Chapter 4: Convincing Discourses
4.3.2 #canceled (research essay)
English 102, April 2021
With the pandemic we can look back on a year of things cancelled. Holidays were cancelled. Sporting events were cancelled. Concerts were cancelled. While 2020 was the big year of all good things cancelled many would say that the year itself should be cancelled. Certainly, the main reasons the year was hated was that most work and schools went online with Zoom and it was hard to get a roll of toilet paper. Would I go as far to say 2020 was a god-awful year? Of course, I worked in a grocery store and people were insane. Would I say it needs to be cancelled? Well, no because that doesn’t really apply in this setting. We had a lot of canceled events but to cancel the year is hard because in principle cancelling doesn’t work that way. Why doesn’t cancelling apply in this setting? Well, what is cancelling to begin with? Is cancel culture beneficial in society? Can someone truly be cancelled, who does cancel culture hurt? Is cancel culture hurting more than helping? When has cancel culture gone too far? How do people interact with the idea of cancel culture on social media? What happens in a fandom when someone is cancelled or actively being cancelled? Do fans go too far? Has there been a time when a fandom has gone too far? Is there still room to enjoy what is created by a cancelled entertainer? Cancel culture may be a good form of social justice in society but the ways in which it is used and abused online has swayed far from its actual purpose.
The conveniences that the internet and social media has brought have certainly outnumbered the bad. Today social media can branch together family who have not seen each other in days, months, or years and now especially due to the pandemic. There is however a downside to platforms like this. These platforms undoubtedly can bring the worst out of people hopping on a trend or hashtag. When someone makes even the slightest misstep people act online to let everyone know. This has brought about a new era to social media with rising concepts of cancel or call out culture. But what is cancel culture? One explanation form “Disruptive rhetoric in an age of outrage” by Michael Welsh explains that cancel culture has become its own societal discourse of social issues in which people can take to social media and announce that someone is cancelled for a perceived crime by the accuser.
With cancel culture social media has become reactionary instead of investigating whether these claims are true. In “With (Stan) ding Cancel Culture: Stan Twitter and Reactionary Fandoms” Hailey Roos explains that “cancel culture is intended to hold powerful people accountable, but it has been constantly appropriated, and its influence has been diminished because of how frequently people are cancelled for less serious offenses.” What ways can someone be cancelled? There can be social media movements led by hashtags declaring someone is cancelled which can lead to extreme consequences to those, the people cancelling and those being cancelled. The action taken by those who are cancelled can be to take accountability in their actions and reflect on them and change or they can defend and deflect what is being accused of them to keep the status they have. Joseph Ching Velasco in “You are Cancelled: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Emergence of Cancel Culture as Ideological Purging” explains that there can be those who are accused of committing a crime they did not commit for the sake of someone else’s gain. In the same sense though cancel culture as an act in society is confusing as it can be used for its purpose or as a “power play” which leads to a need for more understanding on how to wield such a power. There is not a clear-cut way of knowing for certain if in the moment it is merely just a business move or if the person did something wrong.
Today the internet, more specifically social media platforms, have decided that there is a need for judge, jury, and executioner in the matter of social issues. Who oversees making such decisions and on what terms are used to judge? From “Twitter, What’s The Verdict?” Aya Imam explains that it can be said that growing up we are taught through fairytales and fables that everything is good versus evil, where we take every situation and boil it down to that. In terms of defining every situation in terms of black and white that leaves little room for the person to defend themselves. If someone is justifiably cancelled what are these codes of conduct that they have broken? Then it seems for that everyday people have taken matters into their own hands by essentially “cancelling” someone if they don’t follow societal rules (Imam 2).
When it comes to hearing about cancel culture the first people to come to mind would be celebrities. Celebrities fill our newsfeed on the daily with videos, stories, etc. for the public’s entertainment. There has become a sense of connection with celebrities and their audience, where they need to adhere to their publicized person or face the consequences (Roos 3-4). With this constant connection more issues become known or are dug up. In recent years, the celebrities that people associate with cancel culture are names like Harvey Weinstein and Billy Cosby, who both have a list of sexual assault allegations against them. Others like Kathy Griffin, who posted a photo of herself holding a “bloody” Trump mask, or Taylor Swift who will be discussed later in this essay.
Aya Imam briefly discusses the disparities in cancel culture:
Does Harvey Weinstein deserve the backlash he’s received? Yes, 1000% yes. But does James Charles – a very famous YouTuber who was initially called out by another YouTuber for endorsing the ‘wrong’ vitamin brand – deserve the false accusations of being a sexual predator (which, in turn, resulted in millions of people unfollowing and unsubscribing from him)? No, I don’t believe he deserves that (Imam 2).
I would like to note that as I was doing my research, I picked this article and this quote because it did display the gap between how serious or not Weinstein’s or Charles’s situations were but at the current time it has become known that James Charles has multiple allegations of sexual misconduct (texting/messaging primarily) with minors. With the James Charles cancellation he was friends with another YouTuber, Tati Westbrook, and owner of a vitamin supplement company, who recorded a video accusing of Charles of behaving inappropriately with straight men. The video and its message were then condensed down to it being about Charles endorsing a rival vitamin company. In “How Can We End #CancelCulture – Tort Liability or Thumper’s Rule?” Nanci Carr explains how a situation much like James Charles’s can show that when a celebrity is cancelled it is more off a hunch than actual information. So, then what decides why, how, or what extent someone is cancelled? There is no real set of rules on cancelling someone. Carr explains that “we are living in a ‘cancel culture’ where if someone, often a celebrity, does something either illegal or unethical, society is quick to ‘cancel’ them, or lessen their celebrity standing or cultural capital (133).” For Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, yes, they face consequences for their actions but when it comes to Taylor Swift was the punishment fitting of the crime?
As I had said previously mentioned Taylor Swift for a moment had been cancelled. Most if not all articles on the topic of cancel culture touched on what happened to Taylor Swift. Truly, I do not think anyone would consider her to be cancelled because she faced no major backlash financially but what the situation did damage was her reputation, which would become the topic of her 6th album. Swift’s story goes all the way back to 2009 when Swift won an award and Kanye West stormed the stage to let her and everyone know that Beyonce had the best video of the year. Swift and West had different paths from this event with Swift being pegged as a victim and West as the villain, which led to if other situations arose that Swift was playing the victim because that first moment garnered her so much sympathy and people saying that it helped her career back then. Fast forward to 2016 after West and Swift had mended fences as Swift puts it in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and West had called to ask if he could reference Swift in a song. The song in question was “famous” would later be released for everyone to hear the line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex, why, I made that bitch famous.” Swift claimed she had only heard the first part of the lyric and was never made aware of the part where West would call her a bitch or that he made her famous. This led to bitterness on social media between Kanye West, his wife Kim Kardashian, and the Kardashian’s friends and family.
The following quote by Swift was at the 2016 Grammy Awards after winning album of the year and many believe it is in reference to the situation:
As the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there, there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame, but, if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going you’ll look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there. And that will be the greatest feeling in the world. Thank you for this moment. (Griffiths)
Taylor Swift in this moment wanted to show that she got to where she was on her own and for the Kardashian this moment would lead to her releasing clips of the recorded conversation. While the phone conversation was recorded what we saw in 2016 was an edited version posted on Snapchat by Kim Kardashian, years later the full conversation would be released online to reveal more truth to Swift’s side of the story. The below picture is a tweet that Kardashian tweeted before the release of Kardashian’s video, she posted on Twitter “Wait it’s legit National Snake Day?!?!?They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days!” with a slew of snake emojis. As shown in the picture it was liked over 300 thousand times and shared over 200 thousand times.
Kardashian’s tweet doesn’t seem too malicious at face value. The tweet doesn’t mention anyone by name, doesn’t mention the need to cancel anyone, nor does it attack anyone. Kardashian’s plan was methodical, by simultaneously posting this tweet and posting the edited video it jumpstarted others to take the idea that Taylor Swift was a snake and not to be trusted. There was an onslaught of attacks on Swift and her character. The hashtag #TaylorSwiftisoverparty was a worldwide trend. In the article “From Cancel Culture to Changing Culture” Liz Theriault explained that “[Swift] was being sent ‘mass amounts of messages’ telling her to ‘either shut up, disappear, or [as] it could also be perceived as, kill yourself.’” The extent of tweets towards Swift ranged from benign to telling her to kill herself or for her to be killed. In terms of cancellation, yes Taylor Swift was indeed cancelled but online forums made her the target of worse hate. Cancel culture should not be to take the opportunity to break down someone even more than needed, in this situation it should have been to take accountability of your actions however benign they may have been. For cancel culture this is one of many examples of how we make quick calls about someone’s character due to social media outlets (Imam 3). In the below tweet the user says, “I love this #taylorswiftisoverparty…. been at this party since 1989…. most annoying and ridiculous singer in the biz…. ok! Kill her!” This shows the extreme hate that was directed at Swift during the cancellation. With respect to the following person, I have blacked out their image and username.
After seeing such malice towards a celebrity for a crime committed how can being cancelled affect them? As with Swift she disappeared for a year, no trace of her in public or on social media where she was an avid user prior to this scandal because that is what she thought people wanted. Even with years prior of being primarily silent on political issues, she knew the optics of getting involved in the 2016 presidential election.
Taylor Swift in the following explains why she felt adding her opinion in such a polarizing election year would have added fuel to the fire:
The summer before that election, all people were saying was ‘She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar.’ These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. ‘Would I be an endorsement, or would I be a liability? Literally millions of people were telling me to disappear. So, I disappeared. In many senses (BBC News).
With the rise of social media platforms there has become a sense of connection with celebrity and their audience, where they need to adhere to their publicized persona or face the consequences (Roos 3-4). As with the case of a cancelled celebrity what happens to their respective fandom? I can say that I do have a bias in this situation because I am a Taylor Swift fan, while I am still on the fence of the idea of being called a “Swiftie,” a hardcore stan, I can say seeing this used against a celebrity that I liked can also put a form of shame on a fan. Should I still like her? If I still like her what will people think of me? Did she really lie about the situation? If she lied, then is it true she just plays the victim any time she gets called out? All valid questions I had for myself which now looking back on were a little over the top, if she had done what she was accused of it really was not that bad of a crime. During that time when it came to Taylor Swift most of my friends just labelled her as annoying, not a good singer, and that she deserved it. After watching several other celebrities or content creators being cancelled or held accountable, I can say that sometimes it is hard to say that I am a fan without there being some amount of judgment.
We have really seen cancel culture only affect those who have fame and money but cancel culture is not a solo phenomenon to affect only celebrities, it also affects everyday people like me and you. With call out culture it is seen with bringing awareness to social issues. Unfortunately, you will see more videos of people acting out on racist ideas. The purpose of call out culture is in its name; you call out that behavior. In the essay “Cancel Culture: Posthuman Hauntologies in Digital Rhetoric and the Latent Values of Virtual Community Networks” Austin Hooks discusses the possibility there is with cancel culture, social media, and how it can drudge up the past holding people accountable to their past actions, which can be referred to as a “haunting” or doxing and is the basis of this culture. While most people think it is fun to revisit posts from their pasts on apps like Timehop and Facebook, others suffer this as an unfortunate consequence as their past self comes back to haunt them.
For an example of a haunting I would like you to meet Carson King. King was a regular college student who needed beer money and made a sign that said to Venmo him Busch Light Beer money, this led to many donating a large amount of money to the beer cause which he in turn donated to charities and would later team up with the same beer company to donate upwards of one million dollars to a charity of his choice (Carr 135-136). The story at the time was a feel-good moment where you could see a kind college kid doing something for laughs would end up turning his life upside down. King was eventually cancelled for two old racists tweets that were dug up by a reporter, Aaron Calvin, while writing a feel-good piece on the donations (Carr 136). Was it necessary for Calvin to report this while writing an article on a large donation? No, it really was not necessary but Calvin “felt obligated to publicize the existence, confirming once again, no good deed goes unpunished (Carr 137).” The story on his tweets turned into companies backing out of partnerships with King and getting negative attention online. King apologized for his past remarks but also felt that they did not represent who he was as person at the time. After King’s apology, he was still receiving criticism for his past remarks, many online had thought it was unnecessary for Calvin to go through King’s social media the story was on how King was able to get money to donate to charity and not for King’s past. The public then acted and as with Calvin, they felt obligated to investigate Calvin’s old tweets and found some highly questionable tweets (Carr 138). For King, it was unnecessary to do a deep dive into his past actions online so was it necessary to do the same to Calvin? “[Calvin] acknowledged that [the tweets] were ‘frankly embarrassing’ but then asserted that they had been ‘taken out of context’ to ‘wield disingenuous arguments against [him]’ (Carr 138)” Calvin had lost his job and suffered similar consequences for the same judgment he had placed on King.
On the other hand, with the case of Bill Cosby some repercussions with “the way the public villainized Cosby’s family, and even the fans of the show, mirrors the ways that incarcerated citizens are being reduced to their ‘guilty’ label and vilified, as described by Jamison (Imam 3).” When a celebrity is cancelled it goes so far to say that if you partake in their media, you are also just as bad. As I have said there was a mild villainization on being a part of a fandom where their celebrity is being cancelled but of nothing criminal. In the case of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, among others who have a list of sexual assault allegations against them, can you still enjoy their art? Yes, you can still enjoy their art but also remember what they did. You do not have to take accountability for their actions but also do not vilify their victims.
We have looked at cancel culture in terms of celebrity, regular people, and the reaction to their said cancellation. Briefly mentioned is cancel culture in terms of fans but what contribution do fans have on social media especially on cancel culture? “Fandoms often serve as a buffer to being cancelled on Twitter (Roos 4).” Many fans especially the hardcore fans, also known as stans or depending on who it is for have a special name like Swifties, can help soften the blow that the celebrity is experiencing. For Taylor Swift, her fans were online trying to defend her but would mostly go on to send a brief tweet to show their support or love. Recently this has become more of a popular thing for her fans during a time where she was battling for the rights to the masters to her first six albums. In the article “Taylor Swift needs to call off her fans as they send Scooter Braun death threats” Mel Evans discusses how in 2019 it was announced that the record label that owned Swift’s masters was being sold to Scooter Braun.
In the following quote from a Tumblr post of Swift’s she explains everything surrounding the battle to owning her masters:
For years I asked, pleaded for a chance to own my work. Instead, I was given an opportunity to sign back up to Big Machine Records and “earn’ one album back at a time, one for every new one I turned in. … I learned about Scooter Braun’s purchase of my masters as it was announced to the world. All I could think about was the incessant, manipulative bullying I’ve received at his hands for years. (Taylor Swift)
Swift also said “Please let Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun know how you feel about this. Scooter also manages several artists who I really believe care about other artists and their work.” This message would lead her fans known as Swifties to go on the attack.
Swifties would go on Scooter Braun’s social media and either just tell him to give her the masters back or actively threaten him, his family, and company. Braun would ask Swift to talk about this privately instead of broadcasting it to her many fans (Evans). This was not the only example of Swifties going past the message she was trying to send to her fans. More recently a tv show on Netflix titled “Ginny & Georgia” and one of its lead actors was on the receiving end of this. You can see the Tweet here.
The following is a quote from the image above of a tweet from Taylor Swift:
Hey Ginny & Georgia, 2010 called and wants it lazy, deeply sexist joke back. How about we stop degrading hard working women by defining this horse shit as Funny. Also, @netflix after Miss Americana this outfit doesn’t look cute on you Happy Women’s History Month I guess (Taylor Swift).
The image that Swift had post was of the line from the show which says, “What do you care? You go through men faster than Taylor Swift.” Swift had been the punchline of this joke for many years having called it out in the past and even writing songs about how the media portrays her like “Blank Space” and “Look What You Made Me Do.” Swifties took this tweet as a call to action to attack the show, but not the writers of the joke, the actor who spoke the line. A lot of responses were like “Respect Taylor Swift” or “Apologize to Taylor” but then there were quite a few racist replies which many wanted Taylor Swift herself to apologize for. Swifties as a culture I would not say they are racist, but when people start swinging for their favorite they tend to punch down and unfortunately aim to hurt. The actor was not the target of Swift’s disdain, it was the show writers and Netflix but because she used the online platform to air her grievance her fans wanted to take their turn at cancelling someone. Unfortunately for Swift, her fans will continue this path of destruction for the sake of preserving her legacy. Fans have the power to build up and tear down.
I have talked about different variations of cancelling, the reactions the public and fandoms have made, and the vague rules that are broken but what are these rules to online social platforms? Who makes these rules? If you break these rules, are you thereby cancelled? Throughout all social media online we have a collected idea of what is right and wrong and that is referred to as “collective consciousness” (Velasco 2). As a society, we have applied some baseline rules to ourselves of what is acceptable and what is not. When people break these rules, they have committed a high crime where people see no difference between people convicted of crimes and people who are cancelled (Imam 3). When there is no difference between those incarcerated and those cancelled the rules need to be revisited and revised much like the justice system altogether. With this cancel culture can be beneficial in society after it is closely reexamined so it is not used as a power gain or to tear down someone for simply not agreeing to something. People should be held accountable for serious indiscretions like derogatory remarks, violence, and sexual assault. Cancel culture should not be used as a witch hunt for the rich and famous to root out people who are their rivals. With the current political climate and with current news media we need to stop labeling everything as being cancelled when it truly is not. Mr. Potato Head is not being cancelled for the company declaring it is genderless, it is a potato of course it has no gender. Dr. Seuss made highly racist books that the estate wants to withdraw from the public because of their content, not because they are being cancelled. Instead of cancel culture it needs a stiff remarketing as accountability culture. As a society we need to cancel “cancel culture” and instead help people become accountable of their actions.
@kimkardashian. “Wait it’s legit National Snake Day?!?!?They have holidays for everybody, I mean everything these days!” Twitter, 16 July 2016 7:22 P.M. https://twitter.com/KimKardashian/status/754818471465287680
BBC News. “Taylor Swift: ‘Saying You’re Cancelled Is like Saying Kill Yourself.’” BBC News, 9 Aug. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-49289430.
Carr, Nanci K. “How Can We End# CancelCulture-Tort Liability or Thumper’s Rule?.” Cath. UJL & Tech 28 (2019): 133.
Evans, M. (2019, November 26). Taylor Swift needs to call off her fans as they SEND Scooter Braun death threats. Retrieved March 16, 2021, from https://metro.co.uk/2019/11/25/taylor-swift-attack-scooter-braun-danger-toxic-fandom-11215672/
Griffiths, K. (2016, February 16). Transcript of Taylor SWIFT’S 2016 Grammys speech that was a HUGE Feminist Victory. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://www.bustle.com/articles/142222-transcript-of-taylor-swifts-2016-grammys-speech-that-was-a-huge-feminist-victory
Hooks, Austin. “Cancel culture: posthuman hauntologies in digital rhetoric and the latent values of virtual community networks.” (2020).
Imam, Aya. “Twitter, What’s The Verdict?”
Laconte, Stephen. “Taylor Swift Fans Are Attacking A Star Of ‘Ginny & Georgia’ After That ‘Deeply Sexist’ Joke — But She Had An Important Response.” BuzzFeed, 5 Mar. 2021, www.buzzfeed.com/stephenlaconte/taylor-swift-ginny-georgia-sexist-joke-antonia-gentry.
Lambert, Anthony, and Sarah Maguire. “Has cancel culture gone too far?” (2020).
Roos, Hailey. “With (Stan) ding Cancel Culture: Stan Twitter and Reactionary Fandoms.” (2020).
Theriault, Liz. “From cancel culture to changing culture.” (2019).
Velasco, Joseph Ching. “You are Cancelled: Virtual Collective Consciousness and the Emergence of Cancel Culture as Ideological Purging.” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 12.5 (2020).
Welsh, Michael Tyler. Disruptive rhetoric in an age of outrage. Diss. 2020.
West, Kanye. “Famous.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq2TmRzg19k