Hollywood is four miles from Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles. Skid Row anchors one of the largest peacetime homeless populations in the developed world. Many Californians don’t see the mental illness and strange behaviors that commonly grip Skid Row … unless a disturbed or addicted person wanders into their life and neighborhood. Skid Row is ugly. Hollywood doesn’t tell a lot of stories about ugliness. The entertainment industry would rather tell stories that take place four miles in the other direction — in Beverly Hills.
I am bringing up the concept of “ugly” because a touchstone of Youtube star Shane Dawson’s art is that he shows ugly things. Dawson focuses especially on storybook lives that comingle with ugly things.
Shane Dawson takes Hollywood’s affluent, mostly-white, suburban narrative of American “normalcy” and twists it with disturbing sex acts, bloody brutality, disgusting body fluids, blatant prejudice, deceitful adults and blithe nonchalance. Far from being complicit, this directly undermines the assumptions of that narrative.
Dawson’s entire body of work on Youtube — and his first direction of a feature film, Not Cool — challenges Hollywood’s trope of storybook normalcy that dominates content from Steve Martin’s family comedies to every Disney sitcom. This “Leave It To Beaver” version of “normal” sells us homely lives filled by morally unconflicted characters who are insulated from the world’s ugliness. In this storybook “normal,” characters imagine themselves to be altruistic toward ugliness while never actually having to confront it in their lives. Classic scholars from Michel Foucault to Cathy Cohen note that far from being harmless, wholesome storybook normalcy can encode repressive power structures and marginalize human beings who are too fat, too gay, too disabled, too dark, or otherwise too different to fit those structures.
Scott, Dawson’s former high-school prom-king character in Not Cool, confesses to his new romance — perennial social outcast Tori — that his apparent storybook life is dominated by masturbation and loneliness. Scott and Tori’s lives are surrounded by caricatures of ugly human conditions. These include a black transient who enjoys eating feces and flashing his genitals, an abusive ex-girlfriend with a fetish for very unsafe public sex, and an obese party clowngirl with a talent for projectile vomiting.
Critics argue that Dawson’s human set-pieces in Not Cool are demeaning and exploitive. They are “gags” consisting of “overweight, undersexed losers; coitus with vegetables; loose bowels, rivers of puke and slut-shaming” laments Robert Abele in the LA Times. “Plenty of [young directors] have interesting ideas . . .” scolds Neil Genzlinger in the paper of record, referencing the Starz contest that funded the movie. “Too bad this opportunity was wasted on Mr. Dawson.”
Cultural commentator and Youtube vlogger Chescaleigh has been a consistent, eloquent critic of Dawson’s work. She especially zeros in on his past use of blackface as well as the “N” word in comedic videos. Her most recent upload ties the comedic use of racial stereotypes to a broader Youtube problem of “normalizing racism.” Chescaleigh implicitly groups Dawson’s comedic use of racial steretoypes alongside Youtube content creators who visit poor, black neighborhoods as if they’re zoos in order to provoke and film reactions.
I agree that the Internet — not just Youtube — is disturbingly receptive to distorted, selective representations . . . not just about black people, but about any person or topic. But doesn’t everybody play this game?
Most of us present the best snapshots of our own lives online. We don’t share ugly things in our lives — addictions, STDs, divorces, getting evicted — because we don’t want to give energy to that narrative of who we are. We want to show the Beverly Hills of our own lives, not the Skid Row.
Chescaleigh is right that the Internet is too fond of distorted representations. She is also right that some of Dawson’s scripts and characters could have better writing and casting. But she and other critics are wrong to malign Shane Dawson’s ethics. They are wrong to trash the overall merit of his art. The broad statement made by Dawson’s work is that normalcy is itself a distorted representation.
Normalcy has ugliness. It has extremely brutal, tragic, unattractive things beneath its storybook surface. Dawson shows it is possible to acknowledge, survive and chuckle at that ugliness. Therefore, kids who are experiencing that ugliness can watch Shane Dawson videos and know that there is somewhere over the rainbow. Life can get better. Far from aiming to make exploitive sideshow of crude and ugly caricatures, Dawson tries to create content that would have empowered him as a kid who experienced some of that ugliness. This isn’t news. He’s repeatedly said this in his own vlogs and made it obvious in songs like Maybe.
Ralph Ellison, the late essayist on race in America, coined the metaphor “live with your head in the lion’s mouth” in his classic Invisible Man. The protagonist recounts an oral history in which his grandfather tells his father:
“Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”
Ellison meant that black people should live inside white society — but find ways to be a trojan-horse and resist despite that subordination.
When Shane Dawson embodies storybook normalcy, I believe he’s trying to live with his head in the lion’s mouth. He’s trying to undermine it. Across most of his content — no matter how shocking — there’s an attempt at a noble message. His execution is raw and imperfect. I don’t agree with every aesthetic choice he makes. I can’t unpack every crude gag and declare seeds of cinematic genius akin to Chaplin or Spielberg.
But Dawson’s art has a powerful message that critiques the status-quo. Critics are hoodwinked by their personal revulsion to Dawson’s trees — so they fail to see the moral forest.
Dawson is trying to show us the pathologies that undergird outwardly normal life. He is trying to illuminate a path which gives us power over that ugliness when we are powerless. He is trying to show us the Skid Row inside of Beverly Hills.