Can "Cancel Culture" Be Kicked to the Curb?

Can "Cancel Culture" Be Kicked to the Curb?

A colleague and I were discussing movies recently and discovered that we shared an affinity for the 1978 comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House. As we quoted lines back and forth, reminiscing over the most outrageous scenes, we wondered aloud how much of its politically incorrect humor would fly in today’s super-sensitive climate. The character of John “Bluto” Blutarsky alone (John Belushi, shown in my caricature) would likely present the need for the filmmakers to pull some punches, considering the college ne’er-do-well’s excessive drinking, peeping, and ‘kidnapping’ of Mandy Pepperidge at the climax. But since the film is readily available all over the web, it seems that such insensitivities haven’t triggered any calls for banishment just yet, but who knows when “Cancel Culture” may come-a-callin.’

Cancel Culture.

Perhaps the most unfortunate two words joined together since president and Trump. And those who traffic in trying to cancel those in the culture, especially in the world of the arts, are pulling at a string that can easily unravel any sweater altogether.

How so?

Look close at any film or TV show, and you’re likely to find something in it that could offend somebody. A joke in a comedy that makes fun of an unfortunate soul. A murder scene in a thriller that could trigger someone’s childhood trauma. The sex of a toy alienating certain kids at playtime with its non-inclusive vibe. Don’t believe that one? Have you forgotten about the “Mr. Potato” controversy back in 2021? That’s when Hasbro was forced to drop the “Mister” part of the toy’s name due to complaints about the gender inequality suggested by the moniker. Look, I’m about as liberal as they come and yet, even for me, that was a protest so ridiculous it almost felt like a parody of Cancel Culture.

Unfortunately, it was not.

There are many worthy examples of various sins and sinners deservedly called out in the arts. Mr. Potato Head was not one of them. Mr. Weinstein was. The studio mogul was one rotten egg—a relentless predator who deserved to be taken down by the women he assaulted. Yet, as horrendous as he was, his films need not be vilified along with him. The same goes for the legacy of cinema from the likes of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski as well. They may be terrible men in many ways, but they did make great films that now shouldn’t be discounted.

But, as often is the case, those yelling for the heads in the Cancel Culture movement are fine leaving scorched earth in their wake, showing little interest in anyone’s atonement beyond being buried. That’s a shame, too, as many of those on the receiving end should probably be given a chance to make proper amends. I wasn’t happy at all with Will Smith’s attack on Chris Rock at the Oscars, but it seems he’s genuinely contrite and trying to change.

But to some in Cancel Culture, none of that matters.

As a big fan of film and television history, I’m especially perturbed by the ‘thought police’ who go after older films and TV shows with such glee, failing to put these works in context of their time. Such strident condemnation lacks awareness of any extenuating circumstances.

Take the 1970s sitcom “Three’s Company,” for example. The show looks ridiculously sophomoric and insensitive by today’s standards, considering the show sniggered at gay culture, women’s lib, and even erectile dysfunction week in and week out. (You’ll remember that the homophobic landlord Mr. Roper was impotent, much to the displeasure of the lonely Mrs. Roper.) However, in the time period that was the late 70s, that show wasn’t any more outrageous than many programs on the network television. Norman Lear’s shows, “Soap,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “The Gong Show,”,all the ‘jiggle’ shows in prime time like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Wonder Woman”—they all had their detractors, too.

Should such shows be banned from MeTV or streaming services? I think most would say “no,” but it raises difficult questions about what was allowed in the past.

Every couple of years, the classic 1939 film Gone with the Wind comes under renewed scrutiny. Naturally, its depiction of slavery during the Civil War is fraught with controversy and the stereotypical portrayals of characters like Mammie and Prissy are cringe worthy. Still, that’s how Margaret Mitchell wrote her bestseller, and Hollywood wasn’t exactly a bastion of racial tolerance. Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played Mammie, may have been voted the winner of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for that role, but she still was segregated in another room separate from her white peers in the industry. It’s abhorrent, but how much of that should be dumped on the film?

We may think that artists would shy away from such discriminatory or bigoted choices, but the 2015 film Aloha was vilified for Cameron Crowe’s casting of Emma Stone as a character who was supposed to be one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian descent. The film Tropic Thunder got its share of lambasting, too, for the character played by Robert Downey Jr. who appeared throughout most of the film in black face. Some have criticized straight actors being cast as gay characters, too, but most such decisions still come down to artistic license on the part of a filmmaker.

Such decisions may get called out, but they are still artistic decisions and that’s where much of the slippery slope of Cancel Culture starts to poison all the water.

There needs to be nuance. There needs to be some wiggle room. Art and artists need to be judged in a sense of a project’s entirety. That includes leaving room for artistic license, personal preferences, understanding of social settings, time periods, trends of the day, and even various temperaments of society. The good news is that more often than not, artists know where the line is and these days, they tend to be more conscientious and avoid self-sabotage.

And if you think over-correcting in the arts is dangerous, consider those who want to ban books, like the writings of Philip Roth or Alice Walker, and rewrite education curriculums to downplay slavery, the Holocaust, or any other unsavory parts of American or world history. Those tactics smack of fascism, yet it’s shocking how many states in our union seem willing to entertain such measures. Florida governor Ron DeSantis may think he’s fighting the good fight, going after the excesses of woke culture, but what he’s really doing is giving license to fear and discrimination and ramping up Cancel Culture worse than anyone has done on the left.

So, how do we kick Cancel Culture to the curb and stop it from wreaking so much havoc? I believe there are two ways—one that requires active participation, the other, patience. On one hand, we need to defend context whenever and wherever we can. And on the other hand, we need to let karma do its thing.

Context is a strong way to win any argument about Cancel Culture because the simple truth is nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Events, actions, decisions—they all occur in a specific context. And today, a critically heralded, groundbreaking show like “Euphoria” could quickly become yesterday’s dated show about teens. That’s what happened to “Happy Days.” I was a teen back in the 70s when “Happy Days” was the big, cool hit and was celebrated for its presentation of teenagers, morality, and even its commentary on the under-appreciated working class represented in its 1950s period. Heck, the show even ended up making its working-class, former hood, Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler) the breakout star. It’s shocking to go back and discover how much of the show dealt with those dismissing him for being from the wrong side of the tracks. He may have started out like Brando’s The Wild One, but by the end of the run, he was a purring pussycat taking part in dance competitions with Mrs. C. But today, much of that is forgotten as shows about social justice have eclipsed it.

It just goes to show that art gets judged in its time, and by time. Some work stands the test of time while others struggle to maintain its lauded reputation.

And then, on the other hand, there is letting karma take care of those who need a reckoning. It’s almost like nature course-corrects without any thought police needing to interfere too resoundingly. The more Roseanne Barr runs her bigoted mouth, the less people want to work with her. She cancels herself in a way. The same with Armie Hammer. His unchecked sexism and peccadilloes ending up cannibalizing his career. All of Tucker Carlson’s lies finally caught up with him after the Dominion lawsuit bested Fox News, and now he’s stuck in the “no man’s land” of political talk shows on YouTube. And it would seem that J.K. Rowling’s constant need to keep defending her intolerance has placed her in a cage of her own doing. As they say, karma is a bitch, and it finds a way of teaching some very necessary lessons.

Which brings me back to Animal House

Are those who admire the film sexist or racist? No. But those who look at the bigger picture can recognize various shortcomings in the dated material, especially the whole foursome dating set piece in the second act that hasn’t aged particularly well. Still, I prefer to talk about how exceedingly clever the film was in its stinging satire of Nixon and all the president’s men. Made just four years after Tricky Dick resigned in disgrace, the film had the audacity to have the Dean Wormer character represent a Nixonian type, with his vicious underlings, Greg Marmalard and Doug Niedermeyer, all but echoing Nixon’s unethical White House minions. The film also shrewdly riffed on class warfare, fraternity hazing, and corrupted 60s idealism.

Not bad for a film whose lead Bluto drunkenly greets freshmen at a college mixer by urinating on their shoes.

Everything in context, right?

*Feature illustration by Jeff York

Jeff York is an optioned screenwriter, film critic, illustrator, and ad man. He’s also a member of the Chicago Indie Critics, SAG-AFTRA, and a cat lover.
More posts by Jeffrey York.
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