Is it possible for someone to deliberately cancel themselves?
Raya and the Last Dragon has emerged as the dark horse in this year’s awards season for animated pictures, with ten nominations for the upcoming Annie Awards. This was a surprise for people who had, well, pretty much forgotten Raya and the Last Dragon even existed. The March 2021 release was popular with critics, but received very lukewarmly by audiences worldwide, only barely making back its budget in the worldwide box office. With the return of Raya and the Last Dragon to the discourse, we have also seen the return of one of 2021’s most petty and terminally online controversies–the cancellation of Lindsay Ellis, with her recent departure from Twitter and YouTube.
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Originally known as The Nostalgia Chick from Channel Awesome, Lindsay Ellis has made a name for herself as a pop culture critic in the video format. Discussion of literature is Ellis’s most distinctive niche, separating her from the rest of her Channel Awesome colleagues as she’s moved away from that platform. If the name Lindsay Ellis itself isn’t ringing any bells, you might have at least heard of her Death of the Author video. It’s the most popular YouTube video of the literary concept, despite the lack of depth.
For the most part Ellis has focused on film on her YouTube channel, a less unique niche. But she also had a gig on the PBS YouTube series It’s Lit, and published a New York Times bestselling novel called Axiom’s End. The second installment of sci-fi feature, the first of a planned trilogy about first contact set in the late-aughts United States, didn’t do as well when it came last October. It’s unclear if Ellis will ever release the third one, even with an ostensible 2022 publication date.
Ellis created a lot of drama around Raya and the Last Dragon when she made an offhand tweet weeks after the Disney film’s release about how the movie seemed derivative of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The take wasn’t a particularly unique one. Three days prior to Ellis’ tweet, Screen Junkies released a video mocking Raya for, among other things, having a nearly identical concept to the popular and influential animated show, which Netflix is currently remaking. So why did such comments lead to the cancellation of Lindsay Ellis, but not Screen Junkies?
It traces back to the literature angle. Because Ellis distinguished herself from other popular culture commentators via her literature chops, she had a lot of followers who were intense Young Adult fans. Young Adult literature, in recent years, has prided itself heavily on diversity. Disney marketed Raya and the Last Dragon extensively as being culturally significant because of its heavily Asian cast and concept. Consequently, the backlash interpreted what Lindsay Ellis wrote as a personal attack against the idea of diversity. This was because Avatar: The Last Airbender is itself obviously derivative of East Asian culture, despite having non-Asian showrunners.The production staff for Raya: The Last Dragon also consists almost entirely of non-Asians. Ellis didn’t help her case with a subsequent tweet defending herself that made an offhand and obviously accidental reference to squinting,
But if Ellis did all this back in March, why is the Internet only canceling her now? Well, because Lindsay Ellis said so. In a subscriber-only Patreon post titled Walking Away From Omelas, named after the Ursula Le Guin’s 1973 story, Lindsay Ellis claimed that the reason she didn’t quit sooner was because of concern about her production staff. In a highly apropos move, she deliberately distributed her post quitting Twitter and YouTube in a manner that makes it hard to find for reference.
This is probably because it contains the only genuinely offensive comment Lindsay Ellis has actually made to date. She compares her own situation to that of Isabel Fall, who the literary Intenret relentlessly harassed for her short story “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” which coopted the right-wing antitransgender meme into a disturbing dystopian environment. They mostly attacked Fall on suspicion of being a closet bigot, despite Fall herself being transgender. The cases aren’t really comparable, and by bringing Fall up at all Ellis trivialized what happened to her.
The whole situation represents cancel culture at its ugliest–so astonishingly petty it belittles actual victims just because people keep using them as points of comparison. And despite her own experiences, Ellis doesn’t appear to have actually come to the conclusion that these kinds of social media events are bad. Hardly a few days before publishing her dramatic letter of resignation Ellis herself joined in on a dogpile against the mostly harmless YouTube personality Tom Scott.
Tom, you should absolutely take this video down regardless of what you plan to do with the ad revenue. It already has almost 250k views, no one going in blind will see your statement, and leaving it up is just as much a stamp of approval as Standard onboarding her was.
— Lindsay Ellis (@thelindsayellis) December 27, 2021
Scott did a collaboration video with another mostly harmless YouTube personality, Jill Bearup, to reenact an Old West style bar fight. Apparently five years ago Jill Bearup made some posts that you could kind of consider antitrans. She deleted most of them.
You may note that neither Tom Scott nor Jill Bearup has attempted to quit their jobs over this, because that would be an absurd and ridiculous thing to do. Drama like this isn’t new to entertainment, but until recently this was all behind-the-scenes stuff. It also mostly concerned people who were more generic celebrities, however low-tier, rather than alleged thought leaders.
This model of pop culture criticism isn’t new. Probably the earliest version involved Anita Sarkeesian’s videos some ten years ago. Though lauded in the mainstream press as a shining light on the dark underbelly of misogyny in media, Sarkeesian’s videos were quite rudimentary, and showed so little deeper understanding of the works discussed many doubted whether she watched them at all. Gamergate in 2014 was a huge boon to her career. When people made identical criticisms about her experience in video games for her then topical videos, it was quite easy to dismiss such critics as misogynist trolls. The recent viral discovery of Sarkeesian’s Letterboxd account has validated these old criticisms of Sarkeesian as a person with surprisingly little film literacy, given her claim to fame.
The bigger problem with either Ellis or Sarkeesian or their critics is that they’ve helped to create a media environment where any kind of back-and-forth dialog on media is exhausting. The text of any given work is less important than the secret sinister motives either of the people who made the work or even the people criticizing it. Actual opinions about film as a craft are increasingly rare. Even professional critical discourse about Don’t Look Up, allegedly the most popular bad movie of 2021, is surprisingly shallow. It’s highly ironic that, having started out her career by eviscerating bad movies, Ellis is now a symbol for how the act of criticizing itself is a minefield–but only because critics care too much what other people think.