There are three types of people: Those who know Eartha Kitt from her sultry, smoky voice, and stint as Cat Woman on the OG Batman (move over Michelle Pfeiffer); those who recognize her voice from the inimitable antics of Yzma in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove; and those, like me, who watched nothing but Nick at Nite and the Disney Channel growing up, so know her from both. Anyway, she’s out there in the zeitgeist of US pop culture, so at some point I’m sure you’ve run across the little woman with a big voice – both on stage and in politics.
Pull the Lever Kronk!
If you’re fairly familiar with the 60’s at all, then you probably know what I’m about to talk about. However, since debates about “cancellation culture” currently rage daily on Twitter, I thought it was a good time to discuss how “cancelling” is nothing new, and how unfollowing someone on Twitter because they are a racist troll is very different from political activists who often loose much more than Twitter followers.
Eartha Kitt, sultry co-star of Batman and top chart singer, used her platform to speak out during one of the most iconic and socially turbulent times in US history. Catching the eye of Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson in 1967 when she spoke in favor of Johnson’s Juvenile Delinquency Bill, in 1968 they invited her to a White House luncheon given by Lady Bird herself. In a very 60’s manner, the theme was something to the effect of “what can women do to prevent crime in the streets.”
Lots of things happened at that lunch that led to Kitt going toe to toe with Lady Bird. However, suffice it to say that during the lunch, Kitt raised her hand, and told Lady Bird:
“Boys I know across the nation feel it doesn’t pay to be a good guy. They figure with a record they don’t have to go off to Vietnam.You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street.”
She then dropped her mic and walked out of the room. J/K. She didn’t do that. She was perfectly respectful, taking the opportunity to speak when she was given one.
Kitt didn’t fare well in the aftermath. Reports said that Kitt yelled at Lady Bird (she didn’t) and that Lady Bird burst into tears at Kitt’s mean mean truthy words (she didn’t), and that it was all a media stunt orchestrated by Kitt (it wasn’t). She was written off Batman, lost her singing contracts, and was shoved out of work in the United States for nearly a decade, finally returning to Broadway in 1978. On top of everything else, the CIA kept a file on her full of strange, contradictory “evidence.” All this because a calm, respectful, and poised Black woman dared to discuss Vietnam at a White House lunch. Race, gender, and political activism all intersect in this story, but the bottom line is that one comment pushed her out of the United States for ten years.
The term “cancel culture” has been floating around for a while. Harper’s Magazine published a letter about it, and Objective Journalism published a response. “Cancel culture” has become a term that’s used as a sort of red herring anytime someone gets flack for saying something that people don’t like. What I mean by this is that people who are overtly racist, sexist, or generally mean spirited say something racist, or sexist and then scream that they’re getting “cancelled” when people unfollow them for their “opinion.” They blame it on the current political climate, when, in reality, “cancelling” someone has been around for…like ever… Historically, it’s a tool wielded by the powerful, and directed at minority or marginalized voices in an effort to keep their opinions intentionally obscured.
Cancelling someone does exist, but usually the people screaming loudest about it (like Tucker Carlson or J.K. Rowling) are not the ones truly getting “cancelled.” A real cancellation usually comes after a marginalized person or group speaks truth to power. That’s exactly what happened to Eartha Kitt, and that’s what we are seeing now in the aftermath of the largest Civil Rights movement in recent history. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking cancel culture only exists on Twitter. It’s a tool, it’s been around for a long time, and right now it’s being used politically to restrict voting rights, and to silence teachers. It’s not silencing your Uncle Jim, it’s making it harder for you to vote, and ensuring your children don’t learn important context to history.
Anyway, you should listen to Eartha Kitt here.