Celebrities and accountability: The other side of “cancel culture”

A few summers ago, I attended an All Time Low concert. Before the band took the stage, however, their opening act, a boy band called SWMRS, performed their set. Almost immediately, I became enamored with the presence of the California-native quartet. The SWMRS’ performance featured zestful guitar riffs, energetic crowd interactions and a dreamy lead singer, Cole Becker, donning a green floral dress while jamming out on his pink electric guitar. Becker’s choice of outfit essentially served as a middle finger to gender norms—his very presence signifying that even a “manly” man in the rock scene could wear a pretty dress while crowd surfing.     At one point, he shouted out to the crowd, commanding audience members not to touch anyone inappropriately or make those around them uncomfortable (an unfortunate norm at rock concerts). 

rock concert Photo by Vishnu R Nair from Unsplash

After their performance, I became a devoted fan of SWMRS. At the time, the band represented everything I stood for and wished to see in the music world. They sought to uplift underrepresented voices, dismantle the patriarchy and often preached for feminism and equality at their shows. 

Yet, one day, as I was scrolling through Instagram, I came across the post we’ve all seen too many times before—the white background with ever-so-tiny text written across, the quintessential “apology” template. When I realized who the post was from, I was heartbroken. Joey Armstrong, SWMRS’ drummer, was accused of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse. In his post, he wrote a lackluster response, denying such claims and playing the victim after his ex-girlfriend, Lydia Night, detailed horrific incidents from their past relationship. 

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

I felt betrayed. How could a band who so often advocated for feminism have a member involved in such a disgraceful act? After the post, many more claims citing inappropriate behavior by members of SWMRS came from women involved with the band. Allegedly, behind closed doors, SWMRS was not as kind and supportive of women as the front they’d created for their image was.

Nevertheless, one good thing arose from an otherwise awful situation. The case of SWMRS set a prime example for what should happen to celebrities when they act in wrongful ways: SWMRS was collectively “cancelled” by their fanbase. 

To be “cancelled” can essentially be defined as a halt in one’s career as a consequence of negative behavior. Such an abrupt end is typically made effective through the use of social media and thus is associated with a significant loss in followers. While the idea of “cancel culture” can be problematic and controversial to some, I believe that to some degree, it is a necessary function in today’s society which relies so heavily on social media and pop culture’s influence. While small, trivial mistakes should not result in ending someone’s career, unacceptable behavior, such as sexual assault and racism, should result in significant consquences. Celebrities are people too, and they should be held accountable for their actions.

Phone with social media apps on screen Photo by dole777 from Unsplash

While the case of SWMRS can be heralded as a model scenario in the realm of cancel culture, others did not receive the same fate. For example, consider the case of R&B stars Chris Brown and Rihanna. When Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna, leaving her with visible injuries, he was sentenced to community service, domestic violence counseling and five years of probation. While he later served 90 days in jail due to probation violation, he still went on to win a Grammy award, headline sold out tours and collaborate with a myriad of other music superstars.

Thus, the “cancelling” doesn’t always “cancel” a celebrity long term. In many cases, the boycott of a celebrity becomes more of a social media fad rather than a true marker of accountability. That’s not to say people don’t deserve second chances—but in these extreme cases, where real people are truly hurt physically and/or emotionally, there should be real consequences in terms of a person’s career, no matter how famous they are. One Instagram apology written by a PR professional is not enough. There needs to be real steps pursued to make sure this behavior does not happen in the future, especially because it is being viewed on a global scale.

We want justice cardboard and girl with blonde hair Photo by Lina Kivaka from Pexels Problematic behavior by famous individuals is not limited to cases such as sexual misconduct and domestic abuse. Racism is also a behavior which can sometimes be excused on social media after time goes on. In any event, racism should never be tolerated or accepted, especially by individuals who were not being targeted. While celebrities may “change” or learn from their previous ways, this does not change the fact that people were hurt by their words or actions. If a person truly believes they have changed their ways, they must use their platforms to inform, educate and use their past behavior as a teaching tool to show followers how NOT to act. They must lift up the voices of those groups which they hurt and donate to campaigns which strive to prevent this behavior. While this may seem harsh, being in the public eye comes with a certain responsibility to behave in a correct manner and in turn comes with the necessity of unwavering accountability.

It is time that celebrities are held accountable for their actions. A culture which emphasizes respect and punishes unacceptable behavior is one that allows our society to grow, learn and become better individuals in the future.