Cancel Culture Isn’t Real
I’m really tired of hearing the word “cancelled.” I’m tired of it not only because all of my favorite events over the past year have been cancelled, or that the places I once loved and the people who I once looked up to have been called out for being problematic, but because the term “cancel culture” has arisen as a misnomer for what we’re actually watching unfold as our society decides to bring problematic behavior to the surface of our conversation.
I’ve written about cancelling quite a bit. Primarily because I’ve observed the term first thrown by well-intended social justice warriors, then the response from those who find cancelling to be a toxic practice of censorship and a supposed violation of first amendment rights to free speech. Because I’ve already written about the problematic nature of “cancelling,” I’m not going to go into deep detail about every individual instance or specific person or piece of art or practice that has been cancelled this year. Instead, I’m going to ask you what about the topic of cancelling seems to be such a hot button issue, and what I believe is missing entirely from the conversation.
To be human is to be flawed. To be human is to desire connection. We want to be seen, we want to be heard, we want our experiences to be valid and to have the right to our autonomous experiences of the world and with the people in it. As a society, we are influenced by others. All of them human, all of them flawed. As a capitalist society, we are driven to produce, to consume, and to gain wealth as a form of survival. With the rise of social media, we have discovered and exhausted this medium in order to have these needs met, and in doing so, the broader conversation of what our society is and has been is no longer dictated by a powerful few with the connections and the capital to influence millions at a time. Instead, the stories and perspectives of those who had previously been denied the public platform to find connection, to be able to influence, or to make money in the way social media allows us to, suddenly have a voice that cannot be ignored, and never should have been.
For those of us who remember what life was like before social media, we are now discovering just how closed-minded our society had been for so long. There was little nuance of the personal experiences of anyone whose stories weren’t told through a platform of power and influence. What we read, watched, viewed, listened to, and created were only widely shared after being given the green light from big-budget publishers or networks or studios or galleries or record labels, and whoever sat at the top of the hierarchy in each of these conglomerates were the gatekeepers for what was and wasn’t acceptable.
I didn’t care when I was young. I didn’t have much of a voice and that was fine. Sure, I felt stifled, othered, unimportant, and invisible in mainstream media. I never felt like I was fully represented. So I simply found what those I looked up to were into. While headlines and articles weren’t quite as biased as they are today, they still told me how to feel. Britney was crazy, Lindsay was a drunk slut, Justin was a catch, Janet was a shame, Paris was hot, Johnny was sexy, Manson was edgy, Rosie was fat, Kirsty was fat, Nicole was fat then too skinny, the Olsen twins were too skinny but so chic, no one should ever go to the beach if they had cellulite — the list goes on ad infinitum. We had our stories and we had our opinions. They reflected how we felt about each other and ourselves. Fashion critics told us we were ugly and beloved 80’s comedies told us white people can do whatever they want because they’re just kids. This is how my generation was taught about the world. This is what TV and mainstream media taught us, and we were too young and dumb to question it.
The generation before us dictated these narratives because it was what they’d believed. Sure, some things had changed from the generation previous (as many Boomers will note their history of protests and fighting for the right causes), but creating caricature of other cultures, picking “it” girls to project their insecurities upon, and letting men in tight pants do whatever they wanted to women was fair game because it was just how it is.
This is a generous over-simplification, but it is not wrong.
When a studio releases a movie whose climactic plot-twist is the great vomit-inducing joke that the leading lady was actually transgender, not only do they have the power and influence to experience zero repercussions for who that story line hurts, but their greatest appeal is an audience of movie-goers who are able to laugh at the discomfort of something many of them have never experienced directly. Growing up in middle-America to a middle class interracial family in a predominantly white-heterosexual-male-dominated community, I didn’t know anyone who this would have affected. So I laughed. I laughed because it was a comedy and I thought it was funny. I laughed and loved the characters because they were funny and eccentric. I laughed because I didn’t realize it would hurt anyone, because those who would be hurt didn’t have a voice to speak up against it that was loud enough for me to hear. And to be honest, I wasn’t listening either.
I never wanted to hurt anyone. I never thought that my judgements of celebrities could cause harm. I never considered the humanity of those who had lived at the butt of jokes, even when they looked like me. I laughed along at racist jokes and plot lines, partially because I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t more like the lead character than the token sidekick, and partially because white was normal and everything outside of white was something that could be explained or described simply. Asians have funny accents and slanty eyes, Blacks are ghetto criminals, gays are weak flamboyant fashion snobs, Latin women are fiery, trans women are “tranny’s” who we can laugh at because they’re not really women or not really men.
Our jokes were disgusting. Our “givens” were dehumanizing. Our assumptions of what was “normal” and “fair game” were given to us by those who taught us of what they believed, too often influenced by the white-heterosexual-male-dominated CEO’s and shareholders who ultimately benefitted from maintaining a status quo that kept them at the top of the heap.
Do I believe that these white male heterosexual power-hungry greed-driven “leaders” we’ve been protecting and empowering throughout our history made intentional decisions to promote white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and capitalism as some secret deep-state plot to oppress anyone who wasn’t like them? No.
Hear me out.
My favorite quote of all time comes from a Jim Henson show that ran for only one season in 1989 called “The Storyteller.” I’ll link it here so you can watch it if you want.
The quote is from a prince, speaking to a princess who is working at his castle disguised in fur and feathers and rags as a monster who comes to him to bring him fresh towels.
“Do I disgust you?”
“You amaze me, listen — cats chase mice. Hens lay eggs. Some things have to do with other things. I have nothing to do with you. You do not disgust me because I don’t think about you.”
This quote reads at first as a brutal burn. Which it is. But what he is saying is not an insult to her. No, it’s a clear example of the privilege of self-centered isolation. And that is exactly what I believe has been the driving force behind the problematic nature of pre-social media entertainment and information. I do not believe that leaving the narratives of marginalized peoples out of the mainstream was an act of outward hatred, I believe that it was an exercise of neglect. And that neglect is no longer something they can get away with because there’s no avoiding us any longer.
The “melting pot” I was sold on when learning about American History in elementary school is finally actually coming to a thaw. Through social media, we can access the stories, the images, the videos, the opinions, the beliefs, and the trials of people we otherwise would never have met — and all of us have the ability to influence and share with others on a larger scale than ever before.
I look back at some of my posts from 2009 and I cringe. But I leave them. I was young and I was a part of a society unlike the one I find myself in now that has evolved out of the mainstream corporate narrative. I keep most of my tweets and all of my Facebook posts and I encourage everyone to do the same because we were a part of the problem. Maybe not everyone, but on the vast majority, we were all there.
Cats chase mice, hens lay eggs, but they live on the same land and ought to consider each other, and I believe that’s what we’re finally beginning to achieve.
With the release of the Britney Spears documentary by the New York Times, I found myself disgusted — not with the photographers or with Justin or even with her parents, really. I found myself disgusted with…myself. I laughed back then. I made jokes. I had Perez Hilton and Jezebel bookmarked and refreshed throughout the day for more to read. I bought tabloid magazines, or at least read them in the grocery line, and I wanted more. It was trivial brain candy. It was smut. It was fun and it was not only allowed…it was encouraged.
I watched as my favorite child stars rose to fame and fell to addiction and I mocked them as if they weren’t humans like me. I simply accepted the way my favorite TV characters spoke about people of other races and sexual orientations. I learned to hate my body for my cellulite and stretch marks (even when I hardly had them) and felt uncomfortable when women larger than my size were celebrated for their body positivity. So what changed?
I started listening. First Facebook, then Tumblr, then Instagram. I started reading the perspectives of people who were nothing like me and trusted that they probably know themselves better than I did. I watched others get shamed for their biases and prejudices. I watched as feminists started blogging and reposting things that were problematic and sided with those who seemed compassionate. Through this process, through reading and listening and paying attention to those who hadn’t until then been given the platform to dissent, I learned so much about what their experiences were like. But the greatest lesson I learned was that I was wrong. Wrong-wrong. About a lot of things. I learned that things that I liked were problematic and harmful. I learned that those jokes do hurt, like the ones that hurt me, that I had the right to say “that’s not funny,” and that you had the right to tell me the same.
This process is ongoing, but it’s one that has given me one of the greatest gifts that I never asked for: The ability to look myself in the mirror and say “you’ve been kind of a piece of shit. Knock it off. Do better.”
This is where “cancel culture” comes in.
As Americans, we’re really bad at taking accountability for our actions unless they’re better than someone else’s. Period. It’s easy to look at Harvey Weinstein, point the finger, and say “you’re an evil man I hope you die in prison.” Easy. But what’s harder is to look yourself in the mirror and take a personal inventory of every woman who has told you she’s been sexually harassed or assaulted and you’ve said “I’m sure he didn’t mean it,” or “are you sure?,” or “but he’s always been really nice to me,” or “no one will believe you,” or “I don’t believe her, she’s kind of crazy/slutty/probably was trying to sleep her way to the top.”
It’s easy to look at Bill Cosby and say “how could you, you monster!” But when was the last time you thought about that friend of yours who said she thought she’d been drugged? What about when you bought a girl a few drinks so she’d like you more? Or did you wait until dozens of women came out against him before you were willing to consider that their stories were true?
It’s easy to look at Justin Timberlake, point the finger, and say “How could you treat Janet/Britney like that for your own personal gain?” But what’s harder is to admit to yourself that it took 20 years and a documentary for you to see either of them as victims, and instead remembered searching for the uncensored photo of Janet’s nipple and making fun of Britney’s breakdown with your friends and making comments on her body on her comeback tour with Perez Hilton.
It’s easy to go to bat for Lizzo now, but I want you to remember every time you heard a white male call a Black woman “Precious” and said nothing or laughed it off with them.
We did this. We are society. WE are society and mainstream media was created based on what WE consumed. WE allowed it. WE didn’t see a problem with it.
And now we do.
Evolution is happening quickly and it is unavoidable and necessary. We have been horribly horribly wrong, offensive, problematic, and we were a part of the perpetuation of all of it until about ten years ago. WE were a part of it.
It makes me irate to read posts and tweets from people I’ve known all my life who suddenly have decided they’ve been on the right side of every argument all this time, especially because I know for a fact that they haven’t. I could pull it up. But it’s not the sins of our past that I find deplorable, it’s the dissociation from that past (and the scapegoating of those who have yet to hide the evidence that they were alive during the time before we all woke up to our offenses) that makes my skin crawl.
For the record, I absolutely adored Justin Timberlake’s apology letter. I loved it. It was perfect. He held himself accountable, he owned up to his wrongs, he recognized his privilege, he did not ask for forgiveness, he did not deny his part, he did not grovel or kneel before us as a martyr, he simply owned it. I was annoyed to read objections to it — people (read: predominantly white women) belittling it, saying it wasn’t good enough…
Good enough for what?
When was the last time that you took public ownership of your prejudices, your offenses, your privilege, your problematic past or your judgements of those who were harmed by your actions during our pre-social media empathetic dark ages? Before you started seeing celebrities as people. Before you started questioning the story lines of your favorite shows or noticing that there were only like two black models in existence. Where was your bold dissent among your friends against Cosmo for photoshopping every actress within an inch of her being to fit the body-type standard at the time? What films did you boycott for lack of diversity before 2010? How many women did you judge for their promiscuity? How many men did you praise for theirs? How long was it before you decided to stop using the word “retarded?” How many of your white friends have you heard call a Black woman “ghetto” and how long are their nails now? How many stereotypes have you grown so accustomed to that you still consider them to be facts of nature about a person who looks or lives differently from you?
But most importantly, when was the last time you put your pitchfork down and took an inventory of these things for yourself, about your own beliefs and actions, and would you be willing to cancel yourself for it?
Please don’t get me wrong, this article is not intended to defend the defaults of the society the Millennial and Gen X generations were born into. No, I believe fully that so much of what we once considered beloved is wildly problematic and offensive and understandably so. Going back and watching shows from my youth is a cringe-worthy activity for many reasons — namely because I used to find comfort in them. But does that mean they ought to be “cancelled” or do I believe that that kind of censorship is the ultimate goal of calling these things out as problematic? No.
To be human is to be flawed. There are varying degrees of it, yes, and everything we are experiencing as we evolve as a society exists on a greyscale as it ought to. I’m exhausted of conversations with white men who say things like “what’s next?!” As if they won’t be allowed to enjoy Seinfeld ever again when the feminist cancel-police roll through and call it problematic. Here’s the kicker: it exists. The art exists. The people exist. Their actions have consequences and both have existed. The person you’ve shamed off of social media is still alive, waking up and being a person in the world. Those men you sent to prison? Eating sandwiches and wearing jumpsuits. Those movies from the 80’s you want pulled from streaming sites? They lived on tapes and DVDs already anyway. I had a big collection of Dr. Seuss stories from my childhood and that book exists on my parents’ bookshelf and my favorite story was “And to Think That it Happened on Mulberry Street.” I still know it, too. Law and Order SVU’s horrible takes on police brutality, transgender women, bisexuality, race, immigration status, ableism, (you name it, honestly), still streaming on Hulu. And I watch it. Sex and the City? Streaming on HBO in all of it’s glaring whiteness for you to watch at any time. And I watch it. If you want to support Ryan Adams and R Kelly, no one can tell you you can’t. You’re not oppressed by other’s expressing their oppression and you are not denied your right to enjoy problematic things.
But slowly things stop appealing to me as I learn more, as I gain compassion for others’ experiences and their right to their own story. I’m not entertained like I used to by racist narratives or homophobic plot lines. I don’t feel good listening to music created by someone capable of unabashedly brutalizing another person for sexual pleasure or otherwise. Yes, gaining a new perspective on what I used to enjoy does ruin some things for me. I no longer like making jokes about certain celebrities. I don’t talk about my weight or the bodies of other people anymore and I definitely don’t think the same things about them that I once did. This isn’t because I fear punishment or I fear being called out for a secret hatred I don’t want anyone to know about, it’s because I’ve changed. As many, MANY of us have in the past ten years.
As we evolve as a society and as we learn to have compassion for others and their experiences, we’re going to screw up and we’re going to have blindspots. Wasting time trying to “cancel” things as we discover and uncover more of our own harmful behavior does not help, or hinder for that matter, our collective evolution into a more understanding and compassionate whole. Instead it passes the buck. When we pin a specific person or piece of art as our collective “bad-guy,” we inhibit ourselves from the vulnerability of inner work that we all need in order to grow. When I tell you I only recently discovered that Sex and the City was problematic, but I somehow still enjoy most of it anyway as a sort of nostalgic escape into vapid fantasy, I am not being a “good feminist.” But I’m being honest. When you tell me you find R Kelly deplorable but “Ignition” is still fire…yeah, that’s problematic. But it’s honest. When you publicly call for the cancellation of a film or a book for perpetuating an idea or an assumption about a marginalized group, there will be someone out there who is not ready to give up that thing as being a part of their existence…and they don’t have to.
But at some point, that thing will no longer feel good. Blackface and minstrel cartoons were someone’s favorite thing, and now we see it differently. They still exist, but we consume them differently. I believe that most of our media from before 2010 one day will be seen the same way. But attempting to call for the cancellation of these things as an offering to the woke-gods from which you now derive your personal identity as a “good person” is not only problematic in itself, it doesn’t work.
Lastly, calling “cancel culture” “accountability culture” as a retort to critics of the callouts we’ve seen in recent years…is a lie. Because we haven’t yet succeeded at actually holding anyone accountable. We’ve just taken up space being mad at them and when they are no longer trending, they come back and no one has changed. Save for Justin’s recent apology, I have yet to see statements that own up to one’s personal responsibility followed by actions taken to amend their misgivings. Additionally, I have yet to see a single solution offered up to someone as a “here’s what we need from you in order to move forward.” I have yet to see an honest conversation with both speaking and listening. I have yet to see truth and reconciliation. We don’t know what accountability looks like besides a corrupt criminal justice system and monetary manipulation. So that argument can stop right now.
Calling out what harms us is a powerful act. Sharing our stories is a powerful act. Being willing to listen and believe those stories, especially when that story pegs us as a bad-guy, goes against our nature as Americans in a society of personal gain over the greater good of a collective. So naturally we’re going to suck at it. But I believe that this is possible because I’ve seen it and experienced it through social media for the past ten years. Slowly but surely our perspectives and opinions are changing and it’s a beautiful thing. I trust that if I never again wrote an article about my perspective, we’d still gradually come to agree upon it anyway. But in order for my words, my story, my experience to be valid, I do not believe that I must eradicate the existence of something or “cancel” it into oblivion. There is no such thing. Let’s instead shift our conversation into what change ought to look like. Is it 90 days in rehab and an iPhone note apology? Jail time? Or maybe stepping down, graciously admitting fault, and allowing someone whose story had been invalidated the right to the resources to tell it for themselves?
My point is, until we are able to take an honest self-appraisal of the fact that we are all in some way responsible for how things used to be, we’re going to keep pointing fingers at easy targets without allowing for actual change to take place where it really can make a difference — within us.