Cancel Culture: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Cancel Culture became a topic of controversy in 2019 when it felt like every celebrity was being canceled, and even non-celebrities had become impacted by the phenomenon. At times, it feels like only people who have been dubbed saints by the internet (like Tom Hanks or Keanu Reeves) don’t run the risk of getting canceled. Other times, there is a growing sense that no one is untouchable since everyday more people are getting canceled over not-so-serious issues. Inclusively, sometimes social media users simply decide to cancel someone for clout. As of late, Twitter users have had fun using the #____isoverparty hashtag, and with the over-use of cancelling has also come an outpour of outrage from users who view Cancel Culture as a nuisance
Navigating the waters of social media has certainly evolved and become trickier through the years, and Cancel Culture has muddied the waters even more. Social media users have had to become more aware of what they post since the possibility of backlash and getting canceled has become more prevalent. Many have expressed their concerns with Cancel Culture and have called for people to cancel Cancel Culture. However, not all aspects of Cancel Culture are bad or ugly, and perhaps, all Cancel Culture has to do is evolve just like the celebrities it has claimed.
Despite all the negative aspects tied to Cancel Culture, support for the positive aspects of Cancel Culture has been expressed by various writers. For one, Cancel Culture has the ability to shed light on serious issues that affect society. While many will focus on the pettiness associated with Cancel Culture, there can be a great level of political awareness when an individual, a group, or brand is canceled. As linguist and educator Charity Hudley stated for Vox magazine, “people see [Cancel Culture] as a threat, or furthering the divide, [but] the divide was already there” (Romano, 2019). Even when Cancel Culture appears to be alienating people from one another, it is simultaneously illuminating to society that there is a problem, and often this problem is a serious societal ill that should be addressed. Hudley also makes the point that, “for black culture and cultures of people who are lower income and disenfranchised, this is the first time you do have a voice in those types of conversations” (Romano, 2019).
Many examples of this exist, but one recent example would be the cancelling of actress Gina Rodriguez for using the N-word during an Instagram livestream. More than ever before, Black Twitter has expressed their sentiments towards non-African PoC using the N-word and have called for PoC with no African heritage to refrain from ever using the word. Of course, this moment illustrated the divide among people who think any PoC should be able to use the word and those who think only people of African heritage have the right to use it. Rodriguez herself made an apology video that didn’t sit well with many since she tried to justify her use of the word by saying “I am sorry if I offended anyone by singing along to The Fugees, to a song I love that I grew up on.” While some Twitter users were more constructive than others regarding the incident, the moment allowed many to voice their frustrations. These frustrations expressed the divide between black people and other PoC– including the anti-black sentiments held by PoC who aren’t black and the lack of solidarity among all PoC.
Did racism end from this cancellation? No, but a group of people who have been silenced for a long time took a stance against discriminatory and derogatory behavior, even if some may argue only an individual was attacked and nothing productive resulted from it. In 2018, Danielle Butler wrote for the Root, “[W]hat people do when they invoke dog whistles like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘culture wars’, is illustrate their discomfort with the kinds of people who now have a voice and their audacity to direct it towards figures with more visibility and power” (Romano, 2019). Butler puts into perspective the empowerment that Cancel Culture can provide to those who don’t have the privilege others abuse and take for granted.
While Cancel Culture doesn’t result in direct resolution for the issues different societies face, at the very least it gives those issues the necessary exposure.
As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of bad that comes along with Cancel Culture, and these are aspects social media users should be aware of when participating in cancelling someone. Although some users use Cancel Culture moments to post constructive messages about serious social issues, many people hypocritically cast stones. Jonathan Stea, a clinical psychologist, writes in “The Hypocrisy of Cancel Culture and Its Variants:” “it is not uncommon for some online participants to make the claim that it doesn’t matter what an individual actually thinks or intends, but rather, it is the impact of their actions that matter. This claim certainly has some merit, but it also exemplifies the hypocrisy of our zeitgeist, because it is only a partial truth and an oversimplification of reality that is used to guide social consequences” (Stea, 2019). In other words, Dr. Stea is saying that humans are complex beings, and therefore, both a person’s thinking and their actions need to be considered before condemning them.
Moreover, during the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, former president Barack Obama took the opportunity to speak on the problems associated with Woke Culture, which are tied to Call-Out Culture and Cancel Culture. In regard to cancelling, calling out, and being woke, Obama said, “that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do” (Obama, 2019).
Barack Obama takes on ‘woke’ call out culture: ‘That’s not activism’
After Obama’s talk, many social media users showed their support and expressed their concerns with the lack of redemption for those who have been canceled. In response to Obama’s indirect comments on Cancel Culture, Sara Hagi wrote for Time magazine that, “the term is used in so many contexts that it’s rendered meaningless and precludes a nuanced discussion of the specific harm done and how those who did it should be held accountable” (Hagi, 2019).
Part of what makes Cancel Culture annoying is peoples’ overuse of the term, especially when not being well-informed.
This mainly refers to users who cancel a celebrity and then un-cancel them because they realize they jumped to conclusions without knowing all the facts. An example of this kind of behavior occurred when Twitter and Instagram users tried to cancel YouTuber Jeff Wittek during the Cody Ko vs. Jake Paul controversy, and then once again amid the James Charles controversy. Realizing the humor behind his cancelation, Wittek discussed the situations and made fun of Cancel Culture during an episode of his podcast, Skotcast. Situations like these also put into perspective one of the big reasons why Cancel Culture is bad: many celebrities who get canceled don’t actually get canceled. Of course, the examples are many with some of the more popular ones being Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Kevin Hart, and Michael Jackson.
Cancel Culture takes a turn for the worse when it leads to bullying and death threats.
In 2019, Taylor Swift told Vogue, “when you say someone is canceled, it’s not a TV show, it’s a human being. You’re sending mass amounts of messaging to this person to either shut up, disappear, or it could be perceived as, kill yourself” (Aguirre, 2019). While celebrities should be held accountable for their actions, it’s become more common for social media users to cancel a celebrity for petty reasons and use the situation to spread hate.
In another instance, beauty superstar and YouTuber Manny Gutierrez– better known as Manny MUA– opened up to INSIDER about his cancellation. Gutierrez told INSIDER, “it was such a struggle mentally to try to figure out how to deal with my personal relationships in real life and putting them online is a whole nother ball game” (Dodgson, 2020). Being canceled also led Gutierrez to take two months off of YouTube as he began “going to therapy to make sense of what happened” (Dodgson, 2020). Again, sometimes Cancel Culture goes too far, and peoples’ mental health is impacted negatively by it. This has led many to call Cancel Culture “toxic” while urging people to end the practice of cancelling celebrities.
Cancel Culture isn’t only problematic because it leads celebrities to experience mental health problems. Non-celebrities have also made use of the trend which has led to intolerance among teenagers and young adults. In the New York Times article, “Tales from the Teenage Cancel Culture,” Sanam Yar and Jonah Engel Bromwich interviewed several teens who had been canceled or had canceled someone else. In response to her cancelation, one of the interviewees stated, “all the friends I previously had through middle school completely cut me off, ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me” (Yar & Bromwich, 2019). This person’s particular experience sheds light on the severe emotional repercussions caused by Cancel Culture and calls for people to reconsider their behavior when deciding to cancel someone. It may not seem like it to a lot of people, but Cancel Culture is often another form of bullying. A second interview involved a group of college students who had canceled one of their roommates. One student spoke on the situation and said that the person who was canceled “moved from sadness to frustration and anger,” and “grew ‘very bitter’” (Yar & Bromwich, 2019). The interviewee added that the student, “unfollowed and blocked the group on Snapchat and other social media a few weeks later” (Yar & Bromwich, 2019).
While the issues celebrities face with Cancel Culture are serious, the problems affecting every-day people is equally concerning since it has brought in a wave of intolerance and alienation.
How Cancel Culture Needs to Evolve
As problematic as Cancel Culture may be at times, it is worth keeping the good aspects that come with it since it can “serve as a pop culture corrective for the sense of powerlessness that many people feel (Romano, 2019).
It’s time for Cancel Culture to evolve by making sure conversations and posts revolve around a person’s particular actions or words and not around their character.
For example, if a celebrity says or does something racist, it’s important to say their actions or words are racist instead of saying X person is racist. It’s important for people to know they are allowed to be critical of what celebrities say or do, but it should not lead to bullying or life-threading scenarios. Hudley explains that, “when you see people canceling Kanye, canceling other people, it’s a collective way of saying, ‘We elevated your social status, your economic prowess, [and] we’re not going to pay attention to you in the way that we once did. … ‘I may have no power, but the power I have is to [ignore] you’” (Romano, 2019). Sometimes there isn’t even a need to attack someone on social media. If people stop supporting or consuming a celebrity’s content, a message of resistance against their inappropriate behavior will be sent. Other times all social media participants need to do is provide context over an issue and discuss ways to bring about positive change.
For example, recently several cisgender male musicians have incorporated queer and feminine fashion into their style to take a stance against toxic masculinity– artists such as Harry Styles and Bad Bunny. Although both artists have received a lot of praise for using their platform to shed light on this issue, several people have also pointed out the problem with supporting cisgender (and usually white) men for doing things that LGBTQ+ people get criticized and hated for. Twitter users didn’t cancel anyone but made sure to voice the issues surrounding LGBTQ+ representation in pop culture after Bad Bunny released his music video for “Yo Perreo Sola” where he dresses in drag. Social media moments like this one often prove to be constructive instead of damaging.
What has to change in Cancel Culture is the hastiness and pettiness that leads to intolerance and further division.
It’s also necessary for social media users to stop showing support for a celebrity they believe doesn’t deserve the privilege they have if that celebrity is going to be held accountable. Otherwise, the whole practice becomes counterproductive and hypocritical. If a movie star, musician, etc. is being canceled, then the best way to disagree with their behavior is to not consume their movies, music, or whatever content they produce since that is what’s giving them the status and power to influence others.
“Addressing the Recent YouTube Drama.” YouTube, uploaded by Skotcast, 22 May 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVAN9o3SNXc&t=1243s
Aguirre, Abby, et al. “Taylor Swift on Sexism, Scrutiny, and Standing Up for Herself.” Vogue, www.vogue.com/article/taylor-swift-cover-september-2019.
“Barack Obama takes on ‘woke’ call-out culture: ‘That’s not activism.’” YouTube, upload by Guardian News, 30 October 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qaHLd8de6nM.
Dodgson, Lindsay. “Beauty Superstar Manny MUA Says Being ‘Canceled’ Led to the Darkest Period of His Life. Now He Writes His Own Narrative.” Insider, 19 Feb. 2020, www.insider.com/manny-mua-on-mental-health-cancel-culture-youtube-offline-life-2020-2.
Hagi, Sarah. “Cancel Culture Is Not Real-At Least Not in the Way You Think.” Time, Time, 21 Nov. 2019, time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/.
Romano, Aja. www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate.
Stea, Jonathan N. “The Hypocrisy of Cancel Culture and Its Variants.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 30 Oct. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/writing-integrity/201910/the-hypocrisy-cancel-culture-and-its-variants.
Yar, Sanam, and Jonah Engel Bromwich. “Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/10/31/style/cancel-culture.html.