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Cancel culture: Is it justice or ‘just-stick’?

By Phoebe McBurney

‘Gossip’ – a term for the juiciest conversations surrounding the atrocities committed by other people. Admittedly, my ears start flapping in the wind as soon as I hear the words “I can’t believe that [blank]…”, and have the kettle on quicker than you can respond “No… really?”.

As far as celebrity gossip goes, we love the shocking, outrageous and controversial (anyone that says they don’t gossip is lying). Over the years, the actions of some celebrities have shattered their careers in the blink of an eye, from Ashley Simpson’s SNL lip sync disaster in 2004, to Amanda Byne’s Twitter meltdown in 2012, to the vulgar crimes of Glee’s Mark Salling in 2015. Even Shakespeare probably uttered the words “Hay! Thoust career doth now over.”

Nowadays, such ‘downfalls’ are being referred to as ‘being cancelled’. The term ‘cancel culture’ has been floating around social media for years, but what does it all really mean?

Put simply, cancel culture refers to public ostracism, where the actions of an individual result in them being socially ousted, losing their popularity and career, and therefore becoming ‘cancelled’. But with this ‘cancel culture’ becoming increasingly prominent, what happens to all the ‘cancelled’ celebrities? And is the intention of ‘cancel culture’ really all about justice and accountability, or is it now becoming a witch-hunt to target certain individuals?

We’ve all done it - haven’t we – sat around in the evening, watching an old TV show from ten years ago, and found ourselves looking at one of the actors thinking “Whatever happened to them?”

With so many notable celebrities dropping off the radar after being ‘cancelled’ by former fans, it begs the question of what behaviours are considered worthy of cancellation. There are the obvious reasons, of course, such as criminal activity, derogatory comments, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. For instance, Mark Salling, as mentioned above, was cancelled due to being jailed for possession of 50,000 instances of child pornography, which resulted in his suicide weeks later. Several other famous faces, including Marilyn Manson (2021) and recently UK footballer Mason Greenwood following allegations of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

Then there are the more subjective reasons for cancellation, which include the expression of political opinions and personal beliefs, such as country band The Dixie Chicks, who we will discuss later. Celebrities throughout history have kissed their fame goodbye after doing or saying something distasteful, so why is this ‘cancel culture’ suddenly on the rise? It’s undeniable that ‘cancel culture’ is most rife on the Internet, particularly on social media. Be it a shocking Instagram post or a controversial Tweet, ‘the Internet is forever’ and evidence has become truly indestructible.

With such a large following, celebrity cancellations tend to be the result of a widespread public outrage rather than merely being targeted by a single individual.

An ongoing example of this is British author J.K Rowling, who is best known for creating the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise. The writer came under fire in June 2020 following controversial tweets made about the transgender community, comments causing her fellow Harry Potter stars (Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint) to speak out against her. The controversy began when Rowling responded to an article, tweeting: “’People who menstruate’. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Rowling followed this Tweet stating that “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased”, and following the backlash, declared that she “[respects] every trans person’s right to live any way that feels comfortable and authentic to them”, but that her “life has been shaped by being female.”

Rowling undoubtedly received a great deal of backlash from angry fans, with Vox Media titling ‘Harry Potter And The Author Who Failed Us’. Many Tweeted in response to Rowling’s comments, stating that “Women are not defined by their periods,” and asking Rowling to “Please, for the love of God, leave us alone.”

Another roaring example is the cancellation of singer Melanie Martinez following public allegations of sexual assault by former friend Timothy Heller in 2017. Heller posted a lengthy statement on Twitter detailing two nights in which a ‘best friend’, who she later confirmed to be Martinez, sexually coerced and raped her. In her statement, Heller indicated that “the thought of accepting that [her] best friend raped [her] seems insane,” and that “the power [Martinez] had over [her], grew into [her] having a very hard time saying no to [Martinez]”, ending with Heller describing being “penetrated with a sex toy without being asked.”

Though Martinez responded the next day, tweeting: "I am horrified and saddened by the statements and story told tonight by Timothy Heller”, and stating that Heller “never said no to what [they] chose to do together”, fans were already tweeting their disgust at the singer, with #MelanieMartinezIsOverParty trending in less than 24 hours. It was reported that Martinez lost over 200,000 followers after the incident, as fans filmed and posted themselves destroying merchandise as they cancelled the star.

While cancel culture has affected celebrities and ‘influencers’ of all genders and identities, it’s essential to question whether cancellation is a level playing field for all. Double standards surrounding the expected behaviours of men and women have cursed society for some time, and so there’s no doubt in my mind that the same standards are held within cancel culture. You can go online, search any female celebrity’s name with the words “is cancelled” and I guarantee you will receive pages after pages of results.

For instance, women are constantly condemned for expressing sexuality in a way that men never have. A prime example of this is Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, who received a great deal of backlash for their sexually-explicit song ‘WAP’ (which I’ve danced to more times than I can count). I could write for years about how women’s views have been repeatedly silenced in the political world, but by that point you’d probably be bored of me. Nevertheless, it’s a fact that famous women are disproportionately cancelled for expressing their political views in comparison to men. One of the most renowned examples would be the Dixie Chicks in 2003, who criticised then-president George. W Bush at one of their shows, with singer Natalie Maine saying that infamous line: “We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”, which lost them corporate sponsorship and album sales.

Kathy Griffin was called to be cancelled after expressing her political views by posting a photo to Instagram of her holding the fake severed head of Donald Trump in 2017.

And Taylor Swift, despite remaining silent for most of her career, began her expression of her political views in 2018 following the release of her ‘Lover’ album. Aside from her work fighting for the LGBTQ+ community, which includes speeches, petitions and her hit single ‘You Need To Calm Down’, Swift posted to Instagram with a lengthy caption detailing her thoughts on the 2018 Midterm Elections. Whilst stating that she’d been reluctant to voice her political opinions in the past, Swift said that she believes “in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG”, and “that the systemic racism we still see in this country towards people of color is terrifying, sickening and prevalent.” Swift went on to talk about Tennessee candidate Marsha Blackburn, stating that her Congress record “appalls and terrifies” her. Such comments resulted in a deal of backlash for Swift, with then-president Donald Trump even saying that he liked her music “25% less”.

These examples, of course, among many others, all occurred whilst ex-NFL athlete Herscel Walker repeatedly went on air supporting Trump with minimal criticism and Kanye West was praised (I know) for wanting to run for office in 2020 despite his lack of political knowledge.

Why are women being cancelled for things men are congratulated for? The answer is simple: the media hates expressive, outspoken women. Double standards have neglected women from political stances throughout history, and I feel thankful that now, more than ever, more women are breaking through the glass ceiling.

But, even with sexism aside, everybody makes mistakes – right? And when you make a mistake, you apologise - that’s how it works. So, who decides which celebrities are sincere and which are incapable of redemption? With that question in mind, is cancel culture even about accountability at all?

A lot of people strongly disagree with the concept of cancel culture. Several instances of celebrities being cancelled have been due to ‘offences’ committed decades ago and many believe that it’s unfair to remove someone’s career due to past actions. Furthermore, they argue that because the definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have changed drastically over the years, it’s wrong to hold someone to past actions. A key example of this is Youtuber and businesswoman Zoe Sugg, or ‘Zoella', who was ‘cancelled’ following the circulation of some of her old tweets from around 2010-2012 which were recently criticised for homophobia, fat shaming and slut shaming. As many ex-fans of Zoella cancelled the star for her lack of apology and swiftly deleting the tweets, many people jumped to her defence.

One particular Tweet (by @hayleyIsunter) stated that “digging up tweets from zoella when she was 19/20 is stupid” and to not “act like you haven't once made a horrible comment about someone when you was younger & immature”.

Undoubtedly, the biggest question around cancel culture is whether we’ve taken it too far, with phrases such as ‘snowflake mentality’ used to indicate over-sensitivity of a generation. Some have even argued that these over-sensitivities are becoming a hinderance to free speech in the modern world.

If you ask me, I think it depends. I find there to be a big difference between trafficking crimes and stealing a Kinder Egg at age ten. For the rest of the media, I’ve always found that celebrities who issue apologies for their actions are less likely to be cancelled, as we’ve seen with Zoella as above, which shows that maybe cancel culture is about accountability after all. It is true that our knowledge of ignorance is ever-changing in today’s world and that while a certain degree of constructive backlash can help to educate people, we need to be mindful of the repercussions of mass cancellation and not isolate people from the conversation. In fact, if we isolate, we don’t learn, and the acknowledgement of accountability and sincerity of apology is sometimes more important than the offence itself. As an apology acts as a commitment to not repeating the same behaviour, people are offered a second chance wherein they can either choose to move forward learning from their mistakes or choose to be ignorant to hurt caused.

Without a doubt, cancel culture is a social phenomenon growing with each passing day. Whether it’s really about accountability in a progressive world, or if it’s become more about a culture of ‘attack’, the answer will vary for everyone. The internet has offered users the right to exercise their free speech and call out perceived injustices, however we can't deny that it has also created a barricade to which bullying and hate can hide behind. With larger followings, behaviours can be closely monitored making celebrities targets for cancel culture. There’s a quote I love by author Rashida Costa: “words are from the lips but actions are from the heart.” Yes, actions often speak louder than words, but words have the power to leave either engravings on the heart or bullets on the brain.


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