How did the term cancel culture come about in the first place? It is generally accepted that the term “cancel culture” comes out of a punchline from the 1991 film New Jack City. In the now-legendary scene, narcissistic Harlem drug lord Nino, played by Wesley Snipes, is being yelled at by his girlfriend for creating a culture of violence in their community. Nino’s response is to douse her with champagne and to hiss, “Cancel that b—! I’ll buy another one.” Many years later Black Twitter and college campuses picked up the phrase and embraced it and thus “cancelling” was born. New Jack City screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper was subsequently asked by the Washington Post why he employed the word “cancel” in that particular scene. His answer? The 1981 Chic song “Your Love is Cancelled” happened to be coming out of his speakers around the time. So, in a sense, Nile Rodgers of Chic and Barry Michael Cooper deserve co-writing credits for creating one of the most contentious words in the American political lexicon today.
What is cancel culture? It began as a movement about holding powerful people accountable for harming others through abuse or acts of bigotry. Cancel culture is not the immediate and irrevocable cancellation of white men from positions of power, as the critics claim. However, a significant part of cancel culture is a challenge to power. Cancel culture is about having an uncomfortable conversation about consequences and accountability for people in power in a new era.
Cancel culture is, at its core, public shaming, but not in the Victorian sense as we understand it. Cancellation is not a scarlet letter for all time. Alexi McCammond was cancelled and ousted as editor at Teen Vogue for racist comments she made as a teen, and is now a political reporter at Axios. Kevin Hart was cancelled, lost his gig hosting the 2019 Oscars and yet he is still an A list filmmaker on his way to becoming a billionaire. Scarlett Johansson was cancelled in 2018, yet Disney/Marvel’s Black Widow crossed the $100 million mark at the domestic box office in six days earlier this month. Louis CK was cancelled in 2018, after admitting to sexual misconduct with five women, but is presently touring the Midwest. Kevin Spacey — also “cancelled” — is to play a detective in Franco Nero’s new film about a man wrongly suspected of child abuse. Harvey Weinstein, atoning in prison, appears to be the only entertainment industry heavyweight that is truly in the thick of cancellation.