Culture Critique: The Power of Cancel Culture

“Canceling” celebrities and other influential figures is a powerful action, despite its flaws. 

Cancel culture has been trending on the internet since 2015, originating from Black Twitter (a network of black users active on the social media platform) as a hashtag. Upon its initial use, the term “canceling” was coined to mean a rejection of an individual who promotes inappropriate or unacceptable ideas. Canceling celebrities for this type of behavior gained traction quickly, and as of 2018, Twitter users began a widespread canceling of celebrities for these reasons. 

Cancel culture works as a digital version of a boycott, in which people rally together to demonetize, disapprove of and protest famous figures in our society. Cancel culture allows people who find out about injustices to gather a huge following online and demonstrate their distaste for someone’s actions and demand retribution. It forces these figures into the spotlight for their wrongdoing, and demands answers. Canceling these celebrities became a way of taking control and power back from this system of wealthy elite that grants them the ability to dominate the popular narrative. 

This method of civil disobedience is unlike any form we’ve seen before. In the digital era, people have found a way to level the playing field and take these figures off of their pedestals. By canceling someone like Donald Trump, for example, people can share information and knowledge on social media platforms that provide evidence for his misdeeds. The narrative can now be controlled by those of marginalized groups whom he’s affected and gives them a platform to share their stories, knowledge and provide solidarity by being supported by a wide network online.

Cancel culture is more than just protesting with an empty promise. Since celebrities can now be held more accountable, abusers and bigots can no longer hide behind their money and status when the internet publicly exposes their horrors. Twitter becomes the arena where these elites are brought back down to earth to atone for their actions directly. 

Louis C.K. became rightfully canceled for his sexual misconduct and was thus dropped by his remaining networks and agencies, and lost his movie deal. Roseanne Barr was canceled for making terrible racist remarks and in return, her new television reboot was canceled. The media and entertainment industry are listening to the people in a way that’s new and refreshing. Production companies cutting ties with these problematic people is exactly the kind of direct action that must take place, especially in the age of #metoo and #timesup. 

People no longer have to accept the problematic behaviors of those in power with the age of cancel culture and the strong movements that sparked it. By creating a space to force the powerful individuals in our society to answer for their unacceptable actions or words, we can grant justice to those who are affected, while limiting the platforms in which these people can be heard. Power can be given back to those from whom it’s been stripped.

However, cancel culture is not without its flaws. The spread of misinformation is inevitable when news can spread like wildfire through the tap of a button. An example of this is in the case of Johnny Depp, who was canceled back in 2016 due to Amber Heard’s accusations against him about domestic violence, which she wrote about in the Washington Post. He came out to refute these allegations with a lawsuit against her, and his legal team provided substantial evidence backing him. In an article by Complex titled “Why Some People Are Calling to ‘Uncancel’ Johnny Depp in Wake of His $50 Million Lawsuit Against Amber Heard?” Joshua Espinoza explains how “the suit also states that Heard’s abuse allegations “have been conclusively refuted by two separate responding police officers, a litany of neutral third-party witnesses and 87 newly obtained surveillance camera videos.” 

Upon Depp coming forward with his lawsuit, Twitter took to “uncanceling” him in recent months, and providing him with an outpour of support. In this circumstance, cancel culture wrongfully indicted a man who was a victim of abuse himself, but also highlights how quickly the right news can spread as well. Fact-checking is imperative when tied to something like cancel culture, because “fake news” permeates all social mediums. In order to ensure this new form of accountability avoids being abused, social media users must check the facts from reputable sources.

Another unfortunate downside to the effectiveness of cancel culture is that politicians who commit crimes or promote repugnant ideas can’t be canceled, demonetized or removed as easily as other celebrities. People like Trump unfortunately need a lot more than social media protesting to be removed from their place of privilege and power. 

While cancel culture has the ability to be used wrongfully or dutifully, it must be recognized as an incredibly strong force towards culpability that an individual can face in the digital age. It effectively takes our first step towards changing culture, through the means of making it public which harmful ideas will no longer be tolerated in the mainstream. It’s a refusal to accept that the powerful are untouchable, and it works to prevent the perpetuation of bigotry in a courageous, resilient way.