Cancel Culture Has Been Reduced to Time-Out for Adults

News Analysis: Five years after the dawn of the #MeToo era, some reviled men are now being forgiven, reconsidered, or given a pass. Perhaps they were never ”canceled” at all
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In 2022, we all hopefully began to understand that for the famous and wealthy, there’s actually no such thing as being canceled—not for the men named in the #MeToo movement or the celebrities who otherwise behaved egregiously and were later exposed. Rather than being disappeared from pop culture forever,  those who wield real power or enjoy the spoils of fame quietly, or sometimes triumphantly, made a public return after what can only be called a time-out for adults. And this year, it’s clear that we are going to see the return of more very elite or famous men who did some very bad things. 

Forgiven, reconsidered, or given a pass will apparently be the fate of a number of these recently reviled household names. Sure, there are a few exceptions: Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly, after facing high-profile legal battles for their abhorrent crimes, are likely to remain in prison for decades. Yet developments elsewhere for those slightly or significantly lower on the “terrible human” scale prove that the U.S. isn’t just the land of second acts (contra F. Scott Fitzgerald’s view) but of third, fourth, and fifth acts, plus the inevitable sequel. In the rarified air of the Hollywood elite, a familiar amnesia has crept in regarding who did what or why we ever cared. Simultaneously, a major wing of the #MeToo army and one of the movement’s most powerful organizations, Time’s Up, collapsed in scandal. It’s as if many of us forgot that there was supposed to be any binding adjudication at all.

Now it seems we’ll need to coin a new term for the marquee celebrities accused of major transgressions—potential felonies, inappropriate sexting, a slap heard around the world—then “canceled” in some way or another. And we’ll need it post-haste, as one briefly exiled personality after another reemerges into public view, looking rather refreshed.

These are not by any means bona fide renewals for these men. Audiences may never feel the same way about the major offenders—though some may hold famous men wrapped up in accusations of (or busted for) less odious behavior (Aziz Ansari and Al Franken, for example) in lower esteem. Let’s call this the end of canceling the capital-C celebs. This past year, rather than being shunned, such stars endured what amounts to an old-fashioned time-out, yet on a bigger stage than a kindergarten classroom. Like a petulant kindergartener, these men were sidelined to an unglamorous corner for a temporary period; silenced, or at least ignored, some aired their grievances online or elsewhere until we could stand the thought of watching, reading, or listening to them again. 

For some men of #MeToo, the turnaround has already begun. Louis C.K., not that long after admitting to masturbating around female comedians, has won a Grammy and is currently selling out shows on his international stand-up tour. Woody Allen, at 87, is working on what he says is his final movie, Wasp 22, a Paris-set “poisonous romantic thriller” featuring a French cast. 

But 2022’s most stunning and complete turnaround has to be that of Johnny Depp. Faced with allegations ex-wife Amber Heard recounted through tears in testimony before a Virginia jury that Depp forcibly penetrated her with a liquor bottle after taking copious MDMA pills, the once-golden boy of Hollywood not only survived their legal battle, he emerged victorious in the scorched-earth, must-watch courtroom showdown; he was even reimagined as the victim in some corners of social media. Now, his career is thriving as he’s cheered by fans after he defeated Heard in court and the current goodwill towards him has the star’s future looking brighter than ever: Netflix France will soon release his feature, Jeanne du Barry, he’s lined up to direct another film, and there’s talk of a Pirates of the Caribbean return.

The celebrity-time-out-to-return cycle might just be quickening, too. Our jaws certainly dropped when Will Smith walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, and the fallout saw him banned from future ceremonies. Yet now he’s back, earning rave reviews for his performance in the new movie from Apple, Emancipation, which is being tirelessly advertised during NFL games. Expect other Smith projects to get their release at some point and perhaps by the time the mega-budget Bad Boys 4 hits theaters, Jerry Bruckheimer’s hope for Smith’s career after The Slap will come to fruition: “There’s always forgiveness in the world. And hopefully, the audience will forgive him,” the producer told The Hollywood Reporter

And last but never, ever least, there’s the artist formerly known as Kanye West, a man who is always his own worst enemy. Having claimed slavery was a “choice” and flirted with white nationalism, Ye crossed the line when he went pro-Hitler. Notably, Adidas dropped the rapper and designer from their mutually lucrative Yeezy partnership only when backed against a wall. The German sportswear giant is now expected to lose $246 million in 2022 profit as a result of nixing its work with Ye. But the rapper is hardly being erased and his very popular music remains online, thanks to a record label-and-streamer pact against pulling legacy acts (yes, Ye counts as a legacy act now). Hits like “Gold Digger,” “Power,” and “All of the Lights” regularly blast from car radios, bars, and stores. While Ye has now been checked for his bigotry, it’s easy to assume that when he’s spent enough time removed from headlines and has sought out “healing,” a warm welcome back to the spotlight awaits. After all, are we capable of denying a brilliant but broken man his next chapter? No, we are not. 

Expect new projects this year from other fallen angels-turned-comeback kids, including James Franco, Nate Parker, and Armie Hammer, and…well, the list just goes on, without detailing the mini-time-outs of Chris Brown, Kathy Griffin, Lea Michele, and so many others. The irony is that of course these celebrities have benefited from a headline boost that comes with a scandal and brief public censure in our attention economy. 

The judgment is clear: These celebrities were creepy, badly behaved, or just kind of crappy humans. Yet they haven’t been and can’t be canceled. To the extent that “cancellation” actually even existed, the discourse has centered on the high-profile personalities who make money off having a well-known name. Sure, for everyday Americans, a friend, possibly an entire community, can cancel a person over an egregious act. But chances are, a canceled “nobody” will pick up another friend or move to another town, and employees forced to resign for inappropriate work behavior find new jobs every day.

What’s different for the creepy and crappy elite is what’s at stake —their precious public reputation. Years later, a lot of Americans are finding themselves downright exhausted from the rage over the misdeeds of some sinister men in power. But as we move further into 2023, there’s little to fret about regarding “cancel culture.” Rich, famous people get away with things; they always have and will. Annoying, hateful, or criminal, they may be held in contempt, but more often than not they will wait it out and proceed on to publicity tours carefully engineered for a rebranding. That’s because fans never really go away, they just wait for the next act.

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