In the media, a lot of digital ink gets spilled talking about cancel culture–and quite a bit of actual ink gets spilled as well. Some argue that cancel culture doesn’t exist, while most seem to think it does. Even then, some see it as a good thing, as a way to hold people accountable for their comments. The problem is that, like so many other things, they know not what they ask for.
If unchecked, the illiberal attitude behind cancel culture would destroy art even liberals love. A prime example of this reality comes courtesy of recent comments by actress and comedian Mindy Kaling. She’s probably best known for her long-running stint as Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s version of “The Office.”
During an appearance on Good Morning America, Kaling noted that much of the show’s humor wouldn’t be tolerated today, explaining that tastes have shifted and people would be outraged at much of the writing if the show were to air in this climate.
When asked where she saw all the characters, starting with hers, being in 2022, she laid it out pretty bluntly:
“I think she probably would have quit Dunder Mifflin to be an influencer and then probably would have been cancelled almost immediately,” she quipped.
“Most of the characters on that show probably would be cancelled.”
While I was never a regular watcher of “The Office,” I’m pretty sure Mindy Kaling is right. They would be canceled, and that’s a huge problem for entertainment as a whole.
Some shows thrive on showing you an amazing character you can rally behind. But not all. Some stories actually don’t depend on acceptable social agendas, the equitable treatment of all ethnicities, or making sure the characters represent all marginalized groups to a sufficient degree—they depend on conflict.
Not all conflict requires people to start swinging at one another, but there needs to be tension. This is a universal part of storytelling, one that spans from what my mother used to call “cheap, trashy romance novels” to the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
Because stories need conflict, at least some of the characters aren’t going to be angelic. That makes conflict not just easier for the writers, but more believable for the audience.
Yet because of that desire for conflict, some characters are going to do things that some folks aren’t going to approve of. They’re going to be “problematic” in some ways. If not, there cannot be conflict.
This shouldn’t be difficult for people to understand. Where things get dicey, though, is that some think certain topics should be off-limits.
Going back to “The Office,” a scene was edited on streaming platforms because a character wore blackface.
I’m not going to excuse the wearing of blackface, mind you. I’m familiar with the history of it and it’s one of many things that call back to a dark time in American history.
But that’s the point. That’s part of how you create conflict. A character doing something awful, not for provocation’s sake, but because they’re either too clueless to understand what they’re doing or they’re too awful to care.
And that drives that narrative.
Now, I’m not saying that taboos are the only things that can drive conflict. What I will say, though, is that when you start saying some things aren’t acceptable, even in a fictional context, good stories become much harder to tell.
Remember, “The Office” was one of the most celebrated TV shows of its day. It’s still loved today. Yet you could never put those exact same characters and those exact same stories on television and expect to survive what would follow.
It doesn’t matter that none of that behavior was ever condoned.
So, as a result, any show coming up in this day and age is necessarily going to be stunted. The only conflict left is “woke” conflict, and that doesn’t seem to be selling particularly well. That’s because that conflict not just presents ideas the audience might find abhorrent, but presents them as a universal good. It condones the source of the conflict because it has to.
And when that’s all you’ve got, entertainment as a whole is what suffers.