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The year in cancel culture (yes, it’s still a thing)

From Chrissy Teigen to Chris Pratt to J.K. Rowling, social-media mobs came for these celebrities in 2021

Actor Chris Pratt and his then-wife Anna Faris with their son Jack in Los Angeles on April 21, 2017.
Actor Chris Pratt, right, is joined by his then-wife, actress Anna Faris, and their son Jack during a ceremony to award Pratt a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Friday, April 21, 2017, in Los Angeles. A social media post that people saw as a slam to Faris and their son got Pratt “canceled” again in 2021.
Chris Pizzello, Invision via Associated Press

Last January, actor Bryan Cranston took to Twitter, saying that his wish for 2021 was for cancel culture to end.

“I think we’re unfortunately in a coarser environment,” said Cranston, best known for playing Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” “I think our societies have become harder and less understanding, less tolerant, less forgiving. My question for today is, where does forgiveness live in our society?”

That question would be posed in different ways by different people as the year went on, and Americans grew almost as tired of the term “cancel culture” as they were of COVID-19. But when Pew Research Center examined attitudes about cancel culture in May, researchers found that 58% of Americans see “cancellation” of a person as a positive thing, a way of holding people accountable, while 38% said cancel culture punishes people who don’t deserve it.

Which may explain why cancel culture hasn’t gone away.

The cancellations of this year, however, have shown that cancel culture affects top-tier celebrities differently from lesser stars and ordinary people. “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling has been “canceled” repeatedly for comments about transgenderism, but still has 14 million followers on Twitter. Some celebrities, it seems, are too big to cancel, although a groundswell of social-media shaming can still cost them fans and money, and damage their reputation.

Others, however, lose more than money. It’s been six months since internet star Yashar Ali has posted anything on Twitter.

Here’s a look back at the year in cancel culture, and how the people involved weathered the storm.

Chris Pratt

The star of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Parks and Rec” was one of the faces of cancel culture in 2020 and returned for an encore in 2021, for things he did and didn’t do.

In February, social media turned against Pratt for fake tweets attributed to him. Then, in November, he got in even more trouble after posting a tribute to his wife, Katherine Schwarzenegger, and their “gorgeous healthy daughter,” the wording of which was perceived to be a subtle slam to his former wife and son, who has health issues. Unlike previous controversies, this one seems to have troubled Pratt, who later said on Instagram that he was “upset and depressed” but had gotten through it by exercising while listening to Christian praise music.

Chrissy Teigen

Teigen, a former swimsuit model and cookbook author who is married to singer John Legend, suffered a miscarriage in 2020, which garnered her much sympathy from fans. But many turned against her in June when she was accused of cyberbullying other celebrities, including Avril Lavigne, Lindsay Lohan and Sarah Palin. She later went on Instagram to lament being part of the “cancel club.”

“Cancel club is a fascinating thing and I have learned a whollllle lot,” she wrote. “Only a few understand it and it’s impossible to know til you’re in it. And it’s hard to talk about it in that sense because obviously you sound whiney when you’ve clearly done something wrong. It just sucks. There is no winning.”

Yashar Ali

One of Teigen’s fans is Yashar Ali, an internet celebrity who was mainly famous only on Twitter, where he was known as a passionate advocate for wild elephants, celebrities and media stars he befriended, and for people struggling during the pandemic. His tweets prompted thousands of people to Venmo money to others who had lost jobs because of COVID-19. But as Ali’s fame grew, so did scrutiny of his secretive life, and after a June profile in Los Angeles magazine painted him as an inauthentic grifter, many of his fans backed away. He has not used his former Twitter account since June, nor spoken publicly about the article and its allegations. Should he return to Twitter in 2022, Ali still has more than 748,000 followers waiting for him.

J.K. Rowling

It’s the third year that critics have said the “Harry Potter” author should be canceled because of statements she has made that have been called transphobic. As recently as Dec. 29, Rowling took to Twitter to explain her beliefs, which she says have been widely misrepresented.

While Rowling remains a megastar with a devoted international following, and she published a new children’s book (“The Christmas Pig”) this year, The Washington Post pointed out her minuscule presence in the Harry Potter 20-year reunion special (which premiered Jan. 1 on HBO Max), speculating that Warner Bros. didn’t want the show “to carry any hint of controversy.”

Dr. Seuss

Theodor Seuss Geisel wasn’t a doctor, and his contemporaries knew him as a political cartoonist whose work was often controversial, even in his day. But to people who knew Dr. Seuss only for heartwarming stories like “Horton Hears a Who” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” it was shocking to learn that some of his books contained disturbing racial stereotypes and would no longer be published. But it’s not just those titles, but Geisel’s whole legacy in jeopardy, as Cathy Young, writing for The Nation, noted. “Now, the NEA says that Read Across America is no longer affiliated with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, and at least one school district in Virginia has been instructing schools to downplay the day’s connection to Dr. Seuss because of ‘strong racial undertones’ found in his work.”

Young called the growing move to cancel Seuss chilling, saying that if “... the exorcism targets racial codes so subtle that they are invisible or innocuous to the naked eye (a black-and-white cat wearing white gloves represents racist minstrelsy?), it could do much more harm than good, fostering both paranoia and backlash. And imagine how much art and literature will have to be junked if we ever apply the same magnifying lens to gender stereotypes.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz

The celebrity surgeon who recently entered the race to fill the Pennsylvania Senate seat held by Republican Pat Toomey took to Twitter recently to say he’d been canceled after widespread reporting of his political beliefs. He said the Philadelphia Inquirer had used the honorific “Dr.” for him prior to the announcement of his candidacy, but no longer does.

Vanity Fair magazine quickly weighed in, saying that Oz, “like many a conservative,” has no idea what it really means to be canceled.

But the year is young. And as Evan Nierman, a crisis consultant, said on Forbes.com earlier this year, “Be careful: cancel culture is here to stay.”