It is perhaps one of the most unexpected success stories of the last half century. A down on her luck author manages to publish a novel that becomes a world wide phenomenon and turns her into the figurehead of a billion dollar franchise that continues to reap in the riches every year. J. K. Rowling discovered that dream come true when she brought the adventures of Harry Potter to the world, making her not only a success within the literary world, but the world’s first ever billionaire writer. Fueled by an equally successful film franchise based on her books, she entered the new millennium as the head of the biggest new intellectual property since Star Wars, and with the residuals continuing to come in, she has embarked on developing more and more projects based on her writing, both tied to the Harry Potter wizarding world and to her own separate side narratives. But, in addition to being the mind behind a popular franchise, her fame has also turned her into a public figure; a figure whose voice suddenly carries much more weight in society. And unfortunately for many, she has chosen to use her voice to put down a marginalized group in society. In the last couple of years, Ms. Rowling has expressed some controversial opinions about the trans and non-binary communities, stating that she felt their growing status in the culture was a threat to the rights of women. Her critical words suddenly were met with a backlash from the LGBTQ community, who shot back at her statements, labeling her dismissively as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist). And while Rowling remains defiant in her beliefs, she has had to face the reality over the last couple of years that her words matter, and that what she says may not be in the best interest of the empire that she has built for herself.
What we’ve seen play out with J.K. Rowling and her conflict with the trans community is indicative of a larger struggle with the limitations of free speech that we are trying to figure out in a society that is more media driven and also more polarized than ever before. Rowling’s hardline stance on feminism to the exclusion of non-biological woman is indicative of how people have been driven to take stances on subjects these days that are increasingly partisan and closed minded. Regardless of the merits of her position, it shows that politics and culture has turned far more tribal in recent years and that anyone who doesn’t pick a side in the fight is treated as problem instead of as someone with an open mind. The problem, however, is that once a person like J.K. Rowling takes a clear stance on a subject, as controversial as that is, it suddenly reflects back on all the other things that she is associated with. This is the dilemma that everyone associated with the Harry Potter franchise suddenly found themselves in after Rowling made her controversial statements. To no ones surprise, most of the cast did not share Rowling’s opinions. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, even publicly went out of his way to repudiate her statements and declare his own support for the trans community. What’s more, all this friction suddenly makes things more problematic for Rowling’s relationship with Warner Brothers, the current rights holders to Wizarding World franchise that is the creative head of. They have many future plans for the Potter WW brand, including a continuation of the Fantastic Beasts spinoff and a possible HBO Max series. And with Ms. Rowling antagonizing a sector of the LGBTQ community, a sector of the audience that has been a loyal part of the fanbase and that Warner would like to continue to tap into, then it creates a conflict that puts the future of the franchise in an awkward place. The problem is, where do we as a society draw the line at limiting what a person is allowed to say, no matter how powerful they are.
That is an issue that we face in a world where social media has made it possible for anyone to have a public platform in order to share their opinions. Rowling is one of many public figures that has had to face the wrath of backlash for opinions they have made on their social media pages. Some celebrities have experienced some benign pushback for making ill-informed statements or a poorly timed joke, but there are others that have also seen their careers and reputations abruptly terminated because of something they shared on social media. Deserving or not, we are seeing high profile figures face consequences for their own statements or actions, and it has significantly increased the polarization of the discourse of ideas in our society, because people become more pushed into different teams for or against a person based on the fandom surrounding them. In particular, what happens to celebrities who are “canceled” has been taking on a more politicized connotations, as one side sees it as a sign of persecution and the other sees it as justice being served. This has developed into what people refer to now as Cancel Culture, where it’s become something of a sport to find anything a person has done that is deemed objectionable and use it as a means of de-platforming them or stripping away their livelihood as punishment. The extant of Cancel Culture as a greater societal problem is debatable; in some cases it seems a little extreme, like trying to ban movies and books that are deemed objectionable based on modern sensibilities, while other times it feels like Cancel Culture is being touted by individuals who want to feed into their own persecution complexes and want to have a boogeyman to crusade against that actually doesn’t exist.
J.K. Rowling is just one of the cases of people that have become the face of the growing aura of Cancel Culture as a part of our societal dialogue. However, to say that she is being cancelled is a gross exaggeration. She is a billionaire with a firm grip on control of the empire that she was instrumental in creating. She is in no danger of seeing her livelihood come apart. But other public figures lower on the pecking order can suddenly see their fortunes reversed with unexpected speed. It’s emblematic of the way that we treat celebrities in the first place. Regardless of the severity of their transgressions, we often give the celebrity with the higher public profile more of a benefit of the doubt. Some of that firewall protection was thankfully dismantled when the MeToo movement gained speed and brought many abusive players within the entertainment industry to justice. But what MeToo also started was this feeling of satisfaction in bringing down powerful people, and it did fuel the drive behind Cancel Culture to find the next big power player to take down. In a way, Cancel Culture became trophy hunting, and it began to drift away from the actual purpose of holding people accountable for their actions and instead became about seeing the mighty fall. As a result, Cancel Culture became a new flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars between left wing and right wing values. The right believes that Cancel Culture is being used to silence conservative voices in the media, and that it is part of a new blacklist, reminiscent of McCarthyism. Though Cancel Culture has led to some questionable actions, it is ludicrous to believe that it’s impact is the same as the censorship of the Blacklist era in Hollywood.
A little historical refresher. When Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, started his crusade against what he believed to be an infiltration of Communist influence into all fabrics of society, it began a scary time in America known as the Red Scare. McCarthy sparked the House Un-American Activities Committee to weed out suspected communist sympathizers from every sphere of influence in society, including Hollywood. It led to what became known as the Blacklist, as those to be known or even suspected of Communist sympathies were barred from receiving work within the film industry. This included anyone who supported anything deemed radical left, like support for the Civil Rights Movement or strong support for Union workers; basically anything deemed left of center. People were also encouraged to name names, which also disgraced many people within Hollywood who were desperate to just hold onto their jobs. It was a dark moment in American history, but to compare it to the Cancel Culture of today misses one crucial thing. McCarthyism and the Blacklist were invasive measures to curtail freedom of speech enacted by the federal government itself, with the assistance of corporations and major studios. Eventually, the Blacklist was broken by saner minds in the years after and McCarthy’s own paranoia eventually got the best of him, alienating himself from even his Republican colleagues. Modern day Cancel Culture, as pervasive as it is, is entirely mechanism of the culture itself, and is not an overreach of government. So to say that what we are seeing now is the same thing is really misreading the lessons of history.
I certainly don’t want to think that we are only one tweet away from facing censorship, and that the best course of action is to watch what we say and conform to a single way of thinking. But those decrying Cancel Culture should also keep in mind that freedom of speech is also not freedom from consequence. Just because we have the freedom to say what we want doesn’t mean that others can’t hold you accountable for what you say either. The nature of the free market is that separate entities are able to operate the way that they see fit, and that includes setting their own standards of what kind of speech is acceptable. While corporations can set their own expectations of conduct and speech within their organizations, it is constitutionally important that the Federal Government are not the ones setting those standards. Do media companies have too much power over an individuals freedom of speech, which has made things like Cancel Culture so problematic; certainly, but as it stands, they have the constitutional right to cancel or de-platform anyone they deem a problem to their bottom line. I find it a little ironic that the political figures that are currently decrying the power that big tech and media conglomerates have over the limitations of speech are also the same figures that granted these corporations those powers in the first place, with the defanging of regulation and ending of net neutrality. It’s just unfortunate for them that media companies want to cast their nets wide and appeal to groups of all kinds, including the ones that people on both sides want to keep silent. The power that media companies wield is problematic, but the fact that they are in the business of diversity makes the complaints of Cancel Culture being one sided politically a little moot. What matters to these corporations is that their profiles remain free of controversy, and that is why they cancel some people the way they do; not because of their nature of their politics, but because of the hostile direction that some people take their speech.
There are plenty of celebrities that span the political spectrum who remain perfectly free of controversy, and that is mainly because they know to deal with their differences in a civil way. For some people, their cancellation is more of a self-inflicted wound. Take the example from this week with Mandalorian star Gina Carano, whose transphobic and anti-Semitic tweets finally became too much for Disney to handle and they decided to fire her from her high profile role on the hit show. Naturally, she played the victim, and tried to get the American right on her side with the complaints of Cancel Culture, but the fact that she was able to immediately line up another project only a day after shows that her complaints of being blacklisted are a little nonsensical. The truth is she was fired because her words and actions became increasingly threatening and hostile, especially after her co-star Pedro Pascal publicly supported his trans sister’s decision to come out, and also because of Carano’s unapologetic support of violent extremists who stormed the nation’s Capitol. At that point, it became more than just talking politics; it became openly encouraging hostility, and Disney was not having it anymore. It’s a dilemma that we face with the limits that we deem acceptable for free speech. Where Cancel Culture seems to cross the line is when it becomes blurry when a person is joking or speaking with sincerity. Comedians in particular walk the fine line, and often them falling victim to cancel culture is where the movement takes things too far. We saw director James Gunn lose his job momentarily because of such a backlash, with 10 year old offensive jokes on Twitter coming back to bite him, and it was this example that did make people reconsider how militant they should be taking the Cancel Culture as a whole. But as we’ve seen, accountability for what a person says, and more importantly what they do, reflects back on the public persona that try to procure for themselves and in the end, you get the fanbase that you deserve and what you do will determine what kinds of fans those will be.
We also have to take in the notion that everyone is flawed in their own way. The best among us are the ones that can carry their flaws well enough and rise above them. It’s a little unfair to expect that every celebrity has to be perfect in every way. In some cases, underneath the exterior, a celebrity may in fact be a rotten person to their core, and it becomes more incumbent on the fan to decide whether or not they want to continue to support that person when they find what they do to be problematic. Cancel Culture may just be a culmination of so many years of people getting away with abhorrent behavior because we’ve allowed them to, and now with social media, it’s become so much easier to hold the powerful accountable. The unfortunate thing is, art has become more centrally tied to the people responsible for creating it. If you are a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but also either a trans person or someone close to a trans individual, you’re having a hard time maintaining that fandom. By supporting this franchise, you are financially supporting J.K. Rowling, and her financial stability is giving her the confidence to say whatever she wants publicly without consequence. One can boycott as much as they like, but there comes a point that some individuals become so insulated that they will never face any backlash, and will continue to spread their controversial opinions, and that can be dangerous to society. It ultimately comes down to the power of money, and the better way to hold people accountable for their hurtful actions is to hold the power structures that prop them up responsible. Cancel Culture’s big mistake is probably believing that the individual needs to be uniquely made an example of, while the corporations and power structures that propped them up are taken off the hook. In the end, we have to look at what the actions of the artist means for us. If what they say overwhelms the good art that they make, then it’s within your right to refuse to support them. The ultimate level of consequences that a person face should reflect the harm that they have inflicted on others, but freedom of speech is a two way street that we must respect. People can say anything they want, but people who object to that speech are also within their rights to withhold support for that person, and the greater the numbers in that pushback, the more it may cause the other person to reconsider the power of their own words.