Whenever I want to see the direction the cultural winds will blow, I look to publicity savvy actresses. In the summer of 2015, after Donald Trump came down the escalator but before he hijacked the Republican party, I was unsure which way the media was heading. Would irreverent reality stars or angry pearl clutchers dominate the next four years? As a communications professional, I needed to know, so I met a budding starlet at a hotel around the corner from the old Sony studio lot*.
The Actress, as I’ll call her here, was one of the most socially conscious ingenues in town. I had known her for nearly a decade and had watched her stumble through high school musicals, college theatre, and performance art. Now she was about to star in her first TV movie. Over the course of an overpriced salad she pretended to eat, the Actress detailed how she would position herself as a “woke activist.” The Actress would discuss social justice in interviews, label herself a leading feminist multi-hyphenate, and attack bigots on social media.
During the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years, stars offended to boost their brands. South Park lambasted everyone who crossed their animated town’s snow-lined pavement. For thirty years, Madonna humped crosses, microphones, and pop rivals. On every station, from Disney-owned ABC to the then provocative Comedy Central cable network, comedians like Dave Chapelle and Roseanne Barr poked fun at everyone. Controversy sold. There were a few exceptions to the rule. Janet Jackson’s records flopped after Justin Timberlake pulled off her bra at the Super Bowl. At the start of the Iraq War, country stations stopped playing the Dixie Chicks because lead singer Natalie Maines said, “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Even Madonna, the first lady of heresy, self-canceled her anti-Iraq War video “American Life” out of fear of being Dixie Chicked. But for the most part, those who complained about celebrities’ antics quickly found themselves labeled a prude. Or even worse, irrelevant.
But in the impending age we would soon call the Trump era, the Actress predicted that outrage would become the new being outrageous.
I thought the Actress was nuts, but boy, was she right. In Los Angeles, America’s cultural capital, acting outraged became the new snorting cocaine at the Chateau Marmont. Millennial actors, writers, and influencers screamed woke slogans and canceled their peers for their supposed misdeeds. Whenever an acquaintance was labeled “canceled,” these wokescolds would unfollow them on Twitter and delete all tweets and photos proving their friendships before tweeting that they deserved cancellation. Devout followers of cancel culture received magazine covers, book deals, and more. Outrage was the most valuable currency in town, and cancel culture its moneymaking machine.
It seemed Los Angeles would stay this way until, in the past year, the Actress and her ilk have slowly changed their tune, note by note. The Actress has bemoaned feminist blogs. Her friends have gone on shows, complaining about people who find jokes offensive. Most of all, these former wokescolds are now often referring to themselves as canceled because a few people disliked one of their tweets. As Trump vacates the White House, being canceled is no longer something to fear. Everyone wants to be canceled because with Biden in office, being canceled is chic. Public figures can offend again and not just on Patreon.
As it did with pornography and skateboards, California has exported its cancel culture obsession into other parts of America. A friend in Atlanta recently texted me he had been canceled in the same tone he would have told me he was gang banged. He was slightly embarrassed, but golly gee, now he had a story to tell, and it made him feel like he was living on the edge. He asked me what he should do. I logged onto Twitter to see his inflammatory tweet. Only two people had replied to what he claimed got him “canceled.”
“I’m getting canceled all over the place,” he said. God, he might as well have killed himself! He said he had been canceled “numerous times” when in actuality, he never uttered an original thought in his life. The lure of cancellation could have rendered him an original. But he was like a middle school girl wearing a tie with a wife beater and listening to Avril Lavigne in 2002: He was a poser.
Posers come in all shapes and sizes now. They’re wannabes and billionaires. Take the Novelist. I didn’t understand the term cultural appropriation until the billion-dollar Novelist anointed herself the Ambassador of Censored Writers last fall, signing an open letter condemning censorship and public shaming. Notable other luminaries added their signature, including several writers who had, indeed, been canceled. But the biggest name was the Novelist.
She has long fancied herself as a victim. Sure, she has endured scathing reviews, thousands of angry tweets, and Christians burning her book. But she has paid little prices while typing away in her literal castle. Publishing monopolies are not going to cancel any of her book deals. The Novelist, can, though, reposition her public image by throwing herself into the midst of the safest culture war fight. (Name a celebrity, or even a minor journalist, whose career ended over transphobia.) The Novelist can finally shroud herself with the veneer of edginess, refashioning herself as more than a type-A personality who writes about wizards: She’s canceled. To be canceled is to be edgy. To be edgy is cool. The Novelist has finally won the one prize money can’t buy. The twee-est woman in Scotland is now punk rock.
The obsession with being canceled can overblow into a full-blown fetish. A few months ago, a Wannabe Actor I barely know messaged me on Signal. A girl in Brooklyn had accused him of abuse on her Instagram story, and she was demanding an apology. She didn’t want attention; she wanted to hear him say, “Sorry.” Knowing I worked in communications, the Wannabe Actor asked me what he should do if this went viral. I doubted it would, and it didn’t. She stopped posting. The world never caught on, and thus, it didn’t even need to move on.
I never spoke to him again, but I checked in on his social media. Over the next few weeks, he started posting that he was “canceled.” He retweeted right-wing memes and told mutual acquaintances about how he had lost his “vision” of himself. The accuser had robbed him of his “vision.” What vision? He wasn’t a movie star. He wasn’t on a teen sitcom. Whether subconsciously or consciously, he seemed to be living a fantasy of himself as Roseanne Barr after she tweeted about Valerie Jarrett and Planet of the Apes. He glorified the idea that social media robbed him of his dreams because that was as precious as being famous in our culture. It was greater to have your dreams destroyed than to have your dreams happen in the first place.
Being canceled was suddenly cool. To younger Americans, the change may seem shocking, but Gen Xers I know foresaw the pending doom. Last fall, I dined in Venice Beach with the Gen X Cultural Figure. Today, she explained, we look back at the Bush years as irreverent. We remember the culture as shocking and the Iraq War as an obvious disaster. Everyone claims they hated the war, but in the lead up to Baghdad, few opposed the military adventure. Now, those who foresaw it as a misadventure hold the most valuable positions in culture. They speak with supreme authority. She predicted that only canceled writers would be trusted after Trump rescinded from view.
As usual, the Gen Xer was right. Those seeking cultural capital want to retroactively make it look like they were edgy and irreverent when it mattered. If they actually were irreverent when it was dangerous, they wouldn’t be posting on social media in public; their account would likely be set to private.
Edginess has long been a currency, but Trump made that coin valueless for four years. Democrats are back, and edginess is cool again. Now people want the burn scars of cancellation without walking through fire themselves. If we are to remember who participated in the terror of the past four years, who was a wokescold that ruined lives, we must only reward the truly maligned with canceled cred. The canceled chic should be as pillaged as the radical chic of the seventies.
*Names and identifying factors have been changed throughout the piece to protect people’s privacy.