The 15-second TikTok video begins with a girl throwing her birth control packet, three pills already used, next to several tubes of paint. Flo Milli’s “Beef FloMix” thumps in the background. Short, close-up clips of a painting project build to the ultimate reveal: a DIY-style pill packet, its cover sporting an image of a stick figure throwing a baby as if it were a basketball.
If this sounds at all nonsensical to you, then you probably aren’t familiar with TikTok, the social media platform where the video was posted. It’s a relatively new app, similar to now-defunct Vine, in which users create their own videos using a bevy of tools and an extensive soundtrack library.
Since launching in 2017 as a joint venture between Musical.ly and Chinese-owned ByteDance, TikTok has skyrocketed in popularity, most visibly among teenage girls. Maybe that’s why it’s no surprise the birth control video, posted in mid-June, took off. Within days, the views and likes started rolling in — today, it boasts over 2.2 million views and 220,000 likes, and it’s the very first hit for the hashtag #birthcontrol.
Many of the video’s 900-plus comments are from young women. “Birth control gang,” several users wrote. “Ayeee. I use the same kind lol,” said another. Many share the same sentiment: “I’m not the only one who uses birth control”; “omg I want a case for mine”; “this really just reminded me to take mine, thank you.”
A handful of girls also started painting their birth control cases and making videos of their own. That’s a key feature of the app: Users are encouraged to post “response” videos to others’ content. In this case, one-off videos featured other memes, Spongebob Squarepants illustrations and even painterly designs.
Meanwhile, 15-year-old Ava Bass never expected her video to go viral. Bass, who’s a rising high school sophomore from Annandale, Va., joined TikTok because it was “kind of like YouTube but more for jokes,” she says over the phone. Up until that point, Bass had made mostly silly videos with friends. They’d received 100, maybe 200, likes each.
Her birth control video started off as just a “jokey, lighthearted thing,” too, Bass says; she got the idea from a post she saw on Instagram.
But looking back, Bass recognizes the larger significance in her video going viral. At the same moment she put her birth control on full display — and as other users posted comments such as “yeetus the fetus,” meaning to get an abortion — the abortion debate was raging across the country. “I was thinking while I was making it, ‘Do I want to post this?’ Because it is a controversial thing,” she says.
Ultimately, it wasn’t, at least not in a negative sense. Bass says the response to her video has largely been positive.
“I think it’s definitely cool that one girl can do something, and then all these other girls see it, and it’s normalized, and they’re like, ‘Oh, they did it, so I can do it,’” Bass says. “Not that it’s a leader-follower thing, but more that it’s a funny joke that we can all get in on.”
Vickie Cook, executive director of the Center for Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois-Springfield, says that, in many ways, the video is emblematic of Generation Z’s general approach to social media, which is all about “creativity, short bytes of information ... and fun.”
“On the one hand, it doesn’t surprise me that Ava set out to have fun with this,” she says. “And on the other, Gen Z is very much an activist generation. So I’m sure upon reflection she’s aligning that with her ideas of making a difference as well.”
The viral video points to something else, too, says Kate Eichhorn, a professor of culture and media at the New School:
As one article puts it, “Tiktok, perhaps more than any other platform, allows its huge youth audience to articulate not just the see-me and hear-me aspects of socialising, but also a visual representation of the rituals and markers of youth.” In the same piece, Andrew Gauthier, head of video on Kamala D. Harris’s (D-Calif.) campaign, likens the platform to “a look into teenage id.”
The story of this particular viral video is a case in point: It showcases young women in all their random, irreverent, teenage glory.
If the creation of Bass’s video points to anything, it’s how vast and referential the Internet is. To trace the true origins of her idea is to fall down a rabbit hole: Bass says she saw an image of a similar pill case on Instagram. But that photo had actually originated on Twitter, where Kristine Santos, a 23-year-old from California, posted her own version.
Santos, meanwhile, credits illustrator Joan Cornellà with the image of the woman tossing her baby. “To be honest, I just found the picture to be funny, and I was taking birth control pills at the time,” Santos explains.
Bass saw the humor in it, too. (It’s notable that both Santos and Bass live in solidly blue areas of the country; they say birth control and reproductive rights aren’t stigmatized where they live.) Bass was one of the first of her friends to get birth control, and many of her friends had been curious about it.
The video’s other components reflect Bass’s own sensibilities. Why’d she choose the song? It was just a popular one on the app, Bass says. And why write “had to do it to em” in the caption? It’s akin to saying, “Had to put it out there,” Bass explains.
Bass also tagged the video with #foryou, which is likely how it landed in front of such a wide audience. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, TikTok doesn’t center around your friends or followers. Instead, it opens on a “For You” page, which is generated through algorithms that consider videos a given user has watched and shared.
Anna Sweany, an 18-year-old from California, found the video on her For You page. She says she’s seen several other similar birth control videos since, and finds them to be a testament to how the platform allows “people to be creative and have fun with whatever they choose to do.”
That’s par for the course, says Jessa Lingel, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Powerful, funny or provocative content becomes the connective tissue that links Gen Z social networks,” she says.
It’s no wonder TikTok is wildly popular amongst Gen-Z’ers, given their inclination toward humor. It was the third-most downloaded app in the United States in the first quarter of this year, behind Facebook Messenger and a game called “Color Bump 3D.” It reportedly has more than 500 million users worldwide, many of whom are younger than 18. And it’s a world in which meme culture reigns — in which simple phrases, such as “yeetus the fetus,” often leave older people scratching their heads.
According to Bass, teenagers such as herself “have our own inside jokes on the app,” such that “older generations don’t really know what we’re doing.”
Cook, the executive director of the Center for Learning, Research and Service, points out that this is “no different” from past generations; teenagers have long had different ways of subverting their parents or other adults. In the past, that might’ve meant writing secret notes in binders, Cook says. Now, TikTok fills the void.
While the app provides a platform for young women to widely broadcast their opinions and jokes, the girls are “inadvertently working for private tech companies in the process,” says Eichhorn, the professor of culture and media. Earlier this year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission hit TikTok with a record fine for collecting data on children under 13. The app has also come under fire for harassment targeted at teen girls.
These are important factors for teenagers, and their parents, to keep in mind, says Cook. But she’s also hopeful for Generation Z. Videos such as Bass’s show that they’re creative; they’re politically aware; they’ve got a sense of humor:
“When I watched the video, I thought, ‘Gosh, this just totally encapsulates what Generation Z is.’”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated Vickie Cook’s name. We regret the error.