The Well Actually

When “Cancel Culture” Means Letting Go


Cancel culture’s critics make bad-faith arguments about censorship and worry about artists’ ability to rehabilitate their careers. But what about their fans, who are grappling with the grief of relinquishing a beloved relationship with their work?



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It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for anyone trying to square reality with what opponents of “cancel culture” claim are unfair, democracy-stifling attacks on people just speaking their minds as part of a full and frank exchange in the marketplace of ideas. The latest victim of the “woke mob” is “canceled” transphobic comedian Dave Chappelle, whose most recent comedy special, The Closer, rode high for its first two weeks in the Netflix top ten. The streaming service, which issued a passionate defense of Chappelle, even fired a transgender employee who spoke out against the comic’s so-called jokes. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Chappelle was alsocanceled” in 2019, when his other comedy special featuring transphobic and homophobic content hit Netflix. 

Another one of cancel culture’s oldest victims, Mel Gibson, has also been in the news recently. Earlier this month, producers of a prequel to the popular John Wick film franchise announced that the actor, notoriously “canceled” for racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic screeds, is set to continue his career comeback with a starring role in the production.  

These are just two of the latest victims of a “toxic” “cancel culture” that has run amok, threatening freedom as we know it. Its targets are subject to a “blood thirsty [sic] horde high on the “thrilling feeling” of power. This “crazed” throng is absolutely “rabid” to exert its “vindictive” punishments with haphazard abandon, “canceling” anyone and everyone for anything and everything. Basically: It’s 10 p.m.—do you know if your kids are on TikTok criticizing celebrities? 

If cancel culture’s critics are right, and the tyrannical rule of the woke mob has stifled free speech and denied people their God-given right to make a profitable living as public figures irrespective of anything they might say, do, or believe, the woke mob sure could do with a little pitchfork-sharpening. But the hysterical throng gets a lot less threatening if, instead of a maniacal cabal of liberal despots, they’re just regular folks who are allowed to consume things they like, disengage with things they don’t like, and talk about it with whomever they want.

That’s what “canceling” actually looks like in practice: everyday people dialing back or ending their support for and consumption of work they associate with a bigot, abuser, or even a criminal. While cancel culture’s critics make bad-faith arguments about censorship and worry about celebrities’, politicians’, and sports stars’ ability to rehabilitate their careers, fans are left to grapple with the real pain of relinquishing a beloved relationship, under what is often psychological and emotional duress. 

I know what it feels like. Two and a half years ago, the New York Times exposed my favorite musician, Ryan Adams, as a sexual predator, and I purged my music library of his songs and tossed 15 years’ worth of concert T-shirts and memorabilia into the garbage. It was an awful, heartbreaking experience.

I do not suggest that the pain of losing a fandom is anything close to experiencing the trauma of abuse, harassment, assault, and bigotry firsthand. But it did hurt, and it brought home just how few conversations about “cancel culture” are really about culture—how humans produce and consume it, how people relate to each other and develop and maintain our values, and how folks participate (or don’t) in politics and capitalism and economies of harm. Heck, even some really great takedowns of cancel culture have fixated on the “canceled” to the exclusion of the people—the fans, the voters, the listeners, the audiences—without whom “cancelation” would be impossible in the first place. 

When I stopped listening to my favorite music, I didn’t feel like a bloodthirsty and vindictive member of a powerful mob. I felt devastated and betrayed, and I wondered if other people who’d relinquished fandoms—who’d “canceled” their favorite artists, producers, athletes, and creators—felt the same way. So I asked around, starting on Twitter, the original home of the supposedly reactionary, takedown-obsessed “bullies” behind cancel culture. 

My inbox quickly filled with stories about an incredibly diverse array of “canceled” subjects. There were household names like Picasso, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, and J.K. Rowling, while others were more niche, like comic book writer Warren Ellis and fantasy novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley, Top Chef winner Paul Qui, the ’90s pop band Hanson, and an array of YouTube beauty vloggers. Some people had divested themselves from entire cultural institutions like Star Trek and Saturday Night Live, or sports franchises both professional and collegiate. Others had “canceled” Ryan Adams, just as I had, or finally become fed up with Dave Chappelle. The list went on—Louis CK, Joss Whedon, Woody Allen, R.Kelly, sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, Smiths’ frontman Morrissey, and Bill Cosby. 

Yet the ways these former fans described their experiences separating themselves from a wildly heterogeneous collection of public figures actually had a great deal in common. The people I spoke with described not just being unwilling but unable to enjoy the work from those who had once been favorite artists, teams, and creators. Their stories were highly personal, emotionally fraught, and deeply painful. Many did try to “separate art from artist,” and most all described going through something like the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—in the course of their journey.

“It felt like a mourning period. It felt like grief, a real loss,” said Genevieve Cato, an Austin-based reproductive-justice advocate who told me she relinquished her near lifelong Hanson fandom when, amid the racial-justice uprisings after George Floyd’s murder, the band’s drummer took the side of racist police and vigilantes in social-media posts—and the other members didn’t condemn him for it. The first CD Cato had ever bought was also Hanson’s debut album; she felt like they’d been by her side for years, until they weren’t. When she tried to listen again, it wasn’t the same.

“I thought, Well, I can still listen to the music without giving them any more money or support. But it just made me sad,” she said. “It didn’t feel the same.” 

It wasn’t just that Cato didn’t like what Zac Hanson had posted on social media, or that she disagreed personally with his conservative politics; his views went completely counter to her deeply held values. Of course, it’s no coincidence that cancel culture’s critics are usually, but not always, situated on the political right. The roots of “canceling” are situated in resistance praxis, especially in movements for Black liberation and civil rights boycotts organized by change-makers who found ways to assert power when exercising political strength wasn’t possible. To oppose cancel culture is to seek to maintain the status quo; it is fundamentally a project of opposing progress, and of the shallowest possible engagement with art and entertainment that genuinely challenges the powerful and privileged.

 

As a result, those who complain that cancel culture has gone too far often sidestep legitimate questions about the impact of bigotry, abuse, and violence on our relationships with each other and our world, asserting in bad faith that “we” can simply separate art from artist. Chelsea Hopkins, an Austinite who also stopped listening to Ryan Adams after the Times exposé, described her internal struggle to separate Adams from his music.

“I thought, Could I try to divorce the individual from the music, and go back to consuming what I used to love?” she said. “I have that conversation with myself, and then I’m annoyed at having that conversation with myself, and then I’m angry with myself. I do care about what happens to women, and this is my protest. I don’t want my relationship with that man to remain exactly the same.”

Anyone who has experienced grief knows the exquisite pain that comes with the timelessness of loss — feeling stuck between the fond memories of a loved one and the devastating rush of realizing that we won’t ever make any more. Many fans described feeling stuck in this endless push-and-pull, wanting to go back to that rush of joy and comfort and catharsis their favorite fandoms had given them, but being unable to reconcile new layers of pain with past joy.

“It really feels like a breakup, that looking at their social media is just going to hurt you, so you try to quit cold turkey,” said Hopkins. “It’s even worse than that in some ways, because you can’t even revisit the memories.”

Fans likened also “canceling” their favorite creators, from whom they felt unable to separate art and artist, as being intensely emotional and difficult. David Dewar, a retired college professor who excised Eric Clapton’s music from his life after learning about the guitarist’s racist screeds and anti-vaccination advocacy, described giving up Clapton as being as difficult as quitting smoking, but just as necessary: “In today’s political and social justice climates, Clapton’s art has been vandalized by the artist himself. And we’re all the poorer for it.” 

Particularly in the case of strong individual creators whose brand is based heavily in the “realness” they bring to their work, the idea of separating art from artist is preposterous. Take Louis CK, for example—the comedian who exposed himself and masturbated in front of women colleagues. CK’s shtick was not having a shtick. The awkward, snarky guy he was on stage was supposed to be the same guy — a good guy unafraid to crack wise about the patriarchy—that he was everywhere else.

“He sold us that he wasn’t playing a character, it’s just me up here,” said Sheila Schierbeck, a stand-up-comedy devotee who once drove from her home in Vancouver to Seattle, without a ticket in her hand, to see CK perform, on the off-chance that something would open up before the show. “He didn’t sell us comedy, he sold us authenticity, and it was fucking fake the whole time. His commodity was his truth, and it wasn’t truth at all.”

Some creators may not put much of themselves as individuals directly into their work, but maintain a level of control over their intellectual property that makes them difficult to separate from their creations: Enter Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has put her virulent transphobia on display, using her celebrity to promote constant, vicious, and dehumanizing attacks on the transgender community, and especially trans women. Flourish Klink, co-host of the Fansplaining podcast and a former entertainment industry consultant on fan culture, had been deeply embedded in Potter fandom since 2003, when they helped run the first-ever Harry Potter fan conference.

“It felt like this was my safe place, a place I enjoyed and loved and it gave me so much,” said Klink, who is trans. “To have J.K. Rowling say ‘I don’t think you are a legitimate person,’ that just poisoned it.”

Even for Dianna E. Anderson, a trans author whose 2018 book Problematic: How Toxic Callout Culture is Destroying Feminism, Rowling’s aggressive trans- and queerphobia meant they had to take a step back from a wizarding world they’d loved for years, even writing their master’s thesis on Harry Potter and Christianity: “Rowling became this symbol within the U.K. ‘gender-critical’ movement, so even seeing her name on Twitter now is this anxiety trigger for me. I see ‘I stand with J.K. Rowling’ as somebody misgendering me.”

Not everyone I spoke to who’d abandoned a fandom identified as part of a community or group that had been targeted, mocked, or harmed by a public figure whose work they no longer supported, but Anderson and many others described their own identities and lived experiences as being a tremendous part of the decision-making process. For many fans, the question of whether they can safely and comfortably consume, let alone enjoy, a beloved fandom is not intellectual, but personal.

 Emily Griffith, a professor in North Carolina, grew up aspiring to become an artist like her idol, Picasso—even as she admired his work, she knew was a “jerk,” but hadn’t known just how poorly he treated the women in his life. But when a segment on performer Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Douglas touched on Picasso’s misogyny and abuse of women, Griffith dug into more of his story, ultimately moving the Picasso prints and postcards with which she’d decorated her home into a closet instead.

“Growing up, I thought, maybe somebody like Picasso would mentor me as an artist,” she said. “But he wouldn’t have! I’m not a dude.” Art that she had imagined depicting love, “couldn’t have been the kind of love that I want,” because it was created by a man who leveraged his talent to hurt people—specifically women. She realized: “It would be somebody like me who is getting hurt.” 

No one I spoke to situated their own fandom in a vacuum, as a purely intellectual decision lacking cultural context or social impact. Instead, fans thought deeply about how their interests, economic choices, and enthusiasm for a “canceled” figure might affect the people around them, and the kind of world they wanted to live in. Many expressed concern that continuing to show support for “canceled” creators could be damaging in a broader sense — to marginalized communities in general, whether or not an individual fan identifies as such, and personally hurtful to friends and loved ones.

Cassandra Johnson, a bibliophile and “beer league” Quidditch player who has also “set aside” her Harry Potter fandom, described a revelatory moment after reading an Instagram post from another Potter fan who said, “It’s really weird to see people wear Harry Potter stuff and have their friends who are trans see that stuff, and know you care more about the fandom than you do their feelings.” In that moment, Johnson realized, “I really need to divest from Harry Potter and figure out what it is I actually like about the fandom and stories, and lean more toward that, instead of all the consumer stuff that comes with it.” 

Indeed, concerns around consumerism and capitalist consumption invariably came up as fans interrogated their connections to “canceled” creators, resulting in an encouraging upshot for most folks: “Canceling” a beloved creator often inspires fans to find new work that scratches their fandom itch, but without the baggage.

“There are still many wonderful things out there right now, I don’t want to give my time or attention to somebody who doesn’t deserve it,” said Mike Encinias, who flew across the country to celebrate his 30th birthday at Dave Chappelle’s star-studded “block party” in Brooklyn, but who no longer calls himself a Chappelle fan. Instead, he says, “I try to watch stuff that provides a different viewpoint from what I’m used to seeing, and look out for [creators] who are Indigenous, women, LGBTQIA,” adding that he’s now “being more discerning about what I intake.”

After she stopped listening to Ryan Adams’s music, Chelsea Hopkins said that the very next mixtape she made for her wife had only women artists on it. “The more you start looking for proof that [artists] recognize experiences outside their own, the more you start paying attention to that, the less fun it is to consume things that don’t offer some kind of diverse perspective. I’m now making more deliberate choices to consume art by women.”

What I never heard from the people I spoke to—and I talked with dozens—was any expression of glee or satisfaction at the fates of their “canceled” favorites. Many had given a lot of thought as to how or whether they could ever enjoy their discarded fandoms again, and expressed regret when they didn’t feel it could be possible and deep longing for things not to be this way.

Ultimately, these conversations revealed a group of fans who approach their “cancelation” choices—and whether or not to encourage others to join them—with a great deal of nuance and mindful sensitivity.

“It feels like bringing up religion to me,” said Cassandra Johnson. “I don’t want to make people feel guilty for enjoying the books or movies, but I do want them to know that the author’s beliefs are not consistent with their work. Like, ‘Oh, I love Harry Potter too, but you know J.K. is a TERF, right?’”

A number of folks even outright rejected the prospect of going on an anti-whoever crusade. As Flourish Klink said, “There’s so little joy in the world,” why snatch it away?

“It’s a downer, but it’s totally weird to just open up and be like ‘HEY GUYS, GUESS WHO SUCKS?’” said Klink. “Of course I have posted on social media (at least Twitter) a few times about it and talked about it on my podcast, so it’s not like I’m keeping things a secret.” But, they said, “I’m happy for people who can still enjoy J.K. Rowling’s stuff. I would love to be in their shoes, but I just can’t. The door is closed to me.”  

Mike Encinias described himself as being more vocal about his disavowment of Chappelle than other fans I spoke with, but he was also careful to note that he wants to lift up trans voices and correct harm done, not just glom on to another exciting takedown opportunity. “I vociferously oppose Chappelle” on Facebook, he said, “and I try and share the voices of the transgender community that is being hurt by his words.”

Far from being members of a bloodthirsty mob hellbent on destroying joy in the name of social justice, the fans I spoke with have a deep, personal understanding of just how hurtful it is to lose the ability to appreciate something or someone they once loved. To cast those who feel acute loss in the absence of things and people that they have invested countless years in, and found life-changing communities among, as a hateful mob blinded by vigilante justice? Well, I think that’s cancel-worthy. 

 

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