Ursula Muñoz Schaefer/Staff Writer
If you hadn’t heard of James Charles or Tatiana Westbrook before May 10, you probably have by now.
Charles, YouTube’s biggest beautician until now, has been dragged all over social media recently following a 43-minute video takedown by Westbrook, accusing him of a slew of crimes from being a disingenuous friend, to, most incongruously, marketing medicine towards children.
The main reason for Westbrook’s video (though she goes on to list other things as well), was her protégé’s endorsement of Sugar Bear Hair, a vitamin brand that forms direct competition with own company, Halo Beauty Inc.
The most damaging part, however, was her detailed description of Charles’ creepy obsession with straight men—a valid critique that did not seem to matter to her much before his endorsement of said brand.
Some have been quick to point out that it’s strange how this wound up resulting in a YouTuber’s biggest subscriber subdrop to date when the site has had its history of controversies. But while it may feel like two Regina Georges playing a game of “he said, she said,” there is a reason the Charles/Westbrook controversy has blown up to the degree that it has.
It all boils down to the thirst for drama that has permeated YouTube, in particular its makeup community. The perpetual feuds between creators almost always become juicy content in the form of long, teary videos that subscribers eat up.
Regardless of who’s side we’re on (or whether or not we even care), the Charles/Westbrook scandal teaches us some valuable lessons about how much we have to measure what we say online.
From his racist jokes about Africa in 2017 to his incessant perusal of unassuming men on Instagram, Charles’ online behavior has been reckless to say the least. All of this has now culminated in a careless endorsement of a brand that turned one of his closest allies into the reason for his demise.
As I’ve said before, Generation Z is often cited as having a greater understanding of online privacy than Millennials do, as we favor anonymous social media platforms and applications that delete content almost immediately.
Still, I cannot help but think that we often mismeasure the privacy that certain apps give us, as well as the functions that some of them have.
Once one person has seen a post, it exists forever in the void of the internet even if you delete it. Problematic celebrity Tweets are always quoted in gossip articles even after deletion and incriminating Snapchat footage and texts in private group chats can always be spread with the power of a screenshot.
In October 2018, FIU’s chapter of Turning Point USA came under scrutiny because of some abhorrent behavior in a leaked group chat.
The screenshots showed memes of Swedish women getting raped by Syrian immigrants as well as jokes about wanting to “aggressively grapple Latinas and deport them.”
It goes without saying that the naïvety one has to have to post that kind of content in an open chat is almost too hard to fathom.
Of course, the scandal wound up hurting TPUSA’s reputation that semester. However, it was the handling of the situation by the group’s regional manager Driena Sixto that I found most interesting.
Rather than fully rebuke the chat participants’ behavior, Sixto instead seemed to qualify the statements made by them in an interview with Student Media, saying, “while there is an epidemic of rape in Sweden, this could’ve been messaged much better. I do side with the women who are affected by this due to bad immigration policies.”
When asked how she felt about the deportation jokes, she answered that the statements about Latinas didn’t bother her because she doesn’t “get offended easily.”
Sixto also said the chat did not represent the ideas of TPUSA as a whole and that it had been deactivated since then. But her words all seemed to lead back to the underlying argument that, though the conversations were crass, they were never in the wrong.
The strategy is problematic and incorrect, but it benefited her and her organization, which continues to be one of the most prominent right-wing groups on campus.
Just like this, many influencers have been the subject of scrutiny for their bad online behavior in the past but ultimately emerged unscathed. From Logan Paul to Laura Lee, there are loads of YouTubers who have survived similar controversies to Charles – some for even more damaging behavior – and continue to post videos that generate massive followings.
If Westbrook’s video truly marks the end of Charles, it will only show us how arbitrary cancel culture really is.
Featured photo by Ursula Muñoz Schaefer.
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