Like many millennial children, Caleb LoSchiavo grew up loving the Harry Potter series. “As a kid, I always felt like I didn’t fit in, like I didn’t belong, like there was that thing about me that was missing, but I didn’t have the language to describe,” LoSchiavo says. “Harry Potter was an outside place I could escape to, and it was this world outside of myself that as a child, felt like a place where people who were different were accepted.”
But when Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling outed herself as a TERF — a “trans-exclusive radical feminist,” i.e. someone who does not believe trans women are women — last year, LoSchiavo, who is trans, felt he could no longer support her or her work.
“I went home to see my parents maybe a month ago to clean out my childhood bedroom and I had all of this Harry Potter memorabilia, trivia games and little figurines and scenes, and my mum was like, ‘Oh, do you want to keep these?’ and I was like, ‘No, not really anymore. I need to let go of that,’” LoSchiavo says.
No writer, musician or actor is perfect, and sometimes they do or say stupid things and make us cringe, but we can still get past it — especially if they apologise — and move on. But it’s hard to know what to do when your favourite musician, actor or writer turns out to be bigoted or downright abusive. Whether or not you believe in “cancel culture” — i.e., the practice of withdrawing mass public support from a celebrity or company when they do or say something offensive or harmful — learning that someone who crafted the cultural touchstones you love is a racist, or a sexual harasser, or unrepentantly transphobic, can spark an internal reckoning.
Do you keep supporting an artist you love, even if they transgressed? Where do you draw the line? Is there a way to separate art from artist? We spoke to some folks who’ve gone through it to see what they had to say.
Expect to react strongly when the curtain’s lifted
We tend to feel like we know the artists who make our favourite art. Discovering that they’re a bad person makes us realise we don’t. We end up grieving our perception of the artist — someone we loved without really knowing them.
Jeff (who prefers to keep his last name private) loved singer Ryan Adams ever since he bought one of his albums in 2001. “He was, if not my favourite artist, one of a handful of musicians that meant a lot to me,” Jeff writes in an email. So when the New York Times published an article in 2019 alleging Adams sexually harassed young women musicians and subjected them to emotional abuse and professional retribution when they rejected him, Jeff had to reconsider his relationship with the singer/songwriter.
“[I]t was quietly heartbreaking,” Jeff writes. “That article came out the day of my grandfather’s funeral — I had just come home from the service when I saw the headline, and while the two events are incomparable, it certainly felt like the one loss (that of one of my favourite musicians) compounded the other, larger loss.”
Not only is your concept of the artist lost, but pulling back the curtain on the creator can taint your perception of the art you loved.
“Many of my most distinct musical memories — listening to ‘Sylvia Plath” while walking home from the bar in college, or hearing Adams play ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ in Central Park the week before I left for grad school in North Carolina — now have a confused, blurry quality to them, and I’m not sure what (if anything) to do about that,” Jeff writes.
Bryce Kelly, who runs the popular Percy Jackson read-a-long podcast “Radio Camp Half-Blood,” had a similar experience. Kelly used to love PWR BTTM, a popular queercore duo that preached self-acceptance. But when member Ben Hopkins was accused of sexual assault and predatory behaviour, Kelly quit listening to their music.
“It hit me really personally,” says Kelly, who uses the pronouns they/them. “I’m a queer person, it meant a lot to me, what their music had to say. So when it was outed that this person was an abuser and using that platform, that message of inclusivity to take advantage of people, that really hurt.”
For Kelly, once the allegations against Hopkins were made public, the art had no meaning. “I felt so much of what that music meant was diminished,” they say.
Whether you give up on the artist is up to you — but you may want to reconsider financially supporting them
Despite much right-wing haranguing over the “dangers” of “cancel culture,” there are no culture police waiting in the wings for you if you stream a bad artist’s track on Spotify. What you decide to do with a problematic artist is up to you.
In Jeff’s case, he was done with Adams for good. “I knew within reading the first few sentences that not only was the [New York Times] story true, but I would no longer be able to listen to his music,” he writes.
But others might prefer to draw the line elsewhere. Not everyone is able or willing to completely separate from the artist they love. This is understandable. The art we carry with us is personal, and its importance to us has much less to do with the musician or writer who produced it and more to do with how it made us feel at a certain moment in time. This is especially true with books we read as children and musicians we listened to when we were at our most impressionable or vulnerable; in many ways, these works feel just as much a part of us as our own personalities.
LoSchiavo, for instance, says he already owns a collection of Harry Potter novels, so if he feels like doing a reread, he won’t be supporting Rowling financially. “I can still read the books, I feel like that’s not going to advance her career and not help her out,” he says. Though, as he notes, they hit differently in light of Rowling’s apparent transphobia: “Now when I look at them, I see all these things that people have pointed out as transphobic or contradictory between what’s in the text and what she now believes,” LoSchiavo says.
Maggie Serota, a writer in New York City, went through something similar with Morrissey, the lead singer of The Smiths. “Like every clinically depressed teenager, I was really into The Smiths,” she says. “When you’re kind of a weirdo and not a cheerleader or whatever, or as Daria used to say, ‘a misery chick,’ [Morrissey] is one of those artists who speaks to you,” she says.
Morrissey was always a tad combative, but Serota began to really see the cracks in the facade a few years ago. “He started to get very vocal about being anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, nativist. He would openly sympathise with far-right figures like Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage,” Serota says. “That was line I couldn’t cross.”
Serota decided it was time to stop supporting Morrissey, but she couldn’t bring herself to give him up entirely. “I can’t change the emotional connection I have to the songs I loved growing up,” Serota says. “But I can change if I materially support him.” Serota will still listen to a Morrissey song on Spotify — though, as she says, “even then, sometimes it feels weird,” — but she won’t go to his concerts or buy any of his albums.
Kelly thinks that at the very least, not financially supporting a problematic artist is the right move.
“I understand that impulse to salvage what you found meaningful about something, even if that person is in conflict with what they were creating,” Kelly says. “But in the case of people with really big platforms, you have to think about whether you’re giving them money. Money is power in the world that we live in.”
In general, Kelly says, de-platforming works, and abusive or otherwise problematic artists don’t need you to tweet nice things about them or invite them to your events. “I don’t want to hear from a big book festival that they’re going to have J.K. Rowling,” Kelly says. “I don’t want to hear from a music festival that they’re going to have Ben Hopkins. When it comes to personal responsibility, it’s not supporting them financially, and not supporting them on your platforms.”
At the very least, the artist gets an asterisk
If you’re not ready to completely dump a bad artist or their work, it’s at least a good idea to keep the accusations against them attached. It’s understandable if the art they created is still important to you, but you can’t just talk about them without acknowledging what they’ve allegedly done.
Alli Hoff Kosik has had to deal with this as the host of the popular podcast “SSR: Literary Throwbacks Revisited.” Each week, Hoff Kosik and a guest revisit a middle grade or YA book millennials would have read as tweens, and unsurprisingly, some of these 1990s and early aughts books (and their authors) don’t look so good on second glance. [Full disclosure: I once guested on the podcast.] Hoff Kosik says looking at these works from a such a critical perspective has made her a bit wary of cancelling an artist entirely.
“In cancelling someone, you sort of sweep the whole discourse under the rug without holding them accountable,” Hoff Kosik says. “I feel like it lets people off the hook.” On her podcast, Hoff Kosik will revisit problematic texts, but she’s careful to point out the ways in which the authors and/or the books have transgressed.
Hoff Kosik has been reckoning with this personally. She was a huge Harry Potter fan, and for a long time, she considered Rowling her favourite artist. “I lived and died by Harry Potter,” Hoff Kosik says. “As a kid who always wanted to be an author, I wanted to be her. She was my hero.” Hoff Kosik says she no longer considers Rowling a favourite and will not support any of her feature endeavours, financially or otherwise. But she still thinks it’s worth remembering and speaking to the greater cultural and personal impact Harry Potter and creations of other problematic artists have had — provided all the context is included.
“I think we have to be critical enough as consumers to separate the piece of media from the creator,” she says. “You have to figure out ways to distance yourself from the person and the bullshit ideas they’re trying to promote, and to speak out against those ideas when you can.” But by ignoring the works entirely, Hoff Kosik says, “It silences the discourse about it for me in a really weird way.”
Remember: Your problematic fave is problematic because they’ve caused real harm
It’s painful to reconsider a piece of art that’s meaningful to you. It is hard to consider giving up favourite movies, forgoing beloved books and skipping that song on Spotify. But the people that artist abused or otherwise hurt are experiencing pain, too.
Kelly says that one of the problems with “grieving” a cancelled favourite, especially in the case of someone who was abusive, is that you’re not centering the people who’ve been harmed by the artist. “It’s way more important to focus on the victims of that person,” Kelly says. “They literally abuse people.”
Jeff says that though a number of his childhood heroes, like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, went through controversial periods, the harm Adams caused to his victims was severe enough to warrant dropping him altogether. “The difference here — aside from the indisputable predatory nature of Adams’ actions — is that multiple women interviewed said they stopped making music as a result of their interactions with him,” Jeff said. “That made it an easy decision: if their music couldn’t be heard, then I wouldn’t listen to his either.”
There’s untainted art out there waiting for you to discover it
It’s hard to quit someone you love, but it may feel helpful to seek out some of the music/books/films/etc. you might have missed while in the thralls of your cancelled favourite.
“Whenever it’s outed that some person who wrote a very popular series or is a famous musician is bad or abusive, I always think about all the people out there, particularly marginalised people, who don’t have a platform at all,” Kelly says. “We’re invested in trying to save what we already love instead of looking beyond to what’s out there. I think those people deserve more of a chance than the people making billions of dollars and being hurtful in the process.”
If, for instance, you’re a Harry Potter fan who has sworn off Harry Potter — and who might be mourning the opportunity to share the books you loved with future offspring — there’s plenty of content out there with similar messaging and magic that comes from a less problematic and possibly less visible source.
“In 1998, kids like me who were weird and different and gay and alone didn’t have a lot of books about kids who were weird and different and gay and alone and trans,” LoSchiavo says. “We had to turn to wizards and werewolves for representation.”
But, as LoSchiavo points out, times are different. “Children growing up today won’t have to do that. If they want books about wizards and mythical creatures, they can get [those] books from queer people and trans people and people of colour.”