Welcome to the Shane Dawson purgatory, where a 30-year-old YouTube star constantly relives the crudest and most offensive stunts he pulled in his quest to become famous, even as he attempts to grow up and reinvent himself. In an era when old tweets and archived provocations have become weapons that can simultaneously hold the powerful accountable and harass the powerless, Dawson’s reckoning offers a cautionary tale: In the world of online fame, an apology doesn’t just happen once.
Dawson has lived in this purgatory for a some time now. The “last year’s thing” he refers to in his Twitter apology? That’s about a moment in early 2018 when another one of his old podcast comments (“having sex with children, touching children or anything of that nature is terrible and you should not do it but ... here’s my thing. People have foot fetishes people have fetishes of everything,” and so on) went viral and Dawson had to make a video clarifying that he is not a pedophile.
With 21 million subscribers, Dawson is one of YouTube’s biggest stars. If you’ve never heard of him, turn to the nearest person you know who watches any YouTube. They’ll almost certainly know who Dawson is and have a strong opinion about what he does.
Dawson’s visibility has given him considerable power, not just with people who watch YouTube videos but with those who manage it. Recently, after Dawson fired off a bunch of tweets raising issues with the platform, YouTube’s chief executive publicly reached out and offered to meet with him.
In the past year, Dawson has stopped posting on the sort of grueling, frequent schedule that defines the careers of many YouTubers and re-fashioned himself as YouTube culture’s Ken Burns, releasing documentary-style series once every few months. One series on conspiracy theories, filmed in the style of a particularly energetic History Channel special, amplified the false rumor that Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants re-use uneaten pizza slices, prompting a discussion about the role creators like Dawson play in the spread of misinformation on YouTube.
Dawson’s current YouTube brand is honest, self-deprecating and empathetic. He’s good at getting his peers to open up. Dawson’s documentaries on other YouTubers often feature sit-down moments in which Dawson and his subject talk about difficult issues and hug it out. But this has not always been Dawson’s brand.
Let’s turn back to Dawson’s apology for the cat thing:
Dawson’s brand, and early success, was as a shock comedian. He became famous quickly after joining YouTube in 2008, when he was 19. His early videos were a mix of sketch comedy and offensive humor. He sometimes wore blackface in his videos. Even in videos in which he wasn’t literally in blackface, it wasn’t uncommon for him to reference or mimic black stereotypes in his characters and writing. In 2012, on the stage of VidCon, the biggest annual conference for online content creators and their fans, Dawson roped two kids into performing a skit about “ghetto pranks.”
Like many YouTubers, Dawson has a young fan base. His early humor, however, was not for the kids.
What exactly did he apologize for?
Dawson has a podcast, which he has used in the past to tell offensive, borderline illegal stories for shock value. Two of those stories have become controversies in the past year or so, and both times, Dawson has said he made them up to get a reaction. In the past 24 hours, he has been asked to address two separate statements from two podcast episodes.
One statement was about pedophilia, and this was the second time he has apologized for it.
In a segment on a 2014 episode, Dawson referred to a young child as “sexy,” claimed he looked for child pornography online and also uttered a sentence that began with the words, “Here’s my justification for pedophilia.” Last year, confronted with his words, Dawson said he made up those statements for shock value.
“I cannot believe that I am having to make this video,” Dawson’s 2018 apology video begins. “I am not a ... pedophile," he continues, using an obscenity for emphasis. Dawson apologized for "playing this character, this guy, who’s like crazy and will say anything and tries to make people laugh by shocking them. "
Then, there’s the cat thing. That controversy also stemmed from his podcast, on which Dawson claimed he had his “first sexual experience” with his pet cat. (He actually went into much more graphic detail, but that’s basically all you need to know.)
Dawson tweeted on Sunday that the cat story was “fake,” and that it was “based on a dumb awful sketch idea I had years ago that I never made (THANK GOD)," and that the decision to tell the story in a podcast anyway was “DISGUSTING and VERY VERY DUMB.”
As the cat story circulated, people brought up Dawson’s pedophilia remarks. And so he apologized for all of it.
Please tell me there’s some reason you just made me read 900 words about a YouTuber and a cat?????
The past few years in YouTube culture have brought a reckoning for the platform’s biggest creators, who have had to contend with their own power and influence in an industry that didn’t really exist 10 years ago.
Elsewhere in the media world, when old online material resurfaces, some celebrities stick to their guns and claim that their haters are “bullying” them. (That claim seems to ignore the vast power differential between, say, Kevin Hart and a group of LGBT Twitter users who believed the comedian’s homophobic jokes needed to be addressed if he was going to host the Oscars.) Tucker Carlson attempted a similar defense when Media Matters found old tapes of him on a shock-jock radio program making misogynistic, racist and homophobic remarks. The Fox News host claimed those tapes were proof he was a victim of “the great American outrage machine.”
In other cases, the resurfaced social media archives have been relics of someone’s early teenage years; those people generally get some leniency, though not always.
With YouTube stars, it’s a little different. They often amass a vast amount of influence very quickly, and they don’t always know what to do with it. When Dawson became famous, there was no playbook for how to be a YouTube celebrity. He is writing it, in real time, in front of us. Through his 20s, Dawson’s growth as a personality has mirrored that of his growth as a person. And yet, he was an adult, and a powerful one, when he made many of the remarks that have caused him to apologize over the years. By the time he told the cat story, Dawson already had millions of young fans. Those fans gave him a responsibility, whether he was ready for it or not.