YouTube’s Accidental Aryan

Felix Kjellberg aka Pewdiepie just wanted to entertain people and play games on YouTube. But through a series of unfortunate gaffes, he’s become an icon to the alt-right and an easy target for the mainstream media.

There are few people in entertainment that have the kind of fame that Felix Kjellberg aka PewDiePie has achieved. He’s practically the face of YouTube. I say ‘practically’ because the platform has a love/hate relationship with the star that could currently be labeled as ‘complicated’. Kjellberg is most assuredly the most recognizable and relevant star on YouTube, however his current incarnation doesn’t fit in well with the advertiser friendly algorithm the platform is currently desperate to calcify.

For those who have followed Kjellberg’s career as PewDiePie, it’s evident why he became successful. There’s a wide-eyed earnestness to his early videos. He was the kind of funny, charming everyman that gamers flocked to back when the platform had little focus on video games and the concept of ‘Live Plays’ was in it’s infancy. Over the years he’s gone through the same kind of evolution that many artists face; the backlash of achieving unparalleled success, having his brand monetized, flirtations with turning his one-man channel corporate and scandals that have made him an easy target in the mainstream media.

The two largest controversies that still plague Felix involve a highly inappropriate joke that went too far (paying Fiverr freelancers to flash a sign that reads ‘Death to All Jews’) and using the N-Word in a moment of frustration while live streaming. There are those in the media who were quick to paint Kjellberg as a closeted racist, and to be fair he has made it extremely easy for journalists to paint him with that broad brush.

For the most part Felix keeps his content light. Reaction videos, meme reviews and commentaries on whatever drama YouTube or Social Media has produced that week. There are times when he gets serious; like the many opportunities he’s taken to raise money for charities totaling in the millions of dollars. Based on his actions, Kjellberg has clearly done more good than bad for the world around him. So why do so many bad people see him as a kindred spirit?

An answer to that question can be found in some of his other less-comedic fare; He occasionally dabbles into book reviews. Everything from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho to Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man. He’s also devoted time to professing a great deal of admiration for prolific Japanese author Yukio Mishima.

Mishima was a poet, novelist, playwright and filmmaker. Kjellberg’s admiration of this author could easily be seen as innocuous. More controversial elements of Mishima’s past could easily be a target for the mainstream media. But it was, in fact, the alt-right website The Daily Stormer that posted an article and link to the video pointing out Mishima’s violent and nationalist past.

This is the kind of onion that gets peeled apart when someone of Kjellberg’s influence shares his opinions. On the surface, it could be nothing more than an enthusiastic reader and Japanese cultural admirer discovering a new author. But to those who look to lionize or vilify him, there are layers they can discover to put together their own specific portrait that speaks to their predetermined perceptions of who Kjellberg is and what he represents. The truth becomes an inconvenient obstacle.

Whenever Kjellberg has found himself in a jam, there are those who are quick to come to his defense. After his ‘Death to All Jews’ joke landed with an internet shattering THUD, those who knew him best jumped to his defense with videos and social media posts mirroring Kjellberg’s own claims of ‘I’m not a racist, it was just a joke’. A majority of fans echoed that sentiment.

As someone who has been actively subscribed to PewDiePie’s channel for several years, I never really thought of Felix as a racist. The truth is we only see what content creators allow us to see; brief glimpses into their psyche hastily edited together for a video platform that rewards quantity over quality. Making assumptions of a person’s complete identity based on fragments of their life provided in online content is impossible. However, YouTube and creators like Kjellberg are unique because of the vast amounts of time fans have spent consuming their content.

Unlike traditional entertainment paradigms, YouTube has erased a significant portion of the roadblocks that separate fans and ‘artists’. Popular YouTube channels pride themselves on interacting with fans and having the kind of relationship that is generally avoided or unavailable to the traditional entertainment industry. The amount of time someone spends smashing the like button on creator videos is based on liking the creator as much as the content. You don’t end up the most subscribed channel on YouTube without being generally likable.

So how exactly did a charismatic content creator from Sweden become an unlikely hero of the alt-right and a target for mainstream media?

  1. The Bro Army

Pewdiepie’s channel sprung up from the virulent soil of the online video game culture which is perceived by many to be a male-leaning entertainment medium. Kjellberg referred to his fans as ‘bros’ ending early videos by offering a ‘bro-fist’ to his fans. It almost seemed ironic as Kjellberg’s on-screen persona was far from the traditional perception of the male gamer. His content wasn’t testosterone-fueled, aggressive videos featuring AAA games. He was a charismatic, emotionally exaggerated clown who became known for his extreme reactions to playing scary games. Half the fun of watching Felix in the early days was knowing that at any moment, a game could completely unravel him with hilarious results.

Yet, the overall perception from the media is that Kjellberg is just another ‘Bro’ is a cesspool of toxic masculinity. That perception makes him an easy target for the media who already views him as a privileged white male. It’s the same reason that other privileged white males gravitate towards him. Kjellberg’s fan base is broad and global, but things like the ‘Bro-Fist’ and the ‘Bro Army’ give an male-centric impression. A perception that Felix enjoys having fun with. He has distanced himself from the 'Bros' verbiage and 'Bro Fist' in recent years, but the label continues to be associated with him by the media and those less familiar with his content.

2. Respecting ‘Wamen’

After years of watching the PewDiePie channel, it’s hard to dismiss rationally levied criticisms that Kjellberg comes across as slightly derogatory to women. Whether intentional or not, he’s often seen lobbing harsh criticism towards other female YouTube creators at a much higher rate than male creators. His reaction videos to episodes of Doctor Phil are much more likely to feature troubled teenage girls (as are the episodes themselves). He routinely uses the phrase ‘Respect Wamen’ which is a meme used to identify content that tries to be portrayed as feminist friendly but has the opposite impact.

To Kjellberg, it appears to be ‘part of the joke’, but it’s a joke a lot of people don’t find all that funny. His views towards women seem to be rooted in the pubescent phase of male adolesence. The person he portrays in his content has the kind of perpetual man-child persona you’d find in any sitcom. There’s also his strange, almost puritanical disdain for ‘Twitch Thots’, which are girls who live stream on the popular Twitch platform often wearing revealing clothing to keep male gamers watching and donating to their channel. ‘Thot’ is an acronym for ‘That ho over there’. Calling someone a ‘Thot’ on Twitch conveys an accusation that the person isn’t a true gamer but simply using their sexuality to make a quick buck.

Whenever Kjellberg discusses ‘Twitch Thots’, his disdain becomes readily apparent. This always struck me as odd since Kjellberg built his channel streaming games. Does he resent them for using their feminity to build a channel and get views? Does he not consider them to be ‘real gamers’ (something that actually matters in the online video game culture)? Is he disappointed that these women are manipulating the male fanbase and degrading the integrity of the platform? I could make an educated guess, but even as someone who watches his content daily, I really couldn’t say.

Earlier i mentioned ‘an almost puritanical disdain’ for these gameplay streamers, because whenever the topic is brought up, he becomes agitated and judgemental. As if these women are doing something wrong and deserve to be derided and we should be expected to agree.

Kjellberg’s consistent, adolescent tone on women is another reason he makes himself an easy target for criticism from the media and celebration from male fans and gamers who see women as second class citizens. I’m not sure if he realizes that some of his content comes across this way, but there’s a certain level of discomfort that creeps in whenever he gets on the pulpit and casts judgement.

3. Criticizing the Politically Correct Culture while endorsing controversial conservatives

Kjellberg presents himself as a common-sense everyman. His political and ideological leanings are something he doesn’t actively discuss. Every so often viewers are given clues when he promotes certain schools of thought. He has passively endorsed controversial figures like Jordan Peterson and actively endorsed conservative pundit and Ben Shapiro.

From a strictly observational point of view, Kjellberg seems to subscribe to the ‘it’s not that bad’ school of thought. He sees the online Social Justice Warriors and highly triggered members of the online community as laughable and freely mocks those with more fringe points of view on the status quo. He also prescribes to a ‘nothing is off-limits’ school of comedy which sees him hitting on some topics that other creators would avoid. He has no problem joking about perceived stereotypes, nor will he avoid the opportunity to take a shot at someone’s appearance.

Kjellberg is no fan of the politically correct culture. This passive dismissiveness makes it easy for the media to paint him as the bastion of white privilege while the alt-right community sees him as a hero for sticking it to the easily agitated ANTIFA/PC/SJW crowd.

What some viewers might find the most frustrating, myself included, is Kjellberg’s strange lack of self-awareness. Someone with his level of intelligence should be able to understand how people could connect the dots between making jokes like ‘Death to the Jews’, saying the N-Word on a live stream and accidentally promoting the channel of a white supremacist could be connected in the eyes of public perception. His apology videos are usually built around the idea that he’s ‘not that type of person’ before hammering the mainstream media for painting an inaccurate portrait. Kjellberg’s rebuttals to controversy (or ‘Oopsies’)always come across as honest but always default to the idea that it was just a joke or an error in judgement. When is Kjellberg joking? When is he secretly revealing the inner workings of his psyche with a controversial gaffe.

It’s impossible to truly know a person based on their online persona. Whatever profile you manage to assemble will always remain incomplete. But it’s natural for fans to build a rough identity based on their content. Especially when that content is someone’s upper torso talking to the camera for 10 minutes a day. There’s very little room for interpretation when someone is pretty much speaking their mind directly to their audience. What is intended as joke and what isn’t can become blurry. This is why the media can so easily use his mistakes to vilify him while the alt-right can herald him as a hero to their cause. Because like any popular entertainer, fans project a portion of themselves onto the personality. They want to believe the person they enjoy (or even idolize) is someone that shares the same values and believes in the same things.

What the media and fans need to remember is that we can’t allow these projections to become perceptions. Just because the alt-right has gravitated towards Kjellberg doesn’t make him a supporter of their cause. At best, Kjellberg feels like an accidental Aryan icon. Someone who has amassed a reputation in the media as being anti-semitic and racist mostly due to what he hasn’t shared with his audience versus what he has.

When he apologized for using the N-Word, he issued a quick 95 second response using the “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” line which always comes across as slightly disingenuous. The word ‘if’ makes the apology feel forced since it immediately implies that the person making the statement is conceding that only some people would be offended by the behavior. There’s no sense of ownership in the phrase “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” It renders the user passive in the scenario. Kjellberg’s apology came across as obligatory. Like a kid who had been caught shoplifting and was forced to apologize to the store manager.

Like the vast majority of his content, the apology was a quick, highly edited video giving viewers brief glimpses into the kind of person he actually is. He takes the time to apologize, but it’s done with the least amount of effort possible. Instead of making positive strides forward, the entire episode has become a oft-referenced joke from fans and Kjellberg himself making it seem as though he’s laughed the entire episode off. It can be difficult to believe that someone feels shame when they make light of shameful behavior.

Even after all the controversy, I still continue to subscribe to PewDiePie. I enjoy his videos and the majority of the content he produces. I do occasionally struggle with the perpetual man-child he portrays and the idea that the most popular influencer on YouTube is still someone who struggles with his responsibility towards the younger viewers who lack the ability to discern context from his content. The vast amount of support and love he gets from the alt-right is equally troubling, but beyond his control. No matter how many times he declares he wants no associations with the nationalists who hail him as a hero to their cause, there will be those who continue to read between the resolution lines, even if there’s nothing there.

Whether or not Kjellberg is any of the things his critics accuse him of remains a circumstantial mystery. Like anyone he has his positive traits and personal flaws. He’s stumbled through very public lapses of judgement and has ideological allegiances that some find troubling. But the idea that Kjellberg and the content he produces as PewDiePie is some kind of gateway to a nationalist, alt-right ideology is, at best, a reach. More likely, Kjellberg’s dark sense of humor and flippant attitude towards dissenting voices and critics could normalise bad behavior to a generation of fans too young to get the joke.

screenwriter, novelist, columnist. His new book “In the Absence of Good Men” is now available.