From Career-Launching Scandals to Cancel Culture: The Bizarre World of Bad Press
Kim Kardashian didn’t invent the career-launching scandal, but she (and her mom) certainly perfected it. I won’t retell the story of Kim’s meteoric rise because we all essentially know it, whether we want to or not. Even those who have not followed her life story, it’s well-known that Kim Kardashian essentially started her career with a scandalous sex tape in 2007.
Now, she is a billionaire businesswoman who has had an enormous impact on American culture. However, Kim’s ascension came at the perfect time. Had she tried to follow a similar trajectory in 2021, she might have simply been written off as a desperate wannabe. It’s impossible to say with complete certainty, but the development of cancel culture and the proliferation of influencers and pseudo-celebrities has completely changed the landscape of bad press.
All Press Is Good Press — Except When It’s Not
Celebrity scandals are nothing new. Marylin Monroe supposedly had an affair with JFK shortly before her death, while millions watched the tumultuous relationship between Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana unfold in real-time. Neither scandal ended well for the women involved, but they show that humanity has been obsessed with unveiling the imperfections of the rich, successful, and idolized for years.
When 24/7 news became the norm toward the end of the 20th century, it only exacerbated our most base desires to learn every last detail about the stars we “loved.” Young women often became the subjects of our addiction, with figures like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears occupying the media headlines and tabloids. In some cases, careers were improved or even launched by this attention (re: Kim Kardashian), in others, they were tarnished and ruined (re: Ashlee Simpson).
These examples also coincided with the rise of reality television in the early 2000s, which gave millions of people a view (albeit distorted) of celebrity life and culture. This amplified the frequency and effect of scandals, both positive and negative. Many people watched for the scandals alone; after all, transgressions just make for really good TV.
Cancel Culture Enters the Ring
While celebrities like Kim Kardashian (early in her rise to fame) were unencumbered by social justice warriors and the cancel culture empowered by social media, up-and-comers of the mid-2010s and beyond were not so lucky. Even the term “scandal” took on a much more broad meaning in recent years, as people applied their collective desire to effect change to unsuspecting public figures. Suddenly, a slip of the tongue or a morally dubious act became grounds for cancellation — ruining careers, marriages, and lives in the process.
Obviously, this is not to say that all “cancellations” have been unwarranted. People who committed real crimes revealed through the mechanisms of cancel culture were actually brought to justice. Oddly enough, some celebs who committed what one might call “social crimes” experienced short-term backlash, but very little long-term consequences. Just look at Mel Gibson. He repeatedly made racist, homophobic, antisemitic, and misogynistic remarks — to say nothing of his issues with alcohol and domestic abuse. As a result, Gibson was blacklisted in Hollywood for a few years. However, he has evidently served his time and is now back to working full-time.
Thus, cancel culture has made scandals far riskier than they once were, for both celebrities and regular folks. Rather than simply making a gaffe or having something embarrassing leaked to the public, everything is now scrutinized by a kangaroo court of vengeance-seekers. A sex tape is no longer just a sex tape; it could now be interpreted as “problematic” for one reason or another. The actual content and context of the scandal no longer matter much. What matters is how people interpret the situation based on a knee-jerk, hive mind reaction, fueled by echo chambers of social media.
Navigating Scandals in a Trigger-Happy World
Bad press can still be good press, but the mere threat of cancellation, doxxing, and similar consequences have made it a risk that most people would rather avoid. Why? Because the results are, more often than not, completely arbitrary. Major figures like Ellen Degeneres, Chris Pratt, and J.K. Rowling have been picking away at their own public images for the past few years, getting repeatedly canceled over insensitive comments, questionable affiliations, and reports of hostility toward others. At the same time, countless other celebrities have managed to overcome scandals and bad press relatively unscathed.
Just look at the world of professional sports. Hundreds of prominent players in the NFL, MLB, NBA, and other major leagues have been accused of a wide array of scandals and crimes, though many continue to make millions to entertain fans. If careers can be ended over a few words, but not over actual assaults (and repeat offenders), what purpose does cancel culture actually serve?
This is the bizarre world of bad press we live in. Every day, someone new enters the public eye for being involved in a scandal, from having affairs with celebs to producing inflammatory music. But in doing so, they take the risk of getting eaten alive by the court of public opinion. So, no matter who you are, proceed with caution.