This project was intended to look at how cancel culture works in online environments, and how this affects the real lives of people. I wanted my case studies to vary in career, actions, and backlash/consequences. My first case study is on music superstar R. Kelly, who has been the subject of allegations of abuse and pedophilia for over two decades. His story demonstrates how our inherent trust of celebrities can overrule our belief of victims, even when there are numerous accusations against one. Online-based news sites and digital discussion about Kelly allowed victims a voice in a scale they were denied prior, and this online discussion has negatively impacted Kelly’s image in a severe way. Despite this, Kelly still earns money from royalties, demonstrating many people are still listening to the disgraced musician’s songs. Kelly’s case shows how people may largely dismiss an artist and dislike him publicly, while as a whole we don’t refuse to listen to his tunes, likely because of nostalgic associations. Kelly’s case involves the most horrific actions by any I studied, yet his prior fame saves him from falling entirely out of the public eye, despite being in jail.

In contrast, Shane Gillis ‘edgy’ racist comedy was quickly erased from the mainstream. Before his hiring and firing from SNL, Gillis had been rising as a comedian. I think performing offensive comedy to closed-door, smaller comedy groups isn’t career-ending the same way that saying racist things in front of a camera is. It’s as simple as considering your audience and the permanency of the Internet (or just not saying racist things!). Though Gillis describes himself as a “comedian who pushes boundaries" and may sometimes “miss,” publishing a podcast online saying slurs against Asian people feels stronger than just “missing” a boundary. I think Gillis’s cancelling was also easy because of the evidence being in video form. There’s no deniability allowed when you can literally watch him say “chink” and laugh at Chinatown with his friend. I was thinking about comparing this to the R. Kelly case, but unfortunately it seems you can deny incriminating videos if you have big enough lawyers.

Kathleen Stock was both the most controversial and the least ‘cancelled’ person I looked at, as her offensive opinions seem to show a divide in opinion on what’s appropriate to say about/to trans people. I think her real life cancellations, combined with her opinion that she’s been censored or not allowed certain platforms, qualify her as a cancelled online personality. It’s also a look at how, particularly in the UK, transphobia is rampant even through so-called feminist groups, and how adament the defenders of transphobia are, as seen on Stock’s Twitter. The debate about Stock in the media seems to keep an academic tone, which I think is rather overly respectful, considering her language around trans women (or men, as she’d wrongly say). I hope in the future, trans activists in the UK can gain enough traction to properly shut down these more insidious forms of transphobia.

Overall, my research for this showed differences in how we treat different careers online, from the respect fellow academics pretend/try to show each other, to our collective trust in our superstars, instead of believing lesser-known victims. Additionally, it showed how it’s harder to shut down people already established in their careers than rising stars. It seems that, with convincing evidence, we are willing to shun racists and abusers online, but transphobia still falls outside that umbrella of decidedly unacceptable things, to some online readers.

Cancel culture often gets a bad rep on the Internet, and is applied towards arguably smaller or sillier things, with little consequence long-term to the people cancelled. This project was my way of looking into cases where cancelling was for more just things, and created actual consequences for these people.