How do we go about defining “cancel culture”? Who can be called a victim of “cancel culture”? I shall give this a shot, as one of my professors in graduate school stressed the importance of defining your terms when making your case, and I agree. Cancel culture has, believe it or not, something of a good aim. It aims to knock people who have engaged in some egregious wrongdoing off a position of power. This could be political office, celebrity status, a prominent position in the business world, or someone prominent in their respective field. In its best form, you might think of it as accountability culture, but when it goes wrong, and it all too often does, you can think of it as cancel culture.
A victim of cancel culture is someone who as a result of a public campaign against them loses a position, gets ostracized, and/or loses some sort of opportunity or distinction in reaction to either false accusations or the response is disproportionate to the offense in question. Under this meaning of a victim, obviously Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein would not fall into this category (and I hope no one thinks they should) for they committed sex crimes. They would be the proper recipients of accountability culture. The most controversial part of this definition is without doubt what constitutes “disproportionate”. With this we enter the field of the subjective as opposed to the former, which is objective. Additionally, a victim of cancel culture need not hold a position all that prominent, their case just needs to become known on social media. An example that comes to mind is that of Justine Sacco, who posted a stupid and insensitive joke to Twitter in 2013 as she was boarding a flight to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” (Dimitrova, Rahmanzadeh, & Lipman) Upon arriving she found herself subject to a public shaming campaign that resulted in her losing her job because of this momentary lapse in judgment even though she hadn’t been a public figure before. Although Sacco should have been careful about what she posted online, I think this was an overreaction. The cancel culture we see today is a recent phenomenon based partly on #Metoo revelations as well as on the left-wing shout out culture on college campuses which aims to correct thinking and speech those on the political left believe is wrong by calling out and shaming the offenders. However, the case I’ll be talking about today happened 100 years ago and although it lacks the left-wing shout out culture element it does involve an early sort of manifestation of #Metoo. The victim was the highest paid comedic actor of his heyday, and his case fits quite well into my definition of what constitutes “cancel culture”. He was the late and great Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Arbuckle was a major comedic star in his day and helped the rise of other comedy greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In 1920, he signed a contract with Paramount Pictures for the equivalent of $181,000 a year in 2020 dollars. On September 5, 1921, Arbuckle and some friends had rented three rooms at the St. Francis Hotel for a party and had invited some women to join them. One of them was aspiring actress Virginia Rappe who was accompanied by Bambina Maude Delmont. Rappe became ill during the party in the room shared by Arbuckle and his friend Fred Fishback and died four days later. Her cause of death was determined to be peritonitis caused by a ruptured bladder. Although the coroner had found no evidence of rape, Delmont accused Arbuckle of raping Rappe. Rappe had a history of urinary tract infections that alcohol exacerbated, and Delmont had a history as a madam, blackmailer, and extortionist. Despite Delmont’s history, politically ambitious San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady leaped on the case. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who you may remember as one of the prime practitioners of the yellow journalism that egged on the Spanish-American War, sensationalized and exaggerated the story in his San Francisco Examiner. The stories about Arbuckle portrayed him as a monstrous predator and that his weight from forcing himself on her caused her ruptured bladder. This morphed into that he used a coke or champagne bottle, which was never alleged in court. Studios effectively issued a gag order on actors who would want to speak on his behalf, but this didn’t stop Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin from issuing public statements expressing their belief in Arbuckle’s innocence. Indeed, Arbuckle was known as rather shy around women and a gentle man.
Arbuckle was initially arrested for murder but charged with manslaughter. He was tried thrice, with the first two being mistrials due to jury deadlock, the first splitting 10-2 not guilty and the second splitting 10-2 guilty. Despite the original accusations coming from Delmont and her touring the country to publicize on it, the prosecution never called her up as a witness. On the third trial, the defense aggressively cross-examined the witnesses and were able to poke many holes in the case against Arbuckle. An acquittal is technically a ruling that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict, not necessarily a ruling of innocence, but the jury in his case was sure to clarify that he was innocent and wrote a letter of apology to him, in which the introductory line was: “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him” (Encyclopedia Britannica). He was, however, convicted of a single violation of the Volstead Act as alcohol was consumed at the party and fined. There is a way that he may have contributed to her death, albeit accidentally. It was known that Arbuckle was very ticklish and that tickling his ribs would cause his knee to jerk upwards. Whether it was known to Rappe or not is questionable, but supposedly she tickled him, resulting in him accidentally kneeing the actress in the stomach. Indeed, Rappe had been quoted as saying while ill, “What did he do to me? He [Arbuckle] did this to me” (Noe). This may have been in reference to the accidental kneeing, or possibly to the ice he applied to her to try and relieve her symptoms.
Despite being legally acquitted with the jury issuing such an unusual statement, the public campaign against Arbuckle continued. Paramount Studios’ Adolph Zukor got him blacklisted and his films were banned by chief censor Will H. Hays on April 18, 1922. An ongoing narrative, which certainly had some truth, was that Hollywood was morally degenerate and promoted moral degeneracy. Unfortunately, Arbuckle was wrongfully seen as a prime example by the moral crusaders of the 1920s. He was too big a fish to let go for them and Zukor’s decision was not based on truth, fact, or justice. His decision was to sacrifice him to protect the rest of the industry from these activists, which is what businesses do when faced with modern cases of cancel culture as they fear the power of the mob. In an added wrinkle, the whole situation with Rappe and Delmont may have been a scheme by Zukor to knock Arbuckle down for demanding more money for contracts. Author Andy Edmonds argued that Arbuckle was set up by him as he insisted on bringing the women to the party, albeit not for the purpose of Rappe’s death, rather a sexual frameup (Noe). Indeed, Rappe’s companion, Delmont was described by Edmonds as “a professional correspondent: a woman hired to provide compromising pictures to use in divorce cases or for more unscrupulous purposes such as blackmail” (Noe). Prints of Arbuckle’s films were destroyed, and some films may even now be lost because of this reaction. Although Hays lifted the ban on December 20, 1922, Arbuckle for years worked part-time as a director and under a pseudonym, William B. Goodrich, while being financially assisted by Buster Keaton. His star had fallen, at least for the time being. In 1932, he signed a contract with Warner Brothers for comedic short subjects with sound, and he was one of the silent actors who transitioned well to the talking era. Arbuckle was also scheduled for a full-length feature film. Sadly, this was not to be as he died of a heart attack in 1933 at the age of 46.
Dimitrova, K., Rahmanzadeh, S., & Lipman, J. (2013, December 22). Justine Sacco, Fired After Tweet on AIDS in Africa, Issues Apology. ABC News.
Hull, M. (2019, January 24). The many trials of Fatty Arbuckle. The Bar Association of San Francisco.
King, G. (2011, November 8). The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial. Smithsonian Magazine.
Noe, D. (2008, September 17). Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe. Crime Library.
Roscoe Arbuckle. Encyclopedia Britannica.