(This essay will discuss racism, violent hate crimes, and sexual assault. Viewer discretion is advised.)
So this is a little different from my usual content, as I write about movies and the occasional tv show. I just couldn’t help but investigate some Twitter drama, especially since it concerns someone who influenced how I look at those subjects in the first place.
Lindsay Ellis is a Youtuber who has grown from making goofy, hastily-made video reviews as the Nostalgia Chick on the ill-fated website Channel Awesome to becoming a Hugo Award nominated video essayist and best-selling author. I deeply admired the work she made in her decade-long career, and her video essays that delved into how “low brow” media properties like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and the musical Phantom of the Opera shape our culture influenced not just how I write but how I look at mass media as whole.
I distanced myself from her due to a lack of interest in her work and some online behavior I found questionable as a Black person, but I held a relatively positive view of her in spite of that. This was about to change.
On March 26, she tweeted about her thoughts on the Disney film Raya and the Last Dragon. She considered the film and YA fantasy novels like it to be “reduxes” of the Nickelodeon series Avatar the Last Airbender. After Southeast Asian creatives criticized her for homogenizing Asian cultures (Raya being a Southeast Asian inspired film co-written by Asians and Avatar being an East Asian inspired show created by white men), among other issues, she attempted to clarify her intentions. She then received more backlash for her poor word usage in those tweets, and others brought up her then-unacknowledged incidents involving her casually racist online behavior. These include an inappropriate tweet involving the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet and the lack of any mention of the anti-indigenous racism of the Twilight series in her video entitled “Dear Stephenie Meyer (I’m Sorry)”.
After this, she deleted her account and posted an explanation on Patreon, a website where fans give content creators a monthly donation in exchange for exclusive rewards. Though she admitted to her carelessness and apologized for “the hurt she may have caused” in a post that was viewable to everyone, Ellis posting this on her Patreon meant that most of the people who saw it were already likely to agree with her anyway- and thus the post’s comment section was filled with unadulterated support.
On April 15, Lindsay broke her silence in a one hour and forty minute video entitled “Mask Off”. The video received over a million views as of this writing and it received a mixed response from supportive fans and skeptical detractors.
If the title of this post didn’t already give it away, I’m on the skeptical side. I found Ellis and her fans’ response to the controversy to be an embarrassing example of how terribly white people respond to accusations of racism. Even though she intellectually understands how racism works and how we’re all affected by its “stink”, she lacks the self-awareness to focus on the impact rather than the intent of her casually racist behavior.
Even though Ellis acknowledged that the initial critique about her tweet was from Southeast Asian creatives along with her poor word usage in the following tweets, she basically ended it there and didn’t address the nuanced problems they had with her tweet. By not going into the critiques in depth and opting to repeat her original defenses, she got credit for acknowledging the problem without actually reflecting on how and why it existed in the first place. This allows her fans to continue ignoring the possibility of Ellis being too flawed (let alone being casually racist). While I address that the backlash towards her based on a seemingly innocuous event was immense and disproportionate, the behavior from her and her supporters was frankly dismissive.
It doesn’t help that the Atlanta massage spa shooting, in which six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent, occurred just days before the initial tweet was posted. It was natural that Asians and others sympathetic to the #StopAsianHate movement were sensitive to ignorant behavior from someone they’d think would know better. Although Ellis sincerely expresses her sympathy towards the Asian community in the face of increasing anti-Asian racism in the U.S, she only mentioned the Atlanta shooting to illustrate the absurdity of the idea that her tweet could be related to such a horrific event. I do believe that Ellis cares about the issues facing the Asian community, but her mentioning them only a few times in a 90+ minute video demonstrates that she only sees this as a secondary issue.
When it came to her other examples of her problematic behavior, she acknowledged regret over her carelessness and shortsightedness, but ultimately deflected from criticism and refused to apologize for any of her misdeeds. She then focused her attention on the white “wokescolds” (a replacement of the term “social justice warrior” that’s usually used by right-wingers and “anti-woke” leftists & liberals) who crowded her Twitter feed and fulfilled the goals of the reactionary “diet Nazis” who previously harassed her. While it’s easy to see how she’d feel this way, this erases the BIPOC who expressed their legitimate issues with Ellis for those incidents and others before it and received harassment from her fans as a result.
What Ellis doesn’t acknowledge in “Mask Off” is the parasocial bond she has with her fans, which greatly contributed to the lack of clarity within the discourse. Given permission to think that the people loudly criticizing Ellis for her racism were actually white wokescolds and bad-faith actors whose feelings aren’t worth consideration, her devoted fans continue harassing BIPOC and denying her casual racism to this day. While Ellis expressed the harm of dogpiling on a single person and drowning out legitimate criticism, she paid no mind when that exact same behavior is exercised by her own fanbase.
What is especially frustrating is that Ellis refuses to acknowledge (or just doesn’t understand) the power she holds as a widely popular content creator. In the video, she continually downplayed this by saying she is just a “C-list Youtuber” and isn’t a “real celebrity”. What she dismisses is that she gained an excellent reputation as a video essayist among film fans. Her Youtube channel has 1.13 million subscribers, and her in-depth videos are influential in how people not just view films but also how they make their own video essays, a medium that grew in popularity in the past several years. I’ve personally seen her videos being referenced in Twitter and Reddit discussions that had nothing to do with her. Whether she knows it or not, she’s seen as a Right Opinion Haver on the Internet.
This doesn’t even include the money she makes in her lowly profession. On Patreon, Ellis has 9,853 patrons who donate at least $2 a month. This comes out to $19,706 a month, not including the contribution of the thousands of patrons who donate $10 a month to earn the reward of having their name on the end credits of her videos. She clearly has more influence than the average Twitter user.
I do not blame anybody for not wanting to take the time out of their day to watch it in order to understand her side. In the five hours it took me to watch the roughly two hour long video, I felt embarrassment for her lack of self-reflection, frustration at her lack of insight, and sympathy for the revelation of her experience with rape (the inclusion of which is questionable considering her fans weaponizing that portion of the video against detractors). Ellis laying out all her emotions on the table made “Mask Off” an intentionally exhausting watch and I can’t recommend it to anyone not already invested in this mess.
I admit I felt an odd sense of nostalgia when she talked about the films she mentions in the “My list of sins” portion of the video. It reminded me of all the hours I spent in front of my laptop watching her videos in the last eleven years. Those videos gave me not just a sense of company in my lonelier days, but they taught me to think deeper about not just the movies I watch but what I thought about myself and the world around me. It’d be diplomatic to say that I simply outgrew Ellis’s content, but I don’t think that’s all true. Frankly, I see her shortcomings as a well-off cisgender white woman and am disappointed at how she chooses to wield the power she has. I don’t want to deplatform her, I just can’t vibe with her anymore.
Edit 5/19/21: Added clarification, the previous version of this article claimed that Ellis didn’t express much sympathy specifically to the Asian community in “Mask Off”. This was an honest mistake on my part, as she does acknowledge the rise of anti-Asian racism at the end of the video. I apologize for my oversight. This new version of the article addresses this information.
Edit 4/19/21: Added clarification and switched the placement of paragraphs in the middle of the article.