Whether it's merely schtick or something more, it's nothing new
It's 2012, and PewDiePie's in-game character is behind the controls of a horrific contraption that's launching iron stakes at the chained woman across the screen. "Will you forget my turkey again?" he says, as the stakes explode against her chest. He interrupts himself, mid-pantomime. "No! Never. Fuck. Up. My. Sandwich!" This is Happy Wheels, a cartoonishly violent ragdoll physics game that helped put PewDiePie's channel on the map.
As first reported by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, PewDiePie, AKA Felix Kjellberg – the most successful YouTube personality in the world – was dropped by Disney subsidiary Maker Studios after he released videos duping semi-clueless contractors from the online task marketplace Fiverr into brandishing a sign that read "death to all Jews," and paid a guy to dress up like Jesus and expunge Hitler of his sins. These are just two of nine offensive incidents reported by the Journal. YouTube later announced that it was canceling the second season of Kjellberg's reality show "Scare PewDiePie", and would be removing his channel from its lucrative Google Preferred advertising program for "brand safe" content.
This is not the first time he's come under fire. Last August he featured a racist comparison between the dead gorilla folk hero Harambe and actress Leslie Jones, and earlier this year went through a list of other YouTubers and decided whether he'd "smash" them, "pass" them, or "sell them into slavery." All of which is well beyond alarming, but PewDiePie was always quick to brush off any criticism as media hysteria. His "clueless nice guy" defense was polished to a mirror shine.
The Happy Wheels video is from 2012, right as YouTube's Let's Play scene was forming. PewDiePie was 23-years old, and he sounded just like the kids you routinely encountered on Xbox Live. For the first time ever, the rowdy culture of the notorious 4chan image board was given a face and name.
It's supposed to be funny, but make-me-a-sandwich threats are the very first thing you learn in the "ironic" misogynist's handbook, right alongside the "I didn't mean it like that" apology. Anyone who's jumped into a multiplayer match online knows that video games have a problem – racist epithets, gay slurs, and threats of sexual violence are still far too common. At some point, the world threw up its hands, and came to the conclusion that you can't successfully police anonymous hate speech online. After all, it reasoned, these are just kids acting out while their parents are asleep. Eventually they'll grow out of it.
It might seem weird that PewDiePie is getting in trouble now considering that Happy Wheels clip lived in his archives for so long. A few years ago, I would've agreed. But frankly, in our current moment of youth-led fascism, I can't live with that excuse anymore. His jokes are a supposedly apolitical way to laugh about things that shouldn't be laughed at – but they're part of a slash-and-burn, zero-fucks culture that spills into – and ultimately encourages – bigotry.
Like PewDiePie, I'm someone who spent a lot of time in insular gamer bubbles growing up – I also became conversant in that lame, misogynistic humor during screaming Halo 2 deathmatches. But it was all played for laughs in my head. I was in on the joke. I didn't really mean it. The high was fun, but it never bled into how I felt or expressed myself in real life.
As I got older, I eventually realized how vile some of those communities could be, but I was still somewhat sympathetic towards the other young boys on the internet. I was confident that, like me, they'd eventually grow out of it and rejoin civilized society. But in 2017, after the targeted harassment campaigns that characterize the worst parts of the GamerGate movement, Breitbart's designated "black-on-black violence" tag, and a ridiculous (and debunked) right wing conspiracy theory about a Democrat-funded pedophila ring, no one can claim that the sarcastic prejudices of young boys on the internet are harmless anymore – if they ever were in the first place. As kids, they were introduced to jokey right-wing extremism as a communal in-joke – a meme writ large – but some of them are actually growing up to become earnest fascist trolls.
In May of last year, I interviewed Terrence "TerrenceM" Miller, a pro Hearthstone player who came in second at Dreamhack Austin. Miller is black, and the Twitch chat filled with racist jokes whenever he was on screen. "Hitler did nothing wrong," "don't fuck up my sandwich," harassing a black Hearthstone player – it all follows the same lineage of hate. I asked Miller if he thought the people venting spleen in the chat were genuine racists, or if they just got off on the anonymous shock-value. His response was cogent.
"I think it's somewhere in the middle," he said. "But thinking racism is funny is the same as being racist."
PewDiePie is sticking to his guns. In a response posted on YouTube today, he runs through the usual comedian's rebuttal for objectionable content. There's some acknowledgement that the jokes he made were in poor taste, but it's mostly an extended rant claiming that the "old media" is intentionally slandering him out of spite. "The reaction and the outrage has been nothing but insanity," he says. "It's fine to not agree with someone's sense of humor, but calling me a fascist, how is that helping anyone? ... A personal attack like this, to portray me as anti-semitic is doing no one a favor. You're targeting some Swedish guy that tries to be funny – most of the time it doesn't really go well – but he means well."
Conspiracy theories aside, there's a sense of entitlement and naiveté to PewDiePie's conclusion. He clearly believes that there's a meaningful difference between ironic and unironic hate speech, and that we should rely on the virtue of his character to know where his true politics lie. I understand why that conclusion would be appealing to someone like PewDiePie, but we live in a world where the toxic endpoint of fascist trolling is on full display. A 4chan-sourced cartoon frog is currently the international symbol of a new, young white supremacist movement. Last year, it officially entered the ADL's hate symbol database. Right now, it's routinely being used by noted Klansman David Duke on Twitter. PewDiePie went on record saying his channel wasn't a place for any "serious political commentary," but that only makes him more complicit. PewDiePie may not be anti-semitic, but some of his jokes are, and at that point, what's the difference?