On celebrity and consequence.
This is acclaimed actor Richard Gere, star of such movies as An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman, and The Mothman Prophecies.
I’d like you to imagine something for me. Imagine if one day, while being interviewed, the Golden Globe winning performer suddenly started repeating neo nazi talking points, ranting about societal “purity” and how immigrants need to come from “compatible” places.
Imagine if Richard Gere supported noted racist Steve King, specifically defending the phrase “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
Imagine if Richard Gere appeared on a livestream where he seemed to have a complete mental disconnect from reality, claiming discrimination can’t happen in America while simultaneously arguing that white people are being “displaced” from the country they built and wealthy black people commit more crimes than poor white people.
At this point I don’t want you to argue over what has been said. Just imagine Richard Gere going on this whirlwind tour of racially provocative statements.
What do you think would happen after he was done?
Do you think the press would ignore it, think it unimportant because he’s “just an actor” and pass it over for other stories?
YouTuber JonTron behaved the way our hypothetical Richard Gere did, and his frankly stunning outbursts were reported on by a number of outlets, primarily Gizmodo, which has been surprisingly pilloried for its decision to report on the things a notable person said and did. Totalbiscuit accused the publication of stirring drama and providing a “moral sermon” in its report. Boogie2988 declared JonTron a target of vindictive self-styled good guys who did bad things.
Neither men defended Jon’s views (how the fuck could any reasonable person try?), but they did express a shared sentimentality that Jon was seized upon by a hypocritical press with a sociopolitical axe to grind.
JonTron’s controversy comes off the back of PewDiePie’s departure from Maker Studios following a prank in which he had two Indian men hold up a sign reading “Death to all Jews.” This was reported on by the Wall Street Journal, prompting PewDiePie to fire back at what he considered a hit piece singling him out and painting him in an unfair light.
In an “apology” video, PewDiePie spent most of his time defending the joke, claiming it was “taken out of context” and that outlets like the Wall Street Journal are out to get him. He claimed reports on his “just jokes brah” did more harm than good because it didn’t focus on actual problems and real racism.
“Personally, I think they are the ones normalizing hatred because there is actual hatred out there,” Mr. DiePie suggested. “Instead of celebrating my show getting canceled, why don’t we focus on that instead? Why don’t we focus on some real issues?”
Again, I’d like to return us briefly to my thought experiment. Imagine Richard Gere publishing a YouTube video in which he had men hold a sign up reading “Death to all Jews” and laughing because the men holding the sign didn’t understand the English language. Imagine the reaction to that.
For one thing, it would be more than a few online articles talking about the situation. CNN, FOX News, the goddamn BBC would be all over that story like flies on shit. Richard Gere is a big deal, a hugely well known actor, and the very idea of a man that influential doing anything so incomprehensibly stupid would turn quite a few heads.
This is to say nothing of what would happen if he pulled what JonTron pulled. Let’s be perfectly honest – Richard Gere’s career would be over. You can survive an unsubstantiated rumor about slinging a gerbil up yourself, but parroting racist views on livestreams?
And yes, some of the outlets covering Gere’s behavior would be hypocrites to criticize him for it. But they’d do it. Oh how they’d do it in droves. And let’s be honest, not a one of us would be surprised about it. In fact, we’d all be talking about that time Richard Gere went fucking postal on the Internet.
What Fantasy Racist Richard Gere did makes Michael Richards’ notorious outburst seem almost considered, and I think we can all agree the former Seinfeld star won’t be getting a major role in House of Cards anytime soon.
Keep all that in mind, and now remember that JonTron and PewDiePie are more relevant to a younger generation of people than Richard Gere will ever be.
PewDiePie has over 54 million subscribers. More kids recognize him than Jennifer Lawrence. Somehow he is surprised the media would cover him doing something shocking and offensive. JonTron has a less titanic three million subscribers, but that’s still an incredible amount of people watching and he’s still more important to young audiences than many “mainstream” media sources now.
These men are bigger than Richard Gere. In many ways they’re hotter than Hollywood’s hottest. The idea they wouldn’t start making headlines when they say and do outrageous things is beyond naive and perhaps speaks to how utterly unprepared for fame they are.
For me, there’s no point debating what JonTron said. His defenders can claim he was “taken out of context” but there’s no real context that justifies some of the shit I’d heard with my own two ears. They weren’t jokes, they were beliefs. And yes, he absolutely has a right to those beliefs, just as much as anybody else has a right to find those beliefs vile and disconcerting
They’re the views that would tank the career of someone who isn’t lucky enough to have their foundation on YouTube, where the professional consequences rarely amount to more than a momentary dip in subscribers.
JonTron and PewDiePie, while lamenting the hit jobs being performed on them by an evil Old World Media that hates those Young n’ Crazy Rebels, fail to realize quite how fucking lucky they are to live in a world where what they did amounted to a bit of a bashing in some blogs before the world moved on.
The fortune inherent in that situation is nothing short of miraculous, given the entertainment careers that have imploded across the decades before YouTube found a home for everybody.
Kramer, ya were born in the wrong decade, bud!
[Note: To emphasize, I am not saying that what PewDiePie did and what JonTron did are on the same level. I believe PDP’s video was intended to be humorous but a very, very bad idea. I think JonTron was just fucking gross. However, the naive reactions they both had are absolutely comparable]
Basically, YouTubers need to face the reality that with the fame and fortune they worked so hard for comes caveats. Once you start influencing millions of minds, of course people are going to notice when you do something that crosses a line. PewDiePie, JonTron, and those defending them seem taken aback, horrified even, that the likes of the Wall Street Journal would bother with them, that they’re being focused on instead of “real issues” without realizing they are the issue now.
They’re the next generation of celebrity, and guess what, celebrities get talked about.
Celebrities get talked about a lot.
“Sometimes people are gonna say things you don’t like,” explained Boogie in his video. “People are gonna have ideas and opinions that you don’t enjoy.”
This is true and it works both ways. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that YouTubers are relevant enough to make headlines and become international controversies. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that, no, you can’t share your racist beliefs and expect nobody to argue back.
The Internet has warped the idea of “free speech” to mean “speech without consequence” and that’s simply not what it is.
Absolutely, JonTron can share a Trumpian view on immigration and claim discrimination isn’t a problem, but other people have the exact same right to call him out on it. Given how insular YouTube communities can be, it’s easy to see why some might believe they’re free from the consequences of speech, but as their entertainment empires grow and more people become aware of them, they’re going to find those consequences are very real and they hit like a sack of bricks.
YouTube has seen more individuals than I can count skyrocket to fame without managers, without marketing departments, without agents, without people telling them when to stop or how what they say and do could impact the world as well as themselves. I do truly believe that some of them don’t understand how important they actually are, and that their surprise right now is genuine.
But this is the reality of the situation. You are celebrities now, and that doesn’t mean you get to say and do whatever you please. Just like an office worker can’t call their boss a shithead and expect to keep their job, so too can a JonTron not start spouting alt-reich rhetoric and expect Gizmodo not to write about it.
Just ask yourself from now on, “Would Richard Gere get away with it?”
If the answer is no, perhaps engage the brain before the words just come a-tumblin’ out.