We’ve recently seen several incidents in the media that pinpoint a new cultural norm: reactions based, not on logic or reason, but as a result of the intersection between cancel culture and outrage culture.
When a celebrity or media figure commits a faux pas, they either stick to their guns and stand by their actions, or, more often than not, they apologize profusely, say they’ve learned something, and attempt to move on.
Then the celebrities apologize in what often feels like an insincere, inauthentic way that's a result of other people urging them to do so and not from a genuine desire to change. It says more about the character of the person who recants than about whatever horrible act they’ve committed. Below are a couple of examples of recent celebrity gaffes, followed by different responses to the outrage and very different results.
Jeffree Star vs. COVID-19
On May 16, makeup artist and Youtuber Jeffree Star, owner of Jeffree Star Cosmetics (a multimillion dollar brand) announced the release of a new 24-shade eyeshadow palette, entitled Cremated. The shades range from black to grey to white and have provocative names like Eulogy, Grave Digger, Pallbearer, and Obituary. Star is no stranger to controversy, and the backlash over the announcement was swift. Many critics claimed that given the current circumstances, the timing and release of the palette, and even the shade names, were in bad taste due to the coronavirus.
Makeup artist, Youtuber, and owner of a multimillion dollar brand, Jeffree Star announced the release of a new 24-shade eyeshadow palette, entitled Cremated.
One Twitter user said, “Ok hear me out. I know Jeffree Star had this palette name trademarked in September but to drop a line called “cremated” during a pandemic while thousands are dying and given no option but to be cremated...it’s kinda f*cked up.”
Thousands agreed with the criticism, and said the palette was less about expression and artistry than it was about capitalizing on the current crisis. Given this strong backlash, the natural result of the largely negative response would be for Star to apologize, reel back the release date, and delete the announcements and marketing campaigns, right?
But Star didn’t. Several days after the original announcement, Star released a follow-up video titled, “Responding to the Backlash over My Cremated Palette.” Star stood by the palette as an example of hard work and dedication to both his brand and wildly successful company, and said the palette’s aesthetic was never intended to be offensive or upsetting. Beyond that, though, no apologies were offered. And fans responded. Despite the heavy criticism and pushback, the palette sold out only hours after it was released.
Alison Roman vs. Chrissy Teigen
You’ve probably heard of model Chrissy Teigen (red carpet regular, wife of singer John Legend, famously blocked by Donald Trump on Twitter), but you might be unfamiliar with Alison Roman. Though the Los Angeles Times describes Roman as a “cookbook author” (which she is, to be fair), she’s also much more than that. In the last few years, as a New York Times food columnist and former professional pastry chef, she’s amassed followers all over social media and is known for her distinctive orange-red nails, quick wit, and Barbie-sized kitchen in Brooklyn which somehow produces simple yet impressively elegant meals.
Earlier this month, when Roman was being asked about her own goals within her profession, she compared the success others have had within the industry, leading her to refer to Teigen’s food branding empire Cravings as a “content farm.” The term was no doubt used by Roman to allude to wildly popular brands owned or created by celebrities (see: Goop) which have an army of employees to churn out content for them.
Alison Roman referred to Chrissy Teigen’s food branding empire Cravings as a “content farm.”
What happened next was probably beyond what either Roman or Teigen could have ever expected, but the backlash against Roman was severe, resulting in her Times column being suspended. Though Teigen admitted she was wounded by Roman’s comments, she also expressed anger at the Times for putting Roman on leave.
For her part, Roman released a lengthy apology and has vowed to commit to the learning curve her comments have yielded, admitting that the backlash has been a shake-up for her both “personally and professionally.” Whether Roman’s apology was a genuine regret over her words or was insisted on by her employers is something her fans will have to decide.
If You Stand for Nothing, You’ll Fall for Anything
It’s hard not to feel almost disappointed by Roman’s quick 180. As a professional with years of experience in the industry, her criticism of Teigen’s brand is entirely warranted. She wasn't bashing her and even praised Teigen for making good money. We’re all entitled to our opinions and views, yet now it seems like whatever Roman expresses after this incident should be distrusted, given how quickly she reneged on her comments because the very individual she criticized had an army of fans to retaliate.
In comparison, Star refused to give in to the pressure the brand and the palette faced in the midst of its release, and came out all the more successful for it. It’s not unreasonable to say that had Roman simply explained her comments and stood by the opinions she originally voiced, instead of releasing a statement that feels like it came from being backed into a corner, her brand and popularity wouldn’t have necessarily suffered. As another Twitter user summarized, “You used to have to do something real to get cancelled. Apparently now you just have to criticize a celebrity!”
If those apologies aren’t actually warranted, the figure themselves can be seen less as sincere and more as pandering to an angry mob.
It’s a hard pill to swallow that we won’t be friends with everyone in our lives, and that not everyone we meet will like us. This is no doubt harder to acknowledge as a celebrity, when the entire public is aware of what they’re saying and doing. Proponents of cancel culture will no doubt argue that the mere threat of being “cancelled” motivates a person to acknowledge their own privilege, biases, and advantages, and how their actions and words were wrong.
But if those threats result in apologies that won’t actually work toward learning or change (or, like in Roman’s case, aren’t necessary at all), then the consequences of cancel culture bring about nothing more than hollow identities in those figures we follow, admire, and trust.
As the influence of cancel culture (the naturally occurring consequence of outrage culture) widens, we’re seeing how our media almost fetishizes apologies. It doesn’t matter what the original action was, or the rhetoric the person uses — we just want to believe that celebrities, like us normal people, screw up too and have to answer for it.
But again, if those apologies aren’t actually warranted, the figure themselves can be seen less as sincere and more as pandering to an angry mob. When we answer to the mob and not to ourselves, we’re liable to lose our relatability and our integrity. And it’s hard not to ask what we wouldn’t do to appease the mob.