McGinnis: College student educates and entertains on YouTubeWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Bloodbaths. Sadists. Nobility. 16th century Hungary. The only thing this story is missing is vampires. Oh, wait — we got those, too? Aww, score!”
— Grendel, “WTFhistory”
History is boring.
Well, that’s what generations of kids have been taught to think —thanks to dull, monotonous classes where they’re lectured about Important Events. But if they did even a little digging, they’d learn that the story of humanity is full of more gratuitous violence, scandalous sex, thrilling events and compelling characters than an all-day “Game of Thrones” marathon. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s fascinating.
“People think it’s boring because they’re force-fed it in school, in the most stupid, awful way to do it possible. And anyone who has ever actually looked at history, beyond what they’ve been assigned, immediately found that it’s way cooler than just that,” Grendel said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
Being mindful of privacy and security issues on the internet, Grendel only goes by her “Beowulf”-inspired pseudonym on the show. But as a talk with the young college student reveals, this is really the only real difference between who she is on “WTF” and who she is in real life. The individual that thousands of YouTube viewers have met — intelligent, funny, insightful and, above all, passionate — that’s her, plain and simple. And it is that passion that led to the incredible volume of knowledge she shares on an (almost) weekly basis.
“I’ve always gone on research binges and just looked up every single thing about a given topic, until I could literally find nothing else. And that happened, incidentally, because I have more gruesome interests a lot of the time,” Grendel said with a laugh. “It tends toward a lot of history stuff, because history is freaking brutal. What ended up happening is, I ended up picking up a lot of things accidentally and it ended up being a lot of history knowledge.”
The story goes that one day about a year ago, Grendel was on the phone with a friend, complaining about her pal’s “Twilight” addiction. Naturally, that segued into a discussion of vampires. Next thing you know …
“Somehow, it comes around to Dracula, to Vlad the Impaler, and I said, ‘Well, you know, it’s theorized that that might not be who Dracula’s based on.’ And she said, ‘Well, what are you talking about?’ So I start going on this rant about Elizabeth Bathory,” Grendel noted. “So I’m sitting there, making cupcakes, talking about this woman who murdered, brutally slaughtered people.
“When I finished my rant — which is actually almost exactly what ended up being the video — she said, ‘You should put this online.’ So, I did.”
Her new show already had a name, too. “I’m like, ‘What the f***? History, man!’” Grendel said. “And a few minutes later, when she was convincing me to make a YouTube channel, she brought that back up as a title.”
The first episode, “Bathory,” was posted shortly afterward, and it featured all the hallmarks that would quickly become part of the show’s signature style. Every video consists almost entirely of Grendel simply addressing the camera and talking about the subject at hand. But she does so with a depth of knowledge and hilariously vulgar sense of humor that makes each discussion a delight. (She also keeps an accompanying Tumblr page — http://wtfhistory.tumblr.com — updated pretty much daily.)
The first few installments came and went with little fanfare. Then, one day, Grendel noticed the “Bathory” video had a dramatic rise in its view count. Thanks to a buddy of hers, “WTFhistory” had gone viral.
“A friend of mine has a very popular Tumblog, because she does a lot of really cool fat-positive, body-positive, and a lot of fashion stuff,” Grendel said. “She’s a fantastic human being. I’m so in awe of her all the time. But I stuck the tag on a Bathory post that I saw come up, and she said, ‘Hey, this is cool!’ and reblogged it.
“And then, literally in the course of a weekend, it blew up. And I’m just sitting at my computer, freaking out. And my roommates are saying, ‘Shut up already!’”
It’s a bit ironic that the Bathory post has become the most popular video on her channel, Grendel noted, since now she kind of hates it. Oh, don’t misunderstand — there’s nothing wrong with the video, really. She just grows to hate most anything she has already posted.
“I never understood how actors couldn’t stand watching their own movies until I started this Web show,” she said. “I love my video for about a week after I post it. And after that, I never, ever, ever want to see it again. Partially because it takes so long to film that I’m just freaking sick of it, and partially because I see all the things that I could have done better.”
She’s being too hard on herself, of course. Each video remains a fascinating and entertaining viewing experience, though it’s clear Grendel’s learning and evolving as she goes on with the production. Newer videos feature more costume changes and tighter scripts, but the core of the show — Grendel’s witty perspective on historical events, both little- and well-known — remains wholly intact.
Some of the best episodes, though, have a wider focus than just one person or era. In one two-parter, Grendel relayed the history of a number of cosmetics while appearing on camera without makeup and applying each layer as she discussed it.
The end result was a show that not only featured a slew of interesting facts, but also acted as an analysis of all that modern women are expected to do to be “presentable.”
“It’s because we live in a society that teaches women that we’re not dressed without it. You feel like you look sloppy without it,” Grendel said. “I knew I wanted to do something about cosmetics at some point, and I thought that would be a really cool format, to actually use my face to present it. And also because I’d been getting messages from some people saying that they thought I was so pretty and so gorgeous. And I thought, ‘Okay, you know a very large chunk of this is artifice, right?’”
In fact, the tendency of some audience members to place so much focus on such superficial issues has disappointed Grendel a bit.
“I get pissed off, quite frankly, when I feel like people are watching my videos for the wrong reasons,” she said. “I’ve had people who — as sick as it is, I suppose I should expect it, because I’m a girl on the Internet who’s daring to do a thing — but someone on YouTube said, ‘You should do an episode in a bikini!’ And I’m thinking, ‘How about no?’
“That’s what disappoints me — people who I feel like [they] watch me because they think I’m a pretty girl, and they don’t care what I’m saying.”
On the flip side, though, nothing tickles her more than when her viewers take the initiative to learn more and add to the discussion. “I’m really pleased when people take what I’m ranting about and go look up things on their own. When they correct me, because I had an inaccuracy,” Grendel said.
“I don’t want you to listen to only me. I have a disclaimer on my blog, saying that I’m biased, and that I’m one frickin’ teenage college student, doing this by herself. I say ‘we’ at WTFhistory, because I like to refer to myself in the imperial sense. That is literally it. There is no one else, I do this alone. So, I can be wrong. My sources can be stupid, bad sources. I want my followers to look into it, and to call me on it, and learn more about it in the process on their own.”
It’s that give-and-take with viewers that spurs Grendel on, and she says she’ll continue work on the series as long as it continues to give her that kind of enjoyment.
“Part of me says, as long as people are paying attention to me,” Grendel said, with a chuckle, when asked how long “WTF” will keep going. “But part of me says, it really is as long as I’m having fun with it. Because, I bitch about it, and it’s a pain in my butt, but I love it. I really love when people comment, and are so surprised, and are so thrilled.
“I really enjoy educating people in this format. I like it because they’re coming to me willingly. I feel like they’re hungry for some information, or they’re interested, if they found my Tumblr or my channel. So it’s not like they’re being force-fed some really dry, boring, textbook stuff. They’re finding out some interesting new things that maybe they can apply to whatever they’re doing in school, or in life. Maybe not. But I feel like they’re coming for history for its own sake. And that’s something that doesn’t happen nearly enough.”
All episodes of “WTFhistory” are available at: http://www.youtube.com/user/WTFhistorical (NSFW, of course.)
Jeff McGinnis is pop culture editor of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.