“This is the worst time ever to be a celebrity,” Dave Chappelle said in his button-pushing 2019 comedy special Sticks & Stones — for which he later won a Grammy. He was referring to so-called “cancel culture,” or, in his terms, “celebrity hunting season.” Chappelle described an atmosphere of paranoia in the upper echelons of fame; the dread of having pop-culture sleuths comb your past for any stray comment or action that may be spun into new outrage. He made it sound as if these scandals were blown up from microscopic details, and therefore irrelevant.
The truth is somewhat less extreme: Celebrities routinely make asses of themselves in highly visible, completely avoidable ways, and to the extent that their histories come back to haunt them — well, few of those things were all that secret to begin with. Many had remembered when Jimmy Fallon did a blackface impression of Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live in 2000; the same goes for singer Doja Cat’s use of homophobic and racist language. And between the dual pressures of coronavirus quarantine and mass demonstrations against police brutality, we’re getting to the point where every celeb is getting canceled, either for having the wrong take on the current moment or issuing statements of solidarity that don’t reflect private behavior. (There’s a third option, as well: the anodyne, utterly tone-deaf message of universal harmony.)
Hugh Jackman, an actor best known for playing the superhero Wolverine, a mutant in a world where his kind is viciously persecuted by the government, liked this photo of a protester hugging a cop, and he slapped the word “solidarity” on it. That he happily posted “copaganda” — the kind of content that puts police in a warm, all-too-flattering light when they’re presently beating, shooting and gassing unarmed demonstrators — would have been enough to earn rebuke. The ignorance of what “solidarity” means in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement is another big strike. But the gaffe becomes a hat trick of stupidity thanks to Jackman’s longtime association with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
He spoke of this friendship in 2018, saying he’d been close to the couple for 15 years, and that they “don’t talk politics” at social occasions. Cute! He’s also defended the schmoozing this way: “Let’s say your friends of 15 years’ father became president, whether you agree with the politics or not, do you just dump your friends? And I’m like: no. You don’t. I don’t understand.”
You sure don’t, Hugh.
“Canceling” remains a rather toothless concept, as few “canceled” individuals suffer any material consequence. But, as Jackson’s case shows, neither do we need to look far and wide to see that they’ve never been allies to the oppressed; it’s all a matter of public record. We’re not digging through their trash to find something incriminating, because all it takes is a split-second Google search to nail them for hypocrisy.
A key Twitter catchphrase of the moment — the sardonic question “This you?” — observes the ease of puncturing a celebrity’s current stance with receipts from a few months or years ago. When former New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz complains that posting a black square to Instagram is an empty, performative gesture, he’s answered with “This you?” and a headline about how he didn’t support the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem. When a Canadian police department condemns racism, they’re hit with a “This you?” regarding the time they handcuffed a 6-year-old Black girl at her school. When a white L.A. writer asks where she can protest with #BLM, she gets a “This you?” buffet of damning old tweets.
Clearly, our “This you?” moment has caught up to non-celebrities and institutions (practically every college in North America has been dragged), not only megastars. Yet the mechanism of this callout gives a clearer picture of why and how celebrities have suffered so many “cancellations” of late, and it has to do with the footprints that everyone — particularly the rich and famous — leave behind.
Our contempt for the celebs is growing because they continue to act as if we don’t have the troubling context for their words. Lana Del Rey, griping that critics are unfair to her, lashes out at Black women in music for their sexualized songs; meanwhile, we’re aware that until recently, she was dating a white cop who works on the exploitative reality TV police show Live PD. Actress Lea Michele currently wants to support Black Lives Matter, but her Black former co-star on Glee, Samantha Marie Ware, is more than happy to recount how abusive she was on set.
This stuff, the true content of one’s character, is widely available to notice and emphasize to others. You can’t outrun it. “This you?” is rhetorical. We already know.
Dave Chappelle may have had a point when he spoke of the perils that come with celebrity. Famous people do face incredible scrutiny (though they usually get a pass for any infraction). Yet this problem isn’t specific to them — even a person with 50 Twitter followers may become the platform’s reviled “main character” for a day — nor is the archetypal “canceled” celeb a victim of some deep forensic effort to bring them down for nothing. It can be simple as searching their tweets to see what they’ve said about the gay or Black community.
In fact, our growing desire to eat the celebs springs not just from their wealth and complementary politics, but their simple failure to appreciate what most of us normies do: that nothing is said or done in a vacuum. The constant rebranding and reinvention that come with the entertainment landscape have them convinced they’re free to jump from one bandwagon to another, or project certain fashionable beliefs that they don’t live by.
Whenever that happens, we’ll be there with a screenshot that drives home the dissonance and a fateful, two-word question: “This you?”