The words: Disney, Antisemitism and PewDiePie may trigger a few choices opinions given the not-so-distant memories of the allegations made against YouTuber Felix Kjellberg, more commonly known as PewDiePie, only last week. Whilst these headlines may seem like ‘old news’, the storm between the media and the ‘celebrity’ in recent news is not such an unfamiliar topic.
I use the loose term of celebrity here as the majority of people’s understanding of the term stems from Hollywood actors or singers. However, in this modern digital age ‘celebrity’ now extends its meaning to vlogging stars or even political figures. A celebrity in this century may not necessarily be someone you’ve heard of but someone that has a large following from their content or comments, such are the likes of PewDiePie or President Donald Trump.
The war between the media and the ‘celebrity’ has recently had a spotlight thrust upon it due to President Trump’s popular catchphrase: ‘Fake news’. Now a popular catchphrase for all impressionist and possibly in contention for Oxford Dictionary’s: Word of the Year (are the humble years of ‘selfie’ such a nostalgic memory?), it highlights the volatile conflict between the media and their subjects. I use my own terminology of ‘war’ because, in truth, this is what this violent escapade has become: a verbal battlefield. Whether the battle is fought through speech in interviews, questions and rallies or through the medium of written word in newspapers, online reports or formal statements. Offensive, rude and bloodthirsty words have been weaponised by both sides. It is a war. Both the celebrity and the media themselves have used the word ‘attack’ to describe the actions of the other against them (see PewDiePie’s video ‘My Response‘ and CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s accusation towards Trump at a press conference ‘‘You are Fake News”).
Given the global extent of this feud and its far reaches across various incidents, the focus of this piece will be on YouTuber PewDiePie and the media, who he specifies in this case as The Wall Street Journal.
PewDiePie vs The Wall Street Journal
In short, the accusations are as follows. The Wall Street Journal (preceding many other media news outlets) headlined the information that Disney had dropped its ties with PewDiePie following various accounts of antisemitic content the famous YouTuber had posted. PewDiePie then made several video and written statement rebuttals in his own defence, claiming that his jokes had been taken out of context by the media and he did not mean any malicious or offensive intent from his content, but ultimately apologised to those whom he had offended.
See here for WSJ’s article/video: ‘Disney Severs Ties With YouTube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts‘ (the original content was posted 13th February 2017 and has been updated since).
See here for PewDiePie’s video rebuttal: ‘My Response’.
Essentially, the argument comes down to your own interpretation of the role of the ‘celebrity’. If you believe in the fulfilment of the private identity regardless of environment, or if you believe in the established split of self in a celebrity identity, as a private identity and a public one.
If you believe that although the celebrity stems from the ordinary public, as they progress through the ladder of influence and power they should adapt their behaviour and actions to suit the new powerful responsibilities of their role; then yes, PewDiePie is abusing his power and deserves to be punished for his actions in such cases as Disney severing their ties with the YouTuber.
However, if you believe that the digital era’s generation of celebrities are unlike that of television and musical stars, that their celebrity identity differs from those of older mediums of celebrity. That vloggers and instagrammers are ruled by a different set of criteria of what it means to be a celebrity. That stemming from the ordinary and utilising a medium we all have equal access to translates into the same ‘rules’ as the ordinary public, then is it fair for PewDiePie to be isolated like this? Are PewDiePie’s jokes, albeit controversial, still allowed to be that, mere jokes?
Although PewDiePie claims his offensive content is simply humour taken out of context or disagreed with, others claim that this is a naive interpretation of his actions. They argue that such behaviour spreads hatred throughout digital communities and condones racist behaviour amongst the masses. That, to use Guardian reporter Arwa Mahdawi’s words, ‘the just-a-joke justification is a favourite fallback for those looking to dodge responsibility for actions with unforeseen fallouts’ (Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian, ‘PewDiePie thinks ‘Death to all Jews’ is a joke. Are you laughing yet?’.
Whilst Mahdawi is right and does stand to make a strong point about the condolence of offensive behaviour and actions with the ‘just-a-joke’ justification, a challenge may be made to her argument. Digital celebrities are not confined to the same rules as other forms of celebrities. This is where the science of psychology begins to weigh-in on the debate.
To keep the psychological jargon to a minimal, I will best describe the theory in as simplistic terms as I can. Psychologists believe in the ‘private self’ and the ‘public self’ (sometimes referred to as inner and outer self). The private self is, as the name suggests, the side of us that others do not see when you are alone. The public self is the self that you portray to others, it mostly differs from your private self and depending on the individual can have a range of differences. The public self is a formation of what we want to portray to others, there may be a public self you show to your family, one you show to work colleagues, one you use when dating etc.
Now the ‘public self’ has been growing more and more complex as the digital age and social media have dramatically changed how we portray ourselves to others. For example, Facebook could be described as the public self for your friends, you organise parties, have groups, share your favourite videos etc. This is a very different version to the ‘you’ you would show on LinkedIn where you are searching for potential employers; you share your achievements, display a professional attitude. You wouldn’t go posting silly cat videos on your LinkedIn profile now, would you? Language, behaviour and content all vary on these different mediums because they have different intents and purposes.
The confusion, as Janell P. Wilson describes in her articles, comes when younger generations or ‘Millennials’ have been exposed to various interpretations of public self from a very early age. As Wilson describes it: ‘Members of the Millennial Generation are typically not familiar with solitude’ (The Conflation of Public and Private Identity). She investigates the question, ‘whether the distinction between private and public identity has any relevance for Millennials?’ Wilson describes such Millennials as ‘born between 1982-2002’, making PewDiePie, born in 1989, one of such millennials.
In Wilson’s psychological argument PewDiePie sees no difference between his public self and private self; they are one in the same. The jokes he makes in private with his friends (which we all do) are the jokes he makes in his videos to his fan-base. I believe we are all guilty of making offensive jokes at the expense of a vulnerable or minority group to make a group of people laugh. Anyone that says otherwise is a liar. During maturation we are all guilty of saying things we don’t necessarily agree with to bond with a group, more so at adolescence even if we regret it.
PewDiePie’s entire public identity relies on being himself, enabling his private identity to takeover his public one. It is how he accumulated his fan-base, his fortune, by simply enacting his private self who would sit and play video games and post that online. It is not a formed identity. To him they are the same.
I may be naive, I may be a millennial that doesn’t understand rules and responsibility. I do however believe that the media, formed from hundreds and thousands of years worth of evolution, has not yet adjusted to the young digital world and the formation of the new digital celebrity. How can someone judge someone without understanding them and their world?
What is said in jest does not translate to intent. Context is important and I believe the world needs to be more forgiving in that aspect.
(P.S. This image is PewDiePie’s ‘Bro First’ a gesture used to unite his fanbase. It’s like when you high-five your friend. This isn’t a violent punch to the audience. Don’t take it out of context).