Friday at 12pm on Radio Fodder.