In May of 2018, Roseanne Barr had returned to celebrity-dom. After a more-than-20-year hiatus, her hit TV show Roseanne was back on the air, with her once again in the starring — and eponymous — role. And then just as suddenly, she was canceled. Quite literally, her show was taken off the air.
Why? Barr posted a racist Tweet about Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to Barack Obama during his presidency. The public was outraged at her statements and was equally furious about her non-apology, in which she claimed that she had posted the Tweet because she was on Ambien at the time.
This incident, and many others of varying degrees of severity, underscores the need to explore and understand cancel culture. What exactly is it? Why does it happen? And is it justified?
Cancel culture, also known as call-out culture, involves essentially boycotting a person because of his or her problematic behaviors or actions. When the larger public decides someone is “canceled,” it will avoid supporting or engaging with him or her, often resulting in a sharp decline in that person’s relevance and popularity. Sometimes, as with the Barr incident, there are other consequences, such as the loss of a job.
The precise origin of cancel culture is a bit hazy, but around 2015, #cancelled emerged as a hashtag on Black Twitter to expose people deemed problematic.
In a New York Times article from June 2018 entitled “Everyone Is Canceled,” Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan, opined that cancel culture came about because of a need for control. “Socially irredeemable things are said on platforms all the time,” she said, and canceling establishes “a culture of accountability which is not centralized and is haphazard, but needed to come into being.”
When someone is canceled, others are refusing to engage with that person or her work, essentially causing her to fade into the background and no longer have the (typically celebrity) presence she once had. It’s a power move — telling someone she is no longer accepted by society.
However, not all cancelations are successful. For example, despite Kanye West’s frequent cancelations, he continues to achieve success and retain fans — even putting out record-breaking hit albums.
In 2018, Walt Disney Studios fired James Gunn from directing Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3 after pushback regarding Tweets in which Gunn made jokes about pedophilia and rape. Gunn went on to direct other projects.
Kanye West has been a controversial figure for as long as he has been in the spotlight. In 2018, he was supposedly canceled for declaring, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years ... for 400 years? That sounds like a choice." However, as discussed, West’s album was number 1 on the Billboard the same year.
After racist Tweets from Laura Lee resurfaced after several years, the YouTuber lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers and fans. She also lost partnerships with beauty lines such as Ulta Beauty because of the scandal.
In what many deemed as a xenophobic and racist reaction, Jess Hilarious (Jessica Moore) posted an Instagram story expressing fear over four Sikh men boarding her plane. Later, she posted a four-minute video apologizing, saying she was “still growing,” though her popularity took a hit as well.
In October 2017, Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of molesting him when Rapp was 14. This prompted other men to come forward to claim that Spacey had made unwanted sexual advances toward them as well. He was charged with indecent assault and battery with regard to one of these accusations, and the criminal charges are still pending, though the civil lawsuit was dropped.
In the meantime, Netflix ended its relationship with the then House of Cards star, and Spacey was removed from several other projects as well.
Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor came under fire after responding to Twitter user @OniZay, who declared she was “going to be one of the best writers to come out of Nigeria.” Nnedi Tweeted back “Talk Is Cheap.” Twitter users came after Okorafor for her rude comments discouraging the writer.
Kelvin Peña, who went by the pseudonym Brother Nature, became famous for posting pictures of himself with animals on Twitter, became the target of cancelation in October of 2018, when antisemitic, racist and sexist Tweets were uncovered, largely from 2011 and 2012. Brother Nature had been 12 at the time he posted the Tweets, and he apologized for his behavior. At one point, he made his Twitter account private to avoid the negative attacks.
While many people argue that celebrities deserve to be canceled after problematic actions or words, others believe the punishment doesn’t necessarily fit the crime. Moreover, there’s a question of magnitude. For example, it would be difficult to suggest that Kevin Spacey should continue to make movies or star in a Netflix series after accusations that he sexually assaulted teenagers, but do Brother Nature’s Tweets, posted when he was a child, rise to the same level?
In a video called “We Can’t Cancel Everyone,” For Harriet’s Kimberly Foster said that canceling people doesn’t undo any pain caused by their actions. She also noted in an interview, “Changing culture meaningfully means approaching folks from the standpoint of ‘these harmful ideas you are perpetuating need to go. We’re not going to accept this anymore. But the people themselves can be recovered.'”
The main argument against cancel culture is that it doesn’t enable people who have wronged or supposedly wronged society the opportunity to apologize and learn from their mistakes. The consequences are swift: people’s followers can drop them in a matter of minutes. And while many canceled celebrities do apologize, these statements often fall on deaf ears. Moreover, the public is not educating them about why their actions were hurtful and wrong — it is shunning them instead. Rather than holding people accountable for their actions, it’s dismissing the people entirely.
Not everyone wants to learn, of course, but should people have the opportunity to do so regardless, particularly when the problematic behavior occurred well before the individual was a mature adult? That’s the real crux of the argument against cancel culture.