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  • Dan Connors

A deep dive into cancel culture. Ten cancelled celebrities who deserve a second look.

"Do not judge a person, Do not pass a judgement on anyone unless you've talked to them one-on-one. I don't care what the story is... Like the old Indian proverb says, do not judge a man until you've walked 2 moons in his moccasins. Most people don't know me, that is why they write such things in which most is not true. I cry very very often because it hurts and I worry about the children, all my children all over the world, I live for them." Michael Jackson.

When should a celebrity be cancelled and what does that mean exactly? In my lifetime I've seen attitudes shift dramatically around race, gender, and what's acceptable in the public sphere. Things that were popular 50 or even 20 years ago look out of date and offensive now, and I wonder how we've accepted things like sexism, racism, and homophobia so readily in movies, television, and popular culture. But as the lines for acceptable behavior keep shifting, how do we know for sure when to cancel someone permanently?

I've been thinking about this a lot recently after I went to see MJ- The Musical, a Broadway-style encapsulation of the life and works of Michael Jackson. Jackson had been seen as a oddball for many years before his death in 2009, but since then many have turned their backs on his legacy in the light of allegations of sexual abuse of minor boys in his Neverland Ranch. The large crowds and great performances at this show tell me there is a lot more to the Jackson story than what the tabloids tell.

Cancellation is the same as ostracism, an ancient human behavior that disciplined people inside and outside of a tribe as to what is acceptable behavior. Since humans are such social animals, ostracism can be as painful as death. Without a network to depend on, most of us would crumble and fall.

For a celebrity, how do you separate a problematic private behavior from a public body of work that is worthy of attention? Is it possible to abhor the behavior but admire the person that produced so many other things? Sometimes the reason for cancellation are so random and stupid, like a thoughtless statement that unearths an ugly side of a celebrity. And sometimes the reasons are much more serious, pointing to illegal and immoral behaviors that should never be tolerated.

Cancel culture isn't as simple as it sounds. This is not one of those whiny essays bemoaning how overly sensitive we've all become, and that cancel culture is always bad. Neither is this a defense of any particular misdeed, or call to punishment for celebrities that I've never met and barely know. Instead, I'd like to take the opportunity to take a look at ten cancelled celebrities that meant a lot to me in the past, how they got cancelled, and how I feel about it all today. Is judging and condemning others the best use of our time and energies?

1-Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman. Pee Wee was a popular character in the 1980's who rose to stardom with a children's tv show that showcased his wild imagination and silly antics. It expanded into several popular movies for Reubens, and his character was loved and known world-wide.

That all changed in 1991, when Reubens was caught and arrested for masturbating in an adult movie theater. (This was before the internet and multiple porn websites became available.) The scandal was widely reported, and Pee Wee's Playhouse was pulled from the air immediately. Because his character was marketed towards kids, Reubens was unable to make movies or bring his character back until 2016, when he finally made a comeback. But for most of the rest of his career, Reubens was limited to voice work and occasional acting jobs on other tv shows. He died in 2023.

I got to know Paul Reubens the human from his Facebook page, and he always appeared to be a sweet, kind, and talented man. His character will live on well beyond his lifetime. He was one of a kind, and I would not hesitate to watch any of his appearances again today. Below is a courageous appearance he made in 1991 after the incident, and you can just feel the love the audience had for him, even as we all knew his career was cancelled at that point.

2- Dr Phil McGraw. Dr. Phil was a no-nonsense psychologist who came out of nowhere in 1998 to become Oprah Winfrey's go-to expert on mental health. I remember recording his appearances and thinking that he made a lot of sense, because he didn't give in to the bs that so many of us use to excuse neurotic behaviors. I bought his books, listened to his cds, and considered him to be a reliable expert.

That all changed in 2002 when Dr. Phil started his own show and became a media superstar. In the chase for ratings, he tried harder to garner attention by inviting more seriously disturbed people on his show. He gave up his license and became more of an entertainer than a traditional therapist. Therapy can be difficult and time-consuming work, and for television Dr. Phil had to sensationalize things to make them interesting. While he may have helped some of his guests, he was accused of exploiting many of them. Word got out that he referred a lot of those guests to other facilities that he had not vetted, and some of them turned out to be terrible.

Dr. Phil's show ratings declined along with much of daytime TV, and he finally ended it in 2023. He is currently trying to establish his own network, but it remains to be seen if he will take more care to present responsible, positive mental health advice. While Dr. Phil never had a single event that made him cancelled, the many years of his large ego clashing with truly disturbed people made him a pariah in the mental health field. Here is a clip of him in his early days with Oprah. We need good examples of mental health practitioners in the media, but Dr. Phil is not one of them.

3- Roseanne Barr Roseanne got her start as a standup comedian in the 1980's. She was loud and proud, fat and sassy, and called herself a "domestic goddess". Her 1985 appearance on Johnny Carson (below) made here a star, and within a few years she had her own sitcom, Roseanne, that got huge ratings. I admired her ability to bring humor and realism to a story about a working-class family, especially since the patriarch was named Dan Conner and played by John Goodman.

Despite her great successes over 30 years, Roseanne was cancelled over a racist tweet in 2018. Her show had just been picked back up and she was forced out while her character was killed off. The Conners went on to great success without her, ending its run in 2025.

Roseanne has had a tumultuous last few decades, and many of her problems could be the result of mental health problems that she disclosed in the 1990's. She claims to have had many childhood traumas, and has been treated for multiple personality disorders. Her fame has made her a household name, but the reality is that she is struggling mentally while politicians and others manipulate her and the public eats up rumors about her often odd behaviors.

4- Ellen Degeneres. Ellen has the distinction of being cancelled not once, but twice. She got her start as a stand-up comedian, hitting it big on the Johnny Carson show in 1986 (below) That translated into a situation comedy named "Ellen" in 1994. From there her career took off, showing up as Dory in Finding Nemo and eventually with her own talk show that ran almost 20 seasons starting in 2003.

She was cancelled the first time in 1997 when she came out as gay, both on her sitcom and in real life. She was one of the first celebrities to admit publicly that she was a lesbian, and there was actual backlash that resulted in the cancellation of her show. But starting in the 21st century attitudes evolved around homosexuality, and she ended up getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama for advancing LGBT rights.

Her second cancellation in 2020 was something of a shock. Her daytime tv show, which had been presented as silly, fun and promoting kindness, was rocked by allegations of a toxic atmosphere behind the scenes. Several producers were fired and Ellen was accused of cruel behavior towards guests and workers. Though Ellen apologized on-air for the scandal, the show never recovered and was cancelled in 2022.

Being a woman, much less a gay woman, in the field of television and comedy that was dominated by men had to have been hard on Ellen. Getting cancelled for being gay had to have seemed terribly unfair, especially when she saw homosexuality become accepted just a decade later. I could see how she could have had a chip on her shoulder. Part of her wanted to be nice, but part of her must have resented her treatment. Maybe that's why she got such glee out of pulling a lever and dropping contestants through a trapdoor on her game show. Ellen is a complicated person, and as far as I can tell she regrets the toxic atmosphere on her show. I would love to see her make a comeback.

5- Bill Cosby. This is a hard one to figure out. Bill Cosby came along in the 1960's as a talented standup comedian- one of the biggest black entertainers to emerge before Richard Pryor and Dave Chappell hit the scene. During that tumultuous decade he shied away from political or racial topics in his comedy, and it paid off. He sold records and made guest appearances on most variety and talk shows. He produced a popular kids show- Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids that I watched as a child in the 70's. By the 1980's he was an institution, and his NBC sitcom, The Cosby's, became the central element in Must See TV.

Allegations of sexual abuse for Cosby go all the way back to the 60's, and he was accused of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment by 60 women over the next few decades. His wealth and status protected him, along with the shameful practice of discounting sexual predation during that time (See Harvey Weinstein). Finally, in 2014 the rumors caught up with him and society was finally ready to cancel him. He was tried and convicted in 2018 and spent a brief time in jail before he was released in 2021 due to an overturned conviction.

Evidence of Bill Cosby has been erased from the entertainment world, and it's understandable, given that he drugged many of the women he abused before raping them. He's never expressed remorse or regret, and professes his innocence to this day. Who knows what twisted elements of fame, power, or racism led him to this abhorrent behavior? But in his early days especially, he was a funny and clean comedian, as seen in one of his famous routines below- Noah.

6- Woody Allen Few filmmakers have been as acknowledged as Woody Allen. Allen has written, directed, or starred in over 60 movies, garnering 24 Oscar nominations and 3 wins. His movies are sometimes funny and silly, sometimes serious and thought-provoking, but always intelligent. Though Allen got his start as a stand-up comic in the 1960's, it is his movies he will be remembered for.

Allen has had a strange obsession with women as is evident in his films. Some of them contain inappropriate relationships with older men and younger women (not THAT uncommon in Hollywood back then.) He was divorced twice and romantically associated with a number of his co-stars including Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. But it is his last marriage that got him cancelled. In 1991, while he was dating Farrow, he began to get close to her adopted daughter Soon-Yi. As that relationship soured, Allen got intimate with Soon-Yi, eventually marrying her, even though she was his step-daughter. Soon-Yi was 21 when they started dating, and Allen wasn't living with the family at the time, but the appearance that he was cheating on Farrow with her daughter made big headlines. The couple remain married some 17 years later.

Even more troubling, Allen was accused of sexual assault on another step-daughter, Dylan Farrow in 1992. We will never know if this actually happened because Allen accused Mia Farrow of making the whole thing up to get back at him for taking Soon-Yi. Farrow's other children give conflicting stories about the incident, and two separate investigations eventually cleared Allen. But because of his weird and somewhat creepy persona, Allen has been cancelled to such an extent that almost no one in Hollywood will work with him anymore. He's been forced to work in Europe, but now in his 80's, his best works are behind him.

I loved listening to Woody Allen records as a teen, and his nerdy loser personality that somehow came out on top gave me hope back then. He is an odd character who seems not to care about his cancellation, which is a shame because his body of work may be lost to future generations. Below is a clip from one of his best movies, Love and Death

7- OJ Simpson. Accused of murder but acquitted, OJ Simpson is the most notorious member of this list. Simpson was a star running back for the Buffalo Bills and played in the NFL for 11 seasons. His clean-cut personality made him a favorite of fans, and he was able to translate that into commercial endorsements and movie roles.

That all changed in 1994 when he was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Strong evidence pointed to Simpson as the murderer, including his past history of abuse in the marriage and his famous white Ford Bronco escape attempt to avoid arrest. Though he was acquitted in that famous case, few people have accepted it, and he was cancelled immediately, unable to work in entertainment again.

Though it remains a given that Simpson probably did it, I'm surprised that no one looked into the possibility that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) contributed to his erratic and violent behavior. CTE is a dirty secret in the NFL, and many ex-players have experienced memory loss, behavior changes, headaches, suicidal thoughts, and mood swings. We will never know if OJ had it, because his family refused to have his brain examined, choosing cremation instead.

One of my favorite movies of all time is the Naked Gun series, in which Simpson had a small role. I prefer to remember him as he was in the clip below- willing to put himself through pain for a stupid joke.

8- JK Rowling. How does the most successful writer in the world get cancelled? JK Rowling was a single mother on government assistance when she wrote the first Harry Potter book in 1995. In just a few years she became stunningly successful with not one but seven Harry Potter books, all of which were turned into movies and a dynastic franchise. She followed that up with more books under a pen name (Robert Galbraith) and an impressive list of charitable causes, many of which catered to at-risk women.

How does someone that popular get cancelled? In 2020 she began an online crusade against transgender overreaches that she opposed. She didn't exactly propose hateful language against trans people, but had issues with surgeries and gender fluidity. In any case, this crusade has alienated her from most of the Harry Potter fans and actors, causing her to miss the Harry Potter 20th anniversary special.

Rowling has basically been cancelled for her opinions on a touchy subject at a time when much of the world was struggling with the emergence of transsexuality. I have no problem watching Harry Potter content or giving her props, but as a cis-gendered male, I have no idea how to react to the controversy. It just baffles me how she has chosen this as her hill to die on while tossing aside her legacy.

9- Scott Adams and Dilbert. The Dilbert comic strip began syndication in 1989. It's scathingly funny takes on corporate culture brought it wide distribution and eventually a television show. Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, became a cartooning legend as his strip appeared in over 2000 newspapers. According to his syndicate, Andrews McMeel, Dilbert was the most photocopied, pinned-up, downloaded, faxed and emailed comic strip in the world.

Dilbert came to a quick demise in early 2023 after Adams was accused of racist comments on You Tube and elsewhere. Many had noted that the strip had veered away from critiques of office culture to critiques of wokeness, diversity, and pandemic preparedness. Within months, the strip completely disappeared from all newspapers and Adams contract with book publishers was cancelled.

As an avid comic pages reader, I always looked forward to the Dilbert strips, and I was sad to see it cancelled. I had bought many of his books full of old strips. Adams is an avowed conservative, and his change in making Dilbert a more mean-spirited comic strip didn't sit well with his readers. Racism is a topic that is still taboo in the entertainment world, and Adams has continued his rants and strip on pay-for-view services online.

10- Michael Jackson. Finally, there is the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Jackson showed his enormous talent as a young child with his brothers in the Jackson Five. He broke out and became a solo act in the 1970's and by the 1980's he was at the top of the music world. He was famous for his songs and his innovative choreography including the moonwalk. During his storied career he won 13 Grammy awards, 24 American Music awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.

Jackson's behavior was always considered a bit odd, which made him popular with the tabloids. He began to get cancelled in the early 2000's with allegations of sexual abuse of young men that he invited to sleep over at his Neverland Ranch. A 2005 trial acquitted Jackson of any guilt in the matter, but the accusations have persisted. (Partially because he agreed to settle in 1994 by paying off one accuser.)

Jackson died in 2009, and we will never know for sure if any of the accusations truly happened. He reported that his father, Joseph Jackson, was both verbally and physically  (but not sexually) abusive throughout his childhood, which certainly damaged him psychologically, causing some of his odd behaviors and desire to remain child-like well into adulthood.

Listening to Michael Jackson's words and lyrics, and watching his deeds, I'm prone to believe his denials. He was an unusually talented and sensitive man, and his fame certainly attracted unsavory predators wishing to take advantage of him. Below is the video of Thriller, now seen more than 150 million times and one or the most popular music videos of all time.

What have we learned here?

  • Celebrity is fleeting and unpredictable. When celebrities veer from societal expectations, they risk cancellation, which is why so many of them are reluctant to express their political or religious views or share their social life.

  • Famous people are still people. They are fallible and subject to the same temptations and mistakes as the rest of us. And because they are in the spotlight, the whole world gets to see and judge their behaviors. The 10 celebrities portrayed here could easily be expanded to 100 or 1000.

  • Fame, money and power can be destructive to those who can't handle it. You are surrounded by people who always want something from you and tell you what you want to hear. You are immersed in a cocoon and shielded in a false reality. And the pressures to produce and succeed can be intense I would imagine.

  • Don't be so quick to judge others. It makes us feel better to cancel other people, but it doesn't advance anything constructive. For those who break the law, let the legal system, as imperfect as it is, deal with them. Otherwise, appreciate the good and educate yourself about the bad before making assumptions.

If you haven't already, go back up and watch some of the videos of these cancelled celebrities in better times. You won't be validating their bad choices. But perhaps you will get a more empathetic view of cancel culture that all of us are both good and flawed, and we can all learn something from the mistakes they have made.

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