If you’re reading this article, you’ve surely heard that Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, a YouTube megastar who currently has more than 53 million subscribers on his channel, has been dropped from his deal with Maker Studios, the Disney-owned network with which he was previously partnered. Maker’s decision to drop Kjellberg was informed by a spate of videos, uncovered by the Wall Street Journal, in which the Swedish gamer employs Nazi imagery and anti-Semitic remarks. For the execs at the Mouse House, doing business with an offensive personality goes against the family-friendly mission at its core. And so, since Kjellberg’s actions had been deemed inappropriate enough to clash with that image, he is now without a partner network.
That decision raises a few questions. Chief among them, had Disney execs ever watched a PewDiePie video before this point? Had they realized his channel is built on humor designed to be offensive to some? Do they know his boundary-breaking nature is a huge part of his appeal?
Given that Disney paid $675 million to acquire Maker, one would have to figure its execs were at least familiar with Kjellberg’s edgy exploits when they decided to pull the trigger on such a big deal. By cutting ties with the outspoken YouTuber, Disney has reminded me of one of the big fallacies that pops up all the time in online video discussions: Though Disney’s audience and PewDiePie’s may be around the same average age, they are starkly different, and that divide isn’t just coincidental; it’s the whole reason people like Kjellberg became so popular in the first place.
Shock and Awe
In 2001, I was 11, and my favorite website was Joe Cartoon, a repository of crude flash cartoons created by Joseph Shields. Joe Cartoon existed solely to push boundaries as far as they would go. In its videos, foul-mouthed gerbils, frogs, and humans met grisly fates, whether by getting pulsed in a microwave or chopped up in a blender. One of the site’s most infamous sketches, Donkey Bong, re-wrote the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” to describe life inside a donkey’s rectum. By any measure, Joe Cartoon produced some of the grossest, most vile, and least appropriate web content around.
And my friends and I loved it. Joe Cartoon was a complete departure from the TV shows peddled to our age group, and I clicked around the site (while my parents weren’t around, of course) because I was curious to see how many ways Shields could break the rules. Before the Internet, we would have never discovered anything quite like that, but an emerging medium allowed us to find something so wildly different. It was exciting and refreshing, regardless of its artistic merit. Amazingly, it is also still updated sporadically.
Viewer Discretion Is Advised
The tweens of 2001 poked around on sites like Joe Cartoon, but 15 years later, the same age group is at home on YouTube. The abundance of Generation Z viewers on the Internet is no secret, with some companies, like AwesomenessTV, building entire networks around their ability to reach that cohort. Some Gen Z viewers prefer offerings that are in line with the shows available on, say, the Disney Channel, but others are looking for something a little more intense. They know there is edgier content available on the Internet, and they want to find it.
That’s where Kjellberg comes in. He has succeeded for a lot of reasons, such as his consistent posting schedule and his affinity for YouTube’s algorithm, but his ability to be different on a platform where being different is rewarded has played a huge role in his explosive popularity.
And what’s one of the easiest ways to be different? Be vulgar. Profanity is absent from TV shows aimed at young audiences, so what better way to shock and excite those viewers than by cursing, making explicit references to private body parts, and playing games that are certainly not appropriate for all ages? In his most popular video, a 2013 montage that has received more than 76 million things, Kjellberg does all three of those things.
Where Is The Line?
It shouldn’t be a surprising to say, “Kjellberg succeeds in part because his videos shock and excite young viewers,” since that was true in 2013 and is still true today. What’s surprising is that major brands have tried to pretend that’s not the case. Disney bought Maker Studios because it wanted a piece of the young, digital-native audience, even if many of those viewers went online because they wanted something different and edgier than the content they had previously been fed. Kjellberg spent almost three years as the most prominent partner of the network owned by Disney, and it was only once questions of intolerance came up that Disney decided the fit wasn’t right.
My goal is not to stand squarely in the “free PewDiePie” camp, since there is a difference between blending or microwaving cartooned humans to death, cursing through M-rated games, and cracking insensitive jokes about a specific ethnic group (though for what it’s worth, as a Jew, I was not offended). As Kjellberg said in a recent video, he is a “rookie comedian” who sometimes goes too far. It is possible, however, to both accuse Kjellberg of crossing a line while also accepting his content is designed to cross lines.
Pushing the boundaries of taste isn’t just a PewDiePie thing; it can be found all over YouTube. Another one of Maker’s most notable partner channels is Epic Rap Battles of History, which pits famous figures against one another in witty (and often profane) verbal wars. How did ERB first become “YouTube famous”? With an episode that is 50% Nazi jokes. As much as Nice Peter and EpicLloyd’s clever lyrics are the force that drives ERB, the show’s shock value cannot be overlooked. It’s a big part of what has made ERB into such a big hit, but Disney hasn’t decided that Peter and Lloyd have crossed a line, nor should it.
The Profane Paradigm
When the YouTubes and Maker Studios of the world give ad sales presentations, they stress that brands need to work with digital-native creators in order to most effectively reach Generation Z viewers. That audience watches more online video and less TV, these presenters say, and advertisers would be wise to take note.
What you won’t hear in those presentations, however, is an admission that many of those hard-to-reach consumers have moved to the Internet so they can find more raw content that hasn’t been scrubbed and made age-appropriate in the same way as the stuff they find on TV. The revenue PewDiePie generates is highlighted, while his tendency to be purposefully brand-unfriendly (with swearing and vulgarity) as he makes that money is diminished.
If Disney wants, it can reshape the Maker network to only include creators whose values align with its own, but in doing so, it would lose its connection to the spirit of YouTube. The democratization of content allows fresh, new voices to gain a platform they would otherwise lack, but it also lets viewers choose to champion offensive videos, if that’s what they want to see.
Kjellberg is going to keep making videos, and some of them are going to be offensive, and people should never be surprised by this again. If you don’t dig his style, you’re under no obligation to watch him (unless, like me, you’re paid to write about his videos), but you should at least accept that he and his fellows are not automatically age-appropriate just because their fans happen to be of a certain age. When content is designed to push boundaries, it is sometimes going to go too far. Kjellberg isn’t the first creator to be at odds with the values of his partner network and the YouTube platform itself, and he won’t be the last.