Pewdiepie, Viral Popularity, and Flawed Masculinity

Pewdiepie, aka Felix Kjellberg, is one of the most popular Youtube personalities on the planet. With over 28 million subscribers (or “bros” as he calls them), it is estimated that Kjellberg makes $4 million a year in ad revenues from his channel, which features Let’s Play videos (in which he plays through a popular video game while filming his own reactions) and vlogs. But what is it that makes him so popular in the gaming community?

In my dissertation project, I argue that gamer culture (and Internet culture writ large) is organized around gendered performances. Specifically, to be read as a gamer, one must project a certain brand of competent, knowledgeable, rational masculinity in the face of both technical challenges (those provided by games and hardware) and interpersonal challenges (those posed by competitors and trolls). Navigating gaming culture means constantly maintaining this performance, deploying several rhetorical and textual presentation strategies that code as masculine or by ostentatiously rejecting those coded as feminine.

And yet, the popularity of Pewdiepie’s Youtube personality seems to contradict this theory. For example, he is most famous for his over-the-top reactions to scary video games like Slender and Amnesia.

Other common crowd-pleasers on his channel include footage of him “raging” while playing frustration/prank games like Cat Mario and The Unfair Platformer,

being moved to tears by the sad ending of games like The Walking Dead,

and vlogs where he performs embarrassing stunts requested by his fans.

So how can we explain the massive popularity of these displays of out-of-control, emotionally charged, and even occasionally overtly feminized performances in a subculture organized around the pursuit of the masculine self-assurance?

Limor Shifman proposes one explanation in his book Memes in Digital Culture that Youtube videos featuring “flawed masculinity” were often breakout favorites in terms of achieving viral success. In fact, there are several other examples of memetic videos featuring gamers displaying a flawed performance of masculinity as their primary comic conceit including “Greatest Freak out Ever,” in which a teenager reacts to his mother canceling his World of Warcraft account by throwing a violent tantrum,

and “Leeroy Jenkins,” in which an overly excited WoW player torpedos a carefully planned raid.

Shifman argues that

The prominence of ‘flawed masculinity’ in… memetic videos can be seen as an extreme manifestation of men’s representation in contemporary mass media genres, particularly the sitcom. Such genres have responded to the so-called crisis of masculinity in Western society by presenting far-from-perfect men who fail to fulfill basic functions in their personal lives. Many sitcoms are characterized by ambivalent sexual politics: they embody a certain rebellion against hegemonic masculinity, yet at the same time reinforce traditional norms through the comic framing of their protagonists (77).

In other words, according to this reading, by offering himself up as a “clownish” figure within gaming culture, Pewdiepie reinforces the overall perception that stoic masculinity represents the normal standard of correct behavior.

And yet, we can also read Pewdiepie’s antics against the grain. His description of his fans as “bros” has a double meaning: at first glance, one might assume that this moniker casts Pewdie and his fans as sharing a stereotypical “frat bro” masculine bond (indeed, every broadcast ends with Pewdiepie requesting a “bro fist” or a fist pound from his viewers). But the “bro” label can also be read as a gesture of inclusion, an acknowledgement that Pewdie and his viewers are all caught in the same system of gendered cultural expectations, that they all sometimes fail to live up to the standards of masculinity that are expected of them, that they all are occasionally overcome by emotion or by fear or by sheer silliness. This reading transforms Pewdiepie’s clowning into a transgressive act, an invitation to occasionally shirk the burden of maintaining a perfect masculine performance and instead be playful or vulnerable.

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