A new star was born Feb. 18 after a viral “finish the lyrics” video surfaced of Charlotte Awbery flawlessly belting out “Shallow” from the 2018 film “A Star Is Born.” The internet quickly fell in love with Awbery’s Farrah Fawcett coiffure and crystal-clear tone.
But as soon as Awbery went viral, social media archaeologists dug up an old photo of her wearing a Native American headdress and just like that, she was canceled. Time of death: Feb. 21, just three days after reaching virality.
Or, the internet tried to cancel her. Outside the Twitter bubble, Awbery remains alive and well. After her short-lived cancellation, she continued to collect fame, even performing on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on Feb. 26.
This is not a story about whether you should wear a Native American headdress to a Halloween party (you shouldn’t). This isn’t even a story about whether someone should be “canceled” for this particular infraction. This is a story about the mob mentality that perpetuates the internet, the veritable lack of real-world consequences and what accountability really means in 2020.
Anyone who’s regularly on Twitter knows the speed at which cancellations occur, but they also know these controversies are often self-contained within the 280-character limit of the platform. Despite the internet’s short-lived fury, there is not a single published article about Awbery’s transgression.
Even when a cancellation makes it from Twitter to the real world, this public shunning is hardly effective. Consider all the celebrities and public figures whose transgressions have placed them in the internet’s collective crosshairs. Who actually faced consequences?
The fact of the matter is that post-cancellation consequences are the exception, not the rule.
The most recent example of this exception is Harvey Weinstein, whose long-running career as a Hollywood producer was strangled by a tsunami of #MeToo allegations against him. He is now locked up in Riker’s Island after being convicted on charges of rape and sexual assault, but this accountability is hardly the rule among the upper echelons of the Hollywood elite.
Film director Roman Polanski has been accused of sexual abuse by at least six women, including a charge for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Earlier this month, he won the award for Best Director at the César Awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Woody Allen, another beloved film director accused of sexual assault, has made dozens of movies and received multiple lifetime achievement awards and Oscar nominations even after accusations he molested his young daughter.
Cancel culture doesn’t actually achieve its central aim, which is to cancel. Outside of Twitter rants and furious op-eds, careers still thrive and abusers still evade
accountability. We have to confront these failures when we discuss cancel culture.
To the pundits who bemoan cancel culture as political correctness gone wild and rage over the possibility of ruining someone’s life: lose the mock sanctimony. Sleep soundly at night knowing few lives are being ruined, even if they have committed truly heinous acts.
To the internet crusaders waging war on anyone and everyone who misspeaks or missteps: log off Twitter. The canceling you cast down with false righteousness likely will not work. Do not sleep soundly at night thinking Twitter activism is the be-all and end-all of social justice.
Now log back on to Twitter.
Internet cancel culture evades nuance. Internet cancel culture resembles a frenzied mob in Salem, Mass. circa 1692. It is retributive, not restorative. It lacks the empathy to allow fellow humans to make mistakes and learn from them. But internet cancel culture is, in fact, not canceled. At least not in my eyes.
For all its flaws, cancel culture can be a powerful instrument of accountability and justice. The #MeToo movement was ignited on the timelines of everyday people. The collective power of millions of internet consumers forced abusers such as Weinstein to reckon with the consequences of their actions. It is not the apex of accountability, otherwise people such as Polanski and Allen wouldn’t continue to thrive, but it’s a start.
The homegrown, grassroots activism of cancel culture is especially important to movements like #MeToo. Victims of marginalized groups often don’t receive equal considerations of justice from our legal system or even society at large.
Consider that Weinstein’s successful Hollywood career was linked to rumors of sexual abuse for over 20 years before the #MeToo movement eventually took him down. Conventional outlets never met their own demands of journalistic evidence because of Weinstein’s financial and legal prowess and victims’ fears of speaking up. Forums such as Twitter have an important function as a counter-mechanism of justice when traditional systems fail.
Cancel culture is not perfect. Not even close. Its totalizing all-or-nothing mentality allows no room for growth or change. But if we can manage our expectations and realize that internet justice is only an aspect of social justice, just as voting is only an aspect of our civic duty, then we can appreciate the culture’s ability to protect marginalized victims and bring awareness toward the transgressions of powerful abusers.
Accountability doesn’t end on the internet. But it’s a start.
Ellen Murray is a senior writing about being a millennial. Her column, “’90s Kid Unleashed,” runs every other Monday.