In 2020, the conversation around “cancel culture” is at an all-time high. It seems that on high-octane social media apps like Instagram and Twitter, an increasing number of people are growing worried over whether they’ll be canceled—the internet’s term for being called out for problematic statements made in the past. For the past several months, people have been under increased scrutiny simply due to the fact that we’re all in quarantine; what else is there to do but to be online? We’re all more likely to be on our phones and follow drama as it unfolds live on the internet.
Independent of quarantine circumstances, though, there’s always a pattern to cancelation: celebrities are called out for problematic statements, their names often trending on Twitter as a result. This is usually followed by an apology from said celebrity (usually written on the dreaded Notes app), and then they seem to move on and everyone forgets about it. For most internet users, this form of celebrity cancel culture is nearly everywhere; there’s always someone discussing it on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. But make no mistake—celebrity cancel culture is nowhere near as dangerous as some make it out to be.
The list of celebrities that have maintained their source of income after being “canceled” on social media continues to grow. Daniel Hernandez, more commonly known as 6ix9ine, has quite literally been sentenced to probation on charges of posting child porn, yet he just reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with his new song “TROLLZ.” Shane Dawson, who was also “canceled” for pedophilic posts from almost a decade ago, continues to be one of YouTube’s most prolific vloggers. James Charles, the young and controversial makeup artist, has been caught in several racist scandals, yet still maintains sponsorships and brand deals. Lana Del Rey was recently lambasted for posting a racially insensitive note in which she attempted to call out sexism in the music industry, but ended up calling out and hating on her Black peers. The one common thread linking all of these personalities? Not only do they still exist at the top of their respective industries, but they seem to have nearly weaponized “cancel culture” in an attempt to profit from it. 6ix9ine, for example, utilized his “cancelation” as a talking point on “TROLLZ,” while Del Rey used her controversy as a way to seemingly promote her upcoming album and poetry books.
In 2020, being canceled is something that most people consider Twitter-specific. It nicely fits alongside the narrative of vengeful K-pop stans and the Twitter hive mind, thereby discrediting the act of “canceling” as immature. But what is canceling if not simply holding people accountable? Are we supposed to ignore when Jeffree Star, makeup artist extraordinaire, gets exposed for having frequently used the n-word in old MySpace posts? Or when PewDiePie, the owner of the largest personal channel on YouTube, screams the n-word during a livestream?
It’s not just YouTubers or makeup artists, either; Mark Wahlberg, one of the most celebrated action stars of the decade, chased Black and Asian youth as a teenager while shouting racist expletives. Kylie Jenner has long been called out for not paying the Bangaladeshi workers who create her products. Tom Cruise is a literal Scientologist. In fact, most working A-list celebrities have been involved in some major scandal of some sort involving bigotry, from talk show hosts (Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel both apologized for old blackface skits as recently as this June) to famous singers. (Harry Styles has recently come under fire for his pro-Israel stance.) And yet, these people continue to exist within the upper echelon of celebrity culture. Wahlberg is set to star in the upcoming Uncharted; Jenner’s makeup brand Kylie Cosmetics earned $200 million in revenue in 2019. There’s an evident disconnect between what goes on online and what goes on in real life. The truth is obvious: celebrity cancel culture doesn’t exist.
It’s time for people to stop pretending as if cancel culture is anything other than just holding celebrities accountable. There’s nothing insidious about expecting rich people to listen to the public, apologize for their mistakes, and make genuine attempts to show that they’ve become better people. But the narrative surrounding cancel culture supersedes that: it paints the act of canceling someone as a bad thing, designed to destroy them and their careers, as opposed to giving them an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
By Kenneth Kim
Illustration by Seb Westcott