What Does Cancel Culture Really Mean?

Content warning: the following article briefly discusses comments regarding pedophilia, bestiality, rape and sexual assault.

Picture this: It’s Thanksgiving and your rambling grandparent/aunt/uncle/distant relative is going on and on about how they can barely say anything these days without getting cancelled or about how comedy is dead because someone will always get offended. They might even claim that Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are silencing them, but you know one thing for certain. They are anything but silent at that moment. 

Scenarios like this seem to be happening more and more often lately, with older generations blaming younger liberals for ongoing censorship in the media in a phenomenon known as cancel culture. If you use any social media platforms, it is probably safe to assume that you’ve heard of it. People of all backgrounds have criticized the sensation, from comedians to movie stars to politicians, including former president Donald Trump, who demanded “an end to the shadow-banning, a stop to the silencing and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing and canceling.” There are even talks about cancel culture just being a conservative talking point, a chance to play the victim. So, what if cancel culture simply isn’t as big of a deal as some make it out to be? What if the metaphorical guillotine of political and social correctness doesn’t really exist at all and celebrity reputations are hardly at risk? And most importantly, what if your grandparent/aunt/uncle/distant relative is just rambling on about nothing? 

Celebrities are typically who we hear about when it comes to cancel culture. Although in theory anyone can be cancelled, we are going to focus mainly on celebrities and their interactions with cancel culture simply because there’s more engagement around those cases. It is easier to analyze the attention that celebrities receive because their lives are more exposed than regular, not famous people. That being said, in order to properly decide whether cancel culture actually means anything, we are going to investigate the cases of six different “cancelled” celebrities, each of which have either lost their platform completely, have been unaffected or have actually benefited from their controversies. Then, we can determine if cancel culture is actually of concern. 

What does it mean to be “cancelled”?

To remain as uniform as possible, we need to define “cancelling”. In a Pew Research survey, roughly 49% of Americans define cancel culture as “actions people take to hold others accountable.” The same Pew Research survey revealed that, out of the Americans who believe cancel culture is important, 17% think “it can be a teaching moment that helps people learn from their mistakes and do better in the future.” So, we can accurately assess cancel culture as a movement to hold people accountable and provide them an opportunity to do better in the future. But, it’s hard to think about it in this way without taking into account the societal impact of cancelling, so we should also consider cultural reactions in our definition. How people react to someone’s actions is arguably the most obvious and noticeable aspect of cancel culture. 

Another important distinction is between cancelling someone and finding them guilty of committing an actual crime. Criminals are, in theory, held accountable for their actions, but this accountability is under the law and not on social media or in society. For our definition, we will stick to accountability by people without law-enforcing ability. For example, someone who receives negative attention on social media for a tweet might be cancelled, but someone who is indicted for sexual assault would not be. For this reason, celebrities accused and found guilty of sexual assault as a result of the #MeToo movement should not be considered cancelled. This includes R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and more. But that begs the question: what about celebrities not indicted for sexual crimes? In theory, if we apply the notion that a cancelled person is someone who is held accountable and given an opportunity to do better, then someone found not guilty of assault or harassment under the law could be considered cancelled. If anything, that goes to show how cancel culture is an extremely intricate topic that can be difficult to interpret. Instead, for the rest of our investigation, we’ll discuss celebrity actions and comments around racism, homophobia, sexism and the like. With that in mind, let’s discuss celebrities who needed to be held accountable for their actions and determine what happened.

Lost Platform: Shane Dawson and DaBaby

When prompted with the phrase cancel culture, it’s safe to say that many Americans have a negative reaction. In the Pew Research survey mentioned earlier, some defined it as a “censorship of speech or history” or an “attack on traditional American society.” While these claims seem a bit extreme, analyzing examples of cancel culture negatively affecting celebrities would benefit our investigation.

Shane Dawson was dubbed the “King of Youtube” prior to his fall from media relevancy. Dawson’s most famous YouTube videos include his early conspiracy theory videos, but as his fame grew, he began commenting on drama in influencer communities and getting involved in social media scandals — which is arguably where his downfall began. As his platform grew, people started exposing his controversial past, which includes dressing in blackface, sexualizing children like Willow Smith, and strange comments about sexual relations with animals. As a result, YouTube demonetized all of Dawson’s accounts, Target stopped selling his books and his makeup line was taken down by Morphe. For context, monetization on YouTube is an agreement in which YouTubers can make money off of advertisements. For content creators like Dawson, monetization is necessary to make an income, alongside selling merchandise like books and makeup. That being said, Dawson’s case is by far one of the most extreme stories of cancel culture as he was effectively ‘fired’ from his job. After releasing his apology video, he lost over 700,000 subscribers and was on track to lose at least a million. 

The second celebrity whose platform has been impacted substantially by cancel culture is rapper DaBaby. After making blatantly homophobic comments regarding HIV and AIDS at a music festival, DaBaby was called out by fellow musicians Elton John and Dua Lipa. Following his call out, DaBaby made a confusing series of apologies in which he appeared to backtrack and blame people trying to “take money out of [his] pockets.” Shortly after, he was dropped from numerous music festivals including Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, the iHeartRadio festival and many more. Moreover, many LGBTQ+ organizations have publicly called him out. It is safe to say that DaBaby’s reputation was ruined by his words, and it is unclear whether he will ever truly apologize and return to the spotlight. It is interesting to note that DaBaby’s case shows a shift in how cancelling occurs. Unlike Dawson, DaBaby wasn’t held accountable on social media but rather by the music industry itself. As of right now, DaBaby joins Shane Dawson as an example of cancel culture significantly hurting someone’s reputation.

Unaffected Reputation: Scarlett Johansson and James Gunn

We have looked at a couple of celebrities who were negatively affected by cancel culture. But, according to activist Lorretta Ross, the largest percentage of cancelled celebrities aren’t really affected at all. She explains in “A Word”, her podcast, that, “powerful people who have a large platform rarely are going to suffer from being canceled. They’re still going to be rich. They’re still going to be powerful. They’re still going to have a platform.” Ross comes to the conclusion that, regardless of how intense their controversies are, most celebrities will still have their money, their power and their opportunities. What does this look like in practice?

First, let’s explore the controversial actions of Marvel actress Scarlett Johansson. Besides her role as Black Widow, Johansson has come under fire multiple times for taking roles outside of her race or gender. In 2017, she played an Asian woman in “Ghost in the Shell”, receiving criticism for taking a role that could have gone to an Asian lead. Then, in 2018, she left a role as a transgender man after criticism from LGBTQ+ activists, and instead of growing and learning from her mistakes, she blamed “political correctness”. Despite the masses on Twitter calling Johansson out for her actions and holding her accountable, her reputation had virtually no fluctuation. Since 2018, she has starred in three Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, including “Black Widow”, in which she played the title character. She is also listed as one of the richest actresses of all time. It is almost up to interpretation why her career remained intact, but it could be because she addressed it head on by issuing an apology or because she has a vital role in the most influential movie franchise of the era. Or maybe her fan base consists of people who dislike cancel culture or are just older in general than the fans of, say, Shane Dawson. Regardless, her experience with cancel culture and political correctness had no serious effect on her career.

Another pivotal member of the MCU, writer and director James Gunn, had his time in the cancel culture spotlight. In 2018, he was fired from Marvel Studios for vulgar tweets about rape, pedophelia, 9/11, the Holocaust and AIDS. If the story ended there, Gunn would probably be listed under the “Lost Platform” section. But it didn’t. The stars of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, which Gunn directed, wrote a letter to fans advocating for Gunn’s return. As a result, he was rehired by Disney in 2019 and is currently set to direct “Guardians of the Galaxy 3”. Moreover, this year he worked on “The Suicide Squad”, the latest DC Extended Universe film, which was a relative success. Gunn was held accountable for his tweets, but just like Johansson, his career was unaffected and he is still just as successful. He even recently commented on cancel culture, stating, “It’s painful. But some of it is accountability. And that part of it is good. It’s just about finding that balance.”

Incidentally Benefitted from Controversy: Morgan Wallen and Dr. Seuss

We have discussed celebrities that have been shunned from society for their actions and we have looked into celebrities who have been generally unaffected by cancel culture, but there is one final breed of cancellation that has been much more prevalent recently. Let’s talk about what happens when careers are not just untouched, but actually helped, by cancel culture. It seems almost counterintuitive, but yes, for some celebrities, cancel culture has led to money and fame, including country artist Morgan Wallen and late children’s author Dr. Seuss.

Wallen was dropped from his agency and from the Country Music Association after a video was leaked online of him using racial slurs when conversing with his friend. He lost further support and resources from numerous country stars and labels. This would have been the end of his career — that is, if his number of streams, followers and views didn’t skyrocket afterwards. According to Billboard, there was a 102% increase in album sales the week after his scandal. Moreover, song downloads from one of his albums went up 67%, and according to USA Today, “Wallen’s sophomore record, “Dangerous: The Double Album” also retains its top spot for a fourth week on Billboard’s all genre albums chart.” Outside of his music, he gained nearly 28,000 new Twitter followers, proving that his brush with cancel culture meant nothing. In an apology statement, Wallen explained, “I want to sincerely apologize for using the word. I promise to do better,” and it seems his fans believed him, or simply didn’t care. It would appear that Morgan Wallen benefitted from his controversy by both gaining new fans and raking in sales from country music listeners, which goes to prove that cancel culture might not be as harmful as many think. For example, it is also important to consider who, on average, listens to country music. Although many country artists of color exist, the genre target market is a “white, middle income, relatively conservative” rural listener, someone more likely to condemn cancel culture. Demographics such as that might also have substantial influence on who is effectively cancelled and who reaps the benefits, as we can also see in the case of Dr. Seuss.

Whether or not Dr. Seuss was actually cancelled is disputed, mainly because, unlike others, he was held accountable for his actions by Seuss Enterprises and not the media (similar to a situation with Mr. Potato Head that people claimed was the result of cancel culture). Furthermore, Seuss has been dead for 30 years, so it would be hard to denounce him. Philip Bump of the Washington Post summarized it perfectly by stating, “The author, himself, is dead for one thing, which is about as canceled as a person can get.” Nonetheless, many fans of the children’s author blamed cancel culture when six of his books were pulled from shelves for depicting racist imagery, especially towards Asian Americans and Jewish people. When the accusations against Suess broke, older people and politicians complained about cancel culture censorship and political correctness, but in reality, there is no justification for Suess’ racist depictions. Either way, after being cancelled Dr. Seuss book sales skyrocketed. The day after Seuss Enterprises pulled the plug, 9 out of the top 10 Amazon bestsellers were Seuss books, Barnes and Noble was sold out of the children’s stories and rare book sites were selling them for upwards of $9,000. Because he is not alive, there are two reasons we can say cancel culture didn’t hurt Dr. Seuss. 1) He is dead and therefore cannot be held accountable and feel ashamed for his racist depictions, and 2) his company made loads of money. Even so, his legacy could have been negatively affected after he was cancelled, but it wasn’t. Seuss, alive or not, fits right in with Morgan Wallen as two individuals who benefitted from cancel culture. 

In conclusion

With the conclusion of our investigation, we can now ask: if cancel culture has varying degrees of effectiveness, could it simply just be a talking point for people opposed to progressivism? Many prominent critics of the phenomenon are right leaning politicians or voters who have successfully weaponized cancel culture. For example, significant members of the GOP have criticized Democrats and the left for being too sensitive and abusing cancel culture, yet they’ve used it to rally conservative constituents. But if cancel culture doesn’t always destroy careers like some people want us to think it does, conservatives might just be using it to their advantage. That isn’t to say liberals don’t decry cancel culture — in the same Pew Research poll mentioned earlier, there were still left leaning individuals who believed the phenomenon was a “censorship of speech or history”, and 1% even said it was an “attack on traditional American society”. The key difference to notice here, though, is that it is significantly less likely to be a liberal with a negative view of cancel culture. Also, according to Vox, at the 2020 Republican National Convention, nearly a third of the speakers “addressed cancel culture as a concerning political phenomenon.” The term cancel culture has been used remarkably more often by conservatives, especially law makers and political organizations. 

All in all, disputes about cancel culture will go on as long as social media exists. In the opinion piece “Cancel culture does not exist”, which inspired my article, Sarah Manavis explains, “Social media is merely the natural next arena upon which old tropes are playing out – a new space for historical power structures to be solidified.” Simply put, as long as society has a place to meet up in order to socialize, discussions about power and freedom will continue. As followers, we are able to hold celebrities accountable if we choose and we ultimately have the power to decide en masse what is okay and what is unacceptable.

Public accountability needs to happen, but we can see that cancel culture isn’t as deadly as it is painted out to be. We can’t assume the lack of accountability for some celebrities applies to them all, but there is a serious problem that society needs to address. As we saw with Morgan Wallen, someone’s reputation could very well be defined by the demographics of their fan base. If we can conclude that cancel culture is used by conservatives to make a point, it would make sense that celebrities with conservative fan bases would suffer the least. Also, what about regular people held accountable not by society but by their careers, such as the guy who was fired from Google for his take on gender in tech? Would he be considered cancelled? If cancelling means holding someone accountable and giving them an opportunity to grow, then yes, he would be. But why would he have a more intense punishment than the likes of James Gunn or Morgan Wallen? It all goes to show that cancel culture is not only overstated, but also has so much room to be further defined and examined. My selection of celebrities I chose for this article depends on nothing, which can go to show that society’s reaction to controversial actions and comments can be fluid. Regardless, the next time #[insert name]isoverparty is trending on Twitter, think to yourself: is that celebrity really stuck in a pillory, or will their reputation generally remain unscathed while their problematic behavior continues?

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