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Playing the Pawn in PewDiePie’s Blame Game

Because top YouTube star PewDiePie was dumped by Disney and YouTube in the wake of videos he created that were criticized for being anti-Semitic, it came as no surprise that he would produce a video responding to the controversy as he did Thursday.

But what came as something of a shock to me was that in the first minute of his counteroffensive, he cited a column I wrote about him for Variety in 2013 as Exhibit A in what he perceives as the media’s agenda to destroy him.

“I think most Internet personalities can agree with me that the media generally doesn’t like us very much,” he explains to viewers at the outset of his 11-minute video. “Variety, for example, posted in 2013 ‘If PewDiePie is YouTube’s Top Talent, We Are All Doomed.’ That was my introduction to the media. I don’t think I understood it at the time, I think what this article showed more than anything, old school media doesn’t like Internet personalities because they’re scared of us.”

PewDiePie continues for the majority of this video to lambaste the media, particularly The Wall Street Journal for breaking the story that led to his Disney ouster. (And if I thought I got it bad in the video, PewDiePie flashes them a middle finger and jams it in his mouth at the 10:22 mark.)

If this vilification of the news business seems familiar, it’s because the current president of the United States employs the same strategy: Blame the media for problems that are entirely of your own creation, and distract your millions of followers by giving them something to rally around.

Like Trump, he has a pro-wrestler instinct for strengthening the sense of community he has built with his massive audience base by allowing them to share in his persecution complex.

But in truth, he should thank the media for helping build the notoriety that is only going to bring more visibility to PewDiePie and take his career to the next level. Disney may have cut him off this week, but how much longer before ABC casts him in the next season of “Dancing with the Stars,” the destination of choice for disgraced celebrities in need of reputation rehab?

Or maybe Trump has an opening for him in his cabinet.

It’s interesting that nowhere in the video does PewDiePie come anywhere close to criticizing Disney or YouTube, which are the entities that pulled the plug on their respective deals with him. Neither of these companies were forced by the media to turn their backs on PewDiePie when the anti-Semitism story came out; they made a choice to do so.

To be clear: I am not accusing PewDiePie of being anti-Semitic. I only saw one of the videos in question (many of which have since been yanked from YouTube), and it struck me less as the product of some genuine hatred of his for Jewish people and more just as humor of questionable taste.

Unfortunately, the anti-Semitism accusations doesn’t help dispel the Trump parallels here.

The response video also seems to fit a pattern of publicity-generating controversy that was in evidence last year when PewDiePie threatened to cut ties with YouTube; it’s as if he is styling himself to be some kind of 21st century conflation of Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman, testing the boundaries of decency and turning his career into performance art.

I can understand why PewDiePie would be upset about what I wrote about him in 2013; it was a fairly vicious assessment of what I thought, and continue to think, about his act, which I described thusly: “Foul-mouthed PewDiePie jabbers nonsensically to the fans he calls ‘bros’ primarily about videogames in a voice that reminds you of a young Bobcat Goldthwait between hits of nitrous oxide.”

But let’s get real about PewDiePie’s crocodile tears. The column made abundantly clear that what I think doesn’t really matter because I am not in his target demographic. The ultimate point of that column was that the entertainment industry needed to get over any reflexive revulsion like my own that they might have toward him and reckon with this new force in media. The intentionally hysterically pitched headline wasn’t a symptom of how venomously I hate him; it was a comedic exaggeration of how much oldsters like myself can’t grasp his act, a nuance he seems not to have picked up.

Jeff Minton for Variety

But what really steams me is what PewDiePie neglected to share with the world in his video Thursday: Variety put PewDiePie on the cover in 2015 in an article that couldn’t have been more positive, hailing him as the leader of a new movement in entertainment. How come he didn’t complain then about the 2013 column when he agreed to pose for these pictures?

For the past three years, Variety has devoted three cover stories to the influencer phenomenon precisely because it matters and we were proud to be ahead of the curve. So forgive me for bristling when PewDiePie spouts, as he did today, “We have so much influence and such a large voice and I don’t think they understand it, and that’s why they take this approach.”

No, PewDiePie, the opposite of what you said is true: Variety understood your audience and influence from the very beginning, which is why you, and many other Internet stars out there, have gotten coverage both positive and negative from Variety over the years. We have spent so much energy legitimizing you and other digital-native influencers that it’s ridiculous of you to say our agenda is to de-legitimize you.

So make me a prop in your propaganda if  you must. But pardon me if I’m not willing to passively play the straw man you want to knock down to serve your misguided argument.


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