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cancel culture diversity MeToo politics

The Aftermath of Cancel Culture: Apology Culture

“Cancel culture” has become a buzzword in today’s entertainment landscape, a term whose definition and ethics are hotly debated each time a celebrity finds themself in the spotlight for committing a wrong. Without engaging in the conversation on its toxicity or lack thereof, I’d like to define cancel culture as a movement, one similar to the #MeToo movement. Cancel culture seeks to expose celebrities whose status has long protected them from facing consequences of their actions. The movement aims to acknowledge long-standing harmful cultures in the entertainment industry and reveal the individuals who permit and perpetuate them, as well as making an ongoing effort to point out celebrities’ insensitive behavior as it happens. This behavior ranges from the discovery of years-old insensitive tweets to habitual and violent sexual harassment and assault.

Often, once these incidents gain attention, there are calls for the celebrity to be “cancelled,” to lose the support of their fans and be removed from their current projects or stripped of the social power they wield. There have been very few instances where a celebrity has been effectively cancelled (Kevin Spacey’s immediate, total, and so far permanent removal from the public eye following accusations of him raping an 18-year-old boy is the only true example that comes to mind). That said, the threat of cancellation appears to be enough for us to have become saturated in what I will refer to as “apology culture.”

In tandem with the increase in public acknowledgement of celebrities’ wrongdoing is the increase in celebrities apologizing for these actions. On the surface, this seems like a good thing- celebrities are being held accountable for their behavior, and they are owning these missteps. However, I argue that, for a handful of reasons, apology culture is actually stalling the momentum of cancel culture and preventing meaningful change from coming from the things that have so effortfully been brought to light in recent months and years.

The most straightforward issue with apology culture is the questionable nature of the sincerity of the apologies themselves. In December of 2020, Shia LaBeouf was sued by ex-girlfriend and Honey Boy co-star FKA Twigs for sexual battery, assault, and infliction of emotional distress. Twigs claims that LaBeouf knowingly infected her with a sexually transmitted disease and cites “relentless abuse” from the actor. Upon the lawsuit being made public, LaBeouf released a statement in an email to the New York Times: “I’m not in any position to tell anyone how my behavior made them feel. I have no excuses for my alcoholism or aggression, only rationalizations. I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me. I’m ashamed of that history and am sorry to those I hurt. There is nothing else I can really say.”

Even more recently, The Bachelor host Chris Harrison came under fire for defending contestant Rachel Kirkconnell of the most recent season of the series. It came to light that Kirkconnell had attended an “old south” themed party in college, shared an Instagram post with language strikingly similar to the QAnon conspiracy theory, and liked a friend’s post of them posing in front of a Confederate flag. Kirkconnell and Harrison were asked about these things in an interview with Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s first Black Bachelorette. In the interview, Harrison came to Kirkconnell’s defense, claiming that while this behavior would be unacceptable today, it was not at the time that it happened.

Harrison has since acknowledged the problems with his statements in the interview and offered an apology: “I am an imperfect man. I made a mistake. And I own that. I believe that mistake doesn’t reflect who I am or what I stand for. I am committed to the progress – not just for myself, also for the franchise. I am saddened and shocked at how insensitive I was in that interview with Rachel Lindsay, and I didn’t speak from my heart, and that is to say: I stand against all forms of racism. And I am deeply sorry. I’m sorry to Rachel Lindsay, and I’m sorry to the black community.”

I use these two instances as examples and sources of comparison because, while these offenses are drastically different in every way, the apologies are strikingly similar. They share the same tone, intensity, and sentiment, and they are far from the only celebrity apologies that do. The general message of owning one’s mistake- though clarifying that it was a mistake- and offering a heartfelt “I’m sorry” is consistent among the majority of celebrity apologies, which have now become innumerable. Seeing one nearly identical statement after the other, they begin to sound rehearsed, even coached, and it becomes increasingly difficult not to question the sincerity behind them.

Another important factor in the celebrity apology is that it doesn’t come after the incident- it comes after the public disapproval of the incident. Thus, while already seeming manufactured, these apologies also come across as an act of self-preservation. Rachel Kirkconnell’s racist actions had already come to light as insensitive and controversial by the time Harrison spoke on them in the interview with Rachel Lindsay. Harrison had had the time to reflect on the issue before coming to her defense and didn’t offer his apology until almost a month after doing so. The amount of time between the incident and Harrison’s taking accountability for it suggests that it was the increased stakes, not true regret, that prompted his response.

The questionable nature of these apologies is exacerbated by the lack of action following them. Many, like Chris Harrison, make bold yet vague promises like being “committed to the progress” without offering any specific examples of how or what will be different going forward. Further, any positive action that does come after the apology is often a decision made for the celebrity rather than by them. Before FKA Twigs filed her lawsuit, Shia LaBeouf was fired from Olivia Wilde’s feature Don’t Worry Darling for unspecified inappropriate behavior. While LaBeouf claimed to be aware of his faults in his apology, his firing on Don’t Worry Darling indicates that he is not making an effort to change but is expecting to continue working and remaining in the public eye.

While Shia LaBeouf’s firing came before any knowledge of his behavior became public (a sign of Olivia Wilde’s good judgement and character), Chris Harrison was replaced as host of The Bachelor franchise following the intense backlash his comments received. His departure was phrased as him “stepping away” from the franchise, but this is thinly veiled verbiage of his removal from the production. While The Bachelor distancing itself from a racist host seems like a move in the right direction, networks being quick to fire its stars that have found themselves in the hot seat ultimately adds another layer of self-preservation.

Chris Harrison’s racism came in the form of defending the racism of another Bachelor cast member. From this alone, it is clear that the franchise’s problems with racism extend beyond just Harrison himself. Yet, by putting two of the show’s former Black stars in Harrison’s place, the franchise is presenting itself as having fixed its only problem. While Harrison is not innocent, he has become a scapegoat for the production as it attributes any and all problems the show may have had to him. It allows The Bachelor to escape from making any substantive change and bury any other toxicity it may have with Harrison.

On the other end of the apology culture spectrum are Chrissy Teigen and Jenna Marbles. Teigen, a model and television personality with a strong Twitter presence, recently deleted her account on the social media platform. While she has remained generally popular and avoided any substantive controversy, she has received backlash from fans over tone-deaf tweets, like one about her mother buying Air Pods as if they are a disposable product. Teigen recently came to twitter one last time to say: “Hey. For over 10 years, you guys have been my world. I honestly owe so much to this world we have created here. But it’s time for me to say goodbye. This no longer serves me as positively as it serves me negatively. I’ve always been portrayed as the strong clap back girl but I’m just not. My desire to be liked and fear of pissing people off has made me somebody you didn’t sign up for, and a different human than I started out here as! Live well, tweeters.”

Jenna Marbles, a longtime YouTuber, stepped away from the platform after recently facing criticism for insensitive videos from 2011 and 2012 where she wore blackface in a Nicki Minaj impression, judged women who “slept around”, and incorporated a rap song with lyrics making fun of Asian people. In a video simply titled “A message,” Marbles emotionally declared that, “it was not my intention to do blackface. I do want to tell you how unbelievably sorry I am if I ever offended you by posting this video or doing this impression, and that that was never my intention. It’s not okay. It’s shameful. It’s awful. I wish it wasn’t part of my past.” She went on to say that “for now, I just can’t exist on this channel. I think I’m just going to move on from this channel for now. I don’t know how long it’s going to be. I just want to make sure the things I’m putting in the world aren’t hurting anyone. So I need to be done with this channel, for now or forever.”

While Teigen occupies other public spheres as a personality on LL Cool J’s Lip Sync Battle, both Teigen and Marbles are self-made creators on the platforms where they are most popular and where the incident occurred. They did not have employers who could have made the decision for them to remove themselves from the platform. They also paired their apologies with their announcement that they are stepping away from their platforms, thus following the apology with instant action. On the whole, Teigen and Marbles are rare examples of cancel culture working- they were made aware of their mistakes and made the independent decision to apologize and follow that apology with action.

However, while they both have in the past posted undeniably insensitive content, I don’t believe Teigen and Marbles are the real target of the cancel culture movement. They are not the dangerous, power-wielding, toxic culture-creating celebrities that we can’t seem to affect no matter how hard we try. While much of this falls to the celebrities themselves who refuse to make real change or step out from behind their superficial apology, it is also unclear within the movement what consequences we expect to befall those that we expose.

Some, like Shia LaBeouf, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby, and many others, have committed crimes and should face the consequences of the law just as anyone without their status would. Others, however, like Chris Harrison, have done something wrong without breaking the law. By drawing attention to these incidents and vaguely demanding some kind of action, the cancel culture movement is becoming its own justice system for the morality of celebrities’ behavior, and it is quite an ambiguous one. Without a clear communication of the change that we want to see, it is difficult to have a collective expectation of appropriate behavior following an event like Chris Harrison’s. Cancel culture has made great progress, but the movement was born from the notion that celebrities will not own or alter their behavior on their own- hence why it needed to be exposed in the first place. With that same idea in mind, there may be work yet to be done on our part in achieving true accountability for public figures.

Categories
film nostalgia videogames

Remake Fatigue, or Lack Thereof: What Hollywood Could Learn from Video Games

Remakes, reboots, and revivals abound in every facet of entertainment today. To name the smallest fraction, Spongebob: The Musical in the theater world, Godzilla vs. King Kong in film, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life in television, and Taylor Swift’s new renditions of her old discography dominate their respective headlines along with scores of other rejuvenated content. However, what is more and more frequently following on the heels of these popular projects is the suggestion – often the lament – that remakes are overtaking entertainment and creating a saddening lack of originality. The only medium that has been able to repeatedly offer successful remakes without simultaneously generating disappointment is video games, as Patrick Shanley notes in his THR article “Remake Fatigue? Not for Video Games.”

In his article, Shanley notes that in 2019, “of the top 10 global earners [in film] only two – Captain Marvel and Joker – were not direct sequels or remakes of existing franchises.” The same was true for video games, with remakes making up eight of the top ten games of the year. While remakes are currently saturating both industries and generating financial success, video game remakes appear to be avoiding the criticism and accusations of lost creativity that Hollywood is currently suffering.

Nostalgia is the main appeal in remakes of both games and films, but that nostalgia is implemented very differently between the mediums. Shanley comes close to identifying this key difference when quoting Paul Yan, co-studio head of development for Toys for Bob: “there’s a unique component with games where there’s a muscle memory built into them. I don’t think there’s a parallel to that in film.” This is a key point that is at the root of the difference between film and video game’s nostalgia, yet Shanley fails to identify and expand upon the implications of these ideas, of which I believe there are many.

With video games, the nostalgia is in the mechanics. There is familiarity in the controls, the structure, and the format of the gameplay. This allows game creators to create entirely new stories, characters, worlds, and challenges, without sacrificing the game’s nostalgia factor. With film, on the other hand, there is generally little variety across the medium in terms of structure itself. The heart of a film, the thing an audience misses, is its characters.

On the whole, this seems limiting for film. Characters certainly can develop lives that transcend their film and generate genuine audience interest in their lives beyond the events of the film. However, by and large, characters are also developed to fit their film, with their most interesting personality points intentionally resolved by the film’s end. The reboots we’re seeing so many of today had not been envisioned when the original content was being created; when the characters were being developed, these stories were not what the creators had in mind for them. Of course, there are many instances where a new story for existing characters is organic, well-executed, and manages to be both original and nostalgic. Yet, among these skillful remakes, are equally as many (if not more) instances of characters being forced into situations they don’t naturally fit into for the sake of nostalgia- and audiences are noticing.

To contrast this current dilemma for film, I’ll give an example of my favorite video game franchise. The Fallout video games bring the player into a post-apocalyptic world, where players are able to explore a very detailed and dilapidated future America. While there were a couple early PC Fallout games, there are three in the franchise that are widely popular and playable on every major gaming console: Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4, which are set in the Mojave Desert, Washington D.C., and Boston, respectively. All three games allow the player to design the look and skillset of their character and freely explore the world around them, while still offering the structure of a main quest that provides some background on the player character.

As these games are all set geographically far apart from each other, there are no overlapping characters between games, and the player characters all have unique personal backstories that drive the game; even if a player designed their character exactly the same in all three games, the plots of the games eliminate the possibility that it could be the same character in all of them. Nonetheless, Fallout 3 completely filled the Fallout New Vegas sized absence I felt after completing the game in its entirety. The gameplay was exactly the same, as was the culture within the game, which made it feel like I was simply expanding my Fallout experience and learning more about a universe that was bigger than one game could capture. The consistency between the games allowed the changes in character and plot to be an exciting challenge rather than disorienting or jarring.

I couldn’t say the same for Fallout 4. I was immediately pulled out of the experience. The gameplay was different enough that the muscle memory I had from the past two games led to mistakes rather than ease. More importantly, though, the universe did not have the same feel as the previous games. The in-game radio, which used to play 50’s-sounding tunes, now played rock music, and there were major features of the game that were brand new and confusing. It didn’t feel like the same world, and therefore didn’t have the nostalgia factor that I craved after completing both previous games.

Realizing the source of the nostalgia in film and video games can offer some key insight into how films could capitalize on nostalgia and existing intellectual property without sacrificing creativity and originality. As some creators appear to be realizing, the answer may be franchising. Expanding the story world of an existing film, rather than creating a brand new one for characters who were designed for the story of their original film, gives creators options rather than limiting them.

Television has embraced this approach, with the nature of spinoffs changing in recent years. While spinoffs used to focus on one character from an existing show (Joey after Friends, and Frasier after Cheers, to name two), spinoffs today primarily aim to expand the world of an original series and create a wider universe with new characters. The Walking Dead has done this with its prequel Fear the Walking Dead, as has 9-1-1 with its Texas-set spinoff 9-1-1: Lone Star. Perhaps most notable is the world of Chicago’s emergency and law-enforcement services that spans Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Justice.

Film most certainly has its franchises as well. It is now near impossible to miss the massive worlds of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, film’s franchising seems to still be limited to the sci-fi genre, and generally those already based on comic books. The key factor in a work’s potential to be franchised is the personality of the universe itself- the setting’s ability to still feel familiar and interesting if it were filled with entirely new characters. It’s understandable that this is easiest to achieve in the sci-fi genre where the setting is often a large part of the appeal. Nonetheless, Shanley’s drawing attention to the difference in reception of remakes in film versus video games suggests that Hollywood’s struggle with remake fatigue, and the current challenge creators are facing, may ultimately be a question of world-building.