What Cancel Culture Was Meant To Be
The days of the disempowered staying quiet are over, but historical biases and confusing rhetoric have changed how we hold wrongdoers accountable.
By Taryn Finley | Published Nov. 6, 2023
This is the first story in our weeklong series on cancel culture.
Read the next story here.
There was once a time when celebrities and public figures could be accused of committing a crime or wrongdoing and people might barely bat an eye. Their jobs and fandom stayed intact; their accuser was silenced, and people moved on.
Take Dr. Dre, for example. In 1991, journalist Dee Barnes pressed charges against the Compton, California, rapper alleging that he brutally attacked her at a party while his bodyguard held off potential interferers at gunpoint. The next year, Dr. Dre — who pleaded no contest to battery and eventually settled a civil lawsuit with Barnes out of court — released his debut album, “The Chronic,” which went on to become praised as a classic. Meanwhile, Barnes had her story largely erased and reduced to a joke. While Dre got more famous and successful, Barnes’ career ended.
“I was uniquely punished, you know, because, you know, you’re not supposed to snitch,” Barnes told NPR in May. “But at the same time, if I didn’t do something, I felt like, you know, the next victim would not be as lucky. And that’s really a horrible choice of words, because I was not lucky — maybe lucky in the sense that I didn’t die that night.”
Though a rampant culture of misogyny and violence exists to this day, it’s hard to see a world where a public figure goes unchecked — at the very least from the internet — after committing a heinous act. It’s almost cyclical. Upon learning about an alleged crime, the public calls for the supposed perpetrator to be “canceled.” This public dragging usually coincides with companies and institutions severing ties with the celeb and, sometimes, an indictment or conviction.
It happened earlier this year with once-rising Hollywood phenom Jonathan Majors. He was arrested over domestic violence allegations and was dropped by his management team, various film and TV projects, and brand deals. The backlash and distancing from Majors, who pleaded not guilty in the case, was swift. Though he didn’t lose all of his on-screen work, the blow was damaging enough for social media users to begin side-eyeing actor Meagan Good for dating him soon after the news broke. Aside from paparazzi pictures with family at Red Lobster and a conveniently timed video of Majors breaking up a fight between high school students, the actor has largely been out of public view. Like clockwork, the cancel culture gods came down expeditiously on Majors like a well-oiled machine.
This past decade has seen different iterations of cancel culture. The concept stems from the idea of “call-out culture,” which has been a tool for those systemically disempowered to have their voices heard, especially on social media.
Cancel culture takes call-out culture a step further — though some see them as one and the same — demanding that offenders face consequences in the form of losing opportunities and support. Merriam-Webster defines it as the “practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling” — or the public withdrawal of support — “as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.”
Though it’s impossible to trace the first instance of public outrage, in recent history the concept of canceling seems to be rooted in the civil rights movement and boycotting to achieve an equitable, safe and fair livelihood for Black Americans, as Aja Romano noted in a 2020 Vox article. The term itself stems from African American Vernacular English and was widely spread on Black Twitter in the 2010s. The topic of cancel culture peaked when the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements picked up steam.
As the court of public opinion held convicted and accused wrongdoers’ feet to the fire, industries that historically protected culprits felt the pressure to cut ties with them. Many feared that they, too, would lose supporters and take a monetary hit if they didn’t take a stand. After all, to say or do nothing might suggest that they sided with perpetrators and not victims.
This led to several public figures getting their comeuppance in recent years. And it started to feel like a domino effect.
In 2017, The New York Times published an explosive story that detailed how Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein had been paying off sexual harassment accusers for years. The news sparked immediate public disgust and backlash against Weinstein. Within days, his own company fired him, his wife said she was leaving him, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled him, and he was stripped of multiple awards. Several celebrities condemned Weinstein and his actions, and some of those who didn’t were called out.
After him, TV personality Matt Lauer was ousted from “Today” after being accused of committing rape at the 2014 Olympics. Lauer has denied the allegation.
In 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress performed a stand-up bit in which he called Bill Cosby “a rapist,” referring to allegations against Cosby that had been hiding in plain sight. That ignited accusers and social media users to speak out, and led to several honors for Cosby being rescinded, his TV show being removed from syndication, and charges that eventually led to a conviction. The conviction was overturned about three years into his prison sentence, and Cosby was released. But he continues to face civil lawsuits from multiple women across the country who have alleged sexual misconduct. Cosby has repeatedly denied all accusations against him.
In 2019, social media users called for a deeper investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against R&B singer R. Kelly. In 2017, Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye had launched the #MuteRKelly campaign to get the music industry and the public to divest from Kelly and his works. In 2018, Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora ceased promotion of his music — though it can still be found on their platforms — and the “Surviving R. Kelly” docuseries premiered the following year. After facing claims involving girls and young women for decades and being acquitted in a child pornography case in 2008, he was arrested in 2019 and later sentenced to prison on counts of child pornography, racketeering and sex trafficking. He has launched an appeal in one of his two federal cases.
Those with decades-old accusations against them (whether acquitted or not charged) weren’t immune. In 2016, Nate Parker — who had previously scored praise for his performances in “The Great Debaters” and “Beyond the Lights” — had to publicly reckon with a 1999 rape case while promoting his film “The Birth of a Nation.” The movie that once had Oscar buzz faced canceled screenings and Q&As with Parker, who had been acquitted in the case. He’s continued to direct since then, but Parker was largely shunned and isolated from Hollywood. In 2019, he apologized for how he handled the backlash. He reflected on his actions and canceling in a 2022 Washington Post interview, saying that although he maintains that he did not commit a crime, he may have committed moral wrongs. “All I see are the things I regret,” he said.
Even Dr. Dre had to answer for his past behavior amid the premiere of “Straight Outta Compton” in 2015. The ramifications weren’t as severe, possibly due to an already established career and legacy, but the public pressure and renewed media interest prompted him to apologize to the “women I’ve hurt.”
It’s important to note that the movement to hold wrongdoers accountable has done some good. Though internet backlash and calls for cancellation hold little to no weight in the legal process, pressure from the public can still play a role in the path toward justice for victims. Yet it is also true that cancel culture has taken different forms that don’t always align with its original intent.
Cancel culture takes call-out culture a step further — though some see them as one and the same — demanding that offenders face consequences in the form of losing opportunities and support.
Cancel culture, similar to the word “woke,” has evolved from Black slang to a path for empowering the disempowered to a nebulous entity that often feels like it takes on a life of its own. It’s become more of a concept that people with power argue about than the greater solution it was intended to be.
Various famous people — from Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Hart to former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump — have suggested that cancel culture is unproductive and divisive. Others see it as a tool for accountability, empowerment and safety. Judging from a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2020, however, many Americans don’t even understand what it is in the first place. When asked to define cancel culture, 49% of those who had heard about it said it involves “Actions taken to hold others accountable;” 14% described it as “Censorship of speech or history;” 9% said it’s “People canceling anyone they disagree with;” and 5% called it “An attack on traditional American society.”
The confusion around cancel culture, especially from perpetrators and their supporters, has fed into its evolution. Somewhere in its expansion from holding wrongdoers accountable to blowing the whistle on celebrities using their platforms to spread hateful speech, we lost the plot. This has led to people like singer Chrisette Michele (who performed at Trump’s inauguration) facing a worse shunning from the public and entertainment industry than Ezra Miller (who was able to keep the lead role in a superhero film after being accused of physical assault and other misconduct). The weight of what the person has done or said doesn’t always fit the punishment they’re dealt.
Even with all of that, the truth is that those who actually get canceled are few and far between.
The Recording Academy just named a Grammy Award in Dr. Dre’s honor this year, and comedian Louis C.K. won a Grammy last year despite previously admitting to sexual misconduct. Majors still has a few roles coming up for now, and Cosby remains out of prison. Even Chris Brown, who has a long history of assault allegations, continues to nab nomination after nomination at various award shows, the most recent being the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards.
These are just a few examples showing that cancel culture is an imperfect system with inconsistent rules. The divisive views around it, combined with the culture of selective memory, leave little room for nuanced conversations about its effectiveness.
Yes, cancel culture has helped hold some offenders accountable and empower those wronged. But this isn’t all it was meant to be.