Have We Been Missing the Point of ‘Cancel Culture’ All Along?

Michael Beausoleil

If you’ve watched the news recently, you’ve probably heard of a celebrity getting “canceled.” These are people who have done something so offensive and outrageous that the public bands together to revoke their support for that person. Often, the offending instance happened years in the past but has resurfaced thanks to web sleuths digging up the evidence. Other times, the offenses are new occurrences. Before the dust has settled, careers have been terminated and the celebrity has been rebranded as a villain.

Recent victims of cancelation include Dr. Seuss, Morgan Wallen, and “cancel culture” itself. Twitter seems to cancel a new person each day, while other people are fed up with the constant attempts to end careers. As such, it seems there are polarizing views when it comes to canceling others. Some people want to end careers, while others would rather view celebrities as people and not reduce them to isolated incidents.

This week, Fox News ran a segment asking for Gen X to fight back against cancel culture. They focused on Gen X because it’s a generation stereotyped for their lack of caring and willingness to ignore others. For the most part, they ignored Fox News.

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(Photo: via Fox News and Justin Baragona on Twitter)

While Fox News doesn’t have the best reputation, many people do share the opinions represented on the station. As the images of “beloved” childhood characters begin to be scrutinized, some people are wondering if cancel culture has gone too far. After all, Dr. Seuss seems innocent when we compare him to some of the more vulgar celebrities who seem to have flourishing careers.

Why Cancel Culture Exists

When we look at some of the bigger cases of cancelation, it’s hard to support the celebrities in question. People like Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and R. Kelly have been accused of violent and sexual crimes by numerous people. These celebrities have found themselves in positions of power and they abused that power. Now, people want to use their voices to hold them accountable.

There’s a reason these celebrities have been so universally shunned. Their actions directly harmed many people, and they used their status to cover their tracks. Volumes of people spoke out, and major brands listened. TV networks, Netflix, and music streaming services have removed content featuring canceled celebrities.

The fewer people who consume this content, the less money is paid to the offending parties.

Not all cases of canceled celebrities are as clear-cut. One of the more famous examples can be found when you look at Roseanne Barr. In 2018 she was fired from her own sitcom on ABC after posting a racially insensitive tweet toward Valerie Jarrett, an African American woman who served on the Obama campaign. Roseanne’s sitcom was a ratings success, but ABC saw the damage from the tweet almost instantly.

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There’s a part of me that feels these actions are extreme. After all, this is Roseanne Barr, a comedian known for her brash humor. I primarily know her for her self-titled sitcom and for her awful rendition of the National Anthem where she spits at the end. What did ABC expect when they signed her contract again? Not to dismiss the tweet, but her statement fits into my preexisting character mold for Roseanne. Plus, her tweet was directed toward a political figure, someone who’s accustomed to criticism of all sorts.

Upon further reflection, I realize that part of me is trivializing the need to address Roseanne’s statement. Valarie Jarrett is likely accustomed to being criticized, and that’s the issue. Roseanne’s status allows her message to be seen by millions, and she just gets a pass because racially insensitive comments are part of her public persona. When this happens, people start to view these comments as acceptable. It’s possible ABC also had a character mold for Roseanne, but wanted to give her show a chance regardless. After the backlash of one instance, they feared it would happen again. So they pulled the plug.

Ultimately, money is a big motivator. People are mad, advertisers are mad, and ABC has to do damage control. So they got rid of Roseanne and rebranded the show as The Conners.

Why We’re Now in the Era of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture exists because the internet has leveled the playing field. If you can remember the world two decades ago, before we had widespread web access, regular people would have a hard time getting their voices heard. Even if Roseanne made a racist comment about a celebrity in 1998, it would have gone through multiple channels before the public heard it. People might want to protect her and remove the comment from her narrative, but now she doesn’t have a middleman.

There was a time when offended viewers would write literal letters to the network. In many cases, the representatives would copy and paste an apology as an attempt to put out these little fires. Now, all of these little fires can band together and set a bigger blaze. When enough people band together, the public pays attention.

In modern times, a celebrity‘s comments can be seen online without a publicist interfering. This is when we see people rallying together to “cancel” the person. Voices can quickly be amplified online, and this instills a sense of fear into television networks and record labels.

Take Morgan Wallen as an example, who was recorded using the n-word in an exchange with friends. The video circulated around the internet and many people were outraged. His record label dropped him, likely influenced by the current political climate and public outcry. This comes weeks after his SNL appearance was canceled because he was recorded violating COVID protocols (though he did perform at a later date). By some accounts, his career should be canceled.

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As of March 15, 2021, Wallen has amassed a total of 9 weeks atop the Billboard 200 albums chart. This comes six weeks after he was “canceled” online. Clearly, the public outcry doesn’t mean he’s really banished, but it does mean his reputation has changed. Any article or video featuring Wallen will have comments referring to his racist language, but this isn’t enough to push his fans away.

People have the power to speak out. Whether you want to support canceled artists or not, media outlets don’t have the power to protect their talent anymore.

Cancel Culture: Erasing History?

There are two major criticisms for cancel culture. Firstly, people claim it infringes upon freedom of speech. This would only hold true if someone is canceled for their language, and addressing offensive comments is also an expression of free speech. The second criticism claims cancel culture erases history.

You might see this applied to the current controversy surrounding Dr. Seuss. His estate has stopped publishing and licensing six books including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo.” According to the Dr. Seuss estate, “these books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

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None one is canceling Dr. Seuss, and there was only backlash after the announcement. Rather, his estate is addressing racial stereotypes depicted in books that are decades old. It is possible that publishers don’t want Dr. Seuss to be associated with racial stereotypes, and his estate recognizes the potential harm from old books. Perhaps the change was made as a result of education rather than public pressures.

There’s a reason so many childhood characters are being addressed. Dr. Seuss, Disney, Muppets, and Looney Tunes have survived for generations. When 90’s babies grows up and have children of their own, they might want to share their favorite stories with the next generation. So they open their copies of Dr. Seuss books and realize the images weren’t so innocent. Some companies will want to remove stereotypes from their future output. Others, such as Disney, will keep stereotypical depictions in their media but give parents and viewers a warning.

Just like all other things, these images aren’t gone for good. The internet will continue to be the internet, and all of those dirty little secrets will be preserved somewhere.

Do We Need Cancel Culture?

If you look at people like Morgan Wallen, cancel culture doesn’t even prevent a person from being successful. It’s just an idea, and there’s no set of rules to determine who gets canceled and how we treat them. If you’d like, you can still support people like R. Kelly or Kevin Spacey, but don’t expect major media outlets to give them support. So there’s not a huge need to declare someone or something as “canceled.” It’s just a word, and it only has as much power as we choose to give it.

However, the point of “canceling” someone is not lost on me. We need to hold public figures accountable, and people shouldn’t be above rules just because they hold a certain status. In this regard, I support the idea of “canceling” someone. It’s not necessarily about issuing bans on certain content, rather it lets consumers know who they’re supporting.

The biggest issue with cancel culture is the lack of consistency. Some people seem to have blossoming careers despite their prior offenses. In 2021, Chris Brown found himself with a top 3 single despite his history of violence(most notably toward Rihanna). People have been canceled for far less, but a catchy song seems to erase memories of his past.

Whether or not I support cancel culture, I know it’s not going away. People will always make mistakes, and most people hold different values. What offends one person will intrigue another. I anticipate more celebrities will be canceled, probably ones I like. Whether or not I jump on the bandwagon is entirely up to my own standards.

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