A cancellation is a power grab in social justice language. The stated intention might sound like “prevent harm to the vulnerable” with the more precise aim of getting rid of an offensive person and their offensive work in one fell swoop, or getting an artist to alter their work until it becomes a parody of itself. And the most frequent result is a trial-by-internet, the spectacle of public pressure put on confrontation-averse, risk-averse organizations where reputation is constantly on the line. So “controversial” books must be un-published, “controversial” movies and entertainment must disappear: whoever tried to make those must leave public life forever. Or, as it’s often the case, they turn to a right-wing media system hungry for stories that can be marketed as “The Woke Left is out of control!”.
You may find an alternative in Clementine Morrigan, a queer Canadian writer/activist whose politics have been described as “eco-socialist” and still stands very much on the Left side of the spectrum. Her current output – books and fanzines, public events, the podcast Fucking Cancelled – provides her audience with the emotional and critical tools to question cancel-heavy environments, in the hope they move on to a healthier social group.
Morrigan and her cohost Jay used to belong to what they’ve named “the nexus”: a blend of identity politics, call-out culture, and social media, the latter providing the infrastructure and the potential for conflicts to escalate. They’re familiar with the scene because they lived in it.
For everyone reading who doesn’t live in it, here’s how a cancellation works in The Arts:
Announcement: You have a project coming out. Nice!
List of Sins. A curated “greatest hits” compilation of all your previous questionable words and deeds starts circulating on social media. This is where the 2009 blog post gets dragged out its lonely grave. Urgency and volume are the name of the game. The casual observer comes away with the impression it looks bad. The stench of bad is then extended to anyone who sides with you or stays silent. You’re being pushed to the defense. The burden of proving you’re not bad falls on you: apologize or double down.
No amount of apologies will do. Apologizing means admitting whoever accuses you is fully justified. All apologies will be dissected and found “insincere,” “forced.” Demands will escalate. At this point, feel free to assume the petition to get your new project de-platformed has already reached your publisher, your production team, everyone you may know in a position of power.
Doubling down isn’t great, either, since controversy doesn’t sell. Not anymore it doesn’t! “Artist dropped for tweets / allegations of past bad behavior” can be one sizzle of a media story. For a day. After that, your career torched and salted, you’re basically done. The cancel party celebrates. Who’s next?
A writer maintains she was de-nominated from a prestigious literary award, her essay collection taken off their (soon to be announced) shortlist after she defended a colleague in a Twitter fight. Depending on who you talk to, it might have been “more complicated than this” – the problem lying in the writer’s belligerent attitude over many months rather than a string of heated posts.
If this person was displaying a consistent behavioral pattern that could wreck her professional standing, did anyone step in and help diffuse the situation before the needle skipped to Utter Ruin?
Ask around: nobody knows. Not sure. People are busy; life under capitalism, etc.
Same answer you’ll receive whenever any of the anointed “good ones” gets in trouble, by the way. A novelist was dropped before the publication of her first book when she came clean about a number of passages she’d lifted from different sources. How did that happen? People are busy, stuff falls through the cracks. All enterprise risk is nailed on the shoulders of the single artist, no one there to help with the project as it comes together.
Now, a normal person might read an article about the latest quote-unquote “controversy” in the art world, they might stream ten to twelve minutes of video if it’s free, but forking cash over to access the controversial artwork for the pleasure of forming your own opinion – that’s above and beyond the level of engagement a normal person will be able to afford. Never mind a company operating at the crossroads of art and commerce, where every project must be sold as a safe bet, a timely, crowd-pleaser piece.
Cancellation feels like a suppression tactic whose time has come. But the urge to cancel may always have been innate in us, even in less fraught times.
The 1991 making of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct was a mess. Joe Eszterhas’s original script leaked, spurring a coordinated protest campaign from queer activist groups. It escalated from there. San Francisco locations were picketed, police in riot gear showed up, a line producer made citizen’s arrests, gay bar owner Ray Chalker was harassed for renting the venue to the filmmakers.
The rationale behind the backlash was “this movie will trigger real life violence against women and queer people.” The production protests had a clear short-term goal: disrupt the shooting to push the production company into meeting a list of demands. Despite his (largely self-exaggerated) reputation as a rule-breaker, Eszterhas was fine with tweaking the project to suit some demands (those would have been, “altering numerous scenes and all of the central characters and recasting one part”). Everyone else involved said no.
When the movie opened in 1992, protestors shifted to “picketing theaters” and “yelling spoilers to the people in line at the box office.” An inconvenience that didn’t prevent Basic Instinct from becoming a monster worldwide hit at the tail end of the long season where controversies could be a reliable promotional strategy.
Similar dynamics played out in 1990, when publisher Simon & Schuster dropped the novel American Psycho after mounting concerns were raised within the company. (Problem was, the Bret Easton Ellis serial killer book featured rape, torture and chainsaws.) Two days later Vintage acquired the novel and released it in 1991 on its Contemporaries imprint to great outrage and success alike. That controversy never died down because many separate parties wanted to keep it going: one month before American Psycho‘s debut, Spy magazine submitted a seven-page excerpt to a rotation of smut magazines, removing Ellis’ name, and it got rejected all across the board.
As for the human cost of being turned into a cultural hot-button issue, the outrage cycle hurt the creators. Verhoeven and Eszterhas reconciled, but their screen partnership didn’t survive a failed follow-up: both struggled with a “brand” – a taste for provocation – that overshadowed their merits. Ellis, as evidenced by his podcast and its subsequent text adaptation White, never quite got over American Psycho. And when its film version became a cult hit, it seemed to move on without him.
These three men had to deal with the creative and psychological fallout of being equally loved and hated out of a moral reaction to their art.
But, they got to make their art; it was the nineties. But the nineties, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, are over and not coming back.
The movie Jihad Rehab (later titled The UnRedacted) premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews in the official Documentary competition. Impossible to tell the exact amount of people who watched it – digital access was available due to Covid-19 protocols – but the fallout was brutal: two Sundance Institute employees resigned in protest, the festival apologized for selecting the movie, other festivals (notably South by Southwest) dis-invited the movie, executive producer Abigail Disney apologized for her involvement. No distribution company wanted to be a part of this.
Three seasons later, all sides still insist on “the story” being “more complicated”. Fair. I believe you all. I’ve read dozens of articles, listened to podcasts, heard the crux of the matter described as “cancellation from a small group of activists” and [breathe] “so this director had a terrible reputation and the movie was made in blatant disregard of Actual Geo-Political Dynamite so it’s now liable to get its protagonists murdered in real life”. According to Sebastian Junger, and Michael Powell in the New York Times, early social media chatter focused on the director being a white American citizen, therefore the wrong director to helm that documentary; negative comments melted away to regroup under the banner of serious ethical concerns.
The movie is nowhere to be found.
Director Meg Smaker raised over $600,000 on GoFundMe to release it herself on a theater-by-theater basis. She’s becoming a cause célebre for an assortment of outlets, from the right-wing to the Staunchly Independent. She gained mass coverage as the spotlight turned on her as the problem and from the problem to The Hero in the absence of direct ways for any audience to watch her work, and we are left wading in what feels like sympathy from some of her famous peers versus a wave of collective scorn heaped on her by fellow filmmakers who might be little known but possess the social capital necessary to get a protest campaign going.
For all the media hits Smaker is racking up as a “tale of cancellation,” the minute her movie should pop on a streaming service, the wave of collective scorn would start again. And who’s gonna finance her future projects? The Daily Wire?
Inside-baseball notes aside – the Sundance Festival does have a minor history of distancing itself from its documentary selection after the fact, although most titles did find a distributor, or the release was postponed until legal issues were cleared (Into the Deep) – the festival’s official competition is a coveted slot to land. Arguably the best place for an independent feature film in search of buyers: Smaker being a first-time director with a handful of short movies in her portfolio, far from a household name, Jihad Rehab was a horrible perfect storm of buzz and who is she / how did she get here.
Then Sebastian Junger wrote about it in National Review.
Chew on that sentence. Academy Award nominee Sebastian Junger, Restrepo co-director Sebastian Junger, is writing about a cancellation on the pages of National Review. Times are wow. Junger sides with the director, framing the issue as the product of a multi-layered power struggle in the documentary world:
To be radically inclusive, festivals such as Sundance would have to prioritize poor and undereducated filmmakers over elite ones with college degrees. But if they did that, the entire business might fall apart. Almost half of independent documentaries net no money at all, many lose money, and festivals such as Sundance, Toronto, and South by Southwest depend on a pool of people willing to work for little or no compensation to make the beautiful films that we all see.
About that. “The beautiful films we all see”. Please remember cultural moods may shift faster than the time it takes to produce a piece of work (never mind release it.) We should all be wary of standard claims about Important Art – “it took ten years to make!” – so let’s get under the hood as much as we can here: Jihad Rehab was five to seven years in the making. Two years for pre-production, three years of filming, off and on, two years in the editing room.
Wait, not a soul was on board to trouble-shoot such a loaded project? Was it life under capitalism? Were people busy? Not this time, no. Meg Smaker said to The Atlantic that several consultants were shamed into distancing themselves from the finished movie. Oh well.
Any creative work showing minimal ambition can get framed as an ill-advised vanity project forced into existence by “some bored, white rich person”. Amateur hour.
Having watched a truly reckless amount of vanity projects, from the Christian superhero sitcom to the stunted relationship melodrama, I can guarantee you nobody even tried to shame Neil Breen into making better movies. Here’s a cancellation-proof individual for you: a man of some wealth who funds the projects himself and projects blithe indifference to negative reviews. What they gonna do, dis-invite Neil Breen? From where?
Meanwhile, saying an artist is “rich,” “white,” or “privileged” frames them as someone with no talent or drive to speak of. Someone who’s out to steal your place, your right to tell stories, your representation.
GamerGate packaged itself as a movement “concerned with ethics in the video game industry” to ensure a number of individuals would not be able to work in video games; cancel campaigns weaponize “ethical concerns” as a growing number of individuals are barred from finding work and support within their community.
And competition fuels bad faith. Writer/director James Gunn got in trouble twice (twice!) for an array of bad Internet jokes, but only after he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe and he became a vocal critic of Donald Trump. The same bad jokes didn’t seem to be an issue when Gunn was making dark comedies, scrappier genre fare for a smaller paycheck.
Gunn has since recovered in style. Others left the business.
Cancellation on “social justice” grounds gives you the opportunity to take out the competition without looking like a soulless careerist.
This is the biggest unspoken factor, but it’s getting out there. Greed, ambition and jealousy are poison to those who crave to be perceived as Good. A safer bet would be, game the outrage system to further your own career; channel people’s anger into taking some art down as you give them the illusion they matter. Scratch the artist eager to denounce a colleague, find sociopathic narcissism dolled up in language and the anticipation of Harm. If you’ve been addicted to righteous fury, you know how fast it can get.
Any campaign should have a clear immediate goal – the Basic Instinct protesters wanted a rewrite for the movie they objected to. Any moral campaign invested in long-term change should have long-term goals too: how about, create the conditions where artists can quietly reflect on their projects. If a mediocre draft gets shelved, then nothing of value is lost.
However, a pressure campaign based on shame only succeeds in spelling out who’s acceptable, which kind of identity is in fashion. Say there is fear, get ready for the uhh maybe get better at your job. It’s not so much fear as a muted cold resignation: your work can disappear in a minute.
Out of sheer luck I was offline in the days where two literary journals – Expat and Misery Tourism – got labeled “alt-right.” Had I been around to catch the allegations unspooling in real time, I would have been caught in the riptide of guilt and terror.
“Fuck the police means we don’t act like cops to each other” – here’s the general malaise Clementine Morrigan is pushing back on: plenty of smart, talented people are trapped in a hyper-vigilance loop. They resent it, they don’t agree with it, but all their friends are there. All their contacts are there. They don’t want to be next on the chopping block.
According to Morrigan, as stated on Instagram and the Blocked and Reported podcast, her own cancellation took place in 2020, when a rapid turn of events saw “somebody” accusing her of not posting enough about Black Lives Matter, demanding she gave her social media accounts over to “a Black person” (without specifying who should have been handed the accounts) and kicking off a frenzy of further accusations (she was “an abuser” and “a plagiarist”: zero details on who she had plagiarized, abused).
Clementine lost her friends quickly: she had to find a new place to live.
This takes years to un-do. Activist Jo Freeman wrote about it in her 1976 essay “Trashing.” Recounting the cascade of reputation damage she had suffered within feminist circles, Freeman said:
The attack is accomplished by making you feel that your very existence is inimical to the Movement and that nothing can change this short of ceasing to exist. […] You are isolated from your friends as they become convinced that their association with you is similarly inimical to the Movement and to themselves. Any support of you will taint them. Eventually all your colleagues join in a chorus of condemnation which cannot be silenced, and you are reduced to a mere parody of your previous self. […] One day I found myself confessing to my roommate that I didn’t think I existed; that I was a figment of my own imagination. That’s when I knew it was time to leave.
The way out is muddy at best. A 2022 Fucking Cancelled episode called Organizing Against the Nexus takes forty minutes to get into specifics, and when it does, the bulk of the advice applies to smaller outlets: “take the pro-active stance” with local book fairs, “respond to cancellation policies before it happens to you or your friends,” which is, let people know you won’t participate in any event with a blacklist already in place.
Morrigan is also consulting nonprofit organizations on how to deal with a cancellation campaign, and wouldn’t that be nice if more companies had effective strategies to implement when random shit starts to go down.
Until then: short of funneling all your material into horror fiction and pray the social contagion doesn’t reach those shores, otherwise you might have to turn to direct production. For the time being. With the obvious caveat, self publishing still looks bad to non-writers and it wins you no favors amongst the professional crowd; self financing a movie doesn’t mean it will ever jump from your hard drive to a screen, any screen. Substack will bring you a bounty of personal brands you can choose from: reactionary weirdo / feral misanthrope / clueless dilettante / if you were any good you’d be playing in the pro leagues lol, but you can survive on a human level.
And if you survive, you find a way for your work to survive.
Being loved or hated with no middle ground in sight, it destroys your brain. It haunts you to the point your reputation gets in the way of you living the sort of life where you leave the house and you talk to people. The controversial person is stuck in a revolving door of face / heel turns with no plausible path back to the neutrality of the dressing room. Hero / villain / fuck you / bless you. The party moves on to a shinier target, a bigger prize.