It's 2018 and the headlines read of Taylor Swift’s return after 3 years of radio silence. The newly released album, Reputation, hits the top position in the charts and the singer-songwriter thrives on the concept of 'rising from the ashes' after being trended on Twitter with the hashtag #TaylorSwiftisOverParty. She talks about how getting cancelled affected her over the last few years, and yet restores her position as the highest paid celebrity in the world. So, how much of the criticism she received really made an impact? Did we witness changed behaviour?
Cancel culture, the word, has become quite popular in today’s times. ‘Cancel’, a loose term, in reality, is a form of public shaming and withdrawing public support from a celebrity for holding them accountable to their actions or words. Cancel culture started as a way to publicly call out celebrities on their racist, sexist or homophobic behaviour which often goes unchecked while their influence on society and people disseminates their beliefs and ideas. The main impact the cancel culture generated was the rise of checks and consequences; every remark was scrutinized and filtered and calling out the negative ones was thus used as one way to propagate education about social matters and the privileges that one upholds. Moreover, it has given a rightful voice to the marginalised communities.
This movement rose side by side with the #MeToo movement and the rise of stan culture. It helped indict powerful men like R Kelly and Harvey Weinstein for their crimes, giving justice to their victims. The public shape of this movement always highlights the power & influence a mob can have. It leads to a definite path and rules which a celebrity must follow being under a watchful eye. It also highlights the importance of using a public platform wisely and opens the eyes of influencers and celebrities to the fact that they have a responsibility to uphold and that their words do carry impact among their fanbases.
Cancel Culture is, however, complex. The idea of justice could be viewed in a certain black and white scenario. The scale of right and wrong differs amongst individuals. There have been times when conflict of ideals result in a mass ‘cancelling’ of a certain public figure. So, while something as serious as sexual assault or any kind of discriminatory behaviour deserves to be called out, cancelling someone for differences in opinion or ideas can be detrimental. When Jodie Comer, who stars in Killing Eve, got cancelled for dating a Republican, people wondered if this system was birthing a few anomalies.
“The world is messy; there are ambiguities.” Recently, Obama weighed in on the ‘call-out culture’ of the younger generation. He pointed out how being judgemental towards others is not really activism, if there is no visible source of change. He was not implying to be less judgemental towards Weinstein or Kelly, but the ones who get death threats over not framing a certain social media post right. The primary factors of forgiveness and critical thinking vanish when we are judging a faceless person on the internet. There is nothing wrong with calling out people’s mistakes, as long as there is space for them to educate themselves, grow and change.
Shane Dawson got cancelled a few weeks ago due to his piling problematic behaviours from all his time as a youtuber. He later apologized for his actions by posting a video titled ‘Accountability’. And hence, started his downfall in the YouTube world. While taking responsibility and apologizing on the internet does a bit of ‘damage control’, how much does a public apology actually speak of personal growth and redemption for their mistakes over the years? Public figures are often called out over problematic posts or videos from years ago. When you are boycotted and forced into an inability to justify your action, could that birth an honest response that the audience desires? And if the person is willing to change, how would a permanent ostracisation serve in this social justice?
The rise of cancellation as a mode of accountability also comes from the direct rise of stan culture. When fandoms became a widespread medium, the idolization of celebrities became a part of it too, the other shoe dropped soon enough, and people started questioning the validity of this idolization and the dangers of uneducated stanning. This led to people critically thinking more about their choices and the words that come out of a public figure’s mouth and analysing their intentions behind it. The fans bonded over their favourites but the problem of excusing everything their favourite did just because it was their idol still remained heavily. This can be seen in cases of a lot of celebrities like Taylor Swift or James Charles, who got subjected to name-calling like ‘snake’ or ‘predators’, and lost fans/subscribers. Soon enough they responded with ‘receipts’, and suddenly, were proven right in the eyes of their fans. Both are still highly paid artists in their respective fields, with no damage done to their reputation.
Dissociation from the reality itself is a common trope on the internet. We agree that Weinstein or R Kelly are facing court cases and jail times. Yet, ‘cancelling’ someone can temporarily setback people’s career, but never destroy them in the real world. JK Rowling, Ellen Degeneres, Kanye West and many other personalities who have been showing patterns of problematic behaviours throughout the years are still sitting on their commercial success, despite being cancelled over the internet. Politicians like Donald Trump are still in power with numerous allegations of sexual assault, hate speech and tax evasions on his tail.
While many of the victims are wealthy, influential celebrities, others too get caught in the web like Emmanuel Cafferty, a truck driver who was accused of making an “okay” symbol by a driver he cut off at a traffic light while near a rally for Black Lives Matter. The public claimed that this was a deliberate use of the symbol as a white-power gesture, and he was promptly fired. Cafferty then claimed that he was just cracking his knuckles and was unaware of the hand gesture he was making. The user who had accused him came forward and said that he might have gotten "spun up" in the moment and misinterpreted it. A knee-jerk reaction from the Internet led to a working class man and person of colour to lose his only source of income.
The honest question is what has been the real impact of ‘cancel culture’ so far? Is the call for accountability working enough to bring down the influential figures of the world? Or has it done nothing but create an online justice system (to show solidarity towards its victim) but with no impact in real life whatsoever? It is a very powerful weapon, wielded to voice out against the ones who carry harmful and prejudiced outlook towards a certain section of society. However, in the world where we are actively calling out questionable behaviours, who is really winning, if most of the privileged and powerful are still on top, devoid of any remorse?