“#TaylorSwiftIsOverParty was the number one trend on Twitter worldwide. Do you know how many people have to be tweeting that they hate you for that to happen?”
This is how Taylor Swift, in her recent documentary, addresses being “cancelled” in 2016. When she explains through tears how “it just feels like it’s more than music now… it just gets loud sometimes” or recalls in a 2019 interview that the “mass public shaming” of being cancelled can translate to being told to “shut up, disappear, or… kill yourself,” it’s easy to see the very real, personal impact that cancel culture can have on an individual.
In 2020, a leaked video revealed new information about the 2016 drama and #TaylorToldTheTruth trended on Twitter, demonstrating that cancel culture is not just hurtful but often pointless, too. So why is the world of celebrity and social media so obsessed with it?
“Cancel culture” at its root refers to the concept of no longer supporting a celebrity or their work after they do something deemed unacceptable. Being brandished as “cancelled” has become the dominant catch-all insult on social media. Whilst certain behaviour certainly should result in outrage, the definition of what is deemed a cancel-worthy offence is dubious. Feuding with another popular celebrity? Entangled in a conspiracy theory? Words taken badly out of context? Uh-oh! Time to be #cancelled!
It’s difficult to see whether this kind of social media shunning has a truly devastating impact on many celebrities’ careers. Many have been cancelled, for reasons both valid and ridiculous, only for their professional lives to remain fairly unscathed. For Taylor Swift, this meant a year’s disappearance from the spotlight followed by a bestselling album attesting her survival through lyrics like, “They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one / They’ve got their pitchforks and proof / Their receipts and reasons.”
But the emotional impact runs deeper. It’s not nice to think anyone doesn’t like you, it’s definitely not good for your mental health to know the majority of the internet hate you. This issue comes down to the perhaps obvious, essential reminder that celebrities are in fact real people with real feelings, so celebrating them being “over” is not kind or necessary.
But cancel culture is about more than just celebrities. It implies that the moment somebody makes a mistake, they are over. Even if we’re unlikely to be cancelled ourselves, it can be easy to internalise the ultimately regressive “one-strike-and-you’re-out” mentality. The majority of us, celebrity or not, are decent people simply trying our best, but it is easy to make mistakes. Sometimes we need second chances in order to learn and grow. But this is only possible if we move away from the process of public shaming then moving on to someone else. We should be holding each other and ourselves to a higher standard. So, if we want to become better, and kinder, that means the only thing that really needs cancelling is cancel culture itself.