And predictably, the internet has gone nuts about it.
I was weighing up staying out of this one, to be honest. The story has been covered at extreme length, by the great and the good (and the really not-so-good) and I was wondering what I had to add to the conversation, other than of course, condemning his behaviour, because it is despicable.
If you want to consume some relevant discourse on these events, may I suggest this episode of Waypoint Radio with Austin Walker and Vice Gaming/Waypoint team, or this thread from BlackGirlGamers on Twitter. I can’t do better than they have on what racism means to them, in real terms, in 2017.
But what we can do, is look at how the story was reported. Here’s a brief synopsis of the story, as you’ve probably seen it reported, basically everywhere:
Over the weekend, YouTube star PewDiePie (real name, Felix Kjellberg) used a racial slur during a live stream of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
This prompted portions of the internet to come out in support of PewDiePie, who himself has 54 million followers on YouTube and was the service’s highest earning star in 2016. The suggestion was that he was not being racist, rather, the word popped out innocently, in a ‘heated’ moment. They also drew attention to the fact that PewDiePie is a young man with more fame and influence than he ever could have expected, trying to navigate an increasingly realtime, unedited online world.
Then Sean Vanaman, of Firewatch developer Campo Santo, took to Twitter to announce that they would be filing a DMCA strike against PewDiePie, as they no longer wanted their game associated with the YouTuber.
This riled up the internet even further in defence of PewDiePie, which led to a backlash against Campo Santo on the Steam forums, and the suggestion they were abusing YouTube’s already imperfect systems as a form of censorship.
And finally, other YouTubers – concerned that PewDiePie’s antics might bring forth a legal case to set a precedence against what they deem as ‘fair use’ in let’s play videos – began to worry for their own livelihoods, fearing that in a world of dropping advertising revenues, PewDiePie’s naivety might have finally ruined it for everyone.
Sounds like a succinct coverage of events, right? It tries to stay relatively impartial and report on just the facts, of what happened during the weekend and into early this week, in the latest storm in a cesspool. I’ve probably seen that identikit story in twenty places.
I have two issues with that coverage however:
Firstly, the constant use of Kjellberg’s online handle, PewDiePie – rather than his full name – works to absolve him of responsibility for his actions, under the guise of playing a persona. And secondly, the tendency to infantilise Kjellberg’s actions – as a poor boy who can’t cope with fame, the real victim here – is demeaning for everyone involved, especially those on the receiving end of this kind of casual, almost socially acceptable racism.
What’s in a name?
Do you remember the episode of Scrubs – yes, I know, I never thought I’d be using a TV show with a really weird focus on how cool it was to have a black best friend to make a point about racism either, but here we are – where the gang wonders how Bob Kelso, chief of staff at the hospital and chief antagonist, can live with himself?
The answer, is that the second he steps foot outside that hospital, no matter how bad his day has been or how despicable his decisions, it all washes away from him because he’s no longer that person. He flicks a switch, and he’s not Bob Kelso, chief of staff, arbitrarily choosing who lives or dies; he’s Bob Kelso, husband, father, golfer, scotch drinker.
He’s able to live a second life outside of his horrible workday existence, and so is Felix Kjellberg.
It’s not Felix who’s using racial slurs, it’s PewDiePie, people tell themselves. That’s not who Felix Kjellberg really is, right? It’s a persona, an edgelord character who walks a fine line (and sometimes oversteps it) in the name of popularity. He does his day’s work as PewDiePie, and then when he gets home? He’s Felix, and he can wash whatever abhorrent things he’s done away.
And that’s not right. This isn’t like saying “Disney isn’t anti-semitic just because Walt Disney was,” because Disney is a huge corporation that has lived and outgrown its morally misguided creator. In this instance, the creator and the brand are one and the same thing; both Felix Kjellberg and PewDiePie are racist (and anti-semitic, too – don’t forget that Disney fired him over it) and he shouldn’t get a pass.
So here’s tip one, for reporting on Felix Kjellberg, or any of his ilk: call him by his real name. I know that’s less practical for journos – in Google terms, which are, let’s be honest, the only terms that matter for the media, searches for PewDiePie exponentially outstrip searches for Felix Kjellberg – but if he’s able to brush off the persona, it’s easy for the responsibility of his actions not to stick.
Try replacing every instance of the word ‘PewDiePie’ with ‘Felix Kjellberg’ in that synopsis of the story above, and then see how different it looks. Think about how much worse it would feel for Felix, his friends, his family, to read how racist Felix is, not his wacky online alter-ego.
Don’t give him a pass by making it all seem like part of his ‘edgy’ brand. And kudos to The Guardian for being the only publication to repeatedly refer to him as Kjellberg and not PewDiePie in reporting this story, by the way.
Much too much, much too young
Onto the second point, of how Felix Kjellberg is a young lad, thrown in at the deep end with no support and no idea how to act: don’t forget that he’s 27 years old, and he’s been doing this for seven years. Seven years!
Imagine if you’d worked somewhere for seven years, and hadn’t realised by that point that it wasn’t acceptable to blurt out racist slurs, or to make anti-semitic ‘jokes’ in front of your colleagues. Now imagine that instead of colleagues, that’s 54 million people, many of whom are young, impressionable children, who are figuring out their place in the world. You wouldn’t last very long, would you?
Confession time: my father is racist. He says it’s not his fault, that he was brought up ‘in a different time’ and things aren’t the same as they were, and he doesn’t know how to fit into this ‘new’ world. My mother excuses him and says he’s not racist, he just says ‘outrageous’ things to get attention.
But do you know what? I worked out pretty fucking quickly that the things he said in our home – about people of other cultures and religions – weren’t acceptable. I think I might’ve repeated something once, at school, when I was six or seven years old, and I never did it again.
Let me repeat that. I was six or seven years old, and I did it once not knowing any better, and I worked out that it was wrong and that I should never do it again. Felix Kjellberg is 27 years old, and he’s still doing it, to a young and impressionable audience, who will defend him to the hilt because he’s one of them. Don’t you think it’s time to start taking some responsabilty for your actions, Felix?
And if people are going to excuse him like he’s a child, a poor waif who doesn’t know any better, who’s just repeating bad words, parrot fashion, from the nasty kids he hangs around with?
In the grandest tradition of little boys being bad on the internet, maybe someone needs to tell his mother.