A YouTube film critic said Raya was Avatar “redux.” Then all hell broke loose.
The plight of YouTuber Lindsay Ellis is a reminder that on Twitter, everyone is judge, jury, and executioner.
Popular YouTube film critic Lindsay Ellis is saying goodbye to all that after publishing a Patreon essay — the finale to a saga that began unravelling her career this past March. What started out as a relatively innocuous, albeit lazy critique of Raya And The Last Dragon in a tweet, led to a hoard of people alleging that Ellis’s sentiment — that Raya was a “redux” of Avatar: The Last Airbender — was a dismissive, disrespectful generalization of Asian culture and cinema. But in the last nine months, the situation has evolved beyond a Twitter upset and delineated two sides of people who both have deeply felt, complex arguments on the matter. No one feels as strongly as Ellis though, who states in the opening of her essay, “my life ended nine months ago.”
While Ellis acknowledges that some will find her sentiments melodramatic, she fails to see any remaining value in her privilege as a successful media star. Considering the online hate being lobbed at her, it doesn’t feel worth it anymore. In fact, she weaponizes that sentiment against those who might point at her success as evidence that she’s going to be fine. “It’s almost funny, how many people will insist that I have ‘lost nothing’ (you know, because subscriber count is the only metric for success and cancel culture doesn't exist),” she wrote. “One YouTube channel chugging along on algorithmic inertia is not success — it’s just an engine driving on fumes.” And while she refuses to contextualize her situation in a year that has seen mass death from both the pandemic and natural disasters, she does feel very strongly that this end of the road for her former self is a death of some sorts. Ellis is in turn leaving social media and YouTube behind her as a way to end the drama, but the arguments spurred on by the situation about both cancel culture and racism have taken on lives of their own.
Ellis’s letter is sure to upset her detractors even more. It has a tone of self-pity that is hard to get past. She goes so far as to compare her plight with that of trans women. Ellis isn’t a stranger to saying too much though — in April, after her tweet first ignited what some are calling a mob, and what others justify as fair rebuttals to Ellis’s comments, Ellis released a video that’s over an hour long on cancel culture. I’m sure it’s hard to know the right moves when thousands of people are yelling at you on the internet, and it’s fair for Ellis to find that traumatizing, but she seemed to feed the beast a bit by centering her own experience when people were upset by her diminishing the experience of an entire culture. The video was a plot twist that pivoted away from what many feel Ellis should have done at the time, which was to try to learn from the mistake, apologize and move on. She has dug her heels into being cancelled though, for better or worse — and it’s oddly not even reflective of her original comments, but more the evils of the internet.
For many, Ellis’s flippant remarks about Raya, and inability to think more critically as to avoid lumping two Asian animations together in a way that felt reductive, was an anti-Asian act in a string of years in which we’re seeing an uptick in hate crimes against Asian Americans. For others, Ellis’s tweet was just that: a poorly-worded tweet comparing two genuinely similar films, and something that people didn’t need to read so much into. For both sides though, it is obvious that the loud few get more traction than the quiet masses. As culture writer Michael Hobbes pointed out, “Social media, especially Twitter, has no way of elevating the shruggers and the lurkers. It’s the shouters who get seen. The 1% of Lindsay’s audience who were offended comprised thousands of people. All of a sudden she was trending.” The same reason some see the response to Ellis as cancel culture at its worst was for others proof that they should be able to voice their anger freely. For some the view is if Ellis has so many fans, what’s the problem with a minority of them taking issue with something she’s said; for others it’s a question as to why so few people’s opinions should dictate anything having to do with Ellis’s career or life.
Whether you find Ellis’s tweet to be genuinely racist against Asians, or just a badly chosen opinion that wasn’t reflective of a larger issue, it’s obvious that Twitter has a dark kind of power to it that we all don’t really know how to handle. The fact that one day you could be joining in the discourse about someone being canceled, and the next you could be the center of the cancelling is a reality on the site that is both electrifying and terrifying. Ellis’s missive’s title, “Walking Away From Omelas,” signifies her position on the topic. It’s a reference to The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, the 1974 short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which Utopia is predicated on everyone allowing the torture of one child. The story details the lives of the people who find out what happiness is reliant upon and decide to leave the fictional city of Omelas. Ellis is walking away from YouTube and social media at large, having seen its potential for harm. But for others, Ellis is the one who caused the harm to begin with. It feels like a chicken and egg situation. Did Ellis start this cultural fallout with her comments, or was the machine of Twitter mobs already poised to take her down at the first sign of a problematic comment? The jury is out — and that might be the biggest takeaway here, that with any kind of Twitter scandal, everyone is judge and jury, and everyone says whatever they want.