Cancel culture as we traditionally know it, has only been around for a few years. However, “canceling” celebrities has been around since the 1960s for surprising reasons — and here are some of the most notable celebrities who have been canceled over the years. A few on this list managed to redeem themselves and step back into the limelight, proving that it is possible to come back from what may seem like the end.
But first, a definition.
Call-Out Culture vs. Cancel Culture
As previously covered in Parentology, call-out culture is a form of public shaming where people identify offenses and publicly “call out” the offenders in an effort to shame and punish them. Cancel culture describes a social media-based boycott for when someone is called out for doing something offensive. Victims of cancel culture are left “canceled” — with a significantly smaller following and a tarnished reputation.
The Dixie Chicks
Back in 2003, The Dixie Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines criticized then-president George W. Bush on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq. “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” she said in London to an audience of fans.
And, with that, the internet exploded. The band was canceled in what has been argued as the first time the internet played a role in canceling a celebrity for having an unpopular opinion. Angry rallies in the South saw Dixie Chicks CDs gathered and destroyed, and Maines received death threats.
Years later when the war’s (and Bush’s) popularity wained, and after the documentary about the event (entitled Shut Up & Sing) was released, the trio found themselves returning to the spotlight. However, since that event they have never seen the heights as they did before being canceled.
Former MMA fighter and star of the Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian, Gina Carano was called out for anti-transgender comments on social media, followed by false anti-mask and voter fraud tweets in 2020.
Carano’s tweet regarding the votes read: “We need to clean up the election process so we are not left feeling the way we do today. Put laws in place that protect us against voter fraud. Investigate every state. Film the counting. Flush out the fake votes. Require ID. Make Voter Fraud end in 2020. Fix the system.”
Not surprisingly, the hashtag #FireGinaCarano started trending, but Disney said it had no plans to fire the star. Then in February of 2021, she posted an Instagram photo of a running, screaming Jewish woman being chased by Nazis.
“Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors…even by children,” Carano wrote. “Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.”
A Lucasfilm rep called the post “abhorrent and unacceptable,” and she was fired from the show.
While most current definitions of being canceled involve public outcry, there was also the internal Hollywood version of canceling people. Case in point: Tippi Hedren.
Hedren starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) but vanished from the silver screen when she refused Hitchcock’s sexual advances. He held her movie career hostage for two years, refusing to release her from her contract. Fortunately, Charlie Chaplin loved working with Hedren and as soon as Hitchcock sold her contract in 1966, Chaplin hired her for his final film A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
Canceling celebrities has evolved a lot since then. Today, Hitchcock would be the one canceled, not Hedren!
One could argue that Mel Gibson is better known for his anti-Semitic DUI incident than he is for most of his movies. In 2006 Gibson was pulled over for “suspicion of driving under the influence” and proceeded to hurl a slew of Jewish slurs and anti-Semitic sentiments at the police officer — which were recorded and played for the public.
From that event, Gibson’s work dried up for many years. However, he made a directorial comeback in 2016 with Academy award-winning Hacksaw Ridge.
It seems with the right approach to repentance, one can come back from being canceled. All it requires is contrition, confession, and enough time to pass without incident to prove you’ve changed. Gibson reportedly has numerous projects in the works, including talks of continuing the Lethal Weapon franchise.
Just over a year ago, a Buzzfeed article delved into the dark corners of The Ellen DeGeneres Show after Ellen’s former bodyguard revealed that she might not be “the queen of nice” as she appears to be on her popular show. Investigations into the working conditions of employees of Ellen revealed microaggressions, racism, fear, and intimidation running rampant on set. Former employees also revealed that two executive producers for the show were engaged in sexual misconduct, which didn’t help the show’s degrading image.
Allegedly, DeGeneres is canceling the show of her own accord, but there is some debate over whether she felt she had to in order to save face.
Brian Warner aka Marilyn Manson
In February 2021, Evan Rachel Wood finally revealed the name of the abuser she has been referencing since 2016. Apparently, she and Manson dated for three years, from 2007 to 2010, during which time he “horrifically abused” her. At least four other women have come forward with similar allegations about abuse suffered at the hands of Manson.
The musician/actor was dropped by his record label and his scheduled appearances on American Gods and Creepshow were canceled within days of Wood’s revelation.
Robert Downey Jr.
Marvel Studio’s president, Kevin Feige, credits the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to actor Robert Downey Jr. for his portrayal of Tony Stark as Iron Man. However, RDJ’s prospects weren’t always quite so bright or lucrative.
Downey may never have made it back to the big screen if it wasn’t for Mel Gibson who underwrote his insurance to star in 2003’s The Singing Detective. Although technically not canceled in the traditional definition of a public outcry, Downey was unemployable by Hollywood in the late 1990s due to various drug addictions and prison sentences; these amounted to the same restrictions and lack of work canceled celebrities face.
Few things end a Hollywood career quite like becoming a financial liability, but that’s exactly what Lindsay Lohan did. One of her last chances was in 2013 when she was cast in the movie The Canyons. After years of heavy partying, DUIs, and stints in rehab, Lohan was eventually canceled in the same way that Robert Downey Jr. was back in the late 1990s. Movie offers dried up, her singing career flamed out before it ever started, and all her attempts to reemerge as a box office star failed.
In 2019 she made another attempt at a comeback, this time as a reality star and beach club owner. Ironically, the show was canceled for not being dramatic enough. Maybe Lohan will one day rise from the ashes of her career like others before her have (Life Size 3, anyone?), but for now, this child star remains canceled.
Brian Williams “misremembered” the events of an Iraqi helicopter attack leading to his cancelation. When the news broke about his indiscretion Williams owned his mistake and showed genuine remorse during an interview with Matt Lauer (more on him in a minute).
The NBC Nightly News anchor was promptly suspended without pay for six months during which time he got recertified as a firefighter and traveled the country. Upon his return, he transitioned to MSNBC and anchored the 2016 primary election coverage with Rachel Maddow. From there Williams launched The 11th Hour and is back on television five nights a week, proving that it’s possible to come back from being canceled.
Though, it might depend on the offense, as can be seen with Matt Lauer.
A year and a half after Matt Lauer interviewed canceled NBC host Brian Williams, Lauer was canceled for sexual assault allegations. He lost his morning show contract, his wife kicked him out of their home and filed for divorce, and Lauer hid away in the Hamptons. Despite attempts to revitalize his career in 2020, he remains shrouded in obscurity and a return to television seems unlikely.
One of the first celebrities to be canceled when the #MeToo movement took off in 2017, Louis C.K. begrudgingly admitted to masturbating in front of female colleagues after several women came forward to report his sexual misconduct.
C.K. was dropped by his publicist, management team, and his agency. Networks and streaming services alike distanced themselves from him and FX canceled his series Louie. It looked like we might have seen the last of Louis… until he quietly returned to the comedy stage. First dropping in at his old haunts in 2018, by summer of 2020 he embarked on a quiet comeback tour, selling out theaters across the U.S. and Canada (yes, he somehow managed sizable crowds mid-pandemic).
This year, he’s doing a proper comeback tour: starting in Madison Square Garden in August and ending in Boston at the Orpheum in December. Not everyone who is canceled gets to make a comeback, but if the offense is deemed minor enough and the timing is right, canceled celebrities have a shot at rising back to stardom.