Doja Cat embraced the kind of overnight success that comes with modern virality.
One day she was someone with a niche, but dedicated following, posting new songs to SoundCloud and participating in Instagram Live shenanigans. The next, she was being celebrated by Noisey, Billboard, The Verge and a plethora of other outlets. They were instantly enamored with the oddball, self-declared nerd rapper who dressed up as a cow for a music video, which seemed defined by its ability to become an instantaneous meme. Doja Cat was on top of the world.
Then, like other celebrities coming into their newfound fame in 2018, Doja Cat, real name Amala Zandile Dlamini, was forced to confront her first controversy. Someone dug up tweets from a few years ago where she used the word “faggot” to describe Tyler the Creator, an openly bisexual artist. Her immediate response was to justify the word by admitting she’s used the word thousands of times in high school, around the time she tweeted it. That didn’t go over well. She deleted that tweet, then all of her other tweets, and offered an apology to the LGBTQ community.
Dlamini became the latest Milkshake Duck, but her story reiterated a recent talking point among the Extremely Online community: Accept that all of your favorite YouTube creators, Twitch streamers and general Internet Celebrity Crushes are thorny.
They’re all problematic faves.
“Problematic fave” refers to a creator or celebrity who, despite having done or said some horrible or controversial thing, continue to hold court and attract fans. PewDiePie, the Paul Brothers, Shane Dawson, Tyler1, xQc, members of The Vlog Squad and Jeffree Star are good examples. This is slightly different than a Milkshake Duck, which refers to someone who explodes onto a scene in a burst of incredible popularity, and then seemingly overnight, people learn they’ve said something in the past or done something that makes new fans question the person they’ve just discovered. Keaton Jones, Chewbacca Mask Lady and The Last Night developer Tim Soret are all Milkshake Ducks.
Problematic faves and Milkshake Ducks were once rarities. Now they’re sprouting like weeds across the internet every day. Doja Cat is the latest, but she won’t be the last.
No matter where you turn, a popular YouTube creator or celebrity is being hung out to dry for doing something. It’s exhausting. Learning about every hateful thing someone has done and grappling with your favorite creator not being an innocent angel is rough. YouTube’s front page is now often littered with apology videos. There are always scores of angry tweets on Twitter. The turmoil makes getting off the grid completely a tantalizing offer.
The internet mob — all proudly Callout Culture representatives — sits with a tomato in hand, waiting for the next problematic celebrity to step on stage, sheepish look on their face, before being pelted with fruit. It’s hard to sympathize with a person whose hands are tied behind their back, though. Public scrutiny and holding influential people accountable for their statements is crucial. If a popular YouTube creator uses racist, homophobic or sexist language, they should be called out.
Thanks to a diligent audience, they have. Laura Lee, Jeffree Star, Manny Mua, Gabriel Zamora, Scotty Syre, Zoella and a number of other popular YouTube creators have issued apologies in the past few weeks because of old tweets or Facebook posts that have resurfaced. Some apologies were taken with gratitude from the community, like Syre and Zamora’s. Other apologies, like Lee’s, were mocked, turned into memes and largely seen as the reason her career is barreling quickly to the ground.
Everyone is a problematic fave now, a notion that’s exposing the underlying issue that, only now, is being addressed in wake of creators’ past posts resurfacing.
Doja Cat is 22. She’s not exactly a teenager, but she was when she tweeted certain words. That’s not a defense of her actions, which she should atone for, but it is part of the equation that needs context.
Everyone who grew up on social media — people who had access to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook when they were young — has likely said something they shouldn’t have online. Past generations made comments of similarly poor taste when they were young, but without the permanence of our current online world. But today’s 20-somethings have their entire teenage years archived online. We used to accept that people would eventually grow up. Most people cross some lines in their youth as they figure out their place in the world, and learn what is and isn’t taboo.
The privileges of fleeting language are gone. The modern internet is cut and dry. If people have said something in the past, even if it was a decade ago, they should apologize for it now. That much is still true. Elijah Daniel, a very popular YouTube creator known for his music, comedy and queer content, spoke about this in a recent video.
“Everyone has said or done some fucked up shit in the past, or even now,” Daniel wrote in the comment section just under the video. “And instead of making excuses and blaming it on things, just admit it was wrong and commit to growing as a person. Things people said in 2011 don’t always reflect who they are as a person now, 6 years can fully change a person. In the wise words of Hannah Montana, ‘Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days. Nobody’s perfect.’”
Daniel is effectively saying there should be a grace period wherein a person is allowed to demonstrate their growth — especially if they’re young.
“The issue is that all of your fucking favorites are problematic,” Daniel said in the video. “That’s the fucking tea, bitch. If something bad hasn’t surfaced yet, it’s because they’ve deleted it — or it’s misspelled in someway. Everybody is problematic in someway or another.”
It’s a question of leniency, and understanding the importance of growth. People are growing up online, and that means there could be offensive or shocking comments from when they’re young that were made poor taste, as “comedy.” The jokes don’t work, and the statements are ignorant, but we should scrutinize when when the tweets were sent. The internet was a different place in 2010. Jokes and phrases that are unacceptable today — things like, “that’s so gay” when referring to something stupid or innately bad — were commonplace.
15-, 16- or 17-year-olds with access to Twitter may play into a joke for the shock value, without the foresight to think about how their tweets might affect their careers five or six years down the line. Now, they’re being asked by a different group of people on the internet, using Twitter in a much different age, to explain their past.
People should be held accountable for their tweets and past wrongdoings or missteps, but as we enter a new era of life online, the context for those wrongdoings demands recognition. The second someone becomes prominent, or enters into a Twitter feud, the claws come out. A set of readily available search tools has the power to publicly humiliate, end a career and vastly change someone’s life for the worse. An entire ecosystem of scared adults deleting their tweets en masse because the genuine fear of having some off-the-cuff thought from 10 years ago (hypothetically, something said in anger while drunk at three in the morning after a breakup) coming back to end their career is petrifying.
The Elon Paradigm
Doja Cat was 18 when she tweeted those words. Still in high school, she knew right from wrong, and there’s no defending what she said. There’s also no defending her poor decision to double down on the defense before deleting all her tweets and offering an apology.
Her situation is a teaching moment. There is a level of leniency that can be given to a high school kid who wasn’t thinking about what they tweeted. It’s the same for people like David Dobrik and Scotty Syre, who encountered similar situations. It all comes back to exemplary growth.
Young and stupid isn’t a defense for hurting people, but there’s a reason it’s become a commonplace thinking. This is much different from people like Elon Musk, who are problematic faves — with extra emphasis on problematic.
There are people whose tweets should be amplified and scrutinized. Politicians, actors, directors, YouTube creators and public figures who currently tweet offensive material now should answer for those messages.
Musk is the perfect example. The Tesla CEO’s tweets, which often lead to New York Times articles, are representative of him now: a public figure and brain behind multiple companies. His tweets calling a diver a “pedo” weren’t made as an edgelord 16-year-old, or even someone in their mid-20s. They were made now, and he doubled down on it. Musk should have to face backlash over those tweets.
The things popular YouTubers and young celebrities said as teenagers are often not representative of who they are today. Before cancel culture can dig its nails into the collars of each new scandal, shredding a person’s livelihood as quickly as possible, demonstrable growth has to enter the equation. Before we start demanding that every single creator lose their career because of a past tweets, there are a series of questions that we should run through and apply to the situation: determine whether the comments made 10 years ago, during the internet’s distinctly different period, and likely by someone still in their teenage years; question whether or not they’ve grown; allow those people to offer sincere apologies; and, most importantly, acknowledge that people have made similar mistakes for decades but didn’t have the grueling reality of living a digital life trailing behind them.
It’s so easy to be righteous and angry and demanding online in 2018, especially when you’re surrounded by constant streams of frustrated fury. It’s sometimes difficult to remain compassionate — especially when influencers and celebrities, public figures and athletes are concerned. We need a little more compassion on the internet, where more people are making their digital homes more integral to their daily life than their actual homes. Being compassionate and extending an olive branch is the first step in humanizing what is increasingly becoming a never-ending game of Whack-A-Mole the second anyone’s name appears beside a screenshot of decade-old tweets.
People should be held accountable. There’s no erasing past words or misdeeds, but there also needs to be a level of forgiveness in certain situations. Being an edgelord teenager with an affinity for saying things that shock people isn’t a crime severe enough that the consequences are career-ending. Other things, like making racist remarks as an adult should carry a much stronger sentence.
With more of our social lives being carried out online than ever, people will make mistakes. For the young kids and teenagers growing up online, we should forgive some of those transgressions. People have learned how to search for, hone in on and weaponize old tweets. Much like how many of us were fortunate enough to have our mistakes forgiven in real life — in high school or by bosses at part-time jobs — teenagers need to be allowed to grow through the proper amount of scolding and learning. No one is perfect; teenagers even more so. Understanding that people can and will grow through proper guidance is instrumental in navigating what Twitter has become, and will continue to be used as by many.
Problematic faves will only continue to grow. It’s time to forgive some of them.