This isn’t about whether someone should or shouldn’t be canceled. Rather, it’s about who gets to come back afterward — and why.
By Candice Frederick | Published Nov. 8, 2023
This story is a part our weeklong series on cancel culture.
Read the other stories here.
No one ever talks about what happened with James Gunn.
In 2018, decade-old problematic social media posts from “The Guardians of the Galaxy” director, in which he joked about rape and rape culture, resurfaced. Then he was effectively canceled. Disney — yes, the media conglomerate that has had its own problems lately — immediately fired Gunn, prompting an outcry from countless supporters of his.
Those included moviegoing fans as well as A-listers like John Cena and Patton Oswalt, who implored the public to allow Gunn some grace. Gunn said he deeply regretted who he was when he posted those thoughts and vowed he’d since changed. He was forgiven, reinstated as director of the “Guardians” films and is now the co-chair and co-CEO of DC Studios.
And that’s fine. We’re all human and still learning. We will continually fuck up until — for those of us who are sincere about changing — we finally get it right. And we should be allowed the space to prove that and succeed.
But we seem to only extend that grace for certain people and refuse to for others. More to the point: White people are met with more compassion in cases of offense than others that are permanently marked for things they’ve said and/or done.
Kevin Hart comes to mind. You might recall that the comedian, who is Black, was set to host the 2019 Oscars when decade-old homophobic jokes of his reemerged online.
He posted an apology for his “insensitive words from my past” (amid obvious frustration over the mounting backlash), and claimed he had since evolved and was continuing to evolve. The public — which included fans who found Hart’s jokes funny at one point — was evidently not convinced that he had changed, and, following intensified outcry, Hart stepped down from his position as Oscar host.
What makes Gunn’s and Hart’s cases so different is hard to tell for sure. They both had apologized, perhaps neither realizing at the time that the way in which they apologized would be just as scrutinized as the actions for which they were apologizing.
Folks might argue that one apology felt sincere while the other did not. Even Hart later admitted that he fumbled his apology. But who’s to determine how true that feeling of insincerity is at the time? Or whether either Gunn or Hart had actually evolved or was in the process of evolving with the culture, as they had said?
It could just be bad faith. Gunn has managed to somehow stay out of the fray from new public resentment by seemingly keeping his head down and staying out of most political discussions. Meanwhile, Hart, who’s previously described himself as “not a political guy,” has found himself in consistent hot water for engaging in complex conversations about queer issues.
Not to go all “but celebrities are people, too” on you, but it cannot be easy to publicly plead that you have changed or are in the process of changing — and continue to be dragged anyway.
This isn’t about whether someone should or shouldn’t be canceled. Rather, it’s about who gets to be redeemed after being canceled. Because that couldn’t be more perplexing at this point.
A key distinction again seems to be if you’re well liked to begin with and/or are white. After choosing to resume her talk show amid the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in September, Drew Barrymore tearfully informed her critics that she was standing by her decision. That was then met with the same backlash.
But when she ultimately realized her mistake, despite having been warned against committing to it beforehand, she was praised for learning from her actions and overturning her decision. That’s good. For some people, they need to fall on their face before they can truly understand their actions and grow from them.
And it’s nice to see an often implacable cancel culture offer her some compassion. But that’s not consistent, and we should question why that is — and why it’s so racially disproportionate. Sure, white folks like Mel Gibson have remained publicly shunned and people of color like Tory Lanez have their supporters. But atonement still isn’t evenly doled out.
It’s been years since Awkwafina, who is Chinese and Korean American, was first accused of having a blaccent. And it’s been years — throughout her entire post-rap film and TV career — of her apologizing for speaking the way that she does and trying to explain the complexities of how she and many other Asian American immigrants were influenced by Black and hip-hop cultures.
She also shared that she was committed to learning more about the historical context of using African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and being a better ally.
It’s nice to see an often implacable cancel culture offer her some compassion. But that’s not consistent, and we should question why that is — and why it’s so racially disproportionate.
That’s been to no avail. Her apology was considered insufficient, and she remains out of public favor. Part of that is our lack of understanding, or unwillingness to understand, certain cultural nuances that have been discussed for years — dating back to white rappers like Eminem and Vanilla Ice. Another part is how we too often arbitrarily rate the veracity of a celebrity apology.
The part that we don’t talk about enough is how white people — Ezra Miller is another example — can not only get away with many things, but can also come back from certain things that others just can’t. Those include the kinds of non-criminal offenses that should present opportunities for people to learn or grow. In many cases, they do. For many nonwhite people, though, they’re not given that chance.
Cancel culture at large tends to be capricious and often built on short memories and celebrity favoritism that makes certain people Teflon against cancellation. But when it comes to how that superfluously impacts people of color, we should be raising more flags.
No one should be exempt from scrutiny of or accountability for their actions. But, by the same token, the rules of cancel culture need to be better defined for all people. Otherwise, we’re just replicating an already broken system of penance.