What Exactly Is 'Cancel Culture' (and What Does It Have to Do with J.K. Rowling)?

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You've seen the "So-and-So Is Canceled" headlines and you've skimmed over the op-eds on "cancel culture," but if you're not glued to an endless feed of hot takes (cough cough, Twitter), you might not totally get what it means to be canceled. Here, we explain.

What does it mean to be ‘canceled’?

In pre-internet days, when something was canceled—a TV show, a concert or an event—it disappeared. It stopped production and messaging.

In the hashtag version of canceling, it's the same idea, but with a moral twist. When the public or a vocal group of people deem someone or something canceled, usually for a history of or recently discovered racist, sexist or bigoted behavior patterns or comments, it can take away their capital in today's attention economy.

Jonah Engel Bromwich interviewed Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies the intersection of digital media and race, gender and sexuality for his piece on cancel culture in the New York Times, in which Nakamura expressed, "It’s a cultural boycott...[It’s] an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to. People talk about the attention economy—when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood."

And just like any internet meme that morphs and evolves, canceling can also be applied to something as banal as a joke, i.e. "Can we cancel mornings? Waking up is the worst," to something as serious as sexual assault, i.e. "Bill Cosby is canceled forever and always."

What’s the point of canceling someone?

Even though the group canceling someone else might not have direct control of the canceled person's actions, it's become a powerful enough method to demand larger change from, let's say, a TV network, a corporation or even the person at the center of the controversy. According to Merriam-Webster, "Canceling and cancel culture have to do with the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work." So, canceling a person or thing can lead to direct action—someone being fired from a position of power or the toppling of a statue. And sometimes, a person can be canceled, lightly reprimanded, and then go back to their position of power (like Louis C.K. who was called out during the peak of the Me Too movement only to tour to packed houses ten months later).

Who are some people who have been canceled?

The list is long. Some would say too long (see below). But here's a smattering.

Roseanne Barr: Canceled for racist tweets.

Scarlett Johansson: Canceled for white-washing casting controversies.

What’s the deal with J.K. Rowling? Is she canceled too?

The Harry Potter author has indeed been canceled for using her massive platform to promote anti-trans rhetoric including several tweets and an entire essay where she espouses the right to misgender trans people (i.e. use "she/her" pronouns for a trans man or "he/him" pronouns for trans women). Because of this, she's been labeled a TERF, or a trans-exclusive radical feminist.

So, what is ‘cancel Culture’?

Cancel culture is the amalgamation of all the canceling—the constant headlines and op-eds you've been seeing—and therefore it's not just a singular, once-in-a-while phenomenon, but it's almost become a way of life.

Is cancel culture bad?

It cuts both ways. On one side, it's become a pretty reliable way to strip power or demand an apology or immediate change from a public figure. For instance, after Laura Bennet published her experience of sexism with MSNBC's Hardball host, Chris Matthews, he promptly resigned. As Jason Parham writes for Wired, "With roots in Black Twitter, cancel culture is an unavoidable mainstay of our infotainment age. In an era of too much everything—TV, opinions, news—we’ve come to rely on a vocabulary of consolidation: likes, tweets, emoji. Cancel culture is one of these argots—a governor, a self-regulatory device I have come to wield with pride (if infrequent recklessness). In the collective, the gesture is absolute: we can’t. We’re done."

On the other hand, it can be only a short-term solution to systemic issues like racism, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and more. Not to mention, some believe it creates a hostile, zero-sum world where people revel in the schaudenfraude of successful people being canceled, making it less about the actual issues at hand and more about the glee of a famous person tripping up and suddenly becoming irredeemable. We saw this with the Alison Roman-Chrissy Teigen comments. When cookbook author Roman took shots at Teigen and Marie Kondo in an interview, the public largely saw Roman punching down—why demean two successful Asian women in industries that are hostile to them in the first place? And though Teigen's feelings were hurt, she was not on board with NYT's decision to put Roman on leave, in a way canceling Roman.

In regards to the controversy, writer Roxane Gay chimed in, "[Some] of y’all wait for the your favs to make a mistake so you can let loose. Maybe we could just admit we don’t like everyone and create an environment where that isn’t a moral failing and not just wait for convenient opportunities." Even President Obama joined the conversation saying that cancel culture is not activism.

Long story short, it's both good and bad—there's an argument for both sides, but for now, these words from comedian and activist Franchesca Ramsey kinda sum it up best, "'cancel culture' truly has no meaning. ya'll will call your fave celebrity facing the smallest amount of heat being "canceled" meanwhile they're still wealthy AF to do whatev they want. being deliberate about who/what you support/consume isn't *cancel culture*"

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Dara Katz

Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...
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