This is an extended version of my article that featured in
It has been said that as humans we have an innate desire for justice. We also, however, seem to enjoy just watching people fall even when they may not deserve it. What can I say? Humans are complicated.
We sit behind screens and relish in the scandalous gossip of the newest celebrities to fall prey to todays ‘cancel culture’- a growing phenomenon that Urban dictionary defines as, ‘a movement to make people who are in positions of power feel the consequences of their actions’. We laugh (and sometimes even join in) as that one actor we cannot stand gets slammed on Twitter for saying something problematic.
This of course becomes a different story when the celebrity in question is one we actually like.
And, if recent times are any indicator, no one is safe. From beloved authors like JK Rowling to singers like Lana Del Rey, it seems that celebrities nowadays are increasingly spilling their troubling opinions online or hurrying to cover their problematic past from view.
This can leave you in a difficult position. You may feel uncomfortable continuing to support your once most loved celeb and join the demand for them to be ‘cancelled’. You may find yourself blindly supporting opinions that you don’t necessarily stand behind yourself, in hopes of saving your fave. But what is the correct response?
Let us take, for example, JK Rowling. JK recently expressed her unpopular opinion on Trans people within feminism in a lengthy ‘gender critical’ essay posted to her website, accompanying them with a thread of tweets where she took issue with the term ‘people who menstruate’. She has (rightly so, in my opinion) been labelled transphobic, a ‘TERF’ (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), condemned by fellow writers and even Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, responded by releasing a statement in support of the Trans community.
You’re a lover of the Harry potter books and have supported JK for what seems to be your whole life, what do you do now? I spoke to two women who both grew up on JK’s work, and who did so in the same household. Sisters Rosie (26) and Kaley (29) are both lifelong fans of Harry Potter, with two very different reactions to the outrage.
Rosie, who was in full support of ‘cancel culture’ coming for JK, told me, “[the scandal] has changed the way I think about her”. Even though she admitted to looking up to JK as a role model throughout her life, that didn’t stop Rosie from coming to the definitive conclusion that she, “would no longer buy a book from her or support her in any way” as her way of showing support for the Trans community. Kaley had opposing views. “Just because I would still buy her books doesn’t mean I am anti-trans or anything like that,” she told me, “they’re just books, my input on all the drama makes no difference.”.
Do we betray the communities we say we support when we side with Kaley? Does our small input, like Rosie boycotting JK completely, actually make any difference? What do we achieve, if anything, when we choose one side or the other?
Some argue that the way we go about punishing these celebs should depend on the severity of the ‘crime’ committed. On the outside, this makes perfect sense. Take the two actors Ansel Elgort and Lena Dunham. Back in 2016 Dunham faced online criticism after the resurfacing of a racist 2011 tweet of hers that read, “is that guy walking in the dark behind me a rapist? Never mind, he’s Asian”. The ‘Girls’ actress suffered from a brief ‘cancellation’ for this, ‘brief’ being the optimum word.
Ansel Elgort, known most for his role in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, has recently been accused of sexual assaulting a 17-year-old girl when he was 20 back in 2014. He has since denied all allegations. Clearly more of a serious crime, yet the internet has pretty much given him the same treatment as Dunham. He faced huge backlash from fans online and was declared ‘cancelled’ by thousands, but this has yet to show any real-world effects. Elgort is still, at this point in time, due to appear in the upcoming HBO drama series ‘Tokyo Vice’ and Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ remake.
It would seem as though his ‘cancellation’ has been as brief as that of Lena Dunham’s, which is where the argument of the punishment matching the crime loses all hope. How can individuals be expected to charge everyone correctly? Just because someone says one case is worse doesn’t necessarily mean that’s true.
Let’s look at this a different way.
Mental Health expert and therapist Quinton Clawson, otherwise known as popular YouTuber ‘Mental Health Master’, has an interesting take on how we should approach ‘cancellation’ and why. In a recent YouTube video ‘The psychology of cancel culture-a mental health perspective’, he explains how we respond to these scandals boils down to our intent. Ask yourself, what do I want from a celebrity in the wake of a fresh scandal?
Clawson tells us, “if our intent is to have the individual reform their behaviour, then we’re going to hold them accountable. But if our intent is to destroy them, then we’re going to feed into this ‘cancel culture’”. Essentially, we have to ask ourselves whether we genuinely want a problematic celebrity to learn and grow from their toxic behaviour and therefore be somewhat forgiven, or if we consider their crime so horrible that they be ‘destroyed’ because of it. Your answer to this question will dictate how you react.
Of course, there is no definitive rule book on what to do in these situations. To ‘cancel’ or not, to boycott films and books, to ignore completely, there is no one-size-fits-all punishment that we can choose and apply to everyone effectively. Every allegation, tweeted opinion, and sketchy past is different, and we must treat them as such.
Question your own intent. Ask yourself what you want from your favourite celebrities. Think of the people and communities they may have hurt.
All you can do then is what you think is right.