Hooo boy. I didn’t think that of all the stories to make headlines in 2020, it would again be the Tati Westbrook and James Charles feud. Back in 2019, I wrote about a developing story concerning Tati Westbrook and James Charles, two major names in the beauty guru YouTube space. You can read a full rundown of what happened with Tati’s video and James’s subsequent defense.
The tl;dr is that Tati made a video calling James out. While it covered topics like him manipulating straight men and attacks on his character, many believed that the true motivation behind the video was hair vitamins. Yes, you read that right. During this time, another beauty guru, Jeffree Star, also called out James Charles, dragging his brother into the mess as well. Shortly after, James responded, refuting each point with screenshots and receipts, and Tati eventually took her video down, though she did post an explanation video about why she felt the need to call James out (which she also took down afterward).
Fast forward to 2020. A new player has entered the arena: Shane Dawson. For those who aren’t familiar, Shane Dawson has been incredibly popular on YouTube for almost a decade. I think he would fall under the category of “vlogger”, but his most recent project, a docuseries with Jeffree Star, propelled him into the world of YouTube makeup artists. As one of the platform’s major documentary makers, Shane became even more popular through his series about other YouTubers such as Tana Mongeau and Jake Paul.
Last week, murmurs within YouTube’s gossip ecosystem suggested that Shane had actually played a pivotal role in the Tati-James feud. On YouTube, these are “drama” channels akin to publications like TMZ or The Sun that post regularly about YouTuber gossip.
Unfortunately for Shane, he broke the first rule of gossip: if you respond to it, you legitimize it. On his Twitter, Shane posted that he was quitting the beauty community (something he was never really a part of) and condemned the whole lot, calling them “attention seeking, game playing, egocentric, narcissistic, vengeful, two-faced, ticking time bombs ready to explode.” It wasn’t pretty. The tweets are now deleted, but you can read a full transcript of the statement here.
On strategy, this is such a stupid idea. And as expected, it backfired. Big time. People quickly began to call out Shane, first for surrounding himself with the people he admonished. What quickly followed was a number of videos and audio clips demonstrating Shane’s racist actions from the past. Videos in blackface, instances where he used the n-word, child molestation jokes, murder jokes, and even a joke about Trayvon Martin. (Yes. He actually joked about a black teen who was murdered).
One video that gained traction was a clip of Shane pretending to masturbate to a poster of then 11-year-old Willow Smith. As Melayna mentioned yesterday, this prompted both Jaden Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith to tweet about Shane.
As expected, Shane made an apology video. While it maybe gets some parts of the apology right, the apology is still completely centered around Shane’s experience. He also tries to make excuses (including being depressed, having family issues, being in the closet), and it offers little consolation or efforts to make amends.
In his video, Shane says that he would be okay losing everything because he finally wants to be held accountable for his actions. The world responded accordingly, and he has currently been demonetized by YouTube, had his books pulled from the shelves of Target, and has had his palette discontinued by its vendor, Morphe. He has also lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers, although he’s still at about 22.3 million at the time of writing this.
Responses to Shane’s video and the conversations the people are having about it are part of a much larger movement to call out instances of anti-Black racism, institutional and systemic oppression, and cultural appropriation. In addition to police brutality and violence, it points to the ways in which Black creators and professionals are constantly disenfranchised or passed over, while their white counterparts are presented with an abundance of opportunities.
On Tuesday, Tati Westbrook posted a 40 minute video called “Breaking My Silence...” In it, she explains that the reason she made the video about James was because she was manipulated and coerced by Jeffree Star and Shane Dawson. Through tears, she reads a statement prepared with her legal team, implying that there’s much more to come. If you choose to watch it (on 1.5 speed I would recommend), I’ll let you form your own opinion. However, I’m not sure many people asked for it? It’s also just weird? At one point she says, “being friends with Jeffree Star was like being friends with a lion. Yes, he may have been dangerous but he was always really kind to me.” Translation: I knew he was bad, but he wasn’t bad to me.
I do sympathize with Tati in that I’m sure the past year was tough for her. However, knowingly or unknowingly, she has shifted the conversation. It’s a perfect example of how even when people are focusing on anti-Black racism, the non-Black people involved manage to centre the story around their own experiences. Tati makes herself to be the victim in this situation, which although might be true in the context of what she’s talking about, seems tone deaf considering there’s a worsening global pandemic, Black people continue to be abused and murdered by the police, and the officers that killed Breonna Taylor have yet to be arrested.
It has even shifted Shane’s focus. In his apology video, he tried to hold himself accountable for his past actions. When Tati released her video, he angrily reacted on an Instagram live, and well...clearly he’s moved on.
When I posted about the feud last year, I wrote the following: “The drama and pettiness of James Charles vs. Tati Westbrook reminds me of gossip you’d hear in high school.” That still hasn’t changed, but now it points to something much deeper on YouTube. This beauty guru drama and the way it has monopolized the conversation points to the type of people that command space on the platform. People like Tati and Shane have the power to trend on Twitter and “destroy careers”, as Tati says, yet they’re held largely unaccountable, at least until one of their own decides to speak up. Whenever that happens though, the focus is on infighting and “high school drama” and not on the subjects I mentioned above.
The Shane-Tati-James-Jeffree feud, a feud among three wealthy, white influencers with enormous followings and huge commercial successes, shows us where the power and influence on YouTube lie. Their dramas have become storylines, their f-ckups are new content. And on YouTube it’s always about creating new content.