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The best video essays of 2021

An escape from the most popular to the most captivating

illustration of featuring the different was we watch streaming content Illustration: Ariel Davis for Polygon

As coronavirus cloistered the world, the genre of video essays continued to augment in popularity on Youtube. Despite the homogeny of the creator space being apparent from a cursory glance, 2021 saw POC video essayists gaining momentum on the platform. From behemoths like D’Angelo Wallace to humble creators like myself, there is a gradient of experiences that are finally being represented thanks to YouTube’s algorithm “apparently” being an equalizer. That being said, this article hopes to shed light on some of gems you may have missed.

Beyond the players, the format of video essays has also evolved. Gone are the days when a midwestern man could aggregate thousands of views on a video about why water is wet. (OK, jk, that still happens.) But most of today’s video essays now amalgamate several genres of YouTube videos. Whether it’s the commentary crossovers à la Tara Mooknee, or the stand-up comedy stylings of Chill Goblin, there is a variety of variations to find. Here are a few that surprised us in the last year. —Ransford James, aka Foreign

[Ed. note: This list is ordered chronologically rather than ranked by preference, meaning everything is worth checking out. And if you need more to watch, check out last year’s list.]

“Your Island is a Commune pt. 1,” Nowhere Grotesk

I first discovered this touching series on Animal Crossing: New Horizons via the social posts on F. D. Signifier’s YouTube channel — more on him later, but credit where credit’s due. Nowhere Grotesk’s bio on social media reads, “We’re two visual artists that create and examine art through a utopian leftist lens,” and that feeling permeates this series.

Discussing Animal Crossing: New Horizons through the lens of communal living and pastoral nostalgia, Nowhere Grotesk pushes back on the easy joke that Tom Nook is a greedy capitalist. Instead, this series shows how Animal Crossing: New Horizons conveys the concept of community as directly in conflict with urbanization and capitalism, thriving only when everyone’s needs are met without the turmoil of work. Even the addition of the Happy Home Paradise DLC, which gives players the option to work for additional outcomes, doesn’t nullify the anticapitalist argument here; working is a choice you can but don’t have to make. The island even meets more of the players’ needs by providing free healthcare. Animal Crossing isn’t the apolitical fluff many seem to think; instead, it’s a lovely, immersive argument for anarcho-communism, mutual aid, and rooting our politics in community. —Wil Williams

“The Market of Humiliating Black Women,” Tee Noir

This offering is far from obscure, but by the off chance that Tee Noir has evaded your eyes and eluded your ears, consider my favorite video from her so far: “The Market of Humiliating Black Women.” Without spoiling this masterpiece, Tee breaks down what is such an innocuous experience that not many people even notice: How quotidian Black women’s pain is in popular media. From high-budget Tyler Perry movies to grainy WorldstarHipHop videos, the parodying of pain that Black women face on the daily is rewarded with thousands of millions of views and thousands of shares.

This is an experience that is far from second-hand with regard to Tee Noir, as she faces scrutiny that men don’t, simply by virtue of being a Black woman on this platform — let alone her queerness. —RJ

“The Day Rue ‘Became’ Black,” Yhara Zayd

After hitting shelves in 2008, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was praised for the way it conveyed real-life modern class struggles in a strange, borderline fantastical world. The Hunger Games was clear about what it was saying and referencing, but apparently, some readers didn’t get the memo — or perhaps they refused to.

In this video, Zayd pulls on the Hunger Games fandom’s history to dissect what made some readers so shocked when Amandla Stenberg, a young Black actress, was cast as Rue, a young girl who is ... canonically Black. This isn’t just about people reading a book wrong, though; it’s about why audiences felt less protective of Rue the moment she “became” Black “in casting.” It’s also about why most of those comments have since been scrubbed from the internet.

Yhara Zayd’s work has been featured on all of my video essay lists, and for good reason. Her sharp, concise, passionate analysis is scored by a low-key (but not necessarily relaxed) aesthetic and narration style. Her occasional breaks to make a joke or loosen up her script emphasize what’s so important about the topic at hand: the humanity. —WW

“Infantilization and the Body Hair Debate,” Shanspeare

Unironic ASMR, charismatic candor, and witty humor are but a few of Shanspeare’s calling cards. Despite the myriad of channels dedicated to analyzing pop culture, none do it quite like Shanspeare. “Infantilization and the Body Hair Debate” is one of the most eye-opening videos that I have encountered, and it has provoked me — a cishet Afro-Caribbean man — into thoroughly addressing my own contributions to the subject matter. This deep dive into how the world incentivizes childlike behavior from women is as unnerving as it is necessary to watch. From the way I speak to women, to my subconscious preference of nicely shaven legs, Shanspeare details how all of that is essentially the product of a purposeful inculcation that was underway far before I was even a thought. I cannot emphasize to you enough that you should watch this masterpiece and all of her other ones as well. —RJ

“Bo Burnham vs. Jeff Bezos,” CJ the X

Thanks to my specific symptoms of ADHD, it can be really hard for me to devote time to watch video essays that are over an hour long, and even harder for me to really fall in love with them. I hope this will help convey the gravity with which I am saying that I watched this two-and-a-half-hour video more times than any other video on YouTube this year. What starts as an analysis of Bo Burnham’s Inside slowly morphs into something else, then something else, then something else. This video transitions so gracefully between discussions of posthumanism, the internet, online fame, and what makes something funny, all while being punctuated with CJ the X’s hallmark near-absurdist blink-and-you’ll-miss-it humor. What makes this video an instant classic of the medium, though, is how it lands: a deep, sincere, vulnerable love letter to empathy and human connection, wound up in a personal anecdote that makes the thesis feel even more real.

I struggled to have basic hope or faith in humanity this year. I struggled to tell myself that everything is worth it. No piece of media helped me more with those struggles than this video. I wrote a piece on my read of Inside before seeing this video, and after watching it, my read on Inside has changed. And I’m so grateful. —WW

“The Reign of the Slim Thick Influencer,” Khadija Mbowe

I hope that this creator needs no introduction, because I feel woefully unequipped to introduce them myself. Khadija Mbowe walks the walk, and the walk is an onerous one. Being a feminine-presenting nonbinary creator of an obsidian hue, they brazenly break down some of the most nuanced topics with empathy and levity. Moreover, they pay it forward by promoting creators that the algorithm may have missed — much like myself, and in the same way Tee Noir promoted them a year ago.

The Reign of the Slim-Thick Influencer” is arguably my favorite Khadija Mbowe video this year. It’s a discussion of the trend of Brazilian butt lifts, how influencers like Kim Kardashian perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards, and the awful origins of commodifying the Black woman’s body. This is a must-see for everybody who consumes social media, which is … everybody. —RJ

“make more characters bi, you cowards: why (not) romance?,” voice memos for the void

An installment of Voice Memos for the Void’s Romance in Media series, “make more characters bi, you cowards: why (not) romance?” does what it says on the tin. This video analyzes the strange state of bisexual characters in media, pointing out how rarely bisexual characters get to fall in love. Not have sex, but fall in love. Voice Memos for the Void effortlessly combats rebuttals to this idea that we hear every time we ask for more representation and romance: “Why do they need to be queer?” “Why do they need to be in love?” It also dives into different depictions of masculinity, a history of Byronic heroes, and the troubling tropes that follow bisexual characters around in media, like that of the Magical and/or Hedonistic Bisexual. Forgive the glitchy camera in this video; equipment is expensive, and the commentary more than makes up for the video fidelity. We can thank F. D. Signifier’s feed for putting this video on my radar, too. —WW

“The Black Right Wing,” Anansi’s Library

While Tee Noir enjoys (?) a visibility that many POC creators don’t, Anansi boasts a dedicated 15,000 subscriber count but is deserving of far more. They stay closer to the format that many video essays have in the past of concealing their face in their videos, relying more on the merit of their musings than the luster of their looks. Many of us simply create and comment on the actions of others, but Anansi, for lack of a better term, is really in the field. They are deeply entrenched in American activism, which makes their videos simply an accompaniment to a much larger concerted effort.

This video on The Black Right Wing is redolent of the very fight that they have fought on many occasions. It details this unique subset of Black Americans that embraces the Trumpian conservatism that still plagues the United States to this very day. If you are fascinated by the neurosis necessary to align oneself with a party that is antipodal to your existence, then this is the video for you! —RJ

“On Leftist Disunity,” St. Andrewism

By now you must see the peaks and valleys that this list is riding, from creators who have passed the 100,000 mark to those who are still in the 10,000s. The themes that combine in all of them are apparent: their marginalized status, the video essay format, and most of all, the quality. Over the last year, the Trinibagan St. Andrewism has amassed over 50,000 subscribers, and his video On Leftist Disunity is a highlight. This video is the quintessential love letter to the leftist community that encourages the embrace of the many differences it has within it. Instead of approaching this with the pessimism that many people do, St. Andrew seems gleefully optimistic that this diversity of thought will end up saving not only the United States but the world. —RJ

“Break Bread,” F. D. Signifier

OK, now we can talk about F. D. Signifier in earnest. In my video essay list for our Masterpieces of Streaming series, I gave a brief history of video essays through the lens of educational videos. In “Breaking Bread,” F. D. Signifier offers an uncomfortably accurate parallel history: the rise of video essays from rant reviewers like The Nostalgia Critic. The trend of debate bros and, in F. D. Signifier’s words, every LeftTuber making a video about Ben Shapiro, isn’t just rooted in the medium’s history, though; it’s also rooted in whiteness. That lens and style of video stays prominent thanks to the YouTube algorithm, and while the homogeneity of video essays has been critiqued many times, “Break Bread” breaks down the issue with an astounding level of complexity, research, and guests from all over the video essay ecosystem. How much of a video essayist’s success comes down to talent? How much comes down to luck? And how much comes down to the algorithm knowing that what keeps people watching is simply who looks familiar? —WW