Ali Vingiano is a 28-year-old multihyphenate who has made a career out of trying to capture our ever-dwindling attention spans. For the last couple of years, she has written, directed, produced, and acted in short web videos for BuzzFeed’s popular Yellow and Violet channels, which have racked up millions of views and earned rave press attention from places like Jezebel and the Huffington Post.
Although she majored in political science at Bates College, Vingiano has always had a more special connection to her minor, film. “I was always trying to write screenplays growing up,” she explains. “But I never really thought of it as something I could do. I thought of it as something other people got to do, and I could admire from afar.” Fast-forward a few years, and Vingiano is not only writing but also directing short features for one of the largest media companies in the world.
In her, “If You Talked To People The Way You Talk To Yourself,” her character is dealing with self-esteem issues. Seeing this, a friend prompts her to do as the video’s title says, and Ali goes about her day addressing friends and coworkers with her own painfully relatable internal monologue: “You cannot do anything right. Those shoes are dumb.” This thought experiment awakens her to how unnecessarily cruel she is to herself. The video delivers this story in just over two minutes. While we don’t get to see a follow-up, the point has been made. Her videos aren’t here to offer solutions. They capture brief but important moments in our lives, junctures where we confront large topics (a small sample of which includes sexism, mental and sexual health, and navigating relationships) and even larger truths. Often the first few viewer comments on her videos reveal they’ve hit a nerve: “Damn this is too real” the top comment on this video reads with more than 2,000 likes agreeing. Vingiano’s success can be attributed to her background at Upright Citizen’s Brigade [UCB], where she studied comedy sketch writing and improv performance. As a comedian, she is the rare kind of person who can acutely observe human behavior and mine it for storytelling that balances sharp insight with much-needed levity.
We recently spoke with Vingiano, and she let us in on the thought process behind her viral videos and what it’s like to be a woman on the internet.
Let’s start with your background.
I was always really drawn to social issues and politics. When I graduated college, I moved to New York, and I took a job at a labor rights law firm. Someone who I worked with at the law firm was really involved with UCB, so I started taking UCB classes. I took improv and sketch writing, and sort of just fell in love with it. That led me to start doing stand-up, and I just realized how essential it was that that had to be part of my life. Growing up, I was always so drawn to screenwriting. I wrote my first screenplay when I was in seventh grade, and it was an adaptation of a book I read which later became a terrible Lindsay Lohan movie.
Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. I read the book, and I was like, "This needs to be a movie and I need to write it." And then I wrote the screenplay and found out the day after I finished that it was already in production to be a movie and I cried. I was so sad [laughs] because I really thought that I was going to make it.
When you graduated college you had no sense of working for the internet right? You wanted to be in feature films?
When I graduated, I definitely knew that I wanted to go into filmmaking, but I just didn’t really think about making anything for the internet at that point. It was actually Broad City that inspired me; it was 2010 or 2011, right when their web series had come out, and it had started to be popular among small circles of New York comedians. I remember watching that series in my apartment and being like, “Oh these are the girls I wanna hang out with, these are people making cool stuff,” and realizing then that the internet was this amazing platform to put your work out and to get noticed.
Your official title at BuzzFeed was video producer, but you wore many more hats during your time there. You wrote, directed, and acted in your own projects. Was that by necessity or do you enjoy all three roles equally?
I enjoy all roles. I, first and foremost, see myself as a writer, and I end up writing a lot of roles for myself. I also consider myself a performer, but I couldn’t just act. I feel like most of my joy comes from the whole process of filmmaking.
What was the first thing you ever directed and what led to that moment?
My senior thesis film and directing that came from having a creative vision and not wanting anybody else to obstruct it. I feel like when you write something you see it so clearly—when I write something I often see how I want it to look, I see how I want the performances to feel—and when you direct you have so much more control over the product. There are so many directors now who I work with that I trust, but there’s something about directing your own words, that gives you total control over the way it’s presented to the world, and that’s something that I was really interested in having.
Which directors inspire you?
I think someone who I really admire is Miranda July. She always has like a million projects going on and she has such a clear creative vision. Lena Dunham for sure, as well. Melina Matsoukas, I think, is an amazing director. Reed Morano, as well. Melina Matsoukas sort of started in music videos and then she ended up directing for Lemonade, and now she directs a lot of Insecure, and she’s incredible. Reed Morano was a DP who was mostly shooting other people’s things, and then she made a feature a few years ago that was incredible and sort of put her on the map as a director, and she ended up directing The Handmaid’s Tale. Seeing her journey is very inspiring to me.
Most of your videos center around women and their issues whether it’s a woman dealing with unplanned pregnancy or worrying about a possible STI or trying to work on her self-esteem. Do you have a female audience in mind when you make them?
I do, but I try not to think about the audience when I create; I want women to feel better about themselves and their experiences after watching my work. I’m interested in writing female characters who are insecure and who are flawed and who are strong and who are funny, and the audience that finds them is out of my control at that point. I’m interested in creating work that has nuanced examples of the daily occurrences, traumas, whatever it might be that women experience. And if men watch it, that’s great, too, because I think it’s important for men to see women portrayed like that, and I think it’s important for men to understand the things that women go through. If women can relate to it and find solace in it and appreciate seeing their stories on screen, that’s the dream. But what I’m interested in is not focusing on the audience, but the way in which the work is made and the way in which the work tells the truth about the things women experience.
There’s a great Shirley Chisholm quote, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Do you feel like you were generally given creative freedom from the start at BuzzFeed or did you find yourself having to make room for yourself and the kind of stories you wanted to tell?
I've had a ton of creative freedom at BuzzFeed, and my voice has grown there over the past two years. But there were times when I did have to fight to find space for myself and for my vision. I believed in my work, and I wanted to make room for the stories I felt were critical to tell.
The style and tone of my work were, at first, a departure from the traditional scripted BuzzFeed video. I essentially created something new there—viral issue-based scripted content with either a dramedy or dramatic tone. That didn't really exist there before. The more videos I wrote about social and feminist issues that were important to me, the clearer it became that there was a huge audience for them. There were people relieved to see nuanced and honest portraits of their stories on screen, who could relate to the characters I created, and who were eager to keep seeing content in that vein. That gave me more leverage and the confidence to not really consider whether I had a seat at the table, or if people approved of my work. I was just gonna make what I wanted. I knew my work was good and had something to say, and that it could go viral. And I was so happy to be able to do all that at BuzzFeed and get support for it.
Your short film about a woman seeing her rapist again, (“When I Saw Him Again”), has over 5 million views. On your Instagram, you called the large viewer response “a testament to how buried these stories are.” Did you feel a special kind of responsibility to tell that story?
I felt a responsibility to myself to tell that story and to other women. So often rape is seen onscreen as a plot device, as a way to create empathy for a female character who is seen as cold. I mean House of Cards is a great show but also an example of that. I think that the actual effect that rape has on a woman’s life and the way that PTSD affects the day-to-day of a woman’s life are stories that we never really see. The way that men are taught to be entitled over women’s bodies; when they’re young, they don’t even necessarily realize they’re committing a crime, [and that] is really disturbing and never really shown onscreen, so that’s what really drew me to that. And I think that is just one story. Just last week at the L.A. Food Festival someone came up to me about that video and said, "I watched the video recently, and it made me feel like I wasn’t alone." The fact that so many women relate to it is a testament to how we don’t see stories like this accurately depicted onscreen.
Did you talk to other people, other women, before doing it?
I’ve been creating feminist content, working with other women, talking to other women about experiences like this for my whole adult life. It was an accumulation of all of that work and all of that thinking. The story depicted in this short film is not something that happened to me, but the idea of confronting your attacker about how he affected your life is, in a way, a type of wish fulfillment. That first sequence came to me fully formed, and from there, I was like where would the story go from here? After she says, “I just want to let you know that he raped me in college,” where does the story go from here?
The women you write feel very familiar because they talk to their friends the way we talk to our friends and each of their experiences is very relatable. How do you balance your desire to have something to say with the business demand for short and shareable content?
That is what I think about all the time. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I think you can create short shareable content that accurately shows what women speak like and feel like. I always want to tell the truth and be as honest as possible about the way women live their lives. I think if you’re portraying characters in that way, you’re giving the audience something to cling onto: "Oh my god, this is me! I talk to my friends like that." “When I Saw Him Again” is 22 minutes or 23 minutes. Most of the time my videos are much shorter. But I never write for length, I always write for story. I’m really interested in singular moments. When you’re doing a two- or three-minute video you don’t need to know a character’s backstory, you don’t need to know everything about their life. What’s interesting to me is how that character would interact with one specific moment or one specific person. I think that’s where the relatable aspect of it can come from.
Viewing your portfolio as a woman is gratifying because you’re committing to film some things that we, women, know and accept as universal truth but which are probably offering brand-new pieces of information to male viewers. Have you noticed a difference in the responses to your work?
Yes, this is a really interesting thing for sure. I’ll have a lot of women reaching out to me saying that they’re really grateful for the way they saw their stories told onscreen, and I’ll have my fair share of hate comments and trolling, but I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by the response I’ve had from men who are thankful for learning something. I think it’s interesting that women aren’t learning anything, they’re just like, “Oh yeah that’s my life,” but men are like, “Oh my god, this is what women’s lives are like?!” I’m glad that there’s an avenue for men to even watch this work. I definitely try not to be preachy. At the end of my work, I never try to be like, "So this is right and this is wrong." I’m more interested in showing the way characters live their lives and then letting the audience find the takeaway from that. Even with “When I Saw Him Again,” it was important to me to show how the man interpreted the situation. It was important to me to show how his girlfriend was conflicted. It was so amazing to see how many men reached out to me saying, “Oh, I had no idea what this was like for women” especially some of the PTSD aspects I tried to show in that; like the moment she’s holding her keys in the elevator, for me, was a scene that was so relatable to so many women and so many men reached out to me about that scene.
To say that they had no idea?
Yeah because they had never thought about the fact that if a man attacks you, and you’re in an enclosed space with another man, that impacts your life. And it’s like, yes, all men can be threatening to someone who has experienced violence by a man. There are men who I worked with who were like, “I learned so much” and shared it. A lot of the share statements when people would share it on Twitter and Facebook were, “Everybody needs to watch this,” or “All men should see this.” The fact that I could create something that gave men an avenue into seeing what sexual assault was like for a woman was huge. I was so grateful for that. I thought it was a really special thing. I wasn’t creating that for men in any way, it was just sort of an added bonus. I’m never creating anything with the idea of teaching a man, but if that happens along the way, I think it’s great.
Audiences are starting to care more and more about who is behind the media they consume. Some TV showrunners like Ava DuVernay and Melissa Rosenberg have responded by pledging to hire all-female directors for their projects. Donald Glover famously hired an all-black writing staff for Atlanta. As a female director in 2017, do you find yourself thinking more critically about how you assemble your team?
Yes, definitely. I’m so interested in working with diverse groups of women, women who experience the world in different ways than I do. My dream absolutely would be to have a show where I could hire, like, all women [laughs]. To have a 70 percent female crew would be amazing. I’m definitely interested in working with women and people of color. That makes me more excited than anything else.
Do you feel that art is always political?
I think that good art should always have something to say, and in this day and age, it does seem like having anything to say is political. It seems like right now even existing as a woman or person of color is a political statement because your body is so threatened. I don’t really think about my art in that way. I’m never trying to make a political statement. I’m always just trying to tell the truth of an experience and politics comes from that for me.
You’re launching a new podcast soon called Killing It. What’s the idea behind the project?
This podcast will be featuring women who are killing it in whatever field they’re in. The first season or the first few episodes I’m talking to a lot of women in entertainment, journalism, media, and eventually, I want to branch off to women who are killing it in science and education and engineering, or whatever field they might be in. I want to inspire other women, and I want to hear from these women about how they experience their own lives because I’ve noticed a lot of the women who I’m friends with who are killing it don’t see themselves that way, and it’s like, “Why not? You are! You’re at the top of your game, the top of your field.” A lot of women still feel like they need to be better or they’re not good enough, so I just sort of want to celebrate—and also, not all women. There’s a lot of women I know who are like, “Yeah, I’m fucking great. I’m killing it.” I don’t want to paint women as insecure and unable to know their achievements because that’s not all women in any way. But I do want a platform to celebrate the awesome things women are doing, and I just want to talk to them, I want to talk to these people too.
Podcasts are having a real moment. What made you decide to step into the world of audio storytelling for this?
This is an idea that I’m really excited about and I listen to podcasts. I love podcasts. I grew up listening to radio. My parents always had the radio playing NPR, so it’s a world that I was really excited to be a part of.
Which podcasts do you listen to?
I listen to Bodega Boys a lot. I listen to Comedy Bang Bang. I listen to WTF [with Marc Maron]. I listen to Another Round, the BuzzFeed podcast; I love Another Round.
The internet is a minefield for women, and you’re an outspoken feminist, especially on your Twitter account, which is quite popular. Last year during the Olympics one of your tweets about sexism garnered around 30,000 retweets. What’s it like to have your content go viral?
It’s very stressful and very exciting. I remember the first thing I ever made that went viral. I was just sitting there refreshing my Twitter page. I just felt insane. It was so exciting, and then Judd Apatow followed me, and I was like, “OMG, I’ve made it” [laughs]. Now it’s more of a thing I’m used to which is incredible with my work at BuzzFeed and Twitter and things like that. Once things on Twitter that are strong feminist statements go viral, it’s exciting because you’re reaching a wide audience, you’re sharing your opinion, and people are responding to it and people are supporting it. The fact that you could create something that other people relate to that deeply is so exciting for me, and it’s also stressful because a lot of people hate you for it. You get a lot of harassment. I’m a public person where, you know, my email is on my website. I’ve gotten threatening emails, threatening Facebook messages. There’s definitely a stress to being a woman with an opinion on the internet. But, it’s never something that makes me ever think about stopping. It’s more of an added toll that women have to pay to exist in public space.
What’s your relationship to the internet now? Are you still enjoying it?
Yeah, I mean the internet is like a cesspool. It’s sometimes terrible and sometimes great. I definitely enjoy working on the internet. I love creating things for the internet because you get to see immediate response to your work, whereas, with other mediums, you might have to wait six months for things to go into production, then a year after that for things to be seen, and it takes a long time to see how people are responding to what you’re making; with the internet, you get that immediate feedback. I admire creators like Issa Rae and the women from Broad City and High Maintenance, and I would eventually like to be in a category with those people. I’m definitely interested in making TV, in making movies, and I definitely see that as a path forward for me, but I don’t see the internet as something I’ll walk away from. Even in the future, if I’m making features, I can absolutely see myself making a short film and putting it on Vimeo or putting it on YouTube and using the internet as a place where you have an idea and you just want to make it right away. You don’t want to sit on it, you don’t want to wait a year.
Vingiano’s new podcast Killing It will premiere Tuesday, July 25.Photo via @therealalivingiano / Photographed by Sela Shiloni