I used to wish I was Shane Dawson.
Well, not really. But there was a time when I craved his spotlight.
It was back in 2008, when I was ten years old. YouTube had just gone mainstream, and every day after school, I would rush downstairs and plop myself down in front of our clunky desktop computer; I’d binge videos of popular creators like Jenna Marbles, Niga Higa, Andrea Russett, FRED, and of course, Shane Dawson.
It wasn’t so much that I admired his content. Embarrassingly, most of his skits went over my head. It was more that I admired that he was creating content at all. I admired that millions of people were consuming his content, and I thought that maybe one day millions of people would consume my content, too.
A fifth grader at the time, I never realized that the reason Shane Dawson was succeeding on YouTube was the exact reason I wouldn’t. He was a 20-year-old white man. I was a 10-year-old biracial girl. He made racist videos caricurating Black people and other minorities. I did not.
In fact, Shane Dawson had built an empire mocking people like me. And it worked because he had a predominately white, loyal audience that cheered him on, all under the guise of “dark humor.” This was the same audience that would harass me at school for the color of my skin and say it was just a joke when I called them out.
But that didn’t stop me from watching Shane. He was on the front page of YouTube; to me, he represented a level of fame I could only dream about.
In retrospect, I suppose this was a form of idolization. Like many other children my age, I’d fallen into the trap of believing in the unproblematic YouTuber.
Much like the K-pop idol or the Disney star, the unproblematic YouTuber is a construct of our own imagination. An impossibly perfect person, this YouTuber is placed on a digital pedestal and celebrated as someone who can do no wrong. Both role model and relatable friend, the unproblematic YouTuber feels more accessible than the traditional celebrity—a relationship that only reinforces the unproblematic myth, because who wants to believe that their friend is a bad guy?
In the case of Shane Dawson, this myth granted him the title “King of YouTube,” despite his previously very public persona of blackface, pedophilic jokes, and fat-shaming, among other issues that were swept under the rug when he transitioned to more palatable but nonetheless shocking content: conspiracy videos, documentary series, autobiographies, mental-health talks, makeup tutorials, and so on. Dawson was never truly held accountable for his actions until a few weeks ago, when he was “canceled.”
When fans’ illusions are shattered, a paradigm shift occurs in which the majority of fans suddenly awaken to the harsh reality: their YouTube idol was never really unproblematic in the first place; they just fooled themself into thinking so. Disgusted not only with their idol but with themselves, they scramble to hold the YouTuber accountable, thinking this absolves them of culpability.
In this sense, cancel culture is a symptom of a society that fails to hold people responsible in the moment. To “cancel” someone is often to retroactively hold someone accountable for something they should’ve been called out for in the past.
The unproblematic YouTuber thrives in a retroactive environment. Retroactivity allows the YouTuber to soak up the spotlight for controversial behavior; only later, when they have the buffer of fame and fortune, will they suffer the consequences.
These consequences are usually a public apology, a temporary dip in followers and finances, and if we’re lucky, a slight tweak in behavior. After that, they just have to wait it out until someone else gets canceled and everyone forgets about their scandal. This is why YouTubers like Logan Paul, Pewdiepie, James Charles, Jeffrey Star, Tana Mongeau, Trisha Paytas, and Shane Dawson are able to bounce back after being canceled.
Logan Paul still has 22 million subscribers after posting a video of Japan’s suicide forest; he uploads multiple videos a week, almost all of them garnering over 5 million views. Pewdiepie, who’s been canceled multiple times for using the N-word and anti-Semitic slurs, still has the second-highest subscriber count of any YouTuber.
How legitimate is a cancelation if someone can bounce back within a matter of days, weeks, or months? Is this cycle a form of forgiveness, or is it just hypocrisy? In other words, are we becoming more merciful or more forgetful?
While I’m usually pretty skeptical, I definitely believe there should be room for forgiveness, even after being canceled. I worry, though, that the cyclical nature of being canceled may stop people from ever being truly accountable.
As a corporation, YouTube has a vested interest in this quick turn-over cycle. It means they can profit off unproblematic creators when the public likes them, and when the tides turn, they can demonetize these same YouTubers and still come away as the “good guy.”
It’s unacceptable that it took YouTube ten years to demonetize Shane Dawson’s content—just like it’s unacceptable that it took ten years for users to recognize he should be canceled.
As consumers we need to be more cognizant of a YouTuber’s problematic behavior not retroactively, but proactively. We need to call out creators in the moment rather than years later, sparking conversations as soon as possible. And when that conversation isn’t possible—when we’ve waited so long that we have no choice but to cancel them—we need to recognize not just the YouTuber’s unacceptable behavior, but our complicity in it. We need to recognize our behavior, and we need to change. We need to hold other people accountable, but also ourselves.
By Kiddest Sinke