The plain style is more accessible and straightforward; it avoids trickery that is often associated with the official style. We’re taught to value the official style of writing so much that often we forget the importance of reaching broader audiences—and even how to write in plain style ourselves. We may stumble upon articles written for the general population, but then assume they are biased or slightly uninformed, when in reality nothing can exist without some bias, even peer reviewed, scholarly journal articles. Everything is situated, yet we really only trust what we understand as “objective.” By only trusting or accepting the official style we fail to acknowledge our own privilege (who has access to these pieces?) and ignore the location of the author.
In the video Human Sexuality is Complicated, Hank Green (one of two users of the YouTube domain ‘vlogbrothers’) addresses the stigma and misconceptions surrounding human sexuality. While plain style uses simple language and sentence structure, the title, despite using the word “complicated,” actually implies that the video will aim to simplify a difficult and complex topic.
To me, human sexuality is absolutely fascinating. The majority of reading I do for pleasure generally consists of articles written about the experiences of other people (usually those who are marginalized) in an attempt to be more compassionate. I’ve had to learn to value others’ opinions and identities, due to our problematic culture that teaches us the opposite, because I demand that same respect. However, not all people are interested in understanding human differences (which is just fine, as long everyone is respectful) or have not been informed about social justice enough to critically think about inequality in society. If topics surrounding equality or sexuality are not important to a person, then who is actually going to watch a video about these very points?
I stumbled upon Hank Green’s video on a website titled Everyday Feminism. I frequently find articles to read here, mostly because they validate my viewpoint, discuss matters that interest me, and further open my mind to recent or upcoming feminist issues. If I didn’t find feminism significant, however, I would’ve never thought to visit that website, and therefore would never have viewed this video. While the vlogbrothers seem pretty liberal-minded, based on the videos I’ve watched, surely their nearly 2 million subscribers are not informed about all of the topics they touch on (including myself). Of the 1.5 million views the video has, who is actually learning something new? Who is accepting this information and not brushing it aside as ‘liberal or feminist propaganda’? Based on the comments (from both Everyday Feminism and YouTube) most people seem pleased with the points Hank makes in the video. There is some pushback for various reasons, but most of these commentators get shut down quickly. For example, from Everyday Feminism, one person left a comment critiquing Hank’s style: “Great but short and limited explanation of a complicated issue.” Another person replied saying, “Short is about all that non-academics can cope with these days. Maybe he'll write a book, with footnotes and Harvard referencing, then put it up for peer review. But it stands less chance of entering the popular imagination. Ornery folks have to think too, now and again.”
While neither commentator seems to be newly informed about the complexity of human sexuality, it’s clear that the idea that Hank’s use of simple, plain style has the potential to reach more people than a complicated, in depth study written for gradate students or those with specialized skills—in other words, an article written in the official style. Assuming that a group of people somewhere has learned something new from this video, this successful communication can be directly attributed to Hank’s application of the plain style.
Hank first explains his location (something that can usually only be done when writing in plain style) when he says, “But first allow me to acknowledge that I’m not a sociologist. I’m also a straight white man who doesn’t have to worry about a lot of the hate that a lot of other people do have to worry about. But my goal with this video is I want people to understand because I think understanding will lead to less hate and also less self-hate.” He is indicating that what he says is not objective, the opposite of what most people understand as credible. By disclosing this personal information, that he is not qualified through formal education or personal experience, he is positioning himself so that viewers may understand his interpretations of sexuality based on his experiences as a privileged person. This way, he acknowledges that his intent is not to speak for anyone, but to create more understanding and less hate among people. His honesty is refreshing, which makes him seem trustworthy, as opposed to impartial or detached, two traits often displayed in official style writing. On the other hand, claiming to be an ‘average Joe,’ makes him more relatable (and again, trustworthy).
Hank also uses first person and easy-to-understand language in his video because he is actually speaking to his audience. Because we often speak different from how we write (plain versus official), the everyday language used in the video is simple enough for even a child to understand. One example says, “We’re gonna start simple: what’s going on down here, in between the legs. That is your sex, your biological sex…And as interesting and complicated as this is, the rest of it is much more complicated, so I’m just gonna move on from here, because we all kind of get what sex is.” His language is so plain that it could actually be considered nonstandard English. While many argue that straying from standard English can cause confusion, everyone knows what the word “gonna” means. Using “gonna” also gives his message a conversational tone, which allows me to place myself into his argument. Focusing on the syntax of the first part of the quote, it’s grammatically incorrect, but makes perfect sense. This use of nonstandard English is informing people about a complicated topic without sounding overly knowledgeable or pretentious.
One of the greatest ways Hank implements the plain style into his video is when he mixes in some jargon. While jargon is usually reserved for the official style, when describing a topic like human sexuality, in which many people are (ironically) clueless, some definitions are required. Hank says, “Now moving to your heart (your metaphorical heart, of course). This is who you are to attracted to: men, women, all genders. Again it’s a spectrum, and that spectrum includes intensity because there are people who don’t feel strong sexual attraction at all. That’s why asexual is a sexual orientation. A newer idea that I was happy to be exposed to yesterday on Tumblr is the idea of romantic orientation. These are the people that you wanna have strong intimate relationships with, but it sort of separates out the idea that sex has to be the goal, or end point, or end-all-and-be-all of every intimate relationship.” In the transcript of the video on Everyday Feminism, the important terms are italicized or written in boldface. By doing this, the reader’s attention is brought directly to the important terms, and nearby are clear definitions. The reader (or viewer) can then use those terms confidently in conversations; it excludes no one.While I believe that Hank’s video was probably successful in communicating accurately, simply, and being inclusionary, I also must acknowledge my own location, just as he does. As someone who is heterosexual, I have a fairly narrow view of what it’s like to exist in a world that doesn’t legitimize my experiences or identites. While I see no problem with simplifying sexuality into terms that everyone can understand (to an extent) this may make sexuality seem less important than it actually is. The plain style may be so simple that the article really has no merit. Everything is much more complicated, as the title suggests, than Hank has the time or knowledge to address. By being too simple, other perspectives are left out, which can alter the ‘truth’ of what Hank is saying. No matter if his video was incomplete or lacked exposing more truths, I believe his simplification implies that everything he says requires further investigation. Like Hank said in the beginning of the video, his intent was to spark “understanding” and “less hate,” and in that regard, he was much more successful than any official document on sexuality I’ve ever read.