What It Means to Get 'Canceled'
What to Know
Cancel is getting a new use. Canceling and cancel culture have to do with the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work.
Update: These words were added in January 2021.
Things get canceled (or cancelled, especially in British English) all the time, for different reasons. That meeting you weren’t looking forward to attending anyway got canceled because people couldn’t coordinate their schedules. A postage stamp gets canceled with a marking from the post office to show that it has been used and shouldn’t be used again. You cancel an order after you change your mind and don’t want the item anymore. A TV show gets canceled when it doesn’t bring in good ratings. When something is canceled, it goes away.
What Does 'Canceling' Mean Today?
But in the latest use of the word, you can cancel people—in particular, celebrities, politicians, or anyone who takes up space in the public consciousness.
If you don’t know, there’s discourse about how Cardi B and Nicki Minaj should be cancelled for previous homophobic and transphobic comments. (Whether or not they are actually “cancelled” is a different matter entirely.)
— Victoria Hou, The Columbia Daily Spectator, 6 Feb. 2019
Even now, he doesn’t seem to have the decency to resign. He’s going to make the very people he offended do “the hard work” of canceling him. He’s going to make people of color running for president stop what they’re doing to own him.
— Elie Mystal, The Nation, 2 Feb. 2019
West may not possess much self-control, but he is more self-aware than his detractors give him credit for. He’s certainly aware that public opinion has soured on him this year, and that more people advocate for “canceling” him every day.
— Bryan Rolli, Forbes.com, 14 Dec. 2018
That’s all it takes, folks. Listen to disenfranchised voices when they have a concern, learn, acknowledge, move on. We don’t have to cancel anyone. They don’t need to step down. There is no long and winding process of penance.
— Zach Johnston, Uproxx, 18 Jan. 2019
To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste.
The Origin of 'Cancel Culture'
The idea of canceling—and as some have labeled it, cancel culture—has taken hold in recent years due to conversations prompted by #MeToo and other movements that demand greater accountability from public figures. The term has been credited to black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag. As troubling information comes to light regarding celebrities who were once popular, such as Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, and Louis C.K.—so come calls to cancel such figures. The cancellation is akin to a cancelled contract, a severing of the relationship that once linked a performer to their fans. As Jonah Engel Bromwich writes in the New York Times, the word echoes the trend of on-demand subscriptions of content, from which a user can opt out just as easily as they opt in.
There is a performative aspect to canceling, one that (it could be argued) paradoxically amplifies that which it seeks to squelch, if only for the moment. To cancel someone publicly often requires broadcasting that act, which then makes the target of one’s canceling a subject of attention. The objective behind canceling is often to deny that attention, so that the person loses cultural cachet. Bromwich quotes Lisa Nakamura, a professor in the Department of American Cultures at the University of Michigan, who says, “People talk about the attention economy — when you deprive someone of your attention, you’re depriving them of a livelihood.”
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