We Can’t “Cancel” Everyone

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(@justintimberlake via Instagram)

Vocally let me go in on the topic of canceling celebrities not too long ago. The two paragraphs below are my intro to that piece (which you can read here), and the rest of this article are my newer, stream-of-consciousness thoughts I have on the topic.


It’s hard to see someone you love mess up. We like to think that the few people worthy of our support and admiration are the exceptions to this oft-flawed world. We do this with public figures and celebrities despite the fact that our love for them is very fickle. They aren’t really in our lives, anyway, even if we do talk and know more about them than we do some of our family members.

That sort of detachment allows us to view them exactly how we want to view them depending on however we feel at a given moment. We can slap our optimistic ideals and perfectionist standards on famous faces and fanatically knead them into the model human beings we want to see. We can also just as easily beat them back into amorphous Play-Doh, unleashing our anger with the world onto them without a second thought. And there’s no empathy or remorse for a celebrity who becomes something other than what we want them to be: One scandal, slur, drunk tweet, shocking tell-all story, or mugshot, and they are “canceled.”

What’s annoying about the trendy declaration of canceling a celebrity is that the loudest cancelers on Twitter are convinced they’re representing the majority. What’s funny is there never really is an agreement on who is and isn’t cancelled.

It’d be one thing if people chimed in on Trevor Noah’s misguided comments on race, or Cardi B’s past homophobic comments, and said they, an individual, would no longer consume someone’s work unless their stance on a core issue changed. But it takes a very 2018-sense of entitlement to read about a person you don’t know doing a thing or two you don’t agree with and really believing your polarized stance on that celebrity should be the law of the land.

The phenomenon of canceling celebrities tells us a couple of things about how we consume pop culture today. Firstly, it defines the attention we give celebrities as subscriptions. Famous people in this view are living content catalogs we sign up to get periodic updates from—if you mess around with keyword filters on Twitter to get more or less on certain celebrities, this “signing up” allegory is actually your reality. This explains why people get upset when celebrities don’t give us updates in a timely manner (e.g. Frank Ocean’s 4-year silence before Blonde), or when celebrities give us content we didn’t expect from them (e.g. Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods album).

Secondly, the view of our relationship with celebs as subscriptions proves how intolerant we are of seeing famous people as just people. If your friend took a break from music to work out some family drama and get their money right, you wouldn’t curse their name in public for not dropping those songs you know they’ve been working on. But Frank Ocean owes you his music. To you, Frank Ocean is just the factory where they make your favorite kinds of sad songs. Likewise, Justin Timberlake owes you his funky White boy image, and that factory needs to go out of operation once it starts to create product that doesn’t sit well with Black America. Well, sit well with you, but obviously you speak for all of Black America because you’re as woke as they come, right?

That brings me to my third point, which is the toxic belief in liberal circles that if you subscribe to the most correct social view of the moment and are up on the verbiage needed to express it with authority, that you have the power to speak on behalf of entire demographics. As I said earlier, it takes a special level of nerve to think millions of people should stop consuming a public figure’s content just because a piece of it did not agree with your personal views. Saying or doing something problematic does not make an entire person’s existence in the public eye problematic. To cast such a judgment on a person’s character for a mistake, a fucking mistake, is treatment we only reserve for people we only see on screens.

If you want to consume this article in television form, go watch ‘Woods’, the 8th episode of the brilliant Season 2 of Atlanta. And if you want a one-liner to sum this piece all up, here it goes: don’t let Twitter gas you up, and go put that selfish frustration with society to better use.

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