Cancel Culture: Internet “Activism” Taking Celebrities By Storm

"Cancel Fashion Collective" by The Kinetic is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Grace Sailer, Writer


Social media from the past decade has birthed a new definition of the word “canceling”. Traditionally defined by Merriam Webster as “(of a factor or circumstance) neutralize or negate the force or effect of”, the term “cancel” has been turned by the warped world wide web of the internet to a method of mass boycotting that extends beyond the traditional picket line.

Cancel culture, or call-out culture, has been identified by some as the new bullying, others have claimed it’s not real at all. But what exactly is cancel culture in the first place, and what effect does it actually have (if any)? 

“To cancel” in the slang form holds a similar definition to the dictionary, yet mainly employs the use of social media to “neutralize or negate the force or effect of” a person or company. Twitter mainly houses the many trending, “#_____isover” parties in which mass amounts of users tweet to express their opinion or reasons as to why someone should be canceled. This results in a boycott, rage, and usually loss of following for the victim. 

An abundance of this behavior has occurred within the beauty community on YouTube, most recently with the scandal between makeup gurus James Charles and Tati Westbrook. Westbrook, the creator behind her own beauty channel on YouTube and now proud owner of her own vitamin company, was a mentor and friend to Charles, until she posted a video entitled “Bye Sister” on her channel detailing their personal fallout and several displays of his inappropriate and problematic behavior. Immediately, outrage began over every social media platform and the hashtag “#jamescharlesisoverparty” was born on Twitter. Charles’s career seemed like history.

photo from 
YouTube’s beauty community is no stranger to cancel culture — new spats seem to launch as frequently as new beauty brands — but the Charles-Westbrook fiasco is the largest iteration to date. Tati Westbrook / James Charles / YouTube / WWD



Hundreds of thousands of videos began to surface of ex-fans destroying their Morphe X James Charles palettes, and merchandise from Charles, despite him posting numerous heartfelt apologies and videos in hysterics over the entire matter. Fellow beauty Guru and CEO of his own makeup empire, Jeffree Star, involved himself in the matter, tweeting that, “ There is a reason that Nathan (Star’s long-time boyfriend) banned James Charles from ever coming to our home again. There’s a reason why I haven’t seen him since @GlamLifeGuru’s birthday in February. He is a danger to society. Everything Tati said is 100% true.” 

As a result of his “canceling”, James Charles’ YouTube channel immediately lost over three million subscribers. Criticism came tumbling at Charles from all angles. His apology video “No More Lies” now has received over 48 million views.

Yet the hysteria didn’t last. As the New York Times calls it, the scandal was merely a “blip in Mr. Charle’s rise. For a couple of months, his YouTube subscriber count slowed, but by May of that year, it was back up to hundreds of thousands per month and kept growing afterward.” 

Tati Westbrook’s original video has been deleted, as well as Star’s tweets on the matter. Star also commented in one of the final episodes of his series with Shane Dawson, “The Beautiful World of Jeffree Star”, about how he now feels he never should have gotten involved in the situation in the first place. 

And although the views Charles collected were from an eight-minute, bare-faced apology video on his channel, racking up 48 million views from just one video is no accomplishment to be shy of. 

In an interview with the Washington Post, President Obama commented on cancel-culture, saying that it is simply broadening fake activism, “if all you’re doing is throwing out stones”. CNN Entertainment quoted Jenna Wortham, writer for the New York Times, in saying, “‘[Cancel culture] doesn’t really work,You can’t just cut problematic people and problematic cultural properties or entities out because it’s whack-a-mole, right? You’re dealing with the symptoms of a sick society rather than actually treating the disease.’” Comedian Billy Eichner, who came to Kevin Hart’s support after his homophobic tweets resurfaced and was promptly “canceled”, said that, “‘To me, ‘cancellation’ is childish. I’m into conversation, not cancellation. I’m into owning up to past mistakes, acknowledging blindspots and hurtful remarks, talking through it, discussing it, learning, moving past it and making progress together.’”

Yet some are still in support of this new trend. After all, how else are celebrities held accountable for their actions? Columnist Christine Emba from the Washington Post asks, “is it too much to ask an ambitious young comedian to read the room? ‘Chinese people talk funny!’ is no longer daring comedy,” referencing an incident with Shane Gillis mocking Chinese people on his podcast, and then getting fired from SNL as a result of a long history of racist comedy. Author Mark Harris commented on the same incident, saying that, “SNL reversing its decision to hire Shane Gillis isn’t a triumph of cancel culture or political correctness or whatever else idiots will label it. It is the swift and appropriate rectification of a mistake.” 

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Clusterfest via

The SNL incident with Shane Gillis isn’t the only time that the internet “canceling” someone has produced success(?) in holding someone accountable for their actions. Actress Rosanne Barr had her iconic sitcom Rosanne revived in 2018, but following a series of racist tweets, the show and her role in it was literally canceled. Eventually, the show itself continues to air without her in it and under a new title The Connors

So what does this mean for the whole premise of “canceling”? Is the short-lived hysteria really worth the autonomous Notes app apology that the internet inevitably gets?  Are the fifteen seconds of fame tweeting about something trending worth the affect on other people if the opinion is extremely controversial?  Or, is the mob of the World Wide Web really threatening enough to see some active change within leading members of society?