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Stauffer Family Documentary: Director Talks Vlogging Regulations

Stauffer Family Documentary: Director Talks Vlogging Regulations

Between 2016 and 2020, family YouTube stars Myka and James Stauffer exhaustively chronicled their journey of adopting a boy with special needs from China. The couple’s story of welcoming the child, who they called Huxley, into their family of five began a new era of success for the Ohio-based vloggers, whose adoption video of Huxley alone brought in more than 5 million views.

But their ascendant business, where Huxley was a star, came crashing down in 2020, when the couple released a video revealing that they had found a new home for the boy. They said their adoption termination resulted from their realization that they couldn’t adequately care for Huxley and his medical issues — prompting widespread backlash that ultimately led to Myka disappearing from public life. (“Huxley” is no longer the child’s name, and James still has an active YouTube channel focused on car care, with over one million subscribers.)   

That story is now the subject of a new three-part docuseries from filmmaker Rachel Mason (Circus of Books) that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday. In An Update on Our Family, which will eventually stream on Max, Mason looks at the Stauffers’ story from a number of angles. She speaks with other family vloggers, adoption experts, journalists and adoptive parents, some of whom offer critical perspectives of the Stauffers and others who are more forgiving. “I feel like it’s important to give compassion to people, even though there’s a lot of judgment and probably there’s some rightful reasons for that judgment,” explained Mason in an interview on Tuesday. “I am more looking to expand the story to understand more.”

In her interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mason also discussed the initial media coverage of the Stauffer story, the lack of regulation on the family vlogging business and the status of her documentary on late Rust cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was Mason’s close friend.

An Update on Our Family

Vox Media Studios

What initially interested you about this story?

What drew me to the Stauffer story was the fact that they represented a world that is highly in demand as far as content. Their story being traumatic was interesting, but it also made me think, wow, I wonder how many other stories there are that we’re just still on the edge of learning about? The Stauffers [are] an example that our series challenges on some level: Are they an example of people that are the worst parents or are they doing things to feed an audience demand that has gotten out of control within an industry that’s unregulated? When you are amateurs and your show is your family and you don’t have any producers or anyone giving you any guardrails, there’s so many things that can go wrong. The story of what they did with Huxley is pretty much the tip of the iceberg of what we’re starting to learn exists within that sphere, moving forward to the present day.

Hannah Cho, a Phoenix, AZ woman who was a fan of the Stauffers and is an adoptee herself, is a recurring character in your series who frames the story. What was behind the decision to have her in that role?

Hannah is such a miracle of a person for us because she really encapsulated all three tracks that we needed in order to help the viewer understand the depth and the nuance that was important for this. Hannah was herself somebody that made her own content with her daughter for a while, so she was, in essence, a participant, she was a mommy blogger. And she also was a consumer of family channels and a huge fan of the Stauffers, which she admitted to. But then she’s a transracial adoptee from Korea adopted by white parents in America — that was where her depth of storytelling came into complete focus; so many of the actual biographical details of her story track with Huxley. She could actively speak on some level for the experience of a child that came from that background. Those three things made her the most valuable storyteller imaginable. But also, she was so forthcoming in talking to us about every single aspect of her feelings towards the Stauffers and her feelings are nuanced. They shed light on many dimensions within the Stauffer story, including the good side.

While many family vlogs do not blur out the faces of the children they feature, your docuseries does in many instances. Tell me a little bit about that choice.

We made a determination that babies were okay [to show] because babies exist in a spectrum where they’re unrecognizable when they get older if you’ve seen them as a baby. But any content that we found with children on the Internet that we were using, we blurred the faces of the children. The choice [was] one of consent: If the kids and their parents specifically hadn’t consented to be in this film, this film is relying on fair use arguments, and even though we actually could fair-use that, we decided [that] the adults we trust to have given consent for themselves, but we can’t assume that for those children.

On the flip side, any [family channels] like the Earls and Channon Rose that we directly worked with, we had enough engagement with them and enough specific dialogue about what we were going to do and how we were going to film their children that, given their consent, we felt okay using very limited amounts of their faces — we did not lean into it heavily. We also wanted it to be clear that we’re not trying to exploit these people. They’re helping us understand what they do in a really, truly meaningful way. They also helped us understand the reality of what it really means to make that decision to work with your family and to grapple with all the ethics of it, which I do believe they are trying to do constantly and in a meaningful way.

The Stauffers have largely appeared in the media as villains, but the film shows some compassion for their situation. Why did you want to complicate or add shades of gray to the portrait of the family that was out there?

For me, it was really important to challenge this idea that this was a simple case of “These are bad people, let’s condemn them” and do exactly what, frankly, articles in the media have done, which is just to say how bad these people are. Because the more I came to understand not just the Stauffers but the overall situation of the Stauffers, the more I found it was necessary to learn the truth about what they had gone through, which nobody had ever provided. What is that like to adopt a child and then have to dissolve that adoption? And what is that actually like for anyone that does that?

We made absolute certain to completely shield [Huxley’s] identity, of course. But the people that shamed the Stauffers, including many writers and journalists, felt no compulsion to do that. They shared his face in many articles and in many videos. So when you hear from people that claim to care about this child but don’t care enough to conceal his identity, it does raise that question, well, what is your actual concern here? To me, having true concern for children means you also care about the Stauffer children. They should be equally on your mind. There’s a question about monetization as well that never seems to get probed any deeper. What’s the responsibility of these companies that continue to push people and incentivize them to do more outlandish things with their children and their content? And so in some ways I was thinking about the questions that were not asked by other journalists, the big glaring ones. The Stauffers ended up providing a lot of information and a lot of useful dialogue despite the fact that we can say trauma was definitely a factor in their story for sure.

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Did you come away from this filmmaking process with any particular thoughts about the guardrails or regulations that should be put on this industry?

Actually, from the time we started [this film] until now, YouTube has started to expand the guardrails. They’re a lot more cautious even when you’re posting content, they ask if there’s children in the content in ways that were not there [before]. So I do feel that YouTube is at least attempting to make some changes, but I definitely have concerns for content that might slide through. The biggest concern, really, is real child abuse. It could be psychological, verbal, things that promote a channel and exploit a child in ways that are, I would say, sometimes hard to see. And I think that’s where the Ruby Franke story is the one that I think probably has blown the Stauffer story completely out of the water.

That being said, the flip side of it is I definitely feel there are good people making content that is truly no different from The Kardashians or anything else that we view in the mainstream. So why should that be censored if we live in a culture where we actually do trust parents to make decisions? And yet the Coogan [Law] and laws that protect children exist in the industry of mainstream entertainment. Should something like that exist for YouTubers? Probably. And that’s where I think we need to figure that out. We haven’t censored children from being in mainstream [entertainment]. We’ve just found ways to make it work.

You’re currently working on a documentary about your late friend, Rust cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, with the support of her husband, Matt Hutchins. What is the status of that film at the moment, and will you be at the Alec Baldwin trial?

Yes, Halyna was a really, really close friend of mine and I was tasked to make this film by her widower, Matt, who is a good friend as well. And basically where that project is currently is we’re in edit. We’ve accomplished a lot of our primary interviews. And yes, I will be at the trial with Alec Baldwin. I don’t know exactly which day, but we were at Hannah [Gutierrez-Reed]’s trial and it’s important for me as a filmmaker, but also just as her friend, to be there.

Filmmaker Rory Kennedy is also doing a Rust documentary, this one seemingly focused on Baldwin. Have you two spoken at all about your approaches to the material or bumped into each other during the filmmaking process?

I would love to meet Rory. I’m actually a fan of her work and I’m really fascinated with that and I am super curious to talk to her. I haven’t yet, but I definitely would love to. It’s probably safe to assume I might meet her at the trial if she’s there when I’m there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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