The Strange Case of Lindsay Ellis

Is it possible for someone to deliberately cancel themselves?

Raya and the Last Dragon has emerged as the dark horse in this year’s awards season for animated pictures, with ten nominations for the upcoming Annie Awards. This was a surprise for people who had, well, pretty much forgotten Raya and the Last Dragon even existed. The March 2021 release was popular with critics, but received very lukewarmly by audiences worldwide, only barely making back its budget in the worldwide box office. With the return of Raya and the Last Dragon to the discourse, we have also seen the return of one of 2021’s most petty and terminally online controversies–the cancellation of Lindsay Ellis, with her recent departure from Twitter and YouTube.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Originally known as The Nostalgia Chick from Channel Awesome, Lindsay Ellis has made a name for herself as a pop culture critic in the video format. Discussion of literature is Ellis’s most distinctive niche, separating her from the rest of her Channel Awesome colleagues as she’s moved away from that platform. If the name Lindsay Ellis itself isn’t ringing any bells, you might have at least heard of her Death of the Author video. It’s the most popular YouTube video of the literary concept, despite the lack of depth.

For the most part Ellis has focused on film on her YouTube channel, a less unique niche. But she also had a gig on the PBS YouTube series It’s Lit, and published a New York Times bestselling novel called Axiom’s End. The second installment of sci-fi feature, the first of a planned trilogy about first contact set in the late-aughts United States, didn’t do as well when it came last October. It’s unclear if Ellis will ever release the third one, even with an ostensible 2022 publication date.

Ellis created a lot of drama around Raya and the Last Dragon when she made an offhand tweet weeks after the Disney film’s release about how the movie seemed derivative of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The take wasn’t a particularly unique one. Three days prior to Ellis’ tweet, Screen Junkies released a video mocking Raya for, among other things, having a nearly identical concept to the popular and influential animated show, which Netflix is currently remaking. So why did such comments lead to the cancellation of Lindsay Ellis, but not Screen Junkies?

It traces back to the literature angle. Because Ellis distinguished herself from other popular culture commentators via her literature chops, she had a lot of followers who were intense Young Adult fans. Young Adult literature, in recent years, has prided itself heavily on diversity. Disney marketed Raya and the Last Dragon extensively as being culturally significant because of its heavily Asian cast and concept. Consequently, the backlash interpreted what Lindsay Ellis wrote as a personal attack against the idea of diversity. This was because Avatar: The Last Airbender is itself obviously derivative of East Asian culture, despite having non-Asian showrunners.The production staff for Raya: The Last Dragon also consists almost entirely of non-Asians. Ellis didn’t help her case with a subsequent tweet defending herself that made an offhand and obviously accidental reference to squinting,

But if Ellis did all this back in March, why is the Internet only canceling her now? Well, because Lindsay Ellis said so. In a subscriber-only Patreon post titled Walking Away From Omelas, named after the Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 story, Lindsay Ellis claimed that the reason she didn’t quit sooner was because of concern about her production staff. In a highly apropos move, she deliberately distributed her post quitting Twitter and YouTube in a manner that makes it hard to find for reference.

This is probably because it contains the only genuinely offensive comment Lindsay Ellis has actually made to date. She compares her own situation to that of Isabel Fall, who the literary Intenret relentlessly harassed for her short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” which coopted the right-wing antitransgender meme into a disturbing dystopian environment. They mostly attacked Fall on suspicion of being a closet bigot, despite Fall herself being transgender. The cases aren’t really comparable, and by bringing Fall up at all Ellis trivialized what happened to her.

The whole situation represents cancel culture at its ugliest–so astonishingly petty it belittles actual victims just because people keep using them as points of comparison. And despite her own experiences, Ellis doesn’t appear to have actually come to the conclusion that these kinds of social media events are bad. Hardly a few days before publishing her dramatic letter of resignation Ellis herself joined in on a dogpile against the mostly harmless YouTube personality Tom Scott.

Scott did a collaboration video with another mostly harmless YouTube personality, Jill Bearup, to reenact an Old West style bar fight. Apparently five years ago Jill Bearup made some posts that you could kind of consider  antitrans. She deleted most of them.

You may note that neither Tom Scott nor Jill Bearup has attempted to quit their jobs over this, because that would be an absurd and ridiculous thing to do. Drama like this isn’t new to entertainment, but until recently this was all behind-the-scenes stuff. It also mostly concerned people who were more generic celebrities, however low-tier, rather than alleged thought leaders.

This model of pop culture criticism isn’t new. Probably the earliest version involved Anita Sarkeesian’s videos some ten years ago. Though lauded in the mainstream press as a shining light on the dark underbelly of misogyny in media, Sarkeesian’s videos were quite rudimentary, and showed so little deeper understanding of the works discussed many doubted whether she watched them at all. Gamergate in 2014 was a huge boon to her career. When people made identical criticisms about her experience in video games for her then topical videos, it was quite easy to dismiss such critics as misogynist trolls. The recent viral discovery of  Sarkeesian’s Letterboxd account has validated these old criticisms of Sarkeesian as a person with surprisingly little film literacy, given her claim to fame.

The bigger problem with either Ellis or Sarkeesian or their critics is that they’ve helped to create a media environment where any kind of back-and-forth dialog on media is exhausting. The text of any given work is less important than the secret sinister motives either of the people who made the work or even the people criticizing it. Actual opinions about film as a craft are increasingly rare. Even professional critical discourse about Don’t Look Up, allegedly the most popular bad movie of 2021, is surprisingly shallow. It’s highly ironic that, having started out her career by eviscerating bad movies, Ellis is now a symbol for how the act of criticizing itself is a minefield–but only because critics care too much what other people think.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

10 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Lindsay Ellis

  • January 10, 2022 at 6:09 pm
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    Her tweet to Scott wasn’t a few days before the announcement. It was the same day.

    To me, that suggests the tweet shouldn’t be taken at face value, although many readers have been less charitable.

    Reply
  • January 17, 2022 at 6:48 am
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    This is perhaps the most surface level and shallow take one could possibly make on the Lindsay Ellis situation. Like her, hate her, absolutely no one believes that she quit her career of 15+ years without another plan because “she cares what people think too much”.

    The extent of harassment directed at Ellis is extremely broad – and has come from both sides of politics. Nor is this particular wave the only one. Ellis has been harassed extensively throughout her entire career. She became the target of Channel Awesome’s stans when she stood up and talked about her experiences working for them. Only a few years previously there were phone in campaigns organised by the alt-right to get her fired from her contract work for PBS.

    This most recent campaign was more than just a few people criticising her. The same can be said of Sarkeesian. These weren’t minor trolling events. They were huge, internet-wide coordinated hate campaigns. Anyone who had ever collaborated with Ellis was faced with huge backlash. There were death threats made. Attempts were made to cancel Sarah Z, Jenny Nicholson, Abigail Thorn and others for being friends with Ellis. Tens of thousands of vitriolic tweets were made. Even discussing Ellis on other online platforms generally saw a pile on – I know of several subreddits, discords and facebook groups that had to ban any mention of her to avoid constant harassment and work for mods. It was news in major international publics – The Sun, NewsWeekly and Yahoo News have articles about her decision to quit.

    Even if you agree with the idea that Ellis was in the wrong here, no one can dismiss this as merely a few “misogynistic trolls”.

    PS: You note that she made her farewell letter “hard to find to reference”. I will note this is incorrect – the letter was originally public and visible to anyone, however Ellis had to make it visible only to her several thousands patreons due to harassment from the wider public.

    Reply
    • January 18, 2022 at 4:24 pm
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      Thanks for stepping up here Zack, I just scrolled down to say exactly the same thing.

      William, you’re either being deliberately overlooking the full extent of Ellis’ experience, or you’re unaware of it. Either way, you’re not equipped to fairly comment. I get the sense you read the KnowYourMeme page and threw this together quickly.

      Whatever the reason this opinion exists, Zak’s dead right. This is a lot bigger than it looks, and yet is only a symptom of a wider malady.

      Reply
  • January 27, 2022 at 4:55 pm
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    1. Ellis isn’t experiencing this “just now” as the insane outrage over her tweet was out of control just 12 hours after she tweeted it.
    2. Her final essay explaining her retirement is totally public and several oped exist on it.
    3. If you had bothered to read it you would see how Ellis explains she reread the essay “Hot Allostatic Load” and cried and couldn’t stop crying. Explaining how it perfectly articulated institutional mobbing- not canceling, this was no simple cancel this was peer mobbing on Ellis.
    4. I love how you brought up Tom Scott and Jill and were like “they are awesome” so I feel bad for anyone who looked them up and had their day ruined.

    Reply
  • January 29, 2022 at 7:35 pm
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    Well. This sure was a hot take that is not at all subjective. Is news slow at the moment? Written in January 2022… Weird.

    Even weirder was that you felt the need to bring up and attempt to discredit Anita Sarkeesian. Whether or not Anita’s videos were GOOD is irrelevant. The fact that she got so much attention from a hate mob over something so innocuous is the problem.

    The fact that Lindsay got so much attention from an internet hate mob is why she quit. This article is the equivalent of grabbing Linsday’s arm and whacking her on the head with it and asking “Why are you hitting yourself?”

    Reply
    • January 31, 2022 at 4:21 am
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      I didn’t bring up Anita Sarkeesian to smear her. I brought her up because she was the first major example of a media personality successfully deflecting legitimate criticism of her work by presuming that the only possible reason someone could have to disagree with her was because of reactionary political beliefs. But at least there the story was pretty straightforward. Sarkeesian is an outspoken feminist, so it logically follows that her critics would be antifeminists.

      What makes the case of Lindsay Ellis so baffling is that all the involved parties are somehow on every side of the political spectrum at once. Lindsay Ellis was attacked for being a racist who validates white appropriation of Asian culture yet the people perpetrating this attack were alt-right trolls who would presumably agree with this position. The blurring of political lines was so absurd and extreme it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that what set the entire thing off was an incredibly milquetoast comment about a movie that wasn’t even new anymore by the time she posted the tweet.

      Reply
  • February 18, 2022 at 10:46 am
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    Huh, article about Lindsay Ellis getting cancelled for writing about a supposedly racist tweet written by a white expat guy in Seoul who probably doesn’t step outside Itaewon. Ironic.

    Reply
  • February 18, 2022 at 11:30 am
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    Also ironic that the online critic calling out other online critics for being shallow is the one who dismissed the controversy surrounding Snowdrop as being just another case of “cancel culture gone mad”. If you’ve lived in Korea for ten years, you should probably know what dealing with that period in history entails.

    Reply
  • April 22, 2022 at 12:23 pm
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    What a bad, biased article. You get paid to do this?

    Reply

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