Despite a national obsession with heavy words like “independence” and “freedom,” Americans seem obstinately stuck in the search for a figurehead––whether that be a politician or a reality TV star. However, in the midst of the country’s third wave of COVID-19, celebrity culture presents a new problem. What do we do with celebrities who, in accordance with our adoration, believe they’re somehow immune both to the coronavirus and public backlash?
In what seems to be a constant struggle between our devotion and vitriol for public figures, public outrage operates more as an outlet for our frustration than a genuine attempt at correcting behavior. And celebrities never fail to provide reasons for this release, from the Kardashians pretending “things were normal just for a brief moment” by throwing a lavish party for 40 guests on a private island, to California Governor Gavin Newsom attending one of his lobbyist friends’ unmasked birthday dinner. These actions are a mockery of the nearly half a million lives lost to COVID-19, and current methods fail to change this behavior. However, we continue to swing between the extremes of love and hate for famous people. In a culture where any public figure can be elevated to the height of celebrity, how do we reckon with the consequences?
The dubious answer that comes to mind is cancel culture, a process of online policing and censorship that often misses the point. Cancel culture almost never satisfies the public’s initial desire for retribution. Instead, it leaves a confused mess of pointless discourse, turning the original issue with an individual into a collective problem to be hashed and re-hashed into oblivion. In a few cases, this method of cancellation ends in concrete forms of due process, but usually only with the most egregious and horrifying transgressions, such as the actions of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. But in most cases this mayhem, instead of posing direct and immediate consequences for the offending individual, results in little besides temporary disgrace. J.K. Rowling’s infamous transphobic statements are one case study. After cancel culture came for her, J.K. Rowling’s book sales actually skyrocketed in England. Even Louis C.K. returned to stand-up, selling out shows after multiple women accused him of sexual assault. Despite this process’s ineffectiveness, it’s hard to resist. It speaks to our desire to have control of the public sphere but not much else, as the important social issues raised in these debates are usually overshadowed by personal attacks and unconscious recapitulation of insidious police culture.
Many people would acknowledge that cancel culture is fundamentally a toxic way to hold others accountable, especially when their offenses are not immediately violent. Most of the time, individual infractions symbolize a larger systemic problem. Cancel culture is more complicated within the private sphere––it’s much easier to cancel a celebrity than it is to cancel a friend––and its limitations and impracticalities are made much more visible. If someone you knew was throwing parties during the pandemic, you would probably let them know they were actively endangering others rather than cut off all communication and shame them relentlessly online, right? Instead of teaching people a lesson or “raising awareness,” I’d argue that cancel culture just encourages people to hide their bad behavior rather than change it.
This being said, the many examples of celebrities’ carelessness, especially during the pandemic, make it difficult to know how to respond––like Jake Paul throwing huge parties while claiming the pandemic is “a hoax” or the Chainsmokers performing at a concert that flouted social-distancing guidelines in the Hamptons over the summer. The mindset behind this negligence is arguably more disturbing than the actual events. It shows a certain rupture from reality, even when it concerns such irrefutable matters as contagious diseases––not to mention the example they set for fans, who might not have access to the same top-tier healthcare and rapid testing. Considering most Americans’ reverential perception and treatment of famous people, it’s no wonder that celebrities have a skewed view of their own importance. The attempt to “deplatform” celebrities through cancel culture is simply an effort to retain public control over the narrative, a struggle to display some kind of democracy in celebrity culture. While celebrity culture requires a dialogue between the performer and the public, it becomes all the more complicated considering the unquestionably universal experience of COVID-19––there really isn’t any room for constructive discussions. Celebrities’ irresponsible behavior in the pandemic and our inability to properly challenge them beyond online shaming calls both their egos and our reverential culture into question.