“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.