Do you listen to XXXTentacion’s music or watch Woody Allen’s movies? If “no,” then there’s a good chance you’re tapped into a new phenomenon called “cancel culture.” Cancel culture, sometimes referred to as “call-out culture” describes a cultural climate where it’s common for people to boycott public figures for doing controversial things. Whether that’s something minor, like selling merch that’s expensive or as serious as sexually harassing dozens of women. Cancel culture’s greatest weapon is social media, where people use hashtag campaigns to rapidly spread their message and gain support.
Two notable recently-canceled — or almost-canceled — celebrities are musician R. Kelly and YouTube creator James Charles. Though the two public figures both experienced similar backlash, cancel culture showed a shocking lack of discernment between the two vastly different situations, creating the question of if people are capable of using “canceling” responsibly.
In the 1990s, Robert Sylvester Kelly was on top of the music world. The R&B singer-songwriter, better known as R. Kelly, had kicked the decade off with the release of his first solo album, which was certified platinum six times over.
But there was trouble brewing in paradise. In 2002, an incriminating video of Kelly and a minor surfaced. Although Kelly denied that he was the man in the video, he was indicted in June 2002 of 21 counts of child pornography. Similar controversies followed him for the rest of his career, including in 2008, when it was revealed that Kelly and his
protégée Aaliyah had been illegally married when Aaliyah was just 15.
In 2017, three families accused Kelly of having held their teenage daughters in an “abusive cult,” resulting in a media frenzy that uncovered decades of sexual abuse allegations against Kelly. These revelations prompted the Women of Color branch of the Time’s Up movement to start the hashtag #MuteRKelly. The hashtag trended, and led to real-world protests and cancellations of Kelly’s concerts. Apple Music and Pandora announced that they would no longer offer his music on their sites. R. Kelly’s career had been, in effect, canceled.
In 2019, YouTuber and makeup artist James Charles’ career narrowly avoided a similar cancellation, over a less serious situation I like to call Tatigate. It all started when Tati Westbrook, Charles’ former friend and fellow makeup guru, released a 43 minute long YouTube exposé in which she claimed that Charles had been disloyal by accepting a sponsorship from Sugar Bear Hair, and that he had “tricked” straight men into thinking they were gay. In the immediate aftermath of Westbrook’s video, James Charles became the unhappy recipient of the “First YouTuber To Lose One Million Subscribers in 24 Hours” award.
Things got worse for Charles when Jeffree Star, another influential YouTuber and makeup artist — who has courted his own fair share of cancellations, by the way — tweeted his support for Westbrook, calling Charles a “danger to society.” The internet went wild, calling for the end or “cancelling” of Charles’s career. Many of Charles’s Instagram followers, unfollowed him. In the nick of time, Charles posted his second response video entitled “No More Lies,” which won back some of his subscribers. However, he has fewer subscribers than he did before Tatigate. Something didn’t quite sit right about the whole James Charles/Tati feud. People were just as eager to cancel James Charles over a silly fight as they were to cancel R. Kelly, someone who was commercially successful for years despite decades of sexual misconduct allegations.
On one hand, cancel culture successfully brought down people who definitely deserved to be brought down, like Harvey Weinstein who sexually harassed and assaulted dozens of women throughout his career. On the other hand, cancel culture has also provided yet another outlet for people to be angry on the internet, this time with real world consequences. If there’s one thing there’s no doubt about, it’s that canceling has become a powerful weapon of the modern age. The real question is: is it a weapon that the general public is worthy to wield? You decide.