It feels like almost everyone is talking about Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg lately, even people who had never heard of him before a few days ago. There are opinions of every type flying left and right, and it can be difficult to decide what’s up. It’s a big old mess frankly, and while I’;m not a fan of Russian roulette, I seemed to have found myself playing it without even knowing. Here I am writing about PewDiePie and the idiotic thing he did this month.
Personal opinions aside for a moment, I have to address the freedom of speech arguments that have been going back and forth regarding the YouTube personality. Everyone has freedom of speech, everyone has the right to say whatever they want to say. Some people say hurtful things knowing they are hurtful, like that bully who always made fun of your freckles in high school. Other times people can say things they don’t realize are hurtful, like your aunt saying period dramas are pointless when she hasn’t realized you’re starring in one. No, I’m not speaking from personal experience. (Or am I?) When it comes to freedom of speech, your intentions don’t really matter. As long as what you say doesn’t actually get anyone hurt, i.e. you can’t scream fire in a crowded theater that isn’t on fire, there’s nothing actually criminal about being intolerant or rude.
The issue between PewDiePie and Disney/YouTube really had nothing to do with freedom of speech. It had to do with the fact that he represents those companies and they have every right not to associate with him if they don’t want to. Every company and every brand has a certain image that they project and have the right to protect. The video that started this whole hubbub (which we reported on here) did not align with Disney or YouTube’s image and brand. Therefore, they had every right to cut their ties with PewDiePie. It’s not a stretch to say that it even said so in his contracts. They’re not saying he doesn’t have the freedom to say what he wants; they’re not even necessarily trying to silence him. They’re just bowing out of something that doesn’t represent them.
With that out of the way, there are other issues with PewDiePie’s recent scandal. The biggest one being the reach of his YouTube channel/videos. He has 53 million subscribers; that’s 29 million more people than the entire population of Australia! The number of people who see his videos is staggering. Even more alarming, in the case of this scandal, is the age range of those viewers. A vast majority of PewDiePie’s viewers are young teenagers between the ages of 13-16.
First off, that age is incredibly malleable. A silly example, but I know I wouldn’t be anywhere near as interested in video games as I am if not for my dad owning an original Game Boy and being a PC gamer. Kids that are watching PewDiePie make jokes that are antisemitic (whether intentional and serious or not) are going to think that this is acceptable. Every generation’s sense of humor is molded by the popular comedians within it. I think dick jokes are funny because of the likes of Dane Cook. The iGen (or Gen Z) is growing up with PewDiePie. If he says things that are offensive, they’ll start saying similar things.
Another huge factor is that this impressionable age group is still trying to figure out what is “normal.” We all get that the Holocaust was bad, but it is just another chapter in your history book without life experience. The fact of the matter is that we’re far enough away from the tragedy that some people even venture into denying it ever happened. Previous generations have either lived through WWII, or had family members who did. There’s a serious disconnect between how those generations and Gen Z process this history. This makes antisemitic “jokes” a dangerous thing to toss around. Even if PewDiePie was joking, this isn’t the kind of humor we want to normalize or desensitize ourselves to. Kids are more likely to side with their favorite celebrity than do hard research. Antisemitism was, and admittedly still is, a very serious issue.
It is crucial for figures in popular culture, especially those as highly viewed as PewDiePie, to take these things into account. They have to remember how many people they are reaching. They have to remember what age those people are. Jokes are generally rooted in truth, but if you’re using a dark truth as your foundation, you have to be prepared for the consequences. In the case of PewDiePie, Disney and YouTube have pulled their support, and that’s not an unreasonable reaction.