I first came across cancel culture as a 16 year-old. I was sitting in English class, and my friends were discussing an article in the New York Times reporting on the allegations made by 13 women accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault.
“Yeah, everyone’s cancelling him,” one of my friends said. “Even if he doesn’t go to jail, his career is definitely over.”
Dumbfounded by the article’s contents and confused as to what she meant by ‘cancelled’, I went home and started doing my own research. I grew increasingly disgusted by Weinstein’s atrocities, and found myself nodding in agreement at YouTube videos and articles explaining cancel culture’s purpose. Fuelled by feminism and the desire for justice, I, too, cancelled Weinstein.
For those whose minds are a little foggy surrounding the definition of cancel culture and need a refresher, allow me. ‘Cancelling’ is the practice of boycotting celebrities and companies after they have done or said something that is considered intolerable. This includes racist and homophobic comments, sexual assault, and other vile acts.
To gain further insight into cancel culture, I spoke to Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a Social and Political Sciences Professor at the University of Melbourne specialising in feminism, pop culture and gender studies. According to Dr Rosewarne, when someone is cancelled they are expected to take accountability and learn from their wrongdoings. If they fail to do so, the public often avoid engaging with the ‘cancelled’ and their work.
Tarana Burke, the original founder of the MeToo movement. Image source: https://news.blog.gustavus.edu/2019/05/06/metoo-founder-tarana-burke-to-speak-at-gustavus/.
Although the term ‘cancelled’ has been around for years, cancel culture rose to popularity in the last decade, which saw the continued rise of fourth wave feminism and the virality of #MeToo. Powerful, influential Hollywood men including Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey had their careers ended and reputations destroyed after victims spoke up about their experiences of sexual abuse. Weinstein is now in prison, and Spacey is hiding in the shadows.
“[Kevin Spacey will] pop in an obscure Italian film, but basically his career in Hollywood is over,” Dr Rosewarne tells me.
While Hollywood, television and other conventional media outlets still cancel celebrities (just take a look at what’s happened to Kanye West’s reputation), most of the work now occurs on social media. Cancel culture thrives on platforms like Instagram and Twitter — which, love them or hate them, have the democratic power of allowing pretty much anyone to share their opinion. This includes voicing dissent when a celebrity, company or person in a position of authority has done something wrong. Cancelling someone can also involve ‘doxxing’, where their personal information and content is released to the public.
Cancel culture thrives on platforms like Instagram and Twitter — which, love them or hate them, have the democratic power of allowing pretty much anyone to share their opinion.
In fact, well-loved and popular YouTuber Jenna Marbles took herself off the platform and all social media in response to cancel culture. She was ashamed of her past videos which included racist remarks and blackface and did not want to risk harming watchers with any more content.
Although a single individual can’t cancel a public figure, they can stop supporting them on an individual scale.
“If you’re pissed off about JK Rowling, for example, and want to see her cancelled, what you can do as an individual is not buy her stuff and not follow her on social media,” Dr Rosewarne explains. “In a tiny way, you can take away her cultural imprint.”
However, the lines of what’s deemed worthy of ‘cancelling’ someone over has muddied.
“It’s become such a political football and has been used by all sides of the political spectrum to describe online behaviour,” Dr Rosewarne says.
Image from Unsplash.
As it’s become so easy to cancel people over social media, it’s now common practice to dig up old, controversial content as evidence to publicly shun creators and celebrities. As Dr Rosewarne explains, these aren’t instances of cancel culture in its original form. “I think moreso labels such as ‘shaming’ work better,” she says.
A prime example of this is the recent backlash TikToker Mikayla Nogueira faced. A video of hers from 2021 resurfaced where she complained being an influencer was hard. In an exasperated tone, the short clip (taken out of context) shows Mikayla speaking to the camera: “Try being an influencer for a day. Try it.”
Outraged, TikTokers flooded the creator with hate, furious with how inconsiderate Mikayla was being. Calls to cancel her were being made. And sure, Mikayla’s comment may have been inconsiderate. There are many difficult jobs in the workforce, with numerous that are arguably harder than influencing. But is it really worth being cancelled over?
As a feminist, this leads me to wonder: should feminists be subscribing to and participating in this culture at all now that it has deviated from its original intention?
People get frustrated. People have bad days. Cancel culture no longer accounts for this, resulting in many celebrities and influencers being cancelled for miniscule mistakes they’ve made in their past. This creates toxic online communities, relationships and environments.
This is so far from what cancel culture used to be. Dr Rosewarne explains that because people in the spotlight are mostly cancelled for such minor issues, they never stay that way.“There are some people who become persona non grata, we’re not going to task them anymore but that’s very rare, most people have actually survived in various ways,” Dr Rosewarne tells me. “That doesn’t mean they haven’t taken hits, but most have survived.”
Image by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash.
Cancel culture is no longer doing what it originally set out to do: holding people accountable for inexcusable actions and punishing them. And this is because on the spectrum of offences, quite a few cancel-ees haven’t committed anything that drastic, hence undermining the seriousness of cancel culture and rendering it useless.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s impossible to cancel somebody. If the shoe fits, they’ll wear it (rather unwillingly). However, as an audience we need to stop being keyboard warriors and rushing to cancel some influencer because of their selfish comment. Hold them accountable, sure, but don’t threaten to cancel them over something minute on the scale of intolerable offences.
A great way to consider respectfully holding people accountable is calling-in, rather than publicly shaming them through calling-out. By having discreet, two-way conversations via dms or IRL, we can inform others why their actions are offensive and give them the opportunity to redeem themselves without public shaming.
When I first learned about it, I was all for cancel culture. A way to propel the feminist movement forward and stand up for our bodily autonomy? Sign me up. This was a way we could finally have our voices heard; to make real change… But with what cancel culture has become now? I’d rather sit this one out.
In my humble opinion, feminists (and all people, really) should not subscribe to cancel culture as it currently stands. It’s a harmful and detrimental cause that has lost the powerful meaning and purpose it originally held. When I first learned about it, I was all for cancel culture. A way to propel the feminist movement forward and stand up for our bodily autonomy? Sign me up. This was a way we could finally have our voices heard; to make real change. We could make genuine progress rather than remaining silent and being afraid of what would happen if we spoke up for our rights. But with what cancel culture has become now? I’d rather sit this one out.
Let’s bring back the original purpose of cancel culture: boycotting those who are committing heinous, unacceptable acts and causing damage to those around them. Rather than cancelling people for minor mistakes, if appropriate we should make the effort to call-in those who have offended us, and start meaningful conversations. While some might never change, many of us have the capacity to reflect on our mistakes and evolve — and cancel culture needs to account for that.
Alyssa is a writer based in Naarm/Melbourne, currently studying her final year of journalism at RMIT. When she isn’t busy typing away at her keyboard, you’ll find Alyssa out for a walk or buried in a book, knitting needles in hand.