Kevin Spacey was fired from House of Cards. No one is allowed to listen to any of Kanye West’s work. Justine Sacco lost her job after she sent the tweet containing the message: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” What all these examples have in common is that these people got cancelled. All these people were met with outrage in the social media landscape. For some this outrage had consequences in their everyday life, for others not so much.
Idyllically cancel culture is a democratic expression of power that holds people accountable for their actions. However, in practice there are many cons to the internet phenom. Public shaming, although effective, is often unjustified and can ruin a person’s life forever. Just ask Monica Lewinksy, whose affair with Bill Clinton perhaps was the first example of cancel culture. Moreover, it may be easy to cancel a person, but what should society do with the work they made? Are all the movies Lars von Trier made now evil too? Just because of their association with their maker? To find answers to these questions we turn to our case study of YouTuber and beauty guru James Charles.
For those who spend their time in a better manner than eating popcorn while watching YouTubers calling each other out on their channels, here is a brief recap of the whole James Charles controversy:
It all started during Coachella 2019. During the festival James Charles promoted Sugarbear on his insta-story. This was slightly problematic, because Sugarbear is a direct competitor of Tati Westbrook’s Halo Brand. Tati felt betrayed, because, according to herself, she was one of the people that made James Charles big in the beauty industry. Two short videos back and forth followed, and then the big bomb was dropped. On May 10th 2019 Tati posted the now deleted video ‘Bye Sister’ on YouTube. In this 43 minute video the beauty guru did not only publicly end her relationship with the influencer, but also discredited James’ earlier apology and accused him of being a sexual predator. Almost immediately James Charles lost 2,5 million subscribers.
So what happened here? James Charles got cancelled. Urban Dictionary defines cancel culture as follows: “A modern internet phenomenon where a person is ejected from influence or fame by questionable actions.” A more nuanced explanation comes from Meredith Clark, a professor at the University of Virginia’s department of media studies. According to Clark cancel culture is “an act of withdrawing from whose expression […] was once welcome or at least tolerated, but no longer is.” In the case of James Charles this meant that before the infamous ‘Bye Sister’ video, fans were willing to support him as both influencer and entertainer, but after all the controversies came out the fans withdrew their approval and no longer wanted to support the YouTuber. Hence the over 2 million loss in subscribers.
Instinctively this feels right. If you do not support someone’s behavior, why should you support their work? According to Lisa Nakamura, professor at the University of Michigan, cancel culture is a way of taking control. Cancellation gives people power over what is presented to them on social media. Through this cancel culture is able to create accountability in a basically open space, a space where everything can be said and done. If someone showcases undesirable behavior, they lose their power by simply being ignored. In theory this works incredibly effective, especially for influencers who work within an attention economy. In an attention economy, attention is linked to livelihood. Therefore, when attention is taken away by cancelling someone, this will impact their income. This gives control to the audience, who get to decide who gets support and who does not.
In practice things are more complicated. Hashtags like #CancelJames create more attention for the person being cancelled. After all, bad publicity is still publicity. Moreover, generally people have a hard time separating creator from product. Staying with our case study we can look at James’ brand deal with Morphe Cosmetics. The makeup palette the YouTuber created with Morphe did not lose its brightness after all the controversies became known. The product still functions as well as it did before ‘Bye Sister’ came out. Imagine you are a makeup enthusiast and you have the palette at home; are you now supposed to throw away a perfectly fine product, only because you do not support the creator anymore? What use would that be when the transaction is already made? Here the problems with cancel culture are highlighted.
For some guidance we can travel back to 1967. In this year French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes published his essay ‘Death of the Author’ which shook the art world. In this work Barthes, in the most convoluted way possible, pleads for the separation between author and creation. “It is language which speaks, not the author,” he writes. In this he means that the reader creates meaning from the work presented, instead of the meaning being derived from the creator. Through one’s own world-views, experiences and known works a person will understand a text presented to them. Because everyone’s life experience is unique this means that everyone will understand a text in a slightly different manner. “The unity of the text is not in its origin, but it is in its destination. […] the birth of the reader, must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” Following this logic, the intentions of a creator are irrelevant. What is important is what you, as a reader, make of the work for yourself. This separates the author from the work completely.
To translate this from literary works to current pop culture we once again return to the makeup palette by James Charles. The work here is the makeup palette, the author James himself, and finally the reader the user of this makeup palette. What the user makes of the palette is up to the user, not the creator. This gives any makeup lover the room to still enjoy the product, for it is disconnected from the image of the maker. Bathes’ philosophy is usable for more than just the beauty community.
Leaving Neverland, the documentary discussing the experiences of two men who claim they have been sexually abused by Michael Jackson, caused a controversy worldwide. Multiple radio stations pledged they would refrain from playing Michael’s music again. A noble statement, but one can wonder if it is a correct statement. Turning a blind eye to the accusations, this is an artist who changed the music history forever. One cannot simply cancel these kinds of impacts. And maybe, just maybe, we should not want to either.
Although in theory cancel culture can be used to create accountability in the social media landscape there is a dark side to it. Cancel culture can easily cross over into public shaming. For this negative side of the phenomenon please watch the video by John Oliver discussing this exact subject. Another criticism is the loss of culture. None will critique the positives changes that the #MeToo movement has caused, but if we as a society truly cancelled Harvey Weinstein one could never watch Shakespeare In Love, Reservoir Dogs, or Sin City again. Same with the music of Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and many others. And what if we found proof that Leonardo da Vinci was a horrible child-molester? Is it then time to take all of his work out of the museums?
Barthes was not wrong when he argued for a separation between text and author. When the philosopher wrote his essay, the aim was to create more urgency for the reader, yet his line of thinking can be applied to our current day situation. Let’s not cancel the author, but let them die instead. Yes, people should be held accountable for their actions and cancel culture is a very effective way to do this. However, one should be careful and mindful when using it and to what extremities. Harvey Weinstein will probably never work in Hollywood again, but this does not mean we have to cancel his earlier work. Creator is not the same as the object. You do not have to feel guilty when you actually still enjoy Woody Allen his movies. It is okay. The author already died in 1967.
And James Charles? During the summer the YouTuber gained back almost all the 2,5 million subscribers he had lost. His latest video has over 6,5 million views. His big apology and defense video ‘No More Lies’ over 47 million views. It is an example about how fickle cancel culture can be. And his makeup palette? That did not change at all during all these highs and lows of it’s creator.
Illustration by Julia Munuera Garcia