Writer’s note: This article contains disturbing material in regards to racism, bestiality and pedophilia.
For years, YouTube has endured a long and precarious relationship with one of its most popular and influential creators: 32-year-old Shane Dawson, a comedy and lifestyle vlogger who’s also known for his documentary-length videos revolving around other creators and conspiracies.
He created YouTube videos since its infancy, having garnered over 20 million subscribers, billions of views and millions of dollars in ad revenue. Dawson has also collaborated with other well-liked YouTubers in several of his videos, and in 2019 he released a makeup collection with beauty YouTuber Jeffree Star, based on their popular docuseries. The launch was wildly successful, selling out 1 million palettes in just over 30 minutes.
At some points, Dawson has even been called the “King of YouTube” because of his impact and broad relevance.
But this lucrative relationship with the internet may soon come to an end, as fellow YouTuber Tati Westbrook recently accused Dawson of behind-the-scenes shenanigans such as blackmail and deceit. In a video titled “Breaking My Silence,” Westbrook testified that he and Star gaslighted her into posing false sexual assault allegations against beauty guru James Charles in May 2019.
Others have both supported her story and called attention to past behavior on Dawson’s YouTube channel, including blackface, racism (Star faced similar accusations) and inappropriate actions towards pets and underage children.
Most heavily re-scrutinized were some of the videos Dawson posted in the mid-to-late 2000s, which featured him mocking Black people and using racial and transphobic slurs.
In “Check Me Out,” a song meant to parody Black American rapper Nicki Minaj, Dawson insinuates that Minaj is a transgender woman and uses the t-slur to describe her appearance in a negative light.
Other now-deleted videos continued to present Black people as the butt of the joke: Dawson frequently denigrated them as stupid, selfish or lazy and would apply the same stereotypical humor to Asians, Latinos and other ethnic groups.
He even went so far as to create the caricature-like personas of a “ghetto girl” named Shanaynay and a “gangster” called S-Deezy. Dawson would use these characters as mouthpieces for his bizarre, offensive satire, usually while donning blackface and saying the n-word with reckless abandon.
Twitter user @misshemlock also compiled a massive thread of instances where Dawson displayed predatory behavior towards preteens and minors.
In one clip, he admits to googling child pornography; in another, he’s shown asking a young fan to twerk and strip on camera. A third video reveals him talking about sex to his then-12-year-old cousin. Other addendums marshal instances where Dawson is either explicitly seen sexually assaulting his pets or discusses having intercourse with them.
“If he was confident enough to do these things online for his amusement,” Twitter user @misshemlock questioned below the deeply disturbing thread, “what do you think he said to kids behind closed doors to be ‘funny’?”
Since then, a mass unfollowing campaign has ensued against Dawson, leading the YouTuber to hemorrhage followers and product deals alike. YouTube itself also indefinitely suspended monetization on all three of Dawson’s channels, according to USA Today.
Now amid what many social media users are calling a “Karmageddon,” the online world is watching and wondering: Can Shane Dawson come back from his latest controversy?
Does he even deserve a second chance?
Although the consequences of his actions appear severe, this isn’t the first time Dawson has come under fire for insensitivity. It’s just the first time he’s faced real repercussions.
In 2015, he posted a video apologizing for the previously mentioned blackface. Four years later, he gained criticism for talking about molesting his pet cat, according to Insider. And on June 26, shortly before Westbrook released her video “Breaking My Silence,” Dawson attempted to take accountability for his actions yet again, stating that he had been a terrible person in the past and was now “willing to lose it all.”
He also claimed that most of his statements were supposed to be humorous, but that he regretted his choices.
“I was at least 20 when I started YouTube,” Dawson said. “I decided to play stereotypes of Black people or Asian people or Mexicans, or pretty much every race. I made that decision. I said, ‘Oh, this is funny,’ and I put it on the internet…now years later, I look back at that…when I say I hate that person, I mean it in the most intense way possible. I hate that person so f***ing much.”
But soon after he posted the apology, another clip resurfaced on Twitter that depicted Dawson sexually gratifying himself to a poster of Disney actor Willow Smith, who at the time was only 11. The video was quick to gain traction due to its sexual nature. Smith’s brother and mother were swift to condemn Dawson on social media.
To Shane Dawson … I’m done with the excuses.
— Jada Pinkett Smith (@jadapsmith) June 27, 2020
Jada Pinkett Smith stated on Twitter that she was “done with [Shane Dawson’s] excuses.” Her son, Jaden Smith, also spoke out.
“SHANE DAWSON I AM DISGUSTED BY YOU,” The 22-year-old rapper tweeted and later deleted. “YOU SEXUALIZING AN 11-YEAR-OLD GIRL WHO HAPPENS TO BE MY SISTER!!!!!! IS THE FURTHEST THING FROM FUNNY AND NOT OKAY IN THE SLIGHTEST BIT.”
Let’s get this straight: Shane Dawson is not the first YouTuber to have demonstrated bad behavior, and he certainly won’t be the last. The internet is no stranger to scandals, particularly those regarding social issues.
However, there’s a difference between having an edgy sense of humor (à la “South Park”) and using your platform to deliberately perpetuate harmful stereotypes against people of color, which is what Shane Dawson did, many, many times.
And when you take into account his sexualization of minors and animals, it’s baffling that the majority of the internet let him spread the message to his audience — his very young, impressionable audience — that this kind of callousness should ever be normalized.
For years, Shane Dawson has tried to cultivate a nice-guy persona, one that would make his name synonymous with kindness and sympathy. He’s always portrayed himself as an empathetic, understanding man who would never do anything to hurt anyone. These recent revelations have devastated those who were fans of the mega personality, or worse, saw him as the pinnacle of online morality.
“I feel so betrayed by you,” one fan tweeted out to Dawson. “I watched the raw videos of the things you’ve done, and I can’t believe you [glossed] over it. Show your viewers your mistakes. I’m sorry I didn’t look into your controversies.”
Another user explained one reason why some have come to Dawson’s defense: “His content was directed at a younger audience who never had the opportunity to learn why his actions were wrong. [They were] desensitized by seeing such negative things at a young age. Most are unable to understand that this is bad because they [became] used to it.”
For a large portion of his viewers, their perception of the YouTuber and his content has understandably gone sour. But Dawson will always have his stans and fans and hardcore defenders; his fanbase is too enormous for his influence to fade entirely.
Assuming other YouTubers’ controversies are anything to go by, then Dawson will throw up another apology video, promise to change and grow and get back on the daily YouTube grind.
In the end, it’ll be up to the individual viewer whether or not they want to continue supporting him. But the tide is turning in a way it never has before and the apparent hierarchy of social media is crumbling.
“For the longest time, Jeffree and Shane have been untouchable,” Will Larkins, a 15-year-old drama commentator at @OhMyGodExposeU, said on Twitter. “They’ve gotten away with everything. I think people are finally fed up and realizing that we can’t just keep giving people like this a platform.”
At a time when the world is grappling with issues of race and culture, viewers are far less forgiving of Dawson’s behavior than they were 10 years ago. Nowadays, mass criticism and accountability spare no one — not even those who once seemed larger than life.