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Shane Dawson’s 2018 documentary profiles of Jeffree Star and Jake Paul have fascinated me for more than a year now. Documentaries on YouTube by a famous YouTuber about other famous YouTubers? There’s got to be something interesting to say about that.
Shane Dawson started posting on YouTube in 2008 and is considered to be one of the first personalities to parlay YouTubing into a successful career. Star goes back even earlier, having started his career on MySpace. Since then he has embarked on a short-lived music career, has a YouTube channel, and today runs a successful cosmetics company. Jake Paul meanwhile is a former Disney Channel star who, along with his brother Logan, has become notorious for dangerous pranks on YouTube. He also formed a short-lived group of young social media influencers known as Team 10, which is perhaps most famous for producing the hated song ‘It’s Everyday Bro’.
What unites these three figures, beyond ill-advised music careers and immense wealth, is their racism. Dawson’s latest video, posted in June, was a disingenuous attempt at holding himself accountable for his past in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests across the world. Star also has a long history of racism, while Paul has been accused of racist behaviour towards former Team 10 members, the Martinez twins.
The abusive behaviour of overpaid social media stars has been chronicled elsewhere. Dawson’s repulsive documentaries are fascinating in their own right. While researching for this piece, my thoughts became so knotty and disparate that I decided to give up and just write some general impressions. Though they are numbered, these thoughts can be read in any order and have been titled with things I actually said out loud while watching Dawson’s videos.
1. Why am I doing this to myself?
Dawson initially frames himself in these documentary series as a brave journalist profiling dangerous individuals, as though he’s Ross Kemp going undercover with the bling ring. Dawson amplifies the sense of danger in his videos through editing certain sections like a horror film with Star and Paul as monster-figures. When Star mentions that he has had work done on his teeth, Dawson splices in a graphic clip of dental surgery like he’s editing the opening credits to Se7en. On the journalistic side of things, Dawson emphasises to us how “real” everything is with super-serious disclaimers about these videos being unscripted. In reality though, Dawson’s role is that of a PR doctor, burnishing the images of these wealthy and well-known individuals. Parallels can be drawn with the rise in palatable fascist profiles as a genre among news outlets.
This PR hackery is most evident when Dawson talks to Star about the drawbacks of his immense wealth. In one particularly galling moment, Star is crying while explaining that friends and family only use him for his money. Dawson gushes about how “proud” he is of Star. The moment rings hollow because, as Dawson has already illustrated, Star isn’t just a bit better off than the rest of us. He’s a full-on capitalist, with all the parasitic implications such a title carries. This part of the series takes place in the offices of one of the warehouses that Star owns, and just moments before this, Star divulges his landlord status. Yet Dawson clearly wants us as viewers to see Star on our level, as a vulnerable human being, rather than as an obscenely rich racist.
Dawson frames the Mind of Jake Paul series as a journey to find out whether Jake Paul is a sociopath. Host-led documentaries, whether on TV or online, tend to use this quest-like framework for viewer engagement. Despite his apparent buffoonery, Dawson clearly possesses some media savvy to have got where he is today, and so he would be aware of how ethically dubious it is to play Armchair Psychologist. That’s why the second episode of the Jake Paul series has Dawson sit down with licensed therapist and fellow YouTuber Kati Morton. It gives him a veneer of credibility. Interestingly, the video description says ‘IMPORTANT NOTE: Once again I’m 100% NOT trying to call any celeb or youtuber a “sociopath”’. As with the Morton interview itself, this reads as insincere ass-covering.
3. Kill me
Writing about YouTubers is difficult partly because of the labyrinthine nature of YouTube drama. Typically, this may involve viewers interpreting something one YouTuber says (either in a video or on social media) as a sly dig at another YouTuber. This then leads to Reaction videos and multiple players may get involved. One could easily spend hours watching videos, reading online articles, and trawling through social media feeds to get an idea of what has happened and the context. There’s even a YouTuber News channel, which itself often stokes the flames of this asinine drama. This is both a drain on the individual’s time and attention, and it renders us into passivity so that Dawson, Star, and Paul can frolic on our screens, wallowing in wealth and status.
4. Shut the fuck up
One of the curious ways in which Dawson’s videos turn Star and Paul into sympathetic figures is down to Dawson’s grating screen presence.
For instance, while Star is giving him a house tour, Dawson’s cartoonish persona clashes with the more muted Star. In this video, Dawson goes on about Star’s wealth, which is admittedly, grotesque. Yet Dawson does this by constantly referring to himself as poor, which, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a bit rich coming from someone who was apparently already worth $4 million in 2018.
With Paul, Dawson implicitly contrasts his own persona with Paul’s. This establishes how dangerous Paul is, while also demonstrating how nice and soft Dawson is. Dawson overstates Paul’s malevolence through frantic editing of Team 10 videos, pouring creepy music all over them. In turn, he unconvincingly portrays himself as a softer, more likeable figure, even going so far as to say “I am too nice”. This doesn’t work because Dawson can only ever express something through over-statement, even when he’s trying to be understated. He’s so anxious for the viewer to know how empathetic he is, that Dawson unwittingly invites doubt into our minds.
5. I hate you so fucking much
In his Jake Paul series, Dawson gestures at a larger goal of blowing the lid on the psychology of YouTubers. This comes off the back of stories that reveal the lengths of abuse YouTubers will go to for fame. One particular example would be the 2017 revelations surrounding Michael and Heather Martin, who lost custody of their children after using them for abusive prank videos. However, as a YouTuber himself, one who has been in the game since 2008 with a certifiable track-record of racism and abuse, Dawson condemns his project to an ouroboric fate by being the driving force.
6. Fuck Off
So, what are we left with through Dawson’s media presence? In the words of Hilary Rodham Clinton (god, I can’t believe I’m quoting one of her tweets): “delete your account”.