The Canceling Among Us


Elyssa Huff, Writer

The tearful celebrity sits in front of a carefully placed phone, streaming her apology to millions of fans on Instagram Live. The week before, she was under scrutiny for past comedy sketches that included blackface. Today, it’s for past denigrating comments toward minority groups that, with the help of teenage internet journalists, have recently come to light. Now, as the comments roll in and the view count ticks, the reality of the situation becomes apparent: she is cancelled. 


Similar to many aspects of modern life, cancel culture has evolved into a complex entity. What began largely with reputational blacklisting in mid century Hollywood has become a sort of hub for Gen-Z activism to address inappropriate and problematic behavior. Becoming popular with the #MeToo movement, which led to the firing, arrest and conviction of sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, the culture has only further gained steam this summer with the Black Lives Matter movement. Ranging from the cancelling of careers entirely to the popular internet callout trend of “This you?” posts, cancellation can occur in many forms. 


So what does it mean, exactly, to be cancelled? I went on a personal journey to discover the intricacies of cancel culture in the modern world, scrolling through Twitter and the information that it spreads. While doing so, I witnessed the “cancellation” of two major celebrities online: Shane Dawson and Jenna Marbles. Both were under fire for past racial remarks and sketches (although Dawson’s problems extended to accusations of pedophilia and beastiality) that resurfaced amid the current racial tumult. Both had dealt with these accusations in the past and had to defend themselves in a current light. Yet, both of their circumstances were different. 


As far as what makes them different, well, the devil’s in the details. Marbles released an apology video that took full responsibility for her past actions, in which she announced that she would be stepping back from her public platform permanently. Dawson, on the other hand, released a video that largely deflected the blame, before embarking on an impromptu Instagram Live that at once called one of his principal accusers, Tati Westbrook, manipulative, and trivialized her past experiences with abuse. After a few minutes laced with various “Oh my God”s and hysterical rambling, the stream stopped abruptly as Dawson’s fiancé urged him to end it. 


Both of these occurrences and their aftermaths speak volumes for the very definition of cancel culture. For Dawson, the public outcry was immediate, the gavel of justice swinging without mercy. Thousands of hate comments poured in, and organizations openly distanced themselves from him. This is strikingly different from online reaction to Marbles. On Twitter alone, there seems to be an outpouring of sympathy toward Marbles and her perceived plight. Whenever I hear people speak of the limitations to free speech that cancel culture might pose, I think of this, in which the internet as a whole was able to recognize the difference between the two situations. Saying that cancel culture is one of the worst creatures to evolve in the modern world, at least in my opinion, neglects to mention the nuances of each case. Through the reactions to these two separate personas, cancel culture morphed into something more along the lines of accountability culture; one of the two took responsibility for and owned up to her past actions, while the other did not. That’s what makes the difference. 


All of this, the social cancellation at the hands of millions of Twitter users, neglects the symbolic role that capitalism seems to play in these exchanges. While social cancellation is a very real event, it’s when it becomes economic that the true effects become visible. Arguably the main moment of Dawson’s cancellation occurred when Target dropped him, refusing to carry his books in its stores. When companies take action to help “cancel” celebrities, it’s good PR. They, the golden idols of capitalism, professionally blacklist a currently hated figure, financially strangling and removing revenue from lining the figure’s pockets. Although economic cancellation can be the driving force behind the career cancellation of a celebrity, this woke sort of capitalism does not result in any sort of institutional change. As Helen Lewis writes in her article in The Atlantic, a PR victory is no real victory at all, as “the pitchforks go down, but the corporate culture remains the same.” 


It’s easy for a company to save face on a problematic past by hopping aboard the cancel train. It’s easy to give employees a copy of White Fragility and release a statement disavowing racism. These are not heroic actions. It’s not easy to create real, institutional change. It’s not easy to change the corporate culture. Cancel culture can help to facilitate this; it can also hinder any sort of development by deflecting blame.


These nuances are what, at least in my view, allow cancel culture to resist classification as a purely good or bad entity. It does some good in that it holds people accountable for their actions. It does worse in its internet mob of angry people, or the woke companies who wish to gain public PR points by disingenuously promising change and progress.


Two weeks have passed. In the meantime, the celebrity has continued her daily routine, with one key difference: there are no more videos. She has remained a recluse in her home, its decadent halls reminding her of the steady stream of wealth her fans once provided her. 


She posts a video today, this one happy and carefree. It makes no reference to the botched apology but as its content follows her around for the day. There is no sponsorship. The view count barely reaches into the thousands, consisting of the few diehard fans who cling to her. She sighs and closes the computer. She has grown used to the life of a cancelled celebrity.