Pillbox

Shane Dawson, the YouTube Docuseries, and Dramatization

Credit: Rebecca Enright/ Credit: Rebecca Enright/

YouTube is not exactly the first place you’d go to see an in-depth multi-part investigative series, but one of the platform’s famous personalities, Shane Dawson, has carved out a space to create just that. Originally known for his sketches, conspiracy theory videos, and raunchy content, Dawson has since completely rebranded his public image and re-invented himself, aiming for more emotionally impactful, exciting, and dramatic videos. He now creates episodic investigative “docuseries,” interviewing controversial popular figures like makeup tycoon Jeffree Star, comedian Kathy Griffin, and fellow YouTuber Tana Mongeau, often taking the stance of an empathetic friend rather than an objective interviewer. Usually following a scandal in which his subject was involved, Dawson aimed to dig deeper into the lives of his subjects to find out their true natures and motivations. Due to his own popularity and the popularity of his subjects, Dawson’s channel was re-launched into the public eye, easily drawing in over 10 million views per video. However, his most recent subject – vlogger and former Disney star Jake Paul – has raised some serious concerns about misrepresentation and dramatization.

Dawson’s latest – and currently ongoing – series, “The Mind of Jake Paul,” was more than highly anticipated; the massive success of his previous docuseries has guaranteed that the YouTube community will be on the edge of their seats for his next set of videos – a fact proven by the over 8 million views he received on the teaser trailer alone. What makes this particular docuseries unique are his subjects: Jake Paul and his older brother Logan. The Paul brothers are infamous for their scandals and insane, insensitive behavior. Logan’s vlog displaying a dead body in Japan’s suicide forest received an enormous amount of backlash, but with little consequences – in fact, he continues to gain millions of views every day. Similarly, Jake’s nearly life-threatening pranks and suspicious business practices have cost him his contract with Disney, yet he too continues to rope in millions of views. One of the most dangerous side effects of this behavior – aside from the danger to themselves and their immediate friends – is the impression they leave on their viewers, who tend to be around the ages of 7-14.

These pasts had left many uneasy when Dawson initially announced “The Mind of Jake Paul,” as many refused to give the Paul brothers the watch time and an even bigger platform. Much of Dawson’s audience, easily in the millions, were worried that his series would redeem and create undeserved sympathy for the Paul brothers, a critique that commonly appears on Dawson’s other series’ as well. Viewers were made even more uneasy when he announced that the main question he aims to solve was this: “Is Jake Paul a sociopath?” Emphasized with his trademark creepy music and distorted text, the series seems to try to explain Jake Paul’s behavior as rooted in a serious personality disorder.

Now, YouTubers are known to dramatize things for the sake of connecting with a larger viewership – faking pranks, blowing events out of proportion, and creating clickbait titles and thumbnails for their videos. Dramatizing everyday events is how many YouTubers create their content, and it has become a sort of unspoken necessary strategy to amassing audiences similar in size to Dawson’s or the Paul brothers’. But this becomes a serious issue when the thing content creators are dramatizing is mental health.

Dawson clearly aims to be objective while still entertaining, but that balance seemed to teeter closer to “drama for the sake of entertainment” than he perhaps originally intended. Part 2 of his series, where he investigates the potential psychological aspects of Jake Paul’s personality, had received intense backlash for his representation of personality disorders. The video, which featured YouTuber and licensed therapist Kati Morton, was focused on a discussion of what sociopathy is and what behaviors it could entail. Despite not having met Jake Paul in person, Dawson attempts to allude to him being a sociopath, even going so far as to suggest that there must be something inherently sociopathic about YouTubers for them to behave so erratically. While the video brings to light an interesting conversation about what people are willing to do for internet popularity, the editing style of the video seems to diagnose certain YouTubers’ behavior as sociopathic: Morton would tell Dawson that sociopaths imitate emotions like sadness to seem “normal,” then cut to beauty YouTuber Laura Lee crying on camera.

While Logan Paul’s description of sociopathy isn’t much better - “A sociopath is just someone who’s more savage” - Dawson and Morton fail to provide any definitive definition, almost purposefully leaving it vague for dramatic effect. What they also fail to mention is that sociopathy, like many other mental illnesses, is rooted in behaviors that everyone has. For example, depression: everyone experiences sadness, but depression can be a much more intense and debilitating condition. As a result, Dawson and Morton outright say that “1 in 25 people are sociopaths,” for shock value. It takes advantage of the fear people have towards sociopaths, and the video continues to paint sociopaths as “evil” and “gross.” While the conversation may have been casual, it’s beyond wrong for a licensed therapist to call someone with a serious disorder “gross.” It’s a personality disorder, and it doesn’t inherently make someone evil or mean-spirited. Whether this manipulation is purposeful or not, it dehumanizes and stigmatizes people with personality disorders, which is so incredibly dangerous considering the enormous audience watching these videos.

After seeing the backlash on his video, Dawson commented: “Once again I'm 100% NOT trying to call any celeb or Youtuber a "sociopath". I just wanted to give example clips to go along with me and Kati's conversation to make for an entertaining video.” He recently announced that he’ll be re-filming parts of the upcoming videos to make them less dramatized, but only time will tell.